The world is in a pretty chaotic state at the moment, in case you weren’t aware. There’s a common joke online, based on the idea that our reality is just an elaborate simulation, and that said simulation has to be breaking down, because it seems like every day we’re given a whole slew of insane news, things that just don’t seem to make any sense. And, a majority of that chaos is usually not good, just adding to the crippling stress we’re all having to live with each and every day. But, every now and then the incredibly strange world we live in decides to give us something wonderfully weird. Such as the fact that Netflix, the famous streaming service, somehow being behind a push to finish and release the final film that Orson Welles ever worked on, releasing it more than thirty years after the director died. The hows and whys of this happening are utterly fascinating, a tale of Hollywood ineptitude, legal battles, and a staggering amount of failed attempts to revive the film including several trips into the weird and wild world of crowdfunding. But, despite the baffling hurdles this film had to jump, it succeeded. The Other Side of the Wind, the final Orson Welles film, has finally been released to the public in a form as close as possible to what we can assume was Welles’ vision. And it’s fascinating.
The Other Side of the Wind is the story of a director named Jake Hanneford. Hanneford is an incredibly powerful and storied director who has led a long and illustrious career in the motion picture industry. At least, he was. Because the industry is changing around him, the New Hollywood movement is taking the film industry by storm, and Hanneford is being left behind. He’s decided to make his newest film, the Other Side of the Wind, an attempt to capture that market, and to celebrate his seventieth birthday he invites all of his friends and a slew of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles to come to his mansion for a massive party, and a screening of the working print of his newest film. And that project isn’t going well. The studio is fed up with Hanneford, he’s running out of money, there’s no functioning script, and his leading man has walked off the set, putting the entire film’s future, and his own, in jeopardy. But, Hanneford decides to put on a brave face, remaining a frustratingly enigmatic presence while he’s bombarded by questions from the army of eager students and cinephiles that are attending the party.
Hanneford’s big plan is to show the bizarre and rambling cut of his movie to drum up excitement and support, while buttering up his protege, a director named Brooks Otterlake, in the hopes that he’ll fund Hanneford’s last stab at relevancy. And, it doesn’t go very well. Because the film is an absolute mess. It has no plot, virtually no dialogue, and is just a montage of pretentious images and titillating nudity. It’s a vain attempt to make a film like Easy Rider, and it just generally comes off as sad. No one in the party has the guts to tell Hanneford the truth, resulting in a lot of awkward encounters where the only people willing to give any sort of dissent come from his stalwart crew members, who all can tell that Hanneford is in over his head. The party becomes derailed when the house loses power, making it impossible to keep watching the terrible movie, and opening up the ability for everyone to wander around the darkened house, making things even more dramatic. Hanneford finally asks Otterlake for the money, and gets shut down. They then learn that a local drive-in is willing to screen the rest of the movie, so the entire party heads there to watch the film sputter out. Hanneford has become incredibly depressed, and when the movie finally ends and people politely comment on it he returns home to find the missing actor of the film waiting for him. Hanneford attempts to make a pass at him, confirming some earlier questions regarding his sexuality, and when he’s rejected he speeds off in his car, resulting in a car crash that ends his life and his final film.
When you first start watching The Other Side of the Wind you can’t help but be amazing that it exists. People who love film have more than likely written this movie off as something we’d just never see. And yet, here it is, in all of it’s strange glory. But, as the film goes on that amazement slowly transforms from the existence of the film, to the film itself. Because it really is a remarkable film. If you weren’t familiar with the film at all you might be surprised that it’s structured almost like a found footage film, comprised entirely of the footage from the various aspiring filmmakers who are at the party, meaning that the movie switches film-quality and color at random, giving us a frenzied look at this bizarre party and the downfall of Jake Hanneford, intercut with the incredibly strange footage of his version of the Other Side of the Wind. And, Orson Welles does the impossible and made this premise work wonderfully. I don’t know if we’ll ever know fully what was and wasn’t his work editing this film, even if we’ve been told that it all came from his extensive notes. But, regardless of who is responsible for the actual structure of this film, it works wonderfully, jumping around and giving us some fantastic insight into these crazy people and the crazy times they’re living in.
I’ve talked before, at length, about the transition between the old Hollywood system and the New Hollywood movement when I wrote about the terrific book Pictures at a Revolution. That book is fascinating, and the way New Hollywood utterly changed American cinema for a decade before being shattered by the era of the Blockbuster is one of the most interesting times periods in Hollywood history. But, whenever we look at this time we either see it from a historical perspective of people who didn’t actually live through it, or from the eyes of the people who made up the New Hollywood movement, valiant artists who were shattering the status quo and bringing real cinema back. We almost never see this from the perspective of the people who were left behind, the Hollywood royalty that were deemed too stagnant to survive. But this film bucks that trend. Orson Welles, while never one to fall in line with the Hollywood studio system, is certainly a figure of the Old Hollywood. And here he is, making a film about a fellow director from Old Hollywood struggling to understand why he’s been made irrelevant, and taking a stab at making a more contemporary and edgy film. But, while Jake Hanneford ends up collapsing, making a pretentious bit of nonsense that serves as an embarrassing end to an illustrious career, Orson Welles succeeded. He plays with the medium, challenges what a movie could be, and does it in an artful and strange way. And it works. It works so well. And it makes it that much more sad that this was the final film he worked on. Because if the Other Side of the Wind is any indication, Welles could have really gone in some fascinating places. He was willing to change and to grow, doing anything to not be left behind. But, as with most things in his life, it just wasn’t meant to be. But, it serves as a fitting monument to a creator who was always bucking the traditions, giving us one last weird glimpse into the mind of Orson Welles.
The Other Side of the Wind was written by Orson Welles and Oja Kodar, directed by Orson Welles, and released by Netflix, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk