Shoot ’em Dead: Review of Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018)

A stylized shot of the diegetic director, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), surrounded by smoke, in profile, from Orson Welles's "The Other Side of the Wind".

Difference, transience. Force and distance. The title of Orson Welles’s posthumously completed work brings to mind these words, as well as a number of images associated therein: arid landscapes, dust-devils, the ruins of industry. Silhouettes, contrasted, and odd shapes.

These are the images, at least, conjured onscreen via the imagination of old school filmmaker Jake Hannaford (part-Welles, part-Hemingway, part-John Huston, who plays the role) making, perhaps, a last-ditch effort at relevancy with his own pastiche of the type of European arthouse cinema in ascendancy at the time – the prime exemplar being Michelangelo Antonioni, whose Zabriskie Point was shot not far from one of the Arizona mansions where Welles and co. made their film. The title for Hannaford’s film is also The Other Side of the Wind, and both films (Welles’s and Hannaford’s) might just be two sides of the same wind blowing through art and life’s divide, very nearly ungraspable.

In any case, The Other Side of the Wind is an absolute tour de force, remarkable given Orson Welles’s advanced age (only a decade or so away from his death); an intensely kinetic and meta-fictional account of a man, his film, and his friendships – or lack thereof. The frenzied, fast-paced editing style (courtesy of Bob Murawski, the Süssmayr to Welles’s Mozart, with the help of the director’s own preserved edits as well as audio and written notes) is truly ahead of its time, and diagetically appropriate, to boot, since the story involves a veritable army of cineastes and wannabe filmmakers descending upon a desert ranch house to celebrate his 70th birthday and watch a rough cut of his latest film. The patchwork assemblage feel of the edits rises out of this, as if a third party had somewhat haphazardly collated the disparate footage; Michel Legrand’s score’s jazzy inflections lend to this improvisatory air. Form weds function.

It’s also a brilliant way to portray the conflicting accounts of who Jake Hannaford is. Huston’s Hannaford is larger-than-life, a grizzled and leonine figure who attracts his fair share of acolytes and despisers. For every pod of bespectacled film nerds (who make up a good number of the film’s funniest moments) parroting the Cahiers du Cinema line at the foot of the master, there is a hardnosed skeptic, like Susan Strasberg’s critic-journalist Ms. Rich (reportedly modeled on Pauline Kael, who’d attacked Welles in print with her infamous and shoddily researched 1971 “Raising Kane” article in The New Yorker) who is desperate to suss out the director’s great insecurities at the twilight of his career.

On top of being a film about a film, and a film about making films, it’s also a film about performance – of actors, of men and women, of the public persona, and of the interactions between intimate who seem to be, in every moment, trying to get something from each other. That there is only a handful of private moments shown that are not filmed by partygoers attests to this.

Black and white, 8 and 16mm (with Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind in gorgeous 35mm) and color intersperse themselves throughout. The camera follows quick looks and long stares with a short attention span. The old guard, here, appear far more vibrant and characterful than the young crowd, who seem perfectly content with their status as mere hangers-on, unlike Hannaford’s exasperated coterie, and are simply along for the ride. Yet these make up the future, and Hannaford’s crew are just too old to matter anymore. Hannaford’s decline is theirs, as well, and not even they can make much sense of the old man’s stab at a contemporary vision.

Everyone seems painfully aware of the unfinished film’s artsy and hermetic nature. One of Hannaford’s sycophants, Billy Boyle (a wheedling former actor in Hannaford’s entourage, played by Norman Foster), shows rushes of the film to a taciturn young studio head. Despite the man’s rather stolid insistence on straightforward narrative, Boyle’s total inability to make a convincing case for the footage’s positive qualities leads them without sorely needed studio financing. All this in addition to the unfortunate detail of the film’s male lead, John Dale (Bob Random), storming off set after an uncomfortable shoot exacerbated by Hannaford’s increasingly personal direction. The film’s doom being an open secret, the matter shifts to Hannaford, himself, whose status as a living legend, under scrutiny, draws out the oft-unacknowledged notion that for a legend to be a legend, a certain measure of falsehood is required.

And for a man to be a man? Much is made of Hannaford’s checkered relationships with his male leads, and Dale’s absence is an open wound in the proceedings. A charge of repressed homosexuality is levied, and, eventually, violence bursts across a woman’s face. Other critics have noted the stark eroticism of the film (clearly Welles’s most graphic essay of such) and the camera in Hannaford’s film obsesses over the nude frame of the female lead jokingly labelled “Pocahontas” (Oja Kodar, Welles’s co-writer and mistress). There is no dialogue, and all communication occurs through sheer gaze and the conjoining/detachment of bodies. It’s 1970s zeitgeist, replete with drugged-out hippies, casual sex, and rock-and-roll additions to the score.

Is Hannaford’s film nonsensical? I think not. Aborted, certainly – but one cannot deny the almost atavistic power of this de facto silent film. Its meaning is built entirely out of framing, staging, and perfectly timed edits – see the scene where the man and woman chase each other through the old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios back-lot, the club bathroom moment, or the sex scene in the car. Is it a little ridiculous? Sure, especially with the closing shots of Kodar roaming naked in the desert, surrounded by giant phallic objects, one which she viciously deflates with scissors. But the symbolic resonance, while over-the-top, is mediated by the possibility of Hannaford outright parodying this style, so one is never asked to take it entirely seriously. Its appeal is more evocative before anything else, but as a starting-point, were the picture to be completed, it’s quite serviceable.

As for the film-without-the-film, Welles’s creativity as an artist remains in full swing, thirty years after his great debut in Kane. Some critics have called The Other Side of the Wind a mess (but in a backhanded compliment sort of way, as in an “intentional” mess) but this is more due to the posthumous nature of the film’s culmination than anything else, and even then, one never gets the sense that Welles (and the faithful artists who took up his lead in the present day) is out of control and doesn’t know how/where to stick the landing. Due to the frenzied editing style, one only gets the feel of disorientation, but a focused viewer ought not to lose their place in the narrative. After all, it only jumps from place to place, not so much back-and-forth in time (apart from the inner-TOSW footage), and more or less follows a straightforward ABC progression.

The acting, of course, is wonderful, with Huston perfectly cast as the director-cum-safari hunter whose time is long past. His grinning charm cannot totally hide the wounds borne out of a tortured paternal line (echoing something of Eugene O’Neill) and the defeat he’s suffered from this unfinished project – aggravated by his having to grovel at his wealthy protégé Brooks Otterlake’s (Peter Bogdanovich) feet for money. Bogdanovich as Otterlake is a standout, and his replacement of impressionist Rich Little (who actually appears in a couple scenes, although not enough for a viewer to be confused by the new face) seems a fortuitous boon, for he acquits himself well in the role, complete with his own decent impression-work. The parallels between Welles-Bogdanovich and Hannaford-Otterlake came in handy, certainly, and Welles himself admitted as much in his own directorial notes for his mentee’s performance. Their dynamic is just one of the ways Orson Welles explores the intricacies (and hazards) of male bonding – for a particularly cruel example of such, see the moment where “John Dale’s” old drama teacher visits the party, and is given a dressing-down by the other men for his rather fey mannerisms; and, perhaps, as punishment for the troubling news he brings.

The “Hannaford Mafia” are all good, especially Paul Stewart as Matt Costello, Hannaford’s skeevy personal assistant who’s accused of having had ties to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the aforementioned Boyle. Cameron Mitchell plays Matt “Zimmie” Zimmer, the film’s makeup artist who’s fired in the very beginning of The Other Side of the Wind, although Hannaford claims to fire and re-hire the man all the time (perhaps drawing from Welles’s relationship with his producer Frank Marshall, who worked on set and eventually finalized the film’s release decades later); his clear put-on of a Texas accent is silly but somehow doesn’t feel out of place. Lilli Palmer as Austrian ice queen Zarah Valeska, the host for Hannaford’s party, is a more than adequate substitute for Marlene Dietrich, who Welles initially wanted to play the role.

Susan Strasberg’s Ms. Rich is very good, and credit to Welles for, given the opportunity to skewer Kael with an unflattering semi-portrait in his movie, allowing a sense of well-roundedness to the character. Much of this, of course, comes from Strasberg’s performance, as she inputs a genuine intellectual curiosity for her chosen subject and isn’t just some nosy freak. Oja Kodar is good as the actress in redface, as is Random as “John Dale,” and although their total silence throughout the film lets them off easy in some ways, they still have to act in their non-speaking roles, and do so serviceably.

But the real star is Orson Welles, as is usually the case with his films. Virtually absent in every scene (although I suspect he does speak off-camera as a nameless reporter interviewing Valeska), his presence saturates The Other Side of the Wind, mortal death posing little hindrance to its power. Along with cinematographer Gary Graver, Welles also operated the camera(s), and the entirety, in its rapid-fire glory, remains quintessential Welles, inasmuch as the film can rightly be attributed to Welles: the recognition of art’s artifice, and the artist’s manipulation of said artifice (and of life), which he utilized from the very beginning in Kane. And inasmuch as the film is not Welles’s, excellence persists: much thanks is owed to producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza for finally getting this resurrection project off the ground (after a long and torturous process involving changed hands, cross-continental sojourns, embezzlement of funds, and, of all things, the Ayatollah Khomeini) and the teams of people including Murawski, Industrial Light & Magic and those who managed to diligently restore/transfer so much of the crated-up footage.

Difference, transience. So much happens, throughout time, that it’s a wonder anything sticks, at all. So much gets in the way of wanting to go on. One lives, and does what one can (and must), hoping that each impress lasts beyond the initial moment. For all that’s made of swan songs, how many get to have them, in the end? And for those who do, how long does that song last? In another Welles film, he remarks that maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much. Men and women breathe and die; even cathedrals rot.

But you have to admit: there are a few whose music fades a little slower than the rest. Those who manage, through certain difficulties (self-made or otherwise), to keep the tune going a little longer. Chalk it up to luck, or fate, or a god’s whim, there are those who, simply put, have something lasting to say. It’s these we look to, when the other songs expire, and in this way, difference beats transience, and force conquers distance.

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