New Orson Welles film is an intriguing window on the man and his art
- Delayed by nearly 50 years, The Other Side of the Wind is a treat for any fan of Welles’ film history or provocative moviemaking
- Accompanying documentary being streamed on Netflix
You don’t have to be an Orson Welles enthusiast to be fascinated by the decades-delayed release of his unfinished 1970s film, The Other Side of the Wind.
The film will finally be released today in the US on Netflix and in theatres in New York, Los Angeles and other select cities.
Directed and co-written by Welles, the film brings to mind the final scene of his Citizen Kane. It doesn’t provide a one-stop decryption of the enigmatic, legendary filmmaker but instead offers a warehouse worth of intriguing observations about the man and his art.
Welles, who died in 1985 at age 70, shot and edited The Other Side of the Wind on and off from 1970 to 1976. More than 1,000 reels of footage sat for decades in a Paris vault as financial and legal obstacles prevented the film’s completion during his lifetime.
A team led by producer Frank Marshall (of the Bourne and Indiana Jones franchises, who was also a production manager during Wind’s shooting in the ’70s), edited and prepped the film for release. An accompanying Morgan Neville documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead – which chronicles the history of Wind and the final 15 years of Welles’ life – is being streamed on Netflix.
The plot of Wind revolves around director J.J. Hannaford, an ageing lion of the cinema who struggles to stay relevant (and solvent) while mired in an alcohol-fuelled stew of self-aggrandisement and self-pity. The film centres on a 70th birthday party for the domineering director, who is hoping for a comeback by screening his new film for a gathering of friends, lackeys and journalists. A sea of documentary cameras records every person’s words and facial expressions, presaging today’s 24/7 video culture.
Hannaford, played by another renowned director, John Huston, is ostensibly based on writer Ernest Hemingway. However, the character – who, like Welles, returns to a rapidly changing Hollywood after self-imposed exile in Europe – hews closely to the iconic director, who released his masterpiece Citizen Kane at age 26 but later struggled to attain traditional Hollywood success.
Here’s what we learn about Welles from watching his “new” film:
Welles knew his strengths and his weaknesses.
In depicting alter ego Hannaford’s hypermasculinity, overbearing nature and rage over everything from Hollywood to ageing, Welles reveals his self-awareness. As he chronicles Hannaford’s self-indulgence, Welles underlines his own with scenes in the comeback film segment that run too long and slow the overall enterprise.
Long after his crowning achievement, Welles remained a visionary.
Wind is frenetic, a jagged mix of black-and-white and colour and varying film stocks, full of weaponised dialogue volleyed back and forth between characters shot in close-up who might as well be in different places. Maybe they are, emotionally. It reflects the rule-breaking tendencies of Welles and of that New Hollywood era.
Hannaford’s movie, which satirises art films, contrasts sharply with the party’s noise and frenzy. It follows two silent characters, a woman with a man in pursuit, through brilliantly lit landscapes and a latticework of shadows in the kind of scenes that would lead many viewers to scratch their heads.
Welles, via his film alter ego, didn’t seem to hold actors in high regard.
Hannaford, seeing himself as a godlike entity, is famous for plucking actors from obscurity, moulding them into leading men and disposing of them just as quickly. The star of his new film-within-a-film, John Dale, is literally pulled from the ocean as he drowns, then dropped onto a movie set.
Hannaford’s disdain for actresses is further seasoned by misogyny (he strikes a female journalist at the party). His female star (played by Welles’ real-life partner and Wind co-writer, Oja Kodar) spends much of the art film naked and is identified in the credits simply as “The Actress.”
His genius retains a hold on fellow directors.
The film’s cast is chock-a-block with respected filmmakers. Besides Huston (The African Queen, Prizzi’s Honour), others getting time in front of the camera include Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), a Welles protégé who plays a Hannaford acolyte, along with Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol and Dennis Hopper.
Welles’ influence persists, as a film postscript thanks such contemporary directors as J.J. Abrams, Sofia Coppola, Edgar Wright and Noah Baumbach for financial support.
Overall, Wind magnificently displays Welles’ filmmaking brilliance while bearing the ageing auteur’s frailties and frustrations. The abrupt pacing and fractured dialogue can be jarring – it’s wise to just absorb and not try to figure out every detail on a first viewing – but any fan of Welles’ film history or provocative moviemaking will find Wind a treat.
If you’re looking for a movie that makes you think about movies, this fills the bill.