The Other Side of the Wind opens with two very ominous notes. Well, two and a half. The first is a text card explaining the film’s history, but not much about its resurrection. For example (and here’s the half ominous note), was it director Welles’s idea to do multiple aspect ratios? It makes sense, but he probably wasn’t going to do the CG TV screen borders they use at the start. Wind is an addition to Welles’s filmography, thirty-three years posthumous. Much has changed in those thirty-three years, including how film is edited.
But the text card and its lack of resurrectors’ intent is nowhere near as ominous as the second item. Peter Bogdanovich introducing the film. So The Other Side of the Wind opens with the text card explaining its Orson Welles’s last movie and he didn’t really finish it. Then comes Bogdanovich–in the present–introducing the film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” but not Welles’s Wind, rather lead John Huston’s Wind, because in addition to being one of the resurrectors, Bogdanovich is the costar. And he gives this obnoxious self-congratulatory voiceover Welles never would have written for him… for no other reason than not even Orson Welles thought he’d make it to 103.
Even worse, Bogdanovich’s voiceover tries to contextualize the film. What we’re going to see is a documentary, pieced together from the footage shot by documentary crews at Huston’s birthdary party. He’s a big Hollywood director self-financing a movie for hippies and everyone is following him around with a camera. So the footage in the film–usually with Welles accounting for the camera-people in other shots–is this “found” footage.
Here’s where the text card should’ve explained Welles’s original intent, because the movie sure doesn’t seem like it’s supposed to be some assembled thing. It just seems like a budgetary control device of Welles’s. Since he self-financed Wind himself. Layers and layers and layers.
Once things get started, after some gratitious topless nudity (there’s a lot of nudity later, but not gratitious in the same way), Wind immediately reassures. Bogdanovich, as an actor, is nowhere near as obnoxious as he was in the opening voiceover. He’s still obnoxious, playing a blue blood mainstream filmmaker who’s devoted to Huston (ostensibly mirroring Bogdanovich’s devotion to Welles–more layers), but… well, his dialogue’s better. The character, as thin as Bogdanovich does with it, is better.
Plus, most of the time is spent with Huston’s regular crew. Huston’s regular crew looks a lot like Welles’s crew. There’s Paul Stewart, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, and Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell’s bad. McCambridge isn’t in it enough but is good. O’Brien and Stewart are awesome. They’re on a bus with a bunch of party guests–they’re going straight to the birthday party from shooting–and a lot of reporters. Including Susan Strasberg as a film critic (she’s fantastic) and Joseph McBride in William Alland part if Wind were Kane. But Wind isn’t Kane and McBride’s young, inquisitive journalist is annoying background. McBride isn’t very good. Strasberg’s great, like I said, but she’s really one of the standouts, performance-wise, in Wind.
Huston and Bogdanovich are in a car, where Bogdanovich does most of the talking to the documentary filmmakers. It’s very hard to take Bogdanovich’s character seriously because he’s such a sycophant to Huston.
Alongside these two threads is Norman Foster–one of Huston’s gang, but I don’t think his position is ever specifically mentioned–showing the movie (in the movie in the movie… in the movie?) to producer Geoffrey Land. Land’s bad. But the footage of the hippie movie is fun. It’s always in a state of exaggerated pretension but beautifully composed exaggerated pretension.
Robert Random and Oja Kodar star in the movie in the movie. The story of Wind, why Huston’s in trouble with the movie, is because after he discovered Random, Random went and quit the movie, leaving Huston without a star. No one in the movie in the movie talks. Hippies just communicate with their body language after all. Amusingly, Kodar doesn’t speak in the rest of the film either. She’s around, she’s active, but she never speaks. It’s funny.
The movie in the movie footage is shown at a different aspect ratio. The documentary footage is supposed to be eight or sixteen millimeter so not widescreen. The movie in the movie is widescreen.
Why the opening titles are in artificial television aspect ratio with a vague “video” look… especially if it’s reconstructed in 2018… the resurrectors of Wind really don’t want to draw attention to themselves but are really bad at avoiding it.
Especially once they get to the party. Most of the rest of the movie takes place at the party. All of a sudden, certain cameras at the party–certain sources of footage–are black and white. And they’re suspiciously black and white. One of the first shots has this weird pixelation in the blacks, which seem an effect of digital editing of the frame, something Welles certainly wouldn’t have done in the same way if he’d finished the picture. And, about halfway through the movie, there’s an emphasis shot in color and it’s the same source as one they’d been using as black and white. So much, if not all of the black and white footage is a modern edit. And it does the film no favors. Because even though they didn’t change the brightness and contrast of the black and white footage to match–the sources still appear different–it loses the reality of the opening.
O’Brien, McCambridge, Stewart, and Mitchell all sitting around talking about how Huston is out of touch with the kids today is a lot different in color than black and white. It sets up the film differently.
Worse, when the color returns in the last third, it’s clear the mismatched footage–Welles shot the film over more than five years–looks better mismatching in color than it does in digital black and white.
At the party secrets are revealed (or re-revealed), more of the movie in the movie is shown, character drama, great dialogue, some excellent performances in some thin parts, and some fireworks. There’s also some homophobia and exploitation of little people. Because Welles is down on Hollywood–he’s not a stand-in for Huston, whose fictive career (and popularity) is much different than Welles’s real one–he can get a pass on the latter. On the former, it’s a theme. One Welles uses for sensationalism. It doesn’t qualify for a pass. It’s part of the movie, resurrected version or not. Especially since there’s supposed to be some implications about it. Yes, Welles is making fun of film criticism a little as the implication subplot goes, but… still no. He cops out on the subplot.
The movie’s about the party. Once they get to the party, they watched the movie–the movie is the point of the party. Only the power keeps going out. So they’re trying to get the power back on while Huston is hearing from his gang how they can’t scrap together any more money.
The best performance in the film is Norman Foster. He’s also the only character with an actual arc. The present action’s short–the movie starts before sunset one day, ends at sunrise the next–so everyone getting an arc might be a little much, so it’s Foster. And he’s great.
Huston gives a great performance in a thin part. Wind is about the inscrutability of filmed subjects so all of Huston’s development has to be in action (or at least through contemporary dialogue). But he’s great. And totally unbelievable as he pervs on teenage girl Cathy Lucas, in one of the film’s most throwaway subplots. He’s going to kidnap her to Mexico. Like Welles wanted to throw in a Charlie Chaplin jab.
Strasberg’s great. O’Brien’s great. Lilli Palmer’s good. She seems to be doing a Marlene Dietrich stand-in (the film feels a lot like a Touch of Evil reunion, so much in pacing one has to wonder if it’s from Welles or resurrection editor Bub Murawski). She’s also not in it enough. Like McCambridge. Stewart’s good. Gregory Sierra’s good as the macho version of Bogdanovich (they’re both intentionally ripping off Huston’s style and competitive about it).
Bogdanovich never gets too terrible. Nothing near the opening the voiceover. He fails a few times. Important times. But he’s never too terrible. The exposition in scenes between him and Huston is terrible, easily the worst writing in the script. He and Huston have a very odd story arc. It arrives late, is undercooked, and poorly executed.
Tonio Selwart is rather annoying as Huston’s regular screenwriter. And Dan Tobin’s way too broad in a problematic part.
Michel Legrand’s score? It’s okay. It’s conceivable Welles would’ve wanted something like it. Does it do anything for the film? No.
The Other Side of the Wind comes with a litany of conditions. Even if it hadn’t been resurrected thirty-five years after Welles’s death, it was still filmed over six years. Its budgetary constraints are exceptional. And Wind does finish. It completes its artistic gesture. It is a complete film.
It’s just not a particularly successful one.
Directed by Orson Welles; written by Oja Kodar and Welles; director of photography, Gary Graver; edited by Bob Murawski and Welles; music by Michel Legrand; produced by Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza; released by Netflix.
Starring John Huston (Jake Hannaford), Peter Bogdanovich (Brooks Otterlake), Norman Foster (Billy Boyle), Susan Strasberg (Julie Rich), Lilli Palmer (Zarah Valeska), Paul Stewart (Matt Costello), Tonio Selwart (The Baron), Edmond O’Brien (Pat Mullins), Mercedes McCambridge (Maggie Noonan), Cameron Mitchell (Zimmer), Peter Jason (Grover), Alan Grossman (Charles Higgam), Geoffrey Land (Max David), Gregory Sierra (Jack Simon), Dan Tobin (Dr. Burroughs), Cathy Lucas (Mavis Henscher), Joseph McBride (Pister), Oja Kodar (Actress), and Robert Random (John Dale).