The Pitch: Jake Hannaford (John Huston), an aging Hollywood artist and auteur’s institution of sorts, contemplates his latest (and potentially last) acts on the eve of his 70th birthday. The era: America’s early-to-mid ‘70s. The latest project: The Other Side of the Wind, a sort of sub-Antonioni riff on a boy and a girl that runs the gamut from Far Out to Swedish porn. Hannaford is set to debut and share his project, at this party, with friends, well-wishers, extras, critics, enemies, sycophants, and the like. Is this a searing exposé of Hollywood falsehoods? A mid-life crisis of Vogue magazine proportions about a man and his art in decline? Or simply the best a team of producers, editors, and the global media conglomerate Netflix could do with Orson Welles’ lost footage? Yes. All around.
Welles, done: Working with new financiers, mega-producer Frank Marshall, and award-winning editor Bob Murawski (The Hurt Locker), Netflix has actually resuscitated Orson Welles’ once-deceased passion project. To be clear, and the opening titles acknowledge this – this is an ‘attempt’. No one can know what Welles truly, finally wanted out of this. 100 hours of rough footage attests to this. But for what it’s worth, Murawski has assembled something heroic: a movie that feels like it’s fresh from a flustered Orson Welles.
Welles, allergic to real scripts, budgets, and any other filmmaking organizational niceties, went out and tried to make The Other Side in the guerilla style. This epic improv shoot evolved into a story of one director’s last hurrah, which in essence is a treatise on how the studios had gone to hell in the wake of new criticism and film school brats. Hannaford is post-Hemingway: blustery, cigar-in-mouth, white-faced, the center of attention. For his 70th, he’s forced to reconcile with studio heads, financiers, critics, groupies, and even a young director (Peter Bogdanovich, sizzling and smarmy) attempting to rip a small piece out of the deteriorating filmmaker. For all the flashing bulbs and candle-lit filigree, Hannaford is a husk of a man, riding on past successes. We see his attempts to maintain a sort of order, while others chip away at what’s left of his creative spirit. Backstabbing, ranting, and even a pair of dwarves are all on the docket.
Quite simply, this is Welles’ attempt at Day for Night or 8 ½. A surrealist, meta-textual scribble on his personal experiences, with room for embellishments and critiques within. A movie-maker’s movie about the movies. What happens to the artist no longer in demand? What’s relevant and hip in the new ‘70s model and beyond?
The Other Side of the Wind moves fast, plays loose with structure and logic, and can be challenging on contemporary eyes and sympathies. And yet, everything is right there, within-and-out of every beautiful frame.
Beauty in the bluster: Roger Ebert used to do ‘one shot at a time’ sessions at festivals and universities, and the approach seems like the best way to wade into The Other Side. Start a shot. Pause. Discuss. Reflect. Unpause. Repeat the process for the next shot. This is the kind of movie which begs for just that. Orson Welles, that camera-gifted film student for life, embarks on a double-barreled journey with a crazed camera. The amount of visual invention and trickery (brought on by Gary Graver) is staggering. The longing shots of Bogdanovich staring at Huston tell us volumes about desire and emulation. Welles’ ability to mimic ‘60s arthouse images of stark contrasting nudes in the desert, or lone biker boys under bridges, work both as parody and portraiture class. With the amount of variety on display – bedspring love scenes narrated by a heckling Hannaford, pleading stooges with bright eyes devoted to directorial cults, Dennis Hopper high as a kite lamenting John Wayne in grainy B&W – there’s no possible way a person could accuse this movie of being boring.
Perhaps the asynchronous editing will take a moment to key into for the modern viewer. But go with Welles, and you will see wonders.
The Verdict: One critic’s ‘too much’ may be another’s ‘so much to unpack’. But that’s the thing. The style, the lament, the punchy rhythm and breathless momentum of The Other Side may be hefty, but it certainly makes a dent. Even on first glance, this has something snarky and delicious to say about film art in decline, and the movie presents images and pacing that even the hungriest of AFI students would not be able to keep pace against. The aesthetic pleasures and curiosities within make this worth the play alone. Film students, meet your new favorite movie.
Nobody knew the struggle of intersecting art with commerce quite like Welles, and his boy hero status was publicly displayed and challenged for the rest of his career, post-Citizen Kane. No filmmaker was likely better qualified to harangue about directorial mystique, financier cruelty, and existential career planning than Welles.
It can’t be stated heavily enough how exciting this all is. The royal prince, the master, the god of cinema (we don’t say that lightly), who’s been dead for decades, Orson Welles, has a new movie. And not just any old movie, not a B-side per se, but one of his most legendary ‘what happened?’ projects in an accessibly finalized form. This is better than ‘lost material’ from a famed musician, or the opening of Prince’s vault. This a capital-M Movie. By Orson Welles. In 2018. Gosh.
Where’s it Playing?: Netflix, on November 2. Theatrically, it’s a little unclear where it will wind up (Netflix, man), but it’s hitting select arthouse screens as well. Look at Fandango if’n you’re looking to see this on the big screen?