By Michael Kalafatis (Stoke on Trent)
Interviewer: “Do you like to finish a picture and be done with it? Are you happy when it’s done and cut?“ Orson Welles: “No, because you always hope you can make it better. I hate every kind of goodbye. And every time those lights go out, it’s a little death and a little goodbye.“ This quote is featured in Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary about the creation of The Other Side of the Wind. In 1942, after the completion of his sophomore feature film The Magnificent Ambersons Orson Welles was a young director who had just made Citizen Kane, a film considered the greatest film of all time, but its critical success did not translate to commercial success thus started a tumultuous relationship between Welles and Hollywood studios.
RKO took control of the editing of Ambersons, and the version released was much shorter (88 minutes) to its original running time (148 minutes). This lack of final cut privileges was a recurring motif in every Welles’ subsequent releases, from 1947 Lady from Shanghai which featured a climactic sequence in hall of mirrors which was supposed to last for 20 minutes but lasted only three minutes, up to 1958 when Touch of Evil was released, a classic film noir that features one of the most iconic and influential opening shots. Welles original vision of Touch of Evil was not seen until 1998, because like most of his films it was edited by a studio, and crucial scenes where removed, and from its original 111 running time it was reduced to 93 minutes, thus he decided to leave Hollywood and relocate to Europe. But even when Welles had a complete creative control over his films like Othello (1951) he could not secure the necessary funds and it took him three agonising years to complete.
After two decades in exiled, Orson Welles returned to Hollywood to start working on his comeback film The Other Side of the Wind. Production started in 1970 with many interruptions till 1976, while editing went until 1980s. Welles’ film was plagued with financial, political and legal problems, and remained unfinished when he died in 1985, he was 70 years old. He left almost 100 hours of footages, a few edited scenes, written thoughts and instruction. Now at last The Other Side of the Wind is completed after 48 years with the help of Peter Bogdanovich and producer Frank Marshall. Welles’ film mostly unfolds at Arizona ranch where J.J. Hannaford (John Huston) celebrates his seventieth birthday, Hannaford like Welles is a film director who tries to make his comeback with a film called The Other Side of The Wind.
The party quest list includes Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich) Hannaford’s protégé, and a commercial film director, Oja Kodar the lead actress of Hannaford’s film, Juliet Richie a film critic who follows Hannaford with vexing questions about his personal life, Hannaford’s entourage (from personal assistant to a makeup artist) and countless journalists recording every moment with cameras, thus invading every aspect of Hannaford’s private moment. John Dale (Bob Random) the androgynous leading actor of Hannaford’s film is conspicuously absent at the party and is rumored to have left the film, which gives the reporters and the quests a chance to talk about Hannaford’s other leading male actors featured in his previous film, while also suggesting that his macho persona is just a ploy to hide his homosexuality.
The Other Side of the Wind is a satire of both 1970s New Hollywood and European Avant Garde Cinema. The main narrative that unfolds in the Arizona ranch is filmed in an unconventional, mockumentary style, utilising kinetic shots, using both colour and black and white cinematography and at many instances it does feel like we are watching a genuine documentary. The film-within- a-film which has the tentative title The Other Side of the Wind, we first see it when is presented to a producer, who does not comprehend it and dismissed it as a waste of time, then at the private cinema of Arizona ranch and lastly at the Drive-in- Theatre. This film is about a man trailing a woman or vice versa, we do not get enough information as the two main characters never talk to each other or to anyone else. It’s a consciously over-stylised film, featuring gratuitous violence, nudity and explicit sex scenes. Its ambiguous narrative evokes Antonioni’s films while it’s also a direct satire to films that favours style over substance. From Citizen Kane up to Chimes at Midnight Welles’ oeuvre had a very distinct style, he favoured dramatic shots, monochrome cinematography, chiaroscuro, deep focus shots, unusual angles and non-linear narrative.
In Other Side of the Wind there is a radical change of approach, Welles’ utilise more kinetic shots, vibrant colours and the compositions does not feel very cinematic but more akin to documentary except for the film-within- a film which uses most of Welles’ techniques albeit in a more exaggerated way. The Other Side of the Wind is also a very autobiographical film, John Huston is obviously playing Welles, Bogdanovich himself, and some of the guests play characters that Welles knew at some point in his life. Even though the film supposed to be a mockumentary it eerily correlates with Welles’ life in the 1970s, the similarities between Hannaford and Welles are very obvious, they both wanted to revive their career in Hollywood, both had a close friend who was commercially and critically successful at the time (Bogdanovich) and both could not easily secure enough financial support for their films.
Verdict: The Other Side of the Wind is Orson Welles’ swan song, a film that if it was released when he was still living it would have attracted more attention from Hollywood. It is a narratively complex film that satires both Hollywood and European Avant Garde Cinema while simultaneously is also an autobiography. It is a film that manages to exceed our expectations in the best possible way and it is a fitting last entry in the career of one of the most talented filmmakers of the 20th century.