The biggest shock in watching Orson Welles long-lost film The Other Side of the Wind is just how modern it is. This feels like an arthouse film circa 2018 even if the footage itself is nearly 40 years older than that. Other Side is for the most part a vibrant feature, Robert Altman by way of MTV where overlapping dialog is paired with the kind of quick jump cuts that wouldn’t come into vogue until Youtube’s vbloggers came onto the scene.
Welles embarked on this project after returning to Hollywood following a long sojourn in Europe. Two crucial things transpired in between. He’d taken up with a new muse, the striking Oja Kodar; and his onetime acolyte, Peter Bogdanovich had broken through in Hollywood with The Last Picture Show and seemed poised for the successful career that Welles was forcibly denied.
Once back in Hollywood Welles set out to make The Other Side of the Wind about an aged maverick director struggling to fund a new arthouse film. Where yes, there was the striking, mute, muse is played by Kodar; and the wildly successful protege played by Bogdanovich as “Brooks Otterlake”. Orson Welles though does not cast himself nor reuse his persona as the director, Jake Hannaford. The role is handled by the great John Huston and channels Ernest Hemingway, with whom he’s explicitly compared in the film’s dialog.
Perhaps Welles didn’t want his likeness too associated with Hannaford. The Other Side of the Wind isn’t so much a celebration of the he-man outsized male, as a bitter repudiation. Hannaford’s persona is carefully constructed to be larger than life. His teeth are perpetually clenched on a long cigar, while he only dresses in safari wear. He bullies and shouts and boozes, just like an alpha male should. His supporting crew excuse his behavior. Hannaford though is trading on mystique. His financial fortune wasted away in the service of his final film, all he has left is his bluster and the mystique associated with his name.
Underneath his carefully constructed exterior (referred to as a lobster shell), Hannaford’s true character is more in line with self loathing. Like many Hollywood’s larger than life male auteurs he seems far more interested in possessing people than producing art. Maintaining his stature as a major director means having an endless stream of aspiring talent ready to prostrate themselves. Hannaford mostly targets his leading men, frequently stealing their wives and girlfriends while berating them while they act in his features. He does so with such reliability that his entourage speculates its due to a latent or repressed homosexuality.
“The Other Side of the Wind” is also the title of Hannaford’s latest project, largely completed. It consists of Kodar cavorting naked, beguiling John Gale (Robert Random) who tracks her through various artful constructions. While the crucial sequence of the feature occurs when the film-in-film bleeds into larger reality, its hard to not write the exercise off as an indulgence. If this was meant to mock the contemporary Zabriskie Point then the point is made within a few minutes. The film-in-film winds up occupying more than a third of the running time. There’s a few dazzling sequences: sex in a running car, a pursuit through a restroom turned impromptu brothel. However, I’d wager that the filmmakers could cut ten minutes of screen time out of these sections and not affect the film’s momentum, or comprehensibility, negatively.
Given the moderness of the editing and dialog, its fair to ask how much of the final project aligns with Welles’ vision. Was this a case of a zealous modern-editor intent on putting his name alongside that of a cinema legend? In a strange way devoting such a large portion of the running time to the film-in-film pushes against that perception. Kodar’s presence is favoritism if not nepotism (Welles and Kodar never married), but it was clearly Welles’ favoritism. It’s his prideful, lustful gaze that imbues these sequences and demands their inclusion.
If Kodar’s acting range extended beyond “statuesque and mysterious” we’ll never know. This is the only way Welles filmed her both here and in F for Fake.
The closing scene with Kodar is especially poignant. The only partygoer to watch The Other Side of the Wind to its conclusion, the rest long since leaving her alone. After yoking her fortunes to a genius who flaunted her body in a film the world would never see. We never see Hannaford’s fatal car crash promised in the opening scene. Instead there’s Kodor donning her shades, already all alone as she drives back off into obscurity.