33 years after the director’s death and 42 years after the principal photography was finished, Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind was released on Netflix on Friday 2nd of November 2018.
There is an element of surprise in Netflix being the distributor – a Welles piece seems far more suitable for specialised streaming services such as MUBI or BFI (or even the dying FilmStruck). Likewise, although – because of the said distributor – this film review was originally pitched as a part of FlickFeast’s Netflix and Chill series, The Other Side of the Wind is not a ‘Netflix and Chill’ sort of film. It is better than pure entertainment.
Welles’ final dramatic feature is difficult both in terms of topic and form. The central story is that of a once-famous ageing director Jack Hannaford (John Huston) who is losing touch with the new requirements of the film-factory that is Hollywood. Trying to get financial support to finish his latest project, he uses his 70th birthday party as an opportunity to host a work-in-progress screening for all the industry people and media representatives. Through this main storyline and the excerpts from Hannaford’s fictional film, which are shown as a film-within-a-film, Welles questions toxic masculinity, repressed homoeroticism, the generation gap and artistic genius.
The Other Side of the Wind is not always easy to follow. The main storyline about Hannaford is told in the form of a mockumentary with clips taken at the 70th birthday party. True to the form, a lot of it is very segmented. Moreover, as the New Yorker critic Richard Brody rightly observes; “The movie’s images… play less like the primary mode of experience than like a picture-track that runs parallel to and in counterpoint with the dialogue and sound effects.” That is not to say that if you miss a sentence or two the point of the film is lost: on the contrary, the atmosphere is so well created by sound effects and editing that it can withstand an occasional lapse in concentration, but there is a lot to gain from the dialogue.
The film-with-a-film is visually stunning and without dialogue with the two main characters fully naked for the majority of the feature. It explores female sexual desire, but in fact portrays it as dangerous for the male population. The unnamed female character (played by Welles’s real-life partner Oja Kodar who also co-wrote the script) holds all the power over the unnamed man (Robert Random), culminating in symbolic castration as she stabs a giant balloon penis. At times, Hannaford’s graphic instructions to the two actors can be heard, showing how uncomfortable he made people feel on the set. In the wake of recent developments in Hollywood, this 1970s film is unexpectedly topical.
There is a line from The Other Side of the Wind that rings so true: No machine ever produces as much as it consumes. That is true of John Hannaford as an artist consuming people around him, but it is also true of Hollywood as an industry consuming Hannaford. And with thoughts like this, Orson Welles’ last work leaves you to ponder about the artist and their art. So don’t give it just two hours of your time after a hard day’s work – there are plenty of Netflix and Chill films for such occasions: give The Other Side of the Wind your weekend when you are fresh and concentrated. And even then you will want to re-watch it.
DIRECTOR: Orson Welles
STARS: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Robert Random, Peter Bogdanovich
RUNTIME: 122 minutes