Divine Accidents: Orson Welles and The Other Side of the Wind

Orson Welles once said that “the greatest things in movies are divine accidents.” Somehow, over a varied career, he cultivated them. Citizen Kane (1941) is of course a great film — but it’s by no means his best. That, depending on the day, is either his follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), his seminal film noir Touch of Evil (1958), or Chimes at Midnight (1965), his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I and Part II, honing in on the story of Prince Hal and Falstaff.

In between, Welles directed a host of at least estimable if not wholly successful films, full to some degree of those same “divine accidents”, including: The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Othello (1951), The Trial (1962), and F For Fake (1973), and those are just the ones he managed to complete. He tried for a long time to bring a version of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote to the screen, along with a series of films which never came into being. One of these, for many years, was The Other Side of the Wind.

Between 1970 and 1976, Welles and his crew worked on the picture. It was a dictionary definition of the term ‘troubled production’. Welles was  always changing aspects of the story as he went along. Regularly, production would halt due to lack of funding, and cast and crew turned over frequently. But the result — edited by Bob Murawski, and with a score by the legendary composer Michel Legrand — is now ready, nearly 50 years after the shooting started, and was released just last  weekend by Netflix in a 122-minute cut. A useful documentary can be found alongside presenting the intimate details of the filmmaking process titled They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, directed by Morgan Neville.   

The Other Side of the Wind tells the story of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), an old Hollywood director desperate to keep up with the swing of things since spending a portion of his career away from the dream factory’s centre. He’s a composite of Welles himself, but also a brand of ultra-masculine filmmaker in the vein of John Ford, and there are elements of Ernest Hemingway in the character’s makeup (the action takes place on July 2, the date of Hemingway’s death.) He’s looking for money to wrap-up production on a film he’s hoping will kick-start his career, so he hosts a party and invites all manner of film nerds, critics, scholars, and various other hangers-on. Hannaford screens his incomplete film at the party to the assembled guests. The film is also called The Other Side of the Wind.

Welles’ movie bifurcates in an incredibly inventive fashion. Part is  composed of mock-documentary footage of party guests interviewing Hannaford and his acolytes, mixing 8 and 16mm formats, changing between colour and black and white. The other part is of Hannaford’s film, a pretentious exercise in European modernist art-cinema aesthetics, filled with rock music and sex captured in immaculate, widescreen 35mm. It is, in essence, Welles raising high a middle-finger to directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

This is a remarkable formal achievement, as neither of the movie’s sides bare the distinctive visual marks of a Welles film. “It’s all in the  editing”, as the director has said, and the quick, free-wheeling cutting means that even without the defining style of Welles, it’s not possible to forget who’s at the helm of the film. It’s almost, at times, an exhilarating act of cinematic free association.

Hannaford is besieged at the party by probing queries into life and work, as a number of critics among the guests are prospective biographers. His defence is a sardonic wit, tossing campy verbal charms at the pack to appease them momentarily. He is also backed up, at least initially, by Brooks Otterlake, a film historian turned director who is something like a protege of Hannaford’s — played by Peter Bogdanovich, a film historian turned director who was something like a protege of Welles’. The young man calls his elder ‘skipper’ and this sobriquet attains some poignancy towards the film’s climax. Like Hal and Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, Hannaford and Otterlake have to negotiate a betrayal, a theme that permeates Welles’ films to agonising effect.

One of those attending the party, and the drive-in screening which acts as  the ending to both the mockumentary and the intra-diegetic film, is a young critic named Juliette Rich (Susan Strasberg), based on The New Yorker’s writer Pauline Kael. Kael wrote an essay in 1971 entitled “Raising Kane”, which detailed how Citizen Kane was the product of the scriptwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and argued against appending authorship to Welles.

The way Rich is treated is complex. This is Welles having a dig at Kael (“Even if she doesn’t know, she’ll tell us” Hannaford says, after she begins formulating an interpretation), and finally slapping her, literally, to the ground. But he assaults her because she gets closer to the truth than anyone else about Hannaford and Otterlake, testing out the argument that the old director is latently homosexual (heavily implied in a frightening scene in which he intimidates the school teacher of his young star), and acts out his repressed fantasies by seducing the young partners of his male followers.

With this in mind, the role of Oja Kodar is perhaps the most interesting in the film (she co-wrote the film with Welles, and stars in both the mockumentary and the film-within-the-film). Her role has led the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to call The Other Side of the Wind Welles’ “only feminist film” and it’s a comment so suggestive it deserves major qualification. This is a film which excoriates the young, ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s, but is also deeply envious of the generation’s sexual freedom. Kodar assists Welles in making this a central concern of the text.

Her character, in both sections of the film, doesn’t say a word. She’s often naked in Hannaford’s film. She simply walks around, her gaze occasionally alighting on a face before passing on. Later, she induces in the leading man a castration anxiety that makes him walk off set — this is refigured in the finale in a rather astonishing way, providing an indelible image for the film’s caustic critique of a certain strain of he-man  masculinity, exemplified by, and turned against, Hannaford. The prescience of Welles’ film really cannot be overstated.

Critic Nick Pinkerton’s quip that The Other Side of the Wind is “decades too late and just on time” seems the best way to put it. This is a film that will be dissected for implicit and symptomatic meanings for years to come. I, for one, am glad that I get to see it before there is a Kane-like mass of scholarship attending to its every frame and nuance. It’s a wild, sprawling movie, full of divine accidents, and its very existence seems to validate those beautiful words of Welles, from F For Fake, which deserve to be whispered into the ears of anyone who wants to make, think about, or live with art: “Our songs will all be silenced — But what of it? Go on singing.”

Image: Carl Van Vechten via Wikimedia Commons

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