“You old guys are trying to get with it. Is that what this movie’s about?”
—The Other Side Of The Wind
Hollywood in the early 1970s, post-Easy Rider and Manson, pre-Jaws, but still basically a land of make-believe; everybody wants what someone else has, or used to have, before the ’60s came to an end and took with them both the illusion of an Aquarian age and the rules of the studio system. In Beverly Hills, the cantankerous movie director Jake Hannaford is celebrating his 70th birthday, dressed in a safari suit, drink and cigar in hand. He is surrounded by documentary film crews and his own personal mafia of old studio guys, not to mention assorted producers, hip young things, turtlenecks, groupies, self-appointed Hannaford experts, and friends in scare quotes. Dennis Hopper and the French New Wave director Claude Chabrol are there, as is Hannaford’s protégé, Brooks Otterlake, newly minted as Hollywood’s golden boy. But the old director’s leading men—including his latest discovery, a hippie kid named John Dale— are conspicuously absent, and his comeback project, a sleazy psychedelic art film that seems to betray all of its creator’s anxieties, is out of money. At the end of the night, Hannaford will die in a car crash. It might be suicide, fate, or just the booze.
Not that Hannaford’s demise is a spoiler. The Other Side Of The Wind is, as the opening credits put it, “an Orson Welles picture” (whatever happened to that guy?), inevitably a funhouse of self-reflections. So the first thing we know about Hannaford (John Huston) is that he’s famous and dead, like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), who is narrating this prologue from the present day, tells us some more: that the wrecked convertible in which Hannaford met his end was almost John Dale’s; that Hannaford is said to have saved Dale’s life at some point; that the theory of suicide sounds like a corny ending of the kind that Hannaford would never willingly sign off on. Otterlake would know. He was one of Hannaford’s first would-be biographers. He spent three years interviewing the gruff old man and then decided to become a director himself.
So begins the story of the last 12 or so hours of Hannaford’s life (a posthumous reconstruction, like the film itself), starting with the moment he called “Cut!” for what would prove to be the final time. We don’t get a good look at the man until about 15 minutes in, but we meet a lot of other personalities: his rumored ex-flame Zarah Valenska (Lilli Palmer); Billy Boyle (Norman Foster, once a director of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies), his loyal sidekick and possibly the only sympathetic character in the film; Matt Costello (Paul Stewart), an ex-McCarthyite hatchet man; Max David (Geoffrey Land), who is Robert Evans in everything but name; Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg), the film critic who just might have Hannaford all figured out; many others. These introductions, with everybody finishing each other’s sentences and jokes, play like a talk-on-the-town montage from The Magnificent Ambersons on speed and maybe some other substances of the day.
Welles began filming The Other Side Of The Wind in 1970 and continued, off and on, until 1976. Like Hannaford’s movie (also called The Other Side Of The Wind), it was never finished; the footage was there, but the money wasn’t. For decades, all that even the most hardcore of Welles-heads had seen of it was a couple of muddy-looking clips. Yet here it is, the major project of the last 15 years of his career, as complete as it will ever be. People can watch it on Netflix. In some cities, they can even buy a ticket to see it in a movie theater and wonder what Welles’ intended ’70s audience might have made of this exasperating, claustrophobic home-movie blitz—a neoclassical tragedy that congeals and disintegrates out of frenetic, grainy mock-cinéma-vérité footage. Its characters claw for our attention, desperately holding on to relevance (or, sometimes, the trunk of a swerving car) in a fray of one-liners, non-sequiturs, innuendoes, celebrity impressions, homoerotic subtext, and clatter.
The familiar Welles themes (illusion, identity, memory, betrayal) are present and accounted for. But there are darker forces at work—links between Hollywood’s dirty past (HUAC in particular) and its paranoid present, self-expression and self-repression. To some extent, these are embodied by Hannaford, a self-parodying amalgam of Welles, Huston, and various macho writers and directors of the older generation. One of the more obvious contradictions of the film is that, despite its mockumentary collage (a mix of 16mm and 35mm, color and black-and-white), no one in Wind gives anything like a naturalistic performance. (Huston, for one, chews his lines like cud.) They are pure movie people, mugging for a camera that keeps framing them through smoke and slats. Their reality is one of constant competition, rejection, and internalized pretending—and though the cutting (started by Welles and completed in a Herculean effort by Bob Murawski) is split-second, it looks a lot like theater. At one point, the lights go out and everyone starts bumbling around with hurricane lanterns, which only adds to the impression of the party as a feudal hall.
Hannaford, who comes from a theater family with a history of Shakespeare and suicide, is more than happy to play the king, making constant allusions to conspiracies both cosmic and personal. He expects to be betrayed, but maybe that’s because that’s the role he’s picked for himself; his distrust and need to conquer and destroy are self-prophecies. Besides, the line between intentional and unintentional self-destruction can be very fine. For now, he holds court, chewing and puffing on his corona, expounding on religion, dissing Hemingway (“That left hook of his was overrated”), and boisterously parading his own vices—rattling off slurs, hitting on an underage girl, pissing with the door open. There’s his film, too, which is seen in long excerpts—a pretentiously wordless whatsit about a voyeuristic biker, played by the missing John Dale (Robert Random), who follows a frequently nude woman (Welles’ partner Oja Kodar, who also co-wrote the script) around Los Angeles, to a pansexual bathroom orgy and later to an abandoned studio backlot.
Here, Welles can’t resist giving Hannaford some of his own genius, including what might be one of the greatest sex scenes in film. While much of Wind is intentionally fragmented, manic, and murky, the movie-within-the-movie sections are the high point of his collaboration with the cinematographer Gary Graver, who shot many of Welles’ troubled ’70s and ’80s personal projects while directing porn to make ends meet; they ooze color, texture, and unapologetic kinkiness. (If nothing else, viewers will walk away from this movie having learned more about the erotic imagination of a great American director than they ever cared to know.) Yet The Other Side Of The Wind is ultimately about an artist’s fear of seeing a reflection of his own sublimated desires—the way that art hides as much as it reveals about its maker. We’ll be debating it, defending it, reappraising it for a long time to come.