Orson Welles on the set of The Other Side of the Wind.
Unbelievable as it may be to most cinephiles, Orson Welles’s final picture, The Other Side of the Wind, which he shot between 1970 and 1976 and was never able to complete, has finally publicly emerged, assembled and restored by experts. Even though I’m not sure that we can say in the final analysis that it really is an Orson Welles picture, given that he didn’t edit it in its entirety—a distinction that’s especially important in his 70s work when his editing became increasingly hyperbolic and idiosyncratic—the film struck me as emblematic of both Welles’s late-career aesthetics and biography. For those rabid Welles fanatics like me who’ve been defending his late career for decades, the movie feels like a perfect realization of his vision—for better or worse—in all its audacity, unruly extravagance, and fascinating imperfection.
As with the film’s closest analogue, F for Fake (1973), Welles doesn’t just ignore filmic conventions; it’s as if he’s intentionally pushing an antagonist shoulder against the history of film style, as if he wants to invent a method all his own, an anti-Wittgensteinian’s cinematic dream of a private language. There’s only the bare minimum of a plot here: a film crew and some hangers-on scramble into a bunch of cars and a school bus filled with showroom dummies so they can head out to a birthday party for the director Jake Hannaford (John Huston gruffly charming as a kind of Hemingway-Welles-Huston hybrid), then that party rambles on deep into the night, then they finally head out to a drive-in movie theater where the party fizzles out near dawn. Along the way, they screen clips from the new movie Hannaford has been working on as an attempt at a comeback in the radically changed New Hollywood, a Zabriskie Point-esque examination of empty widescreen landscapes, silence, and sex.
So instead of a plot driven by interpersonal conflict, the movie feels more like a swirling agglomeration of marginally related moments. Like most of his late work, Welles here is cutting every few seconds. Gary Graver’s camera seems to exist everywhere at once, an all-seeing eye roaming the party, hovering in hand-held bliss, panning from one face to another briskly so that the image always feels as if it’s teetering. And Welles cuts back and forth between multiple planes of action in a way that’d make even D.W. Griffith nervous: more often than not, it feels as if we’re weaving in and out of four or five scenes running concurrently. But unlike Griffith, Welles’s planes of action are never moving towards a central point of convergence: they are, if anything, dispersing, pulling themselves apart by some unseen centrifugal force. Thus, the few emotional revelations never seem to lead to anything, which seems to be Welles’s point: that Hannaford’s life—like his art—is actively working against the possibilities of resolution. At one point, for instance, there’s an exchange between Hannaford and Peter Bogdanovich (as Brooks Otterlake, the critic-sycophant of Hannaford that’s obviously based on his own relationship with Welles), in which they suddenly discuss the possibility (I think—I mean, it was all happening so fast) that Hannaford’s grandfather hanged himself from a chandelier in a fancy hotel. But, so what? In a normal movie, disclosures like these function as the catalyst for the climax. But for Welles, the most startling confessions and the most mundane moments all exist equally along the same emotional plane.
Because of these formal decisions, the film clearly will not please the Friday night crowd. Indeed, at the festival press screening, I could feel the uneasiness floating in the air; it felt a bit like a soggy cloud overhead. I’d call the applause at the end a “polite smattering,” not a triumphant embrace. Later, I overheard some of the septuagenarians behind me disparage the film in whispered asides to their mystified compatriots. And admittedly, my own impression was that if Welles had had total control, the final result probably would’ve been a bit more snappy than this. If anything, finally getting the chance to see this Holy Grail of the cinema merely confirmed my suspicions that one of the reasons that Welles was never able to finish the picture wasn’t just because of its byzantine legal, financial, and logistical complications—and if you’re curious, I highly recommend Josh Karper’s book on the film’s production—but because he understood better than anyone how difficult it was going to be to corral his source material into the radical plan he’d envisioned for so long.
The people who found this movie boring might, admittedly, have a point, but they’re missing the larger picture. Watching the movie, I was reminded once again how Welles in his late stage forces us to approach him as an anomaly: like some rupture between alternate dimensions in a science fiction film. So much of the enjoyment of watching a movie like this—and coming back to it again and again, as I’m sure I will—derives from intellectual analysis rather than the emotional surrender that most well-made entertainments offer us. The movie may not have been entirely successful, but it was enormously fruitful. As the movie unfurled, I kept thinking of artists who became a bit adventurous, a bit unhinged, late in their careers. Most of my associations, though, were not with other filmmakers, but—perhaps not surprisingly—with poets. Welles here reminded me of Williams Carlos Williams’s “The Desert Music,” Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America, Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Speed of Darkness,” or the long sequences from Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field: in each of these, the poets were pushing beyond their earlier lyric forms, tired of refined observations of the natural world, to create sprawling, ungainly configurations. They weren’t trying just to write longer or messier, though: they were seeking out new formal structures to express new modes of thinking, struggling through a more difficult associational logic, expressing themselves though the clash of large-form collages against large-form collages, enacting in a different medium, perhaps, what Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein was trying to get at when he talked about overtonal montage.
Welles, too, is using form to express that which he found inexpressible. One of the most difficult aspects to gauge about the movie is Welles’s attitude about Hannaford’s film-within-a-film. Welles’s antipathy to Antonioni is well known. On the one hand, he’s using Hannaford’s film to show us that he, Welles, can perform Antonioni’s aesthetic program better than Antonioni can himself—and yes, his widescreen images of Oja Kodar standing like a pinprick in the distance atop a gravelly landscape or of Oja Kodar striding lithely through an antiseptic, modernist office park are, in fact, much more striking than most of what we see in Zabriskie Point. And yet, Hannaford’s film—with its stultifying silence, its lack of narrative direction, and its soft-core porn aesthetics—is also clearly, for both Welles and Hannaford’s collaborators, a troubled foundling searching in vain to define the purpose of its own existence. So Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind, as this film-within-the-film is called, is clearly Welles’s too, and Welles is deploying Hannaford’s movie to comment on his own struggle to finish a film whose radical vision is escaping his control. Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, then, must logically be equally ungainly, boring, and unmanageable—because his awareness that he’s floundering amid his own aesthetic extravagance is the very subject of the film.
This movie is imperfect, but that’s precisely its point and precisely its allure. The people who I heard whispering disparagingly seem to want a well-made film: they want artistry defined by exquisite craftmanship. Who might be giving us that today? Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread, maybe? I have no problem with that. I liked that film quite a bit. But to want or expect every movie to be well-made, it seems to me, is an affront to the very purpose of art. If art is an exploration, then it must necessarily run up against disorder because seeking involves failure. Exploratory art must be wild. And to be wild, one must court disaster, hopefully to find perfection in the end. But Welles’s audacity comes from the fact that he refuses to show us the perfection that comes at the end of the process; instead, he shows us the process itself.
Orson has gambled—gloriously, dangerously, foolishly, even. We can see him here in the midst of the maelstrom that he’s created, joyously bracing himself against the heavy winds, but also flailing, ultimately unable to escape the turbulence of his own production. His vision is too large; it cannot be contained. It is beyond him. And for better or worse, it is beyond us as well. But it is a vision—a colossal, intemperate, unwieldy vision—which is more than we can say for almost anything else being made today.