Active Ingredients: Metatextual playfulness; Daring visual style
Side Effects: Lack of direction to the central party sequence
The Other Side of the Wind is a metatextual masterpiece, a troubled production about a troubled production whose troubled production is itself the text of the film. That Orson Welles’ disorganized and unfinished project was ever released at all is a small miracle, yet both in spite of and because of its reputation The Other Side of the Wind actually feels remarkably cogent artistically. Welles met chaos with chaos, and this is a record of the encounter rescued from the ashes.
The majority of The Other Side of the Wind takes place at the unruly 70th birthday party of director Jack Hannaford, attended by a barrage of interviewers and cameramen, intellectuals, hangers-on, crew members, and hippies. Hannaford—charismatic, swaggering, hard-drinking, and cigar-chomping, holding court over a collection of young acolytes and admirers—abounds with parallels to Welles himself. (That Welles balked at admitting as such rather than playing the role himself, solving numerous practical issues, is a fitting bit of self-sabotage.) Hannaford is a macho relic from an older era of Hollywood filmmaking. His later work is more experimental and less appreciated; his current work, also titled The Other Side of the Wind, is a disordered collection of footage—striking, beautiful, and mysterious—that feels fated to remain unfinished. His leading lady is also his collaborator and lover. His leading man, meanwhile, is a blank-eyed youth with feminine features whom Hannaford can’t seem to impress despite having saved his life and hand-selected him for stardom.
Everything except Hannaford’s attraction to his male star (so far as we know) is also true of Welles. The similarities between the fictional and factual directors aren’t just intriguing bits of autobiographical detail. Rather, they point to the thrilling textual overlap between the film and its creation that makes The Other Side of the Wind so rich and visionary. Welles didn’t just make these overlaps part of the story, but part of the very texture of the film, bursting with rebelliousness and youthful energy.
Both Hannaford and Welles surround themselves with youth, feeding off its reverence and vitality almost vampirically. This youthful energy propels The Other Side of the Wind, seeping into its breakneck pace of quick cuts, handheld camerawork, and slapdash mix of footage of different textures. Is it a desperate attempt at maintaining relevance or a true search for new artistic inspiration? Both, of course.
Welles’ aesthetic style in The Other Side of the Wind is three things in equal measure: a brilliant, bold and unexpectedly avant-garde approach from an old master; a thematic link to Hannaford’s and Welles’ attraction to youth; and a production expediency, the only way to make a movie when you’re shooting with no money over years and years with actors coming and going and no hope of continuity. The third characteristic of this style, practical though it may be, only makes it more brilliant.