Critic’s cut: Orson Welles’ last film is no afterthought

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Orson Welles died in 1985 before finishing The Other Side of the Wind, his snappy satire of the movie industry. The film stars John Huston (right) and Peter Bogdanovich, who helped assemble hundreds of hours of footage and get the film released on Netflix in early November. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX Orson Welles died in 1985 before finishing The Other Side of the Wind, his snappy satire of the movie industry. The film stars John Huston (right) and Peter Bogdanovich, who helped assemble hundreds of hours of footage and get the film released on Netflix in early November. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

Viewed purely on its own, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is a masterpiece by one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, proving to us that even long after death, he is not out of new ideas. It joins the ranks of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz as a semi-autobiographical work that is a grand statement of artistic vision and a personal indictment at the same time.

But there is no way to view The Other Side of the Wind purely on its own. Like other Welles films, the version that can be seen today is not his final cut, as that does not exist.

Welles spent years filming and editing, only to have key footage locked away from him due to unrelated geopolitical events. This is the film the world never expected to see, at least in any completed form. Now, a cut that was screened at festivals (including this year’s Virginia Film Festival) has a home on Netflix, and the disorienting effect of seeing the Netflix logo right before An Orson Welles Picture is testament to its long journey to the screen.

The film tells the story of Jake Hannaford (John Huston) on the last day of his life. He is hosting a party for friends, colleagues, and press to view reels from his uncompleted film that has lost its leading man as well as studio support. What we’re seeing, we’re told, is spliced together from all the cameras and recording devices present at the party, interwoven with Hannaford’s film, making it among the first mockumentaries.

On one hand, The Other Side of the Wind is far removed from the original context in which it was made. The film is full of references to early- and mid-1970s characters, both the performers themselves as well as facsimiles. Astute viewers from that era will recognize characters based on Pauline Kael, John Milius, Robert Evans, and critic-cum-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who stars as a version of himself. On the other, Welles has more in mind than settling scores with industry foes or kidding around with friends. Everything was in upheaval at this time—the film industry, media, politics, the world at large—and no one quite knows how to adjust, or if it is worth doing. Hannaford knows he’s done—his film is unfinishable, he’s lost out on millions of dollars, and his inner circle is at each other’s throats. Whether or not he knows he’s about to die (not a spoiler, this is in the opening of the movie a la Citizen Kane), he can feel the detachment of an artist who no longer belongs in the industry he once dominated.

Hannaford is not a sympathetic character. In fact, no one is. At first Huston portrays Hannaford as an amiable, quick-witted elder statesman, but gradually a kind of directionless hatred emerges within him. He is creepy toward younger women, exploitative of his admirers, and hostile toward those who made him famous. The party at his house is a circus with no ringleader, and his film is gorgeous yet meandering and pointless (with a strong condemnation of the masculine embodiment of “pursuit,” culminating in a woman stabbing a phallic edifice into full collapse).

The first 20 minutes may be tough to follow due to the unconventional approach to exposition—rapid-fire names, industry jargon, fast edits—but stick with it. The commentary on the voyeuristic food chain that is the film industry—directors gawking at actors, press hounding artists, insatiable public consumption of both—is palpable, while never condemning. A member of Hannaford’s inner circle comments that a “machine cannot produce more than it consumes.”

The Other Side of the Wind is best watched with its two documentary supplements (check out the Trailers section in Netflix). It is funny, adventurous, structurally bold, and engaging from front to back. One of the year’s must-see films.


The Other Side of the Wind 

R, 122 minutes; netflix.com


Opening this week

Check theater websites for complete listings.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Ralph Breaks the Internet

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Bandstand: The Broadway Musical, Burn the Stage: The Movie, Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Instant Family, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Robin Hood, Widows

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Boy Erased, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Front Runner, The Mystery of Picasso, Widows 

See it again

A Serious Man. R, 106 minutes. Violet Crown Cinema, November 20

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