Film Review: The Other Side of the Wind

Kaleidoscopic account of a famous film director's final days, assembled from an unfinished work by Orson Welles.
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Orson Welles' persona took up so much room that it's tempting to think his plays, movies and individual performances are all about him, about his life as a prodigy and boy wonder and movie celebrity and commercial failure forced into artistic exile in Europe.

So when he films The Other Side of the Wind, a movie about a director returning from exile in Europe to stage a comeback in the "new" Hollywood of the late 1960s, we can't help thinking that Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, is a version of Welles himself, scrambling for a place in an industry that rejected him repeatedly.

Hannaford's in the midst of directing the kind of pretentious "art" movie—also called The Other Side of the Wind—that cropped up in Europe at the time, one about a sullen, denim-clad hippie (Bob Random) chasing a sultry femme fatale (Oja Kodar) through artfully composed landscapes of alienation. It's no coincidence that Welles filmed right next to where Antonioni shot part of Zabriskie Point.

While studio executives and Hannaford hangers-on debate the future of the film-within-a-film back in Hollywood, Hannaford brings guests by the busload to his desert retreat to celebrate his 70th birthday. Over the course of the night, feuds will be fought, gossip exchanged, barbs delivered, trysts uncovered, relationships broken. Running through all the fireworks and shootings and power failures and drunken confessions are scenes from the "real" movie, including a heavy-breathing sex-in-a-Mustang bit that buys into art-house clichés while mocking them.

There are reasons why Welles never finished the film, including casting problems, money problems, script problems—the usual array of obstacles Welles faced in all of his later projects. (For example, well into shooting, Peter Bogdanovich replaced Rich Little in a key part as sycophantic director Brooks Otterlake.) Beyond those, The Other Side of the Wind is a conceptual mess, with Welles simultaneously kissing and biting the hands that stopped feeding him years earlier.

Unfortunately, most of The Other Side of the Wind is near-random party footage, odd remarks from bystanders, drunken accusations hurled across tables, doors opening or slamming, at one point a sing-along to "Glow Worm." They are shot in the piecemeal style Welles used in F for Fake, quick little bursts that help disguise the project's shortcomings.

The producers of this restoration used a workprint Welles assembled and some individual scenes he edited from the hours of footage he shot over several years until the money dried up. It's a mangled corpse with missing pieces resurrected as an "Orson Welles" movie. You can try to make sense of it, or just view The Other Side of the Wind in relation to previous Welles works.

This was the last time Welles could pull together a coterie of like-minded performers for a feature, which may be another reason why he never finished it. His bracing intelligence shines through the at-times lackluster material. But the movie is a chore to watch, more fun to talk about than to endure. (See Morgan Neville's entertaining documentaryThey'll Love Me When I'm Dead.)

Even middling Welles is better than none, and it's a treat to see his longtime collaborators like Paul Stewart and Mercedes McCambridge performing as brilliantly as ever. John Huston is a special delight; he would leave this project to direct an enviably better movie, The Man Who Would Be King, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine.