Orson Welles Ends Himself

The Other Side of the Wind is about Orson Welles, showing himself. Killing himself.

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Orson Welles Ends Himself

As gaudy and inexplicable as its title, The Other Side of the Wind nonetheless sings with the force of its movement whistling past its constraints. The wind blows: Orson Welles channels it through his studio-inflicted/self-inflicted torpor, in that process finding an organic melody—or rather, jazz.

The making-of documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, released by Netflix to go with this film—the streaming giant’s finest moment—shows Welles, enormous and half-baked, describing what he calls “divine accidents.” These accidents were responsible for some of his oeuvre’s best details (wherein God resides), like the breaking of the egg in Touch of Evil; they were something he aimed to chase after (like chasing the wind) with this, his final project, released several decades after its shooting as Netflix opened their coffers to open the coffin in which the raw footage was locked. His former partners on the shoot, Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall, make good on their old oath to their master to complete the film for him, and in finding the spirit of the thing, deliver us a masterpiece we barely deserve. A divine accident.

In that small niche of uber-reflexive films that are about their own creative struggle, there used to be one great: Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. Now there are two. But unlike Fellini’s immaculate opus about the limits vs. limitlessness of creativity and the life-blood of art, The Other Side of the Wind presents a much more difficult and fractured mirror for the larger audience to look into: If you’re not a caustic old pig of an auteur, it might be hard to relate. No matter. They say write what you know, and Welles and partner Oja Kodar did—that is, they wrote about the genius at his hellish dusk, and the limbo rippling from his throes for those around him. Like all great art, when the expression’s good, the specificity becomes essential. So it is with The Other Side of the Wind: At its finish it resonates with an impact like a depth charge.

John Huston plays John Huston as Jake Hannaford who is also Orson Welles, trying to finish The Other Side of the Wind much like Welles tried to finish The Other Side of the Wind, over the course of years with no real budget and by the seats-of-everyone’s-pants. It’s no wonder Netflix released a lengthy documentary about that whole ordeal; “troubled production” doesn’t quite do justice to the haphazard strife of it all. The film’s scenario is set up over the course of one evening and night, Hannaford surrounded by “disciples” and peers who are invited to a party to screen some of the footage of what the director hopes will be his greatest masterpiece, in what Welles hoped would be his. The film within the film is a riff on art film, with perhaps the strongest winks at Michelangelo Antonioni and Zabriskie Point. Life imitates art: Hannaford’s house is just around the rock corner from the one Zabriskie blew to bits. Aptly, that house is the setting for most of the film about Hannaford, in theory constructed from found footage from the cineaste paparazzi. This, approximately a billion years before The Blair Witch Project and Chronicle and the like.

The artifice of those fake documentaries couldn’t be more dissimilar from the artifice of The Other Side of the Wind, artifice which Welles weaponizes against his very self in an exorcism of demons, in a manifesto of confession, in a mirror shuddering with truth. Hannaford seems disdainful of everyone around him, but you see in this film that everyone ends up in a better light than the director himself, and that includes the characters who seem most in opposition to the artist, like Susan Strasberg’s Juliette Riche (a humdinger for Pauline Kael, one of Welles’ harshest critics). The Other Side of the Wind is simultaneously of its moment, a hipper-than-hip ’70s flick trying to document a present that is quite real for its maker; of this present, with its framing conceit, assault of editing and distribution, like a pebble dropped into the glutted stream of Netflix; and of a future that no other film has yet touched, where the filmmaker makes a film like he’s making his death bed from the ground up, but left with one crucial detail to finish: His loved ones have to put him in it after he’s gone. No art exists in a vacuum, but The Other Side of the Wind, more than most, bleeds its own context. It is about Orson Welles, showing himself. Killing himself.

The density is dizzying, the intellect fierce. In terms of Welles’ filmography, it’s like the last act of Citizen Kane felt up by Touch of Evil, then stripped and gutted by the meta-punk of F for Fake. It’s one of the most bitingly tragicomic films in years, every fractal of footage offering up some telling detail or hilarious barb in a masochistic mosaic. Norman Foster brings real warmth and humor to his role as Billy Boyle, ancient Hannaford assistant, and he could be a stand-in for Gary Graver, Welles’ long-suffering DP who had to subsidize his life with shooting erotica while waiting years for Orson to complete this, which Graver believed would be his ticket to better things. The work of Graver’s camera crew here is a lo-fi whirlwind (while Graver’s work for Hannaford’s film is composed and lustrous), tight hand-held shots in various formats hungrily consuming each moment as light sculpts and shadow rules. Every face here sags and droops under the weight of the cameras, of their enveloping intensity of gaze. There is a moment in the film where Hannaford’s screenwriting partner, The Baron (Tonio Selwart), observes that he and his fellow Hannaford followers glow like fireflies in the director’s light. Billy Boyle raises his glass, “I’ll drink to that!” The Baron continues: “The fireflies…he does quite often swallow whole.” Billy’s glass remains in the air, his jaw slack in drunk shock. “It is a fact, that some of us he chews on rather slowly.” Gary Graver died in 2006, still dreaming that his best work would be released. The Other Side of the Wind is made not only out of divine accidents, but human tragedies.

Bogdanovich basically plays himself in the film; he nearly chokes with emotion in the making-of when he talks about the ways he and Orson, great friends, ended up hurting each other. But it is actually the probing insight of Strasberg’s critic, as well as the probing gaze of the legion cameras come to capture Hannaford, that push Hannaford to the brink. Then Hannaford pushes himself over the edge. Seeds of destruction are planted within creation at the cellular level, and so it is with Hannaford and Welles: Oja Kodar is red-painted into a Native American in the film and the offensiveness of that—along with the film’s exploitation cues and steady spew of slurs, vulgarities and vices—is part of the point. Kodar represents both Hannaford’s and Welles’ muse, but her oppression, her ownership by the artist, is also their bane. In Hannaford’s film within Welles’, a sex scene in a car exists as one of the most virtuosic, hypnotic scene constructions of the year, but the truth is that it is of many years, shot over a long span of time, and here it has been edited down to four minutes of Kodar holding you in her presence and showing you what Welles wants you to feel. He wants you to feel the moment that arises out of the years of him trying to own the moment and those around him—he wants you to feel the moment where he, instead, is owned. Welles wants you to feel his own vulnerability and pitiful exposure, inevitably tossed out into the night with his bare ass pointed up to the moon (though with Bob Random’s young stunt ass or John Huston’s wizened, macho ass standing in for his). Because this film is about Orson letting that happen, giving in to that dark catharsis. Then there’s the latent homosexuality theme, which deserves its own separate essay. The Other Side of the Wind moves to the beat of a million petit morts, sublimated into art.

Oliver Stone  must have seen some of this before: The Other Side of the Wind achieves with its babbling stream of image and sound what Stone has often attempted, but with him it often feels like superfluity of style. The Other Side of the Wind, on the other hand, is overripe with an abundance of thought, edge and bite releasing intuition’s juices. Each cut bops to a furtive rhythm, notes in a Coltrane solo. Welles and Bob Murawski (who headed up a crack team of editors in this construction process based on work-print drafts from Welles) deserve an Oscar for editing. One could say the same thing for Welles’ and Kodar’s screenplay, or Huston’s truly lived-in performance, or legendary Legrand’s wonderful score. But accolades like that don’t fall upon works like these. Not to a filthy chiaroscuro, a mirror that violently smashes itself into smaller and smaller pieces until those pieces can hang suspended in the darkness, jagged gleams still connected by the sad image they reflect. Hannaford allows himself to be snared in the cameras of the devotees and sycophants and secret haters, as a parting gift and amends to all the many he’s wronged. To give them what they wanted: to know him. There’s also a bitter laugh buried in that act, as Hannaford and Welles succumb to the pressure while knowing that it does no good. Even if Hannaford or Welles wanted to—and the reality is that they do, because what is art at its root other than self-expression—they can never be truly known. The camera is an act of intrusion into something that cannot be penetrated. So it kills.

The Other Side of the Wind ends on a drive-in at morning, Hannaford’s movie screening its climactic finale where Oja’s mis-represented goddess stabs the pomp out of a phallus symbol and the relentless titular wind blows the head off a white male dummy. The camera of Welles’ movie zooms slowly out. The drive-in is empty. No one to see God reveal himself. No one to meet their Maker. In voice-over Hannaford talks about gypsies that he hung around with on an early film production and their belief that the camera steals the soul. Hannaford shot things to take ownership of them. “Shoot ‘em dead,” he says and the words sound old and eternal. As Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind fades out, Orson WellesThe Other Side of the Wind cuts to black. It is a perfect final moment for a film defined by the imperfections of itself and its creator. And it sings.

In They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead there are battling theories about whether Welles ever truly intended to finish this movie. Some view its ridiculously drawn-out process as a way to give himself a reason to go on. Others that were close to Welles insist that he wanted to see it finished. Regardless, it’s here now. Who knows how close it is to what Welles would have intended? That’s part of its great, terrible beauty. Maybe some aspect of “The Other Side” was always meant to be post-humous, as “the Wind” blows on past the years of those who’d try to tame it. For The Other Side of the Wind is Welles relinquishing intent and control—relinquishing life, to give what fraction of it that he can to the ones that followed him, worked with him, loved him. To the ones who are willing to watch.

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