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The Ghost Of Orson Welles Is A Haunting Head Trip In 'The Other Side Of The Wind'

'Even with only a phantom, feel the energy and virtuosity that made even his lesser work the envy of contemporaries'
by Karl R. De Mesa | Nov 11, 2018
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Let's be clear about one thing: this is not Orson Welles' last movie.

Nope, that honor belongs to 1968's The Immortal Story. Rather, what we have is an unfinished scrap among many unfinished projects by the legendary director that is now as close to fully assembled, lovingly and with as much pain as putting together the skeletons, habitation, and furniture of an ancient archeological dig site, by his friends and colleagues.

Whether what Welles intended or wanted for the final version of the movie is in the product that is now out on Netflix is another matter, even though the team of resurrectionists based their guess-work from memories, script notes, and an almost intact crew of the same postproduction team (including original cinematographer Gary Graver). And it took more than 40 years for them to assemble The Other Side of the Wind into something that resembles a complete creature.

Like many projects where such an iconic and undeniable signature of the original maker is left to be marathoned to the finish line by others, there's a deep and abiding sense that there's a lot here that needed to be left on the cutting room floor. By that we mean a lot of it is senselessly, numbingly boring to sit through and it's blatantly engrossed in its own gratuity (and rest assured there’s plenty of gratuitous nakedness here, too) seemingly for the sake of it.

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How much of it is sincere zzz material? Fairly more than half.

Having said that there are undeniably formidable parts here that will make you sit up and drown in utter mesmer, where you feel like you're kneeling at the feet of a true master. And by accepting that this here is the genuine DNA of a cinematic visionary we thought already lost, his unmistakable fondness for grime and noir, the brooding, menacing ambiance contrasted by unexpected touches of humor we are enlightened and nourished just like witnessing any prodigious talent in action.

The Other Side of the Wind lets you conjure up the ghost of Wellsian vision and skills and, even with only a phantom, feel the energy and virtuosity that made even his lesser work the envy of contemporaries.

Are the scenes where we feel and see the vintage power of Welles worth the watch of this monstrous 122 minutes that is his personal pain book and bridge burner about his opinions of men and women together and apart, the fin de siècle of Hollywood, the fury of vision, and the attractions and inevitable treachery of male friends?

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Nope. If you're just looking for a Netflix flick to chill to then this is an extremely dense and ponderously-paced affair that will have you scratching your head and likely snoozing within the first 20 minutes (if you last that long).

For film buffs and aficionados though, this here is the genuine article. It's as close to a lesson on moviemaking and a record of the era as you can get. Like all Welles movies, it is an experience like a ritual rather than a mere viewing. We mean, when did you last catch an authentically "new" Orson Welles' movie?

"The man is infested with disciples," complains one of the production team and it's hard to argue that this movie isn't about Welles' musing about his own place in Hollywood.

Photo by IMDB
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The Other Side of the Wind unfolds on two levels.

First, there is the film we’re watching that was made by documentary cameramen about the story of the last days of the famed, aging fictional filmmaker J.J. "Jake" Hannaford (John Huston, who's an actual film director) like a Hemingway macho terror figure, who has returned to Hollywood after years in self-exile in Europe (just like Welles) with plans to complete work on his own innovative comeback movie (also eerily like Mr. Orson).

Second, there is the actual unfinished film made by Hannaford the director, which has just broken down for lack of funds, and so he and his prod team are trying to raise funds for it by screening it for a wary studio executive (played by Geoffrey Land) at various venues: at a birthday party for Hannaford and later, when there's an unexpected power outage at the party, at a run-down drive-in.

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And that fictional, incomplete movie sans dialogue is a head trip of a surreal affair that follows around a Jim Morrison-esque biker guy played by an actor called John Dale (Bob Random) as he gets into weird and erotically charged misadventures with a mysterious Native American woman only known as The Actress (Oja Kodar, Welles' girlfriend and companion in his latter days) who appears only in various states of semi-nudity or in her birthday dress.

Oh, and Hannaford's movie is also pretentiously titled The Other Side of the Wind. How intriguing.

We are treated to intercuts between the docu, the filming of the docu, and Hannaford's movie in a variety of film stocks that range in color and quality from 35mm and 16mm, black-and-white and color, meant to blur the lines between protagonist and filmmaker, and movie-making and movies themselves.

While not many of the performances stand out, another real-life director Peter Bogdanovich does infuse his character Brooks Otterlake, Hannaford's de facto protégé, with the frisson of the movie, as he's the new blood pulling the old world of Hollywood's system into the future with youth and healthy disrespect.

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A thousand reels and more than 100 hours of footage later, there are many theories as to whether Welles actually ever intended to finish this movie or he voluntarily left it as is as one great and final act of rebellion against those who failed him and as revenge on the filmmaking system that cast him off as an outsider, if not an outright pariah.

The perfect companion pieces for all the juicy and historical details of this movie are Josh Karp's book Orson Welles's Last Movie, and Morgan Neville's documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, incidentally also on Netflix.

"It's all right to borrow from each other, as long as we don't borrow from ourselves," declares Hannaford in one of the many enigmatic pronouncements throughout this epic that has many subjects and so focuses on none. That is its failure and curse, as well as its ambition and triumph.

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What this movie is, at its most basic, is a profound and elegiac testament to how even in his latter days, with his influence and funding considerably diminished, Welles retained the power to direct circles around many of the best directors of his day.

His ghost abides with us, so much so you can even try to figure out what the Citizen Kane "Rosebud" is here. Hint: there really is one.

The Other Side of the Wind is now screening on Netflix


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