Table Talk: The Other Side of the Wind (2018*)
Aren: What a bizarre circumstance to find ourselves in. After decades of talk about this lost masterpiece from Orson Welles, the film finally arrives in our homes, easy to watch and rewatch, and with the title card “A Netflix Original Film” to boot. We could address how this all came about, but there are existing articles that better serve that function. The real question I want to address off the top is this: is The Other Side of the Wind actually an Orson Welles film even though he never lived to finish it?
Anders: It is a strange set of circumstances. The fact that The Other Side of the Wind finally got finished and released is certainly an argument in favour of the streaming revolution that Netflix has kicked off and, in my mind, a good use of the cash they’re throwing around. But as you say, is this a Welles film? Is it a 2018 release? Should I put it on my “Best of the Year” list? Or is it simply a cinephile curiosity? There are certainly questions, some categorical, others about the value and quality of the film that we do have, provenance aside. The answers to the one inform the other, because part of me suspects that if the name “Orson Welles” were not on the film, the reaction might be different.
Aren: But it’s also impossible to think of this film as anything other than a work by Orson Welles, since it’s so tied up in his neuroses, late-life obsessions, and, to some extent, biography. Ultimately, I think we have to accept it as an Orson Welles film, with an asterisk. Much of the film was edited while he was alive and Bogdanovich and others constructed the rest of the film by following his notes. Obviously, it’s not a perfect reconstruction of Welles’ intent, but neither is The Magnificent Ambersons, and we’d never say that that’s not a Welles film, even though the studio took it away from him. Or Touch of Evil. You see where I’m going with this?
As for whether it’s a 2018 release, or eligible for “Best of the Year” lists, I’m more hesitant. It would only be a 2018 release through the sheer luck of it becoming available to the public this year, but it doesn’t really belong in the context of the year as a whole. Publications like Film Comment may list it on their Top Films of 2018 list, but you won’t find it on mine.
Anders: I’m not putting it on mine, for similar reasons that it didn’t emerge from the similar distribution and production contexts that other films this year have. Though, it might result in a film without a year, a film that stands alone as work of art without really being a part of any year in particular.
A Film By Orson Welles, A Film About Orson Welles
Aren: You can learn a lot about the making of the film and Welles’ later life from Morgan Neville’s companion documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which is an enjoyable work and worthwhile viewing for anyone interested in Welles. However, it’s also overly reliant on biographical criticism, which I think has invaded film criticism to a frustrating degree in recent years, especially with the advent of representational politics and the idea that people’s racial, sexual, or political identities define their art more than anything else.
The documentary ultimately posits that The Other Side of the Wind is about Welles’ relationship to Peter Bogdanovich and that, to a larger extent, Welles’ films are obsessed with betrayal and always place him in the position of the betrayed. There’s definitely merit to this line of argument, especially when you consider that Welles’ films are obsessed with betrayal and that he played Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, letting him play out one of the most famous artistic betrayals ever. But the argument is also reductive. Of course, like all artists, Welles put himself in his work, whether consciously or subconsciously, but reducing the entire discussion of this new work to biography is frustratingly limited.
Should we tackle this at all? Is it worth reading The Other Side of the Wind as autobiography?
Anders: After watching the Neville documentary, I have two thoughts: one is similar to yours, which is that it is over-reliant on biographical criticism of a particular bent and reveals something important about how we utilize that interpretive lens, though I’ll come back to that in a moment. The second is that They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is enjoyable for the footage of Welles talking about his film, for the insight into the making of the film and the challenges he faced, but it’s ultimately little more than a padded out “Making of…” special feature one would have found on a DVD a decade and a half ago. That said, I’m happy to have it. In the glory days of the DVD format, “special features” were a major bonus and I can attribute a significant chunk of my early film education to watching bonus feature documentaries and listening to audio commentaries. Given that the move to streaming has, a few boutique outlets like Criterion Collection aside, led to the loss of those bonuses as part of the film watching experience, I’m happy that Netflix has released this documentary along with the feature film. It also makes me think that it would be easy for a streaming platform — perhaps one of the more cinephile-oriented ones like MUBI or the upcoming Criterion Channel — to record alternate audio-tracks with commentaries. I digress.
Aren: That’s all interesting commentary about the nature of film releases in this day and age. I, for one, miss special features that are present on Blu-rays, so I’d love Netflix and other streaming channels to adopt the commentary track and special documentary approach. But go on.
Anders: The issue of biographical criticism is an interesting one. There is, as you note, some merit to the biographical approach; given the struggles that Welles had after The Magnificent Ambersons in securing financing and distribution for his films, means that the frustrated creation of The Other Side of the Wind is read as a kind of fitting, if ironic, culmination. And it’s clear that the setting and characters of The Other Side of the Wind lend themselves to be read biographically, with different characters standing in for real life people. Jake Hannaford cries out to be read as Welles, especially given that if Welles had not gotten John Huston to play the role he was going to take it on himself.
There is also the strange fact that The Other Side of the Wind, a film about an unfinished film (of the same name), eventually became itself an unfinished film. It cries out to be analysed in that way. Welles even calls it a kind of documentary film in the way they shot it. It blurs the line between documentary and fiction, becoming a kind of chronicle of its own making. Welles is taking shots at both Hollywood and the European art cinema in the film, but he’s also making something very Godardian in the way it interrogates its own status as a work of art. It’s self-reflexive to the extreme.
Aren: It’s extremely self-reflexive, but I think we give artists a little too much credit for understanding all their artistic intentions and the notion of investigating themselves through their work. They reveal themselves, but rarely consciously, even in a film as self-conscious as The Other Side of the Wind.
Anders: I think you’re right, that even in works that explicitly examine the process of their own creation what is revealed is often something beyond the conscious intent of the creator.
The final question raised by our knowledge of the film’s production context is the one raised by the documentary: did Welles not want to finish the film? It would be fitting, given the self-reflexive nature of the film, but I just can’t buy Orson Welles not wanting his films to be seen by people. He was an artist, but he was also a showman. He loved an audience, whether for his films or his own pontifications over dinner. I don’t think that we can ever hope to have an answer to something like that, and I’m not sure it’s really productive to spend too much time thinking on it.
Aren: He obviously wanted to finish it. To say otherwise is to misinterpret his financial struggles late in life as self-inflicted. It’s kind of a callous way to read the decline of a great filmmaker’s life and work, even if there’s an ironic charm to that reading. But I refuse to believe Welles didn’t want people to see it.
Anders: The last note about biographical criticism is that it reveals as much about the received history and the one doing the criticism as it does about the artist. For instance, it requires the interpreter to frame the films against selected biography and previous works. In this case, Citizen Kane and Ambersons are privileged to some extent as exemplary Welles’ films. I would have liked to see them dig more into comparing it to F for Fake, which was shot contemporaneously to Other Side of the Wind.
Aren: F for Fake bridges us nicely into our next topic, which is the film’s radical editing. The Other Side of the Wind, like parts of F for Fake, is chaotically edited to an insane degree. In fact, when watching the film, I was a little overwhelmed by its propulsive editing patterns. You get used to it after 15 minutes or so, but there’s no denying the editing is hyperactive to an extent almost never seen in old films. It takes Welles’ approach to the last 20 minutes of F for Fake and applies that to an entire film. Of course, we have to take into consideration the fact that modern editors did complete this film, so it necessarily bears tracings of modern editing patterns. But if we connect it to F for Fake and take a more general stance, can we say that Welles is pioneering the heightened continuity of later filmmakers like Paul Greengrass here?
Anders: It is overwhelming. It makes me want to revisit the film to pay attention to the editing apart from the story and images. It’s interesting to note that much of this style is being pioneered by Welles at this time, as you also noted its similarity to the end of F for Fake. In some ways, it fits with the kind of films being made by New Hollywood experimenters, but also European masters like Antonioni and Bertolucci in its transgressiveness.
Aren: But are Antonioni and Bertolucci editing films in such a rapid manner back in the early seventies? I haven’t seen enough of their work during that period to comment.
Anders: No, they are edited at a much slower pace, it’s true. I guess I’m thinking more thematically and in terms of transgressive content. As far as the question of Welles pioneering things, I think it’s clear he is. He looms large over film editing in ways that aren’t always commented on. Consider the battle scenes in Chimes at Midnight. They anticipate the gritty battle scenes that have come to dominate filmmaking in the last couple decades. The genealogy seems to be Branaugh drawing on Welles in his Henry V, but then Spielberg and Ridley Scott taking that style of editing battle footage to the next level in Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator. It reminds you that Welles was just on another level in imagining what the possibilities of cinema were.
The Birth of Found Footage?
Aren: After watching The Other Side of the Wind, I tweeted a question about whether it would’ve counted as the first found footage film had it been released back in the day. Craig Silliphant of The Feedback Society tweeted back saying that technically a few other films would have preceded it, especially if you think about how Welles was still editing the film in the early 1980s, but there is something radical about the film’s approach to film form, and it’s interesting to connect that form to the modern day found footage films, which uses this approach in much the same way Welles envisioned.
I think one key element that is drawn out when comparing The Other Side of the Wind to found footage is that the verisimilitude of The Other Side of the Wind is taken as radical and artistic, while the verisimilitude of found-footage is often shown to be lazy and commercially-driven. But Welles’ film has a lot of the hallmarks of found footage. Not only is all the footage in the film supposed to be actual footage from reporters, news reels, B-roll footage from unfinished movies, but the acting is also largely improvised and has that loose feel that’s common in found footage. I really think the film ought to be categorized as found footage, although without the genre touch that’s usually associated with the subgenre.
Anders: I can see that to some extent. The other filmmaking mode that it reminds me of is Terrence Malick, who often shoots hours and hours of footage and then crafts his film out of what he has found, rather than sticking to a set script.
Aren: Yes, that’s a good connection in how it was crafted, but I do think that since Welles meant all the footage to be “documentary footage” of Hannaford and his party, there’s a little more to the form connection with found footage than simply other films that are “found in the editing room.” But I might be overstating things, as the verisimilitude in The Other Side of the Wind is not meant to disarm you to believe in some supernatural occurrence that then occurs on screen, which is what most found footage, whether horror or otherwise, does.
Anders: I think you’re onto something with thinking about how the film is meant to be actual footage from the weekend at Hannaford’s. That accounts for its loose and improvisational feel. But the style also fits with a film that is self-reflexive about its own process, in that it is challenging the limit of what we consider a fiction film. The result is a film that feels like it comes directly from the brain of its creator, it’s like crafting and curating memories in a sense: it’s a visual record of its own making. But rather than self-consciously do so, in letting the camera run, improvising, and then crafting the film out of the result, the film achieves a closeness to its creator’s stream of consciousness. Can we think of Welles as the James Joyce of cinema?
Aren: That’s a funny question when relating to The Other Side of the Wind, since its star, John Huston, directed an adaptation of Joyce’s “The Dead” as his final film.
As for an answer, I wouldn’t go so far as to call Welles the Joyce of cinema since I think there are other filmmakers who are more radical throughout their careers than Welles and who do more to constantly play with form than Welles. Don’t get me wrong: Welles is a pioneer in every respect, but he often experimented as much structurally as formally. Joyce was hardly ever classical in his language construction in his work following Dubliners, but it wasn’t until later in Welles’ career when he really began to push the limits of the cinematic form beyond some classical construction. So F for Fake and The Other Side of the Wind would be Joycean, but I’m not sure about his earlier works.
I actually think Welles has a little more in common with Shakespeare, if I’m being honest, in that he’s playing within established modes of genre and story construction but always bringing something radically new to the art within those frameworks. Whereas there are probably a few European filmmakers who might warrant the Joyce comparison a touch more. But I think I get what you’re alluding to by comparing him to Joyce.
Anders: I was quite interested in the film within the film, also entitled The Other Side of the Wind, as it is clearly a take on the European art film along the lines of Antonioni’s work in Red Desert or The Passenger, the kind of art films I’ve spent a lot of time looking at. Like those films, it’s fairly opaque and demands interpretation. On the one hand, it’s clearly meant to be a kind of a send-up, if not a parody, of those kinds of films. Welles is showing how absurd they can seem on the surface of things. On the other hand, it’s intriguing! I kinda want to watch the whole film! Welles has too much respect for the craft of filmmaking to just phone it in. His film-within-a-film art house send-up is actually a genuine example of the genre.
Aren: It’s also interesting since the film within a film channels a lot of the eroticism that’s absent in all of Welles’ other work. It’s a parody, but he’s also accomplishing something new and interesting in it that he’d never attempted before.
Anders: In the end, that’s what makes The Other Side of the Wind so fascinating. I began by musing whether the film would still be as respected if it didn’t have Welles’ name on it, but I think it’s clear that the film could not have been made by anyone else. It bears at least the imprint of his artistic voice even if we can debate how much is actually his. And for that reason, it is more than worth the time of anyone who is genuinely fascinated by cinema and its possibilities. What a wild ride!
* The year 2018 denotes the film’s availability on Netflix this year, rather than a “release date” in the manner it is usually considered.