Not My Style: Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind”
There are scholars who have devoted their lives to discovering autobiography in Welles’ films, and he never made it easier for them than what he did with The Other Side of the Wind (2018). In the film, Jake Hannaford (John Huston) is a director unable to secure funding for his film, just as Welles was unable to fund this one. Hannaford’s closest friend and associate, Brooks (Peter Bogdanovich), is a man who does impressions, knows Hannaford’s life and work inside and out, and has recently found success directing his own films, granting him the capital to help out Hannaford — all equally applicable to Bogdanovich’s relationship to Welles. As Morgan Neville’s companion documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), shows, when the film was not imitating reality, reality imitated the film: Hannaford’s betrayal of Brooks at the end of the film found its real-life corollary when Welles trashed Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979) on The Tonight Show and refused to apologize; Welles, upon receiving an award from AFI, all but begged for funds to finish his film, just as Hannaford does. One could go on and on noting the parallels — and Neville does — and one might learn a great deal about Orson Welles the man by doing so, but noting the divergences teaches us instead about the man’s art.
About 20 minutes into Neville’s documentary, Welles is shown remarking that the film directed by Hannaford within The Other Side of the Wind is a type of film that Welles himself would never make, “a parody of European atmospheric cinema.” The parody stretched even further, with Welles renting a house adjacent to the one at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) for filming. Beyond mere parody, however, these sequences, and Welles’ relationship to them, tell us more about his art and The Other Side of the Wind than anything else in it. It is one of film history’s great ironies that the man most responsible for creating modern sound cinema so often reviled it. The deep-focus cinematography, low-angle shots, newsreel pastiche, overlapping dialogue, use of sound perspective, and montage techniques (sound transitions and leaving one element of the frame unchanged through a series of dissolves) in Citizen Kane (1941) marked a level of sophistication in the cinematic art form (previously reached elsewhere in the silent and international cinemas of, to name a few, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Jean Renoir, but not in the American talkies). Kane is a film without which the likes of The Searchers (1956) and Vertigo (1958), let alone L’Eclisse (1962), would never have been possible. Yet Welles reviled each of those films, even as Hannaford, his supposed stand-in, wants to make something that would fit alongside them.
For all his idiosyncratic, startling, and defiantly modern cinematography and editing, Welles’ art remains firmly psychological. While his earliest work derives much of its innovation and power from its New Deal context, be it the casting of his legendary 1936 Macbeth theatrical production or Citizen Kane’s incisive critique of capitalism, he ultimately found fame as an interpreter of Shakespeare and cemented his legacy with what is at its core the story of a journalist trying to discover the mysteries of a tycoon’s life. He would continually return to Shakespeare on screen and stage, and he was drawn to film noir, a treasure trove of expressionistic and innovative aesthetics, but always in the service of character psychology. The modern cinema Welles decried, by contrast, eschews psychology, finding its quintessence in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), a film about a woman who vanishes off an island, only for the viewer to watch her friends all but abandon their search. Where Welles’ successors supplanted the psychological with the sociological, or subjugated narrative to the possibilities of a visual cinema, Welles himself conversely invoked the sociological through the personal and expanded cinema’s vocabulary in the service of drama. Jake Hannaford, despite surface similarities, is no Orson Welles.
It is an ironic blessing that, as was stated on a panel discussion following The Other Side of the Wind’s New York premiere, it is precisely Hannaford’s film that Welles spent the most time editing; little else of Welles’ film can be affirmatively said to closely match what he wanted. Most of Welles’ reconstructed film is just that — reconstructed, exhaustively and exhaustingly edited and put together to match the vision detailed in extensive notes as closely as possible. Even when he was in full control, though, Orson Welles was not necessarily Orson Welles. As Alex Ross notes in his article on the film, Oja Kodar (Welles’ partner, the film’s credited co-writer, and the film-within-the-film’s star) directed three scenes for Hannaford’s film. Comments from Ross’ article, as well as the aforementioned panel, suggest that the bathroom orgy and the sex scene in a car just after it — perhaps the two best scenes in Welles’ film — were among them. But while Kodar may have directed, the bathroom sequence reportedly had ten hours of film; a tenth of all filmed material comprises no more than two percent of the finished film. Authorship again becomes a slippery concept, particularly when we realize, as Welles preemptively reminds us, that this is the work of a character within The Other Side of the Wind.
Welles’ art, despite the picture Neville paints, was a collaborative one. Welles was a genius, but without John Houseman, Edwin Denby, Gregg Toland, Herman Mankiewicz, and so many others (to say nothing of H.G. Wells, Franz Kafka, and William Shakespeare), his greatest talents may have laid dormant. This is the key distinction between Hannaford and Welles. Hannaford “makes it up as he goes along” and fashions himself a genius, but Welles tips his hand with allusion to a few personal details: he paints Hannaford as an image of fragile masculinity, with one scene closely echoing Welles’ own encounter of being berated by Ernest Hemingway, who took such fragility as his great subject. Hannaford’s art is a selfish one, an exercise in power, masculinity, and sexuality rather than collaboration and artistry, as Welles’ is.
Indeed, The Other Side of the Wind is presented as a film made up of countless shots by dozens of camerapersons who attended Hannaford’s party around which the film is structured. “What sets this apart from almost everything I’ve done,” editor Mo Henry told Alex Ross, “is that it uses all these different kinds of stock: thirty-five, sixteen, Super 8, sometimes color, sometimes black and white. The idea is that everything we’re seeing is footage from Hannaford’s movie or from media people following him around.” It is, in Welles’ words, “in a style that would not have been my style as a movie director.” It might seem paradoxical that Welles spent more than a decade on a film made in a style other than his own, especially since that film includes within it Hannaford’s film, made in a style Welles actively disliked, but collaboration is embedded into the very narrative and structure of Welles’ film. The grandest instance of art mimicking reality and vice versa is that it took a team of collaborators to finish The Other Side of the Wind. For as long as the prospect of watching the film has been imaginable, the question of how close it could get to what Welles would have done has been unavoidable. It turns out the only answer we will ever need is baked into the film itself.