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Telluride Film Festival: Film Review - The Other Side of the Wind

Christopher Schiller takes an in-depth look into the finally completed Orson Welles film, The Other Side of the Wind.

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The key to knowing is observation. The key to seeing is reflection. The power of reflections is in their ability to hide while showing, to obscure, allow to become unknown what is seemingly right in front of someone’s face. Misdirection, as Orson Welles knew well, is the key to magic. And he was a consummate magician, especially when it came to making films.

This is my attempt at an in-depth look into the finally completed Orson Welles film, The Other Side of the Wind. I will likely fail. Given that this film is dense with meaning and misdirection, nuance and grand gesture, whispers and shouts, lies and truths, it will take a long time for anyone to peer deep enough into its soul to start to understand what this film truly is. As is true with any masterpiece. And in my opinion, when all is said and done, this film will be considered a great one.

Life imitates art best when art imitates it back.

Orson Welles was a master of seeing (as investigated in Mark Cousins’ new documentary, The Eyes of Orson Welles. He viewed his world with a discerning eye, penetrating to the roots of the things around him and reflecting them back into his portrayals on celluloid. Reflecting them back, sometimes through plain glass, sometimes a fun-house mirror. And then through cinematic magic, misdirecting the audience’s attention to lead them to discover realms they never would have imagined.

From a certain perspective, all Welles’ films were documentaries of a kind. They were reflections of real people, real world issues, reality itself. He did it to some degree with all of his films. He did it with Citizen Kane through a plain, glass globe sort of distortion of reality, reflecting his subject so well he was nearly sued for it. In all of his works he has captured images and reflections of his observations of the world and reprojected them into art.

He has done it once more in The Other Side of the Wind. This time, his gaze fell not only on the Hollywood that often didn’t understand him or his achievements (or worse, misunderstood,) but also his friends and close and distant associates. Sometimes in blatant mimicry and sometimes in chameleonic, hidden portrayals that revealed more than a mere reflection could or one would feel comfortable with to observe in oneself.

Some will say this film is autobiographical. They are wrong. And of course it is. But not in the sense or simple meaning of those saying it. By multiplying the reflections of each character portrayed and situation presented, the familiarity of the real is mixed, mingled and distorted to be both a true portrayal and something wholly different. And this approach sheds more light on all it contains than a mere straight telling of truths could ever contain. In The Other Side of the Wind, he attempted his grandest illusion yet. Even fooling himself into not believing or truly seeing what he was revealing, what was truest of himself. (Or did he?)

The story in brief of The Other Side of the Wind


The story that unfolds is simple to describe, though just what is encapsulated in that description is up to debate. The timeline of the film starts in Hollywood at the end of a long shooting day in a studio. As soon as “Wrap,” is called a chaotic gaggle of people rush out the doors into assorted cars and busses and head off to the film director’s birthday party at a benefactress’ house out in the desert. The chaotic mishmash of who's-who characters eventually settles out as the story unfolds. Suffice it to say that the cast, crew and assorted others – including documentary, news crews and reporters covering the event – are all in attendance. Luckily, as it turns out, this is the last night of the director’s life, he being killed in a car crash the next morning. The fragmented assembly of these film and sound snippets from the disparate sources there that night are pieced together, along with the beleaguered feature film the master was in the process of shooting – and trying to get finishing funds for – in an attempt to try to figure out what happened during that fateful night.

The night unfolds revealing some secrets but asking more unanswered questions. The shear amount of various angles covered and storytellers openly sharing more than is prudent while in focus would lead you to believe a simple tale could be strung together explaining everything. The free flow of alcohol, tobacco smoke and other substances release many tongues from their usually restrained states. Tempers flare, accusations made, challenges called, friendships snapped or at least bent to their braking points. Tension is palpable on many levels. Release of some nature is inevitable, and we the audience are drawn in down the ever-spinning vortex of inquiry. Encounters turn intimate as we learn what we need to know (or think we do) to choose sides. Tension, conflict, gunfire? And satisfyingly, there is no true resolution, just like real life.

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There are surface questions: Was it an accident or did the director take his own life? What happened to drive the newly discovered male star of the feature film to walk off the set? Is the film ever to get the financing in order to finish it? Is it worth finishing, or is it a last grasp of an old-school master attempting to return to relevancy by contrivance in the style of those in vogue? A failure? A masterpiece?

But as stated, those are surface questions. The real meaningful questions lie deep within and are much harder to assess but all the more rewarding in searching for the answers. And in searching for those questions within such a convoluted reality-turns-to-art-turns-to-reality spinning zoetrope this film presents, we need to turn our focus to both sides of the camera.

The director and his VISTOW

Orson Welles and his VISTOW on the set of The Other Side of the Wind

Orson Welles and his VISTOW on the set of The Other Side of the Wind

Orson Welles’ acolytes – his self-branded VISTOW (for Volunteers In Service To Orson Welles) were transfixed and like the truly devoted, understood what they could of his genius and served it to or even a bit beyond their capabilities. Some, like Gary Graver, the talented cinematographer, giving everything they had in service. Graver not only answered every call out from his master but did so to the detriment of his home life and financial well being. Beyond the evident testament of his skill as a cinematographer to tackle the disparate styles of photography required for this film, Graver devoted the rest of his life to try to realize the completion of it. He gave everything to Welles, and he wasn’t the only VISTOW to give as much as he could. The crew was small, merely a half dozen at its core throughout the years of filming, but they all were dedicated to completing Welles’ vision even if they could not always see it clearly themselves.

Welles took it all, often a bit more as well, to the point of breaking. Then apologies, and a true remorse would usually reel them back in until pushed again too far or until excellence won out. Frank Marshall (yes, thatFrank Marshall) who served as Co-Unit Production Manager on the set, is fond of saying that Welles fired him on a regular basis, but Marshall would go back to the hotel and await the inevitable phone call bringing him back to the set. It can be intimated that he never got out of the habit since it was Marshall’s coming back to the film and joining forces with young producer Filip Jan Rymsza’s efforts along with a host of others along the way (Netflix being the last, big piece of that puzzle) that finally got the film finished.

The view through the lens, or better, lenses

Camera lenses are made of multiple layers of glass elements, each meant to alter or correct the image flowing through it. But each piece of glass colors and distorts to a degree, sometimes in unexpected ways. A true artist can take these defects and intentional distortions and do wonderful, or horrible, things. Certain chosen lenses placed in particular arrangements can hide things or emphasize areas of key interest. A master cinematographer chooses the lens that best achieves the intended mood, style and “look” they are after.

The Other Side of the Wind is told with multiple lenses, both actually and metaphorically. These distort, refocus and color the story told. Used wisely in the hands of the masterful director these tools lay a kaleidoscope of potential in how the audience perceives the story. Welles was always one to know the importance of the visual elements in the framework of a movie. And he used it to full effect.

Orson Welles described the film to Frank Marshall at one point as a picture within a frame. The cinematic, Antonioni-like narrative work in the center with the documentations of the party as the frame around it. But even that clear depiction is simplistic when viewing the final work.

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Glass reflects, refracts and distorts, adds to and colors the scene before us. When we layer glass, as through a lens, each element modifies the image altered or enhanced by the other elements around it. In both the documentary sections and the feature film, reflections and the patterns played with glass are paramount in the telling. The feature film actually is nearly a silent movie so the impact of the highly artistic visual approach compounds and magnifies the story (if there is one) being told there. The chaotic mix of documentary images and fragmentary continuity in the rest of the film blend the various 8, 16, and 35 millimeter motion film and still images a cohesive and disjointed story to tell as the piece unfolds. Welles was working on many levels in this picture in many, many ways.

It might be useful to extend this fractured visual analogy to the rest of the story telling where we might glimpse insight into Orson Welles’ approach to the characters, scenes and themes of the film.

Themes and truths in The Other Side of the Wind

The finalizers of the film have categorized its main themes as friendship, betrayal and Hollywood. One cannot argue that those run throughout the complex, creative atmosphere the film unreels. But like the dense cloud of cigar smoke puffed incessantly by John Huston’s character, there are a lot of shapes, shadows and ephemeral, ever changing forms to be witnessed in this piece, some real, some illusion. He did love smoke and mirrors, after all. The film contains Orson Welles’ unflinching reflections of his own place in the world, both his place as a filmmaker and his relationships in life.

Just consider Peter Bogdanovich, a true friend of Welles in life and beyond, with all the conflict and love that entails. Bogdanovich speaks of Welles’ direction, “He made you feel free as an actor, even though he was in complete control.” When it came to a pivotal scene in the film where Bogdanovich’s character, Brooks Otterlake a young buck, successful director confronts his mentor one last time, John Huston’s Jake Hannaford, the crossing of reality and fiction blur. Huston wasn’t on set for Bogdanovich’s line delivery. Welles sat in the old director’s place off camera and gave Bogdanovich this single direction, “It’s us.” A powerful insight into the realness of the story being reflected on screen. Until you remember that Bogdanovich wasn’t even supposed to be playing the part of Otterlake. It was originally cast with Rich Little in the role. (And in true Wellesian fashion, the sharp eyed viewers will see some of Little’s performance still made the final cut.)

I told you it was a deeply complex film.

 Orson Welles in 1937, by Carl Van Vechten.

Orson Welles in 1937, by Carl Van Vechten.

Is Jake Hannaford a biographical portrayal of either Orson Welles or John Huston or both? Elements of that inquiry could be true, at least to a degree. There are far too many common threads to completely ignore. But the portrayal is made more complex with layerings of other elements. Hannaford can be also seen as an archetype of the old ways of filmmaking still clinging to and looking for relevance long past the time when the old approaches were in full focus. The field of vision is now populated with flashes of radical displays, confusing in their rush to draw attention with more modern tricks and techniques even if this reality is only smoke and mirrors. Hannaford wallows in the deceptions around him, never clearly stating even the obvious and allowing allusions to linger in the air like his cigar smoke, unresolved. The visual and emotional atmospheres are convoluted, with more meaning hiding somewhere in the mix.

Just as the various documentary lenses fracture the imagery presented, the emotional lenses are multiplied too. Friendships are complex things. Can you admire someone and despise them for the success they have had that you feel you deserved instead? Or does a friendship survive the distancing between master and apprentice when the one surpasses the other? Or are friendships more an illusion of moments of respite interrupting the usual estrangement between lonely souls passing in the night? Are the distancing and fracture as inevitable as the breaking of a whiskey glass already in mid-fall to the floor?

All of these elements compound the view of this film into a dense, complex portrayal to be parsed and dissected by some, swallowed whole by others.

Was Orson Welles aware of all the levels he was creating and mixing together, or was even he bedazzled and blinded to some of what he’d achieved? From viewing the result it wouldn’t be too far a conjecture to posit he might not have understood all that was being portrayed through the final image. Alternatively, it could be more readily surmised that he was in complete control and it is we, the audience, that haven’t caught up with him yet.

Can this be called an Orson Welles Film?

A fractured mirror sits in pieces. Even if you have an idea how the pieces might fit back together there is little chance it will be restorable to the glass maker’s intention. So it is easy for critics to claim that since Orson Welles left the film in scattered pieces the whole cannot truly be attributed to him.

But the film was not fractured from a complete whole. It was still being formed in the crucible. Orson Welles had ideas and plans on how he would like to form this malleable source which he shared with others. There was no secret alchemical formula he kept to himself. He had actually shown the way to the final look that was forming in his mind. Nearly half of the movie’s scenes were already in fine cut form from the work prints forged by his own hands by the time he died. Though they were not sequential scenes, they were intact segments that were enough for the editors and producers to glimpse the direction Orson Welles’ light was intending to shine through the shards as the pieces were completed. These pointers and way signs, in the considered and reverent hands of his acolytes were enough to make a film that Orson Welles might have recognized and accepted as reflecting his intentions.

Will it have turned out exactly as he intended? Of course not. But then, Orson Welles would not have delivered a film that followed his intended notes and directions exactly either. Editing doesn’t work like that. You don’t know where the focus will fall until you put the elements together, and then you follow where that leads. Orson understood that. And his followers followed true down the path he likely would have taken. In the edit suite, you follow the wind where it takes you.

What does the title mean?

You would think with such a strange title that there would be an explanation, somewhere, of what it alludes to if not a full description. I don’t recall it being said as a line in either movie other than it being referred to as the title of the film within the film. I have personally asked those that should know or should know who knows and they have admitted that they have no idea. Presumptively, I have posited that it might be a treatise on the usual bluster and puffery of the Hollywood types who are always blowing smoke and puffing up inconsequential wares to try to make them bigger. The film might be an attempt to show the other side of that wind. I was told, “That’s as good as any other.”

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Is it an enigma? A meaningless last trick being pulled by the magician behind it all?

While watching the wonderful companion documentaries made to accompany the release of the film (Morgan Neville’s, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Ryan Suffern’s short, A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making) I think I might have stumbled upon a hint. Oja Kodar, star and co-writer of the film (and reportedly Welles’ lover at the time), is briefly shown describing the man himself. Her allusion is that he enters a room like a hurricane wind, impossible to resist or ignore, you are tumbled in his wake. But once you are around him (one might say, once you get to the “other side of the wind”) you see the man, the wonderful human being who cares for those close to him and the genius who dazzles as he works. I may be mistaken. With my luck, I’m probably way off base and the meaning of the title, along with so much of the depth within this film, is still left to be discovered.

Join me in the search?

Full disclosure, I have always been a keen Orson Welles fan. So much so that I was one of the crowdfunders in the campaign to finally bring this film to completion. I may be biased, but I tried above to be objective about my bias. You who are looking at me through that lens will have to judge what I’ve revealed as to its truth. After all, it depends.

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