OK, I’m going to start this off by warning you that if you’re a whiny type of person, then there might be spoilers here. But I don’t think it’s possible to spoil this film, because it’s really a character study more than anything else. And we know the ending from the first shot, because it’s given away. The point is not plot surprises, but rather where the characters go.
I personally think that this is the kind of thing you might want to read before you see the film, so you get some of the references, but your mileage may vary.
The Other Side of the Wind is an experimental film. That shouldn’t surprise you, because pretty much every Orson Welles film is an experimental film. That’s part of his appeal to me, which is that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get when you watch one of his pictures. I’m a sucker for something different, and that’s what this is.
It’s ostensibly a spoof of reality-style documentary pictures that were very popular in the late 60s and early 70s, and it goes out of its way to make it incredible (as in not credible) and over the top. There are scenes in this that no documentary filmmaker would ever have taken, but we go with it, because, well, it’s fun, and it’s a dramatic device.
A lot of people are saying that the protagonist here, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), is a semi-autobiographical Orson Welles. He isn’t. He’s a semi-biographical John Ford. Welles was a huge fan of Ford’s, and Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ford extensively about this time (and a little earlier). Ford became a huge pain in the butt because he stopped cooperating with people and just gave stupid answers to interview questions.
Further, there’s a recurring theme about whether Hannaford is gay or bisexual and deeply closeted. This was the case in real life with John Ford, according to many people who knew him. Maureen O’Hara spoke about it in her autobiography (not that she was exactly unbiased).
There’s another deep parallel that a lot of people will miss. FW Murnau is brought up early on and then dropped. But if we know Murnau, he was also a gay (or maybe bisexual) director who was killed in a car accident eerily like the one in The Other Side of the Wind.
The parallels go further… they keep saying that Jake Hannaford had made silent films, and so did Murnau. Murnau was always on a quest to make films with few or no intertitles, a purely visual experience. The film-within-a-film in The Other Side of the Wind isn’t really a John Ford film. It’s a MURNAU film. Symbolic, lyrical, slow-moving, and silent.
It’s also a fun contrast to see the documentary-style footage of Hannaford in cut-cut-cut in-your-face editing style while the film-within-a-film is slow, with few cuts and deliberately paced.
It’s a little bit of cinematic bravura that reminds me a bit of Mozart’s A Musical Joke. By listening to Mozart dissect what doesn’t work in a composition, we learn just how intimately he did know what worked. Welles is the same with directing. He knows how all the styles work, how the different approaches are handled, what silent films are, etc, and he can seamlessly play with them.
The Stranger is less a film noir than it is a German Expressionist film. Too Much Johnson is a silent picture shot just the way those were shot, often in open air with bright sunlight and poor reflection, even in the “indoor” sets. Welles gets this; he always gets the feel right.
If the cut-cut-cut style of The Other Side of the Wind is annoying, then it’s supposed to be. It’s pretty clear that Welles found it annoying, too, and that’s the point of it. Dialogue is given in little snatches and bits of background. If you aren’t paying close attention, it will just wash over you like so much tidewater. There’s a lot in it, and attention is rewarded.
Ultimately, the film is really about directors being crazy and in a crazy world, with incredible stresses and conflicting artistic demands. Hannaford wants to be artistic but can’t afford to finance his own work, which we all know is not really commercial (at one point, the projectionist running the film is told the film is out of order, and he asks, “Does it really matter?”)
What’s missed a lot here is just how intensely Welles is talking about directors. Most of the cast is filled with directors. Norman Foster (as Billy Boyle) was not just an actor, but a director for many years, only returning to acting for this part. He was a long-time friend of Welles’ and almost walks off with the picture. Peter Bogdanovich is another co-star, another director just coming into his own when the film was shot. Henry Jaglom, director. Dennis Hopper, actor-director. Curtis Harrington, director. Claude Chabrol, director. The cast is littered with directors, and not always playing themselves.
Much has been said about the ethics of finishing this movie without Welles, knowing fully that there was a lot of it that was shot that didn’t make it into the final cut. Look, I’m a stickler for doing things right. This feels like a Welles film. They did it right. Is it perfect? I’m sure not, but Welles left behind 45 minutes of the film that he’d cut and extensive notes. This isn’t the first time a film was resurrected from raw footage. I remember Sherlock Holmes (1922) and Oliver Twist (also 1922) were brought back this way. With collaboration from so many people who worked on this and knew Welles, I’m inclined to give this a pass.
There’s also some controversy about Oja Kodar. People say that she’s the equivalent of Susan Alexander, the talentless singer raised to stardom in Citizen Kane. I don’t think that, given her performance in this film, we can settle that question. It’s clear that given the way Welles shot her, very carefully, that he loved her. Her reactions are on the money, but is that Kodar or Welles? It’s hard to say. I noticed that facially she reminded me of Agnes Moorehead on more than one occasion, just in the way she reacted to things. That may be coincidence or direction! There’s a lot of Oja seen here, much of it unclothed, but she has no dialogue. Welles regarded her as a collaborator, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
One bit of autobiography and wish-fulfillment does creep in to The Other Side of the Wind. John Huston decks Susan Strasberg, who is playing a mock Pauline Kael. Kael had written some scathing things about Welles (you can look it up; I won’t go into it here), and I’m sure Welles relished the thought of getting back at her, at least cinematically.
Too bad it had to wait until they were both dead!