Welles: The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
Like Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ final film – started in the early 1970s but only “completed” and released on Netflix this year – is a study of a larger-than-life individual, in this case legendary auteur Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston. Like Citizen Kane, too, this character study is framed as a documentary compiled of lots of different sources and media, “an attempt to sketch a film likeness of the man as he looked through all those viewfinders.” Yet The Other Side of the Wind also clarifies, in some ways, that Citizen Kane was the most conservative, if also the most foundational, film of Welles’ career, paving the way for an exponential experimentation that culminates with this release, which summarises and exceeds the tendencies of all the films in his body of work that had gone before. Those meditations and mediations take place in and around Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, which is populated by a plethora of Hollywood characters, from Mercedes McCambridge to Peter Bogdanovich, from Paul Mazursky to Claude Chabrol, none of whom are quite playing themselves but none of whom ever quite occupy other characters either.
At the same time, this party marks the first public screening of “The Other Side of the Wind” (which I will refer to using inverted commas from now on to differentiate it from Welles’ film itself), the last work by Hannaford, and a vision of such unbending and difficult artistry that it feels as if the entirety of Hollywood, both past and present, has turned up to watch it debut. In essence, “The Other Side of the Wind” is Welles’ take on New Hollywood and the European New Waves, although it exists primarily as a series of tableaux and stand-alone sequences, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is incomplete. Secondly, it hasn’t been properly stored and organized, meaning that reels get out of order and Hannaford himself is unsure about the right sequence of events. Finally, the film is quite abstract and oblique on its own terms, revolving around a series of scenes between The Actress, played by Oji Kodar, and Oscar Dale, an androgynous actor played by Bob Random, who we discover walked out halfway through the project after an undisclosed conflict with Hannaford, meaning that the remainder of the film needed to be shot around his absence in ever more contorted ways.
As might be expected, then, both “The Other Side of the Wind” and The Other Side of The Wind feel fragmented and incomplete. At the same time, though, all of Welles’ films feel fragmented and incomplete, with the possible exception of Citizen Kane – or, rather, all of his films feel designed to feel fragmented and incomplete, which has never been truer than in the case of The Other Side of the Wind, which reminded me of INLAND EMPIRE more than any previous film about Hollywood, and made me wish that Deleuze were alive to watch and describe the strange transmutations and transitions in tone, affect and style that Welles enacts. Every shot here either features cameras, people talking about cameras, people acting for cameras, or people reacting to cameras, producing a restless, hectic, anarchic energy – a line of flight that is determined to generate enough momentum to elude Hollywood while also making a film embedded in the very heart of it. The first half hour takes place entirely in moving cars as Welles’ motley crew of characters make their way to Hannaford’s party, and the film never loses that sense of rhythm, cutting abruptly between different types of footage and sound, all the while making no effort to produce a cohesive ambience or atmosphere, a remarkably challenging prospect to posthumously reconstruct.
All that serves to intensify the inherent frustration with cinema that suffuses Welles’ entire body of work, which continuously searches, strains and obsesses over the possibility of a more hyperactive and hyper-mediated world than the big screen provided during his career. As a result, and despite the way in which the film has been received, Welles’ take on New Hollywood isn’t really parody, but an effort to feel it out from the inside and calibrate it against the hypermediated ambitions of his own body of work. Time and again, he manages to capture all the disparate tendencies of New Hollywood in one mobile whole, discovering in the present moment a cipher for the discontinuity of his own film language and vocabulary. As the film proceeds, Welles seems to discover that he was always a New Hollywood director ahead of his time – a realisation so dramatic and disorienting that it can’t be parsed by a conventional film, but instead requires this sprawling film-event that is actually crystallised by having been left incomplete and then pieced together provisionally half a century later, when time has finally caught up to its extraordinary vision. Hence the central paradox of the film, and the film-within-the film – that this apotheosis of New Hollywood is actually promulgated by an ageing director, a figure from another era of film history who should be at the end of his career, but has somehow found in the present moment a way to finally explore the most extravagant and irreverent facet of his auteurism.
It is no coincidence, than, that The Other Side of the Wind is set at the cusp just after the auteur had been formalized by film theory, but just before the auteur had started to be systematically deconstructed by film theory. Within that distended space, the language of film theory itself plays a weird and combustible presence in the film that encapsulates both the apotheosis and decline of auteurist magisterality across the 70s. Nowhere is that clearer that in the first sequence we see from “The Other Side of the Wind,” which takes place at the exact juncture between the artistic and softcore aspirations of New Hollywood, demanding that we theorise the images taking place on the screen but defying us to take them too seriously as well. Caught between theory and non-theory, “The Other Side of the Wind” and The Other Side of the Wind both exist as primarily hypothetical gestures – or, rather, both films feel more hypothetical with each fresh step to materialize and complete them. As a result, a great deal of Welles’ vision revolves around characters trying to parse or put together “The Other Side of the Wind” – both physically, as in the editors who are charged with the task of reining in Hannaford’s vision, and mentally, as in the audience at his birthday party, who have to find some way to come to terms with its disorienting style.
For the most part, that’s an impossible task, and in lieu of recognisable expectations, motivations or conventions, most people end up regarding the film as a manifestation of Hannaford himself – the kind of monolithic and self-regarding auteurist gesture that could only be made once auteurism had been consciously articulated and internalised by the Hollywood machine itself. If it is impossible to understand the film as distinct from Hannaford, however, then it is impossible for the audience to understand it as distinct from their own industrial relation to Hollywood, situating the “film” as we understand both iterations of “Wind” and Wind at the cusp between diegetic and non-diegetic space, just as the actors are poised midway between appearing as themselves and appearing as the characters they are playing. At no point is Hannaford’s film comfortably sequestered from the world, and at no point is the world comfortably sequestered from Hannaford’s film – instead, “The Other Side of the Wind” takes place at the junctures where the “real” world spills in to interrupt the film, or the film spills out to contour and pervade the “real” world.
In other words, The Other Side of the Wind is constituted by its interruptions, and the hyperactive editing – roughly one cut per second – that sees each shot abruptly interrupted by the next before it has a chance to properly articulate itself. In Welles’ own very distinct take on screwball, the shots move so quickly that they can never congeal into a scene, as every utterance feels awry, or like an aside, or like it is happening at cross-purposes. No surprise, then, that there’s more nudity here than in all of Welles’ other films combined, since both Wind and “Wind” are in a constant state of cinematic undress – never fully naked, but never fully clothed either. That collapses different eras and conceptions of cinema in quite a naked way, with some of the uncanniest moments occurring when iconic Wellesian sequences – sequences that would seem to be inextricably cemented in Hollywood canoncity – recur and are consummated by the lexicon of New Hollywood. In one remarkable sequence, The Actress chases Dale through a downbeat LA landscape, only for the latticed Californian light to crystallise around a recapitulation of the mirror sequence from The Lady from Shanghai that is even airier and more disembodied than the original.
Those competing cinematic worlds correspond with the tendency towards greater contrasts between light and dark as the film proceeds (although any one tendency is offset by the visual heterogeneity of the film as a whole, which also intensifies as Welles proceeds). At certain moments, Hannaford’s party seems to be taking place in the darkness of a picture theatre, alternating between spaces of utter opacity and almost unbearably bright projections of light, as a series of classical Hollywood actors, affects and aphorisms are left to drift in a diffuse space where there is no longer any film left to integrate and connect them – Old Hollywood subsisting at a New Hollywood party, but even then finding itself more abject and irrelevant by the minute. As the darkness gets darker, and the lightness gets lighter, these figments of a Hollywood past are forced to suffer the exposure of the spotlight once again, but without the adulation or relevance that they enjoyed the first time around, as Welles seems to train the spotlight on himself as well, as if questioning whether the irrelevance of his classicist periodization is now the best way to make his final vision felt.
Given this complex dialogue between Welles’ auteurism and Hannaford’s auteurism (and even Huston’s auteurism), it feels apt that all the ellipses, fissures and missing shots all crystallise around the auteurist phallus, and the auteurist’s autoerotic obsession with seeing his phallus manifested on the big screen. At a literal and pragmatic level, the sequences in “The Other Side of the Wind” perpetualy promise to give the audience a glimpse of Dale’s phallus, but deflect that promise so consistently that the film quickly comes to feel as if it is actually shot from the perspective of this phallus – or from the joined perspective of Hannaford and Dale’s phalli – in a kind of exhaustion, culmination and consummation of auteurist agency. Beyond a certain point, Hannaford starts to feel more like a director of erotica as well, intoning lascivious directions whenever Dale is before the camera, and frequently shooting Dale candidly in and around the set. If you imagined Rock Hudson’s home movies integrated into one of his feature productions the effect would probably be similar to what ensues here, as Hannaford’s phallauteurist gaze becomes so prominent that any challenge to his gaze, even or especially from Dale, also feels like a gesture of castration.
Even more radically, perhaps, hallus and castration become figuratively inextricable in the later parts of both Wind and “Wind” – a process that corresponds to the escalating editing, which grows so rapid that it becomes hyperreal, shifting between people so quickly that reflexes rather than reactions become the point of focus, and subliminal shifts in mood rise to the surface. These reflexes tend to be the most fractious, and the editing most ungovernable, when Hannaford is forced to mediate his auteurism through homoeroticism, as evinced in the most astonishing scene of the film – a conversation between Hannaford and an old acquaintance in which Welles cuts roughly every quarter-second to capture the reflexive cues that bounce off four different associations of the name Oscar; the Academy Award, the name of a mutual homosexual friend, the name of Hannaford’s lead actor, and “Oscar Wilde” as a cipher that this acquaintance uses for the possibility of homosexual desire, before Hannaford abruptly tells him to remove his clothes to demonstrate just how far removed he supposedly is from the types of desire that all four Oscars seem to envisage.
While The Other Side of the Wind may not be interpersonal in a conventional sense, then, it does gradually condense around the relation between auteur and actor, between Hannaford and Oscar. For one thing, it emerges that Hannaford and Oscar are equally disinterested in The Actress, while a reporter later speculates that Hannaford only tends to seduce female leads in the first place as a way of controlling his male leads. Appropriately, it is around Kodar that Welles’ absence from the film feels most conspicuous as well, partly because she was his romantic partner, and partly because she plays such a major role in F For Fake, the film in his body of work that most resembles this one. That absence of Welles creates an affective and romantic void around Kodar, and around women in general, who are perpetually sequestered from Hannaford and Oscar, and from the homoerotic auteur-actor relation between them, even as Welles’ own absence makes him complicit in this relation in the same way that it serves to enhance it on Hannaford’s part. By the time that Hannaford provides The Actress with a sarcastic award for being “the other half of “The Other Side of the Wind,” and then instructs her to take it and “shove it up Oscar’s arse” Welles seems to have found a way to envisage his own auteurism as an absence for the first time in his career, but an absence that takes every one of his ambitions to a visionary place.
Taken in its totality, then, The Other Side of the Wind cuts deeply against the streamlined depictions of the 70s typical of recent period drama. If anything, the 70s here feel more multimodal and intermedial than the present, suffused with so many grimy, baroque and irreducibly material interfaces that they could never be channeled into one artistic vision auteurist voice. At moments, it’s all a bit like watching the decade trying to constitute itself, or conceptualise itself, out of the vagaries of the present moment, only to displace the present moment in turn, in ways that often reminded me of the affective atonality of Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. Alternatively, it’s like watching classical Hollywood give way to New Hollywood in two hours – a messy and inchoate medial scenario that never feels like a clean transition, but rather a space within which Welles can finally escape the constictions of cinema itself. Just before we are treated to a final screening of “The Other Side of the Wind” at a drive-in theatre – the ultimate diegetically indeterminate space – Welles starts to shift between black and white and gorgeous colour, collapsing any stylistic difference between Wind and “Wind” into a broader diegetic and medial indeterminacy that crystallises, spookily enough, around a sighting of “Governor Reagan” at Hannaford’s party.
All the hyperactive, reflexive and homoerotic energies of the film are now condensed to a screwy discussion of how to pronounce Reagan’s name, which is turned into a material object used to calibrate a world in which auteurist masculine assurance has produced a momentary significant freefall, but a freefall that needs to be maintained and intensified at all costs in order to avoid a looming regulation and regimentation that stands somewhere in the shadows behind Reagan’s name and person. Accordingly, the film moves into total anarchic maximalism in these final moments, as Reagan’s name collapses into a series of free-floating Unionist and industrial aphorisms, and the full scale of Welles’ ambition comes to the fore. In these last minutes, you can really feel the hundreds of hours of footage that went into The Other Side of the Wind, which never feels like a selection of the best two hours, but never feels like a random two hours either. And it’s the strange space between those two options that signals the remarkable ambition of this final film-event – a reminder that Welles only grew more adventurous as he got older, and that his most searching and probing work was, and perhaps only could be, incomplete, incommensurate and frustrated.
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