The Other Side of the Wind
The symphony unfiniched
November 2nd on Netflix. The ultimate film of the director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil has been completed thanks to the streaming giant. But does he keep his promises?
By Philippe Guedj
In Mes Meilleurs Copains (yes, yes, the comedy of Jean-Marie Poiré), a scene in the seventies shows Jean-Pierre Bacri, aka Guido, show to his old school bro his latest creation of filmmaker flower power avant-gardist. Christian Clavier, Gerard Lanvin and the others discover dismayed, a gibberish of arty images shot in super 8, stuffed with fake fittings and pulling quickly to the sex. The sequence lasts a few seconds and it’s very funny. For the distinguished moviegoers who are sure to strangle, but on several occasions during the screening of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, we had the impression to see the Guido’s movie.
”Formal innovations, including these famous changes in formats and framing as well as frenetic editing.
But on two endless hours. And without shit. We often think of Dennis Hopper’s Last Movie, almost invisible since 1971, before being recently unearthed and then restored to 4K, which was not a wonderful idea. The Other side of the wind, the last unfinished feature film by Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, was shot in chaotic conditions between 1970 and 1976. Mega-draft certainly bubbling, daring, visionary, but also, alas, almost unwatchable. Despite the best wishes of its producers : Filip Jan Rymsza, Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall (yes, the one of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future). The end result turns quickly to talkative hue and cry, over-referential and a mortal boredom. Especially, the film suffers from a defect as obvious as it is crucial : the death of its author on October 10, 1985, whose intentions had to be guessed, on the basis of an incomplete script, through the hundred hours of rushes found and an avalanche of notes. Welles had then only managed to rise between 40 and 50 minutes of what he then considered as the work of his comeback. Throughout the 70s and 80s, inextricable financial, political and legal worries slowed down film production and post-production indefinitely. Followed by a long legal dispute between the filmmaker’s daughter and the Croatian actress Oja Kodar, Welles’s last companion and sulphurous actress in The Other Side of the Wind. In 2015, the can of worms between beneficiaries was finally solved, Netflix bought the negative and had repatriated the more than 1000 rolls of rushes to Los Angeles in March 2017, entrusting him to the editor Bob Murawski (Spider-Man of Sam Raimi, The Hurt Locker…). The fascinating behind-the-scenes story of this resurrection has already resulted in an avalanche of articles, several books and two documentaries… and remains infinitely more captivating than the film itself.
Conceived by Welles in the 1960’s following the suicide of his friend Ernest Hemingway, the plot follows the last hours of the life of Jack Hannaford (played by John Huston the director of The Maltese Falcon or African Queen). Alcoholic and disillusioned filmmaker, nostalgic of his glory at the time of the Hollywood Golden Age. Hannaford has decided to show it to greenhorns that have made it outdated, turning a lurid polemical tract, erotic, violent and openly mocking the New Wave : “The Other Side of the wind”. Featuring a young ephebe and a sculptural brunette mutique (embodied by Oja Kodar, so), this pastiche movie Zabriskie Point of Antonioni, following their sexual parade in various California desert places. Unable to finish the movie for lack of money, Hannaford organizes a show to convince a mogul to finance the rest, while his entourage organizes a big party for his 70th birthday. During this party, Hannaford drinks more than is reasonnable, other extracts of her film are projected, before a power cut does not force all the band to watch the continuation in a drive-in. During this extremely confused story, where several formats blithely mix (8 mm, 16 mm, 35 mm, black and white, color …), the viewer must manage to reconstitute a semblance of narrative logic. Mission almost impossible, in front of an anarchic montage, regularly cut by the extracts of the “movie in the movie”. Not to mention that the entire plot, as in Citizen Kane, is told in the form of a true-false documentary beginning with the death of its main protagonist (Hannaford crashes early in the morning with his Porsche Targa).
Metaphor mixed with the destinies of Hemingway, John Huston and of course of Welles himself, The Other Side of the Wind is not lacking interest in itself. It offers to the old lion Huston (incredible, let’s face it), a key role of legend rinsed in full self-destruction, undrinkable drinker drowned in misanthropy, violence and despair. The scene of his crisis of tears, facing his protégé embodied by the young Peter Bogdanovich offers the film a rare moment of real emotion. But the majority of dialogues without tail or head, are built on the namedropping and references reserved for hypermnesic moviegoers and other historians of the 7th art. Example with this odious critic – played by Susan Strasberg (daughter of the legendary director of Actor’s Studio) – probably modeled on the real good Pauline Kael, famous penwoman of the New Yorker and fierce detractor Welles. Several industry-leading figures mingle with the guests of the anniversary party, sometimes the time of a blink of the eye : Dennis Hopper, Cameron Crowe, Paul Mazursky and even our national Claude Chabrol.
Caustic farce on the vanity of a world, abhorred by Welles but whose life was no longer the figurehead, The Other Side of the Wind will certainly be an exciting object to distract in film faculties. It is bursting with formal innovations, including these famous changes in formats and framings as well as frenetic editing. Gossips claim that Oliver Stone largely relied on Natural Born Killers (1994). In the midst of this mess, some breathtaking plans of beauty brutally pull us out of lethargy – mainly those that Welles shot in 35mm for her “movie in the movie”. We will not forget soon the torrid sex scene where the beautiful Oja rides her recalcitrant partner in the front of a car, the sound of windshield wipers and driving rain. Unfortunately, it is too little to overcome the implacable torpor aroused by puppet characters and vain asides (yes, the two stuffed dwarfs, it’s about you that we speak).