I just watched “The Other Side of the Wind,” a posthumous film by Orson Welles.
Shot between 1971 and 1975, the production was a typically sisyphean ordeal of a subset so specific to Mr. Welles that I’ve taken to calling it “Orsonian.” The film’s troubles, and those have been detailed ad nauseam elsewhere, so I’m not going to bore you with them. Suffice to say that he was placed under an actual honest-to-God voodoo curse in 1942, and since his movie finally came out in 2018, I think we can conclude that it’s still in effect.
So how do you review a “new” Orson Welles movie? It’s always a little difficult since Welles himself disliked symbolism and metaphor in movies. The story is the thing and the deeper meanings, if any, are subject to your own interpretation or, more likely, are only in your own head to begin with.
The Plot (I warn you there be spoilers, but in a movie of this sort I’m not sure they’re really of any significance. It’s not really a plot-driven film):
John Houston plays a washed up movie director who was once the golden boy of Hollywood, but has fallen from glory since the golden age. He is pretty obviously based on Orson Welles himself. Peter Bogdanovich plays a very successful young director and self-described “Apostle” of John Houston’s character. He is pretty obviously based on Peter Bogdanovich, who was the golden boy of the early ’70s, and the last of the pre-Spielbergian wunderkind. And also one of Orson Welles’ real-life best friends. In fact, Orson was broke and living in Peter’s house for much of the production, and some of the scenes were shot there as well.
I’m just going to call them by their actor names.
It’s Houston’s 70th birthday, and he’s decided to celebrate by screening a film he’s been working on at his home as part of the party. He’s invited film crews, cineastes, critics, directors, producers, Dennis Hopper, Rich Little, and others. In fact, the party scenes are a who’s who of behind-the-camera power of the “New Hollywood” era (About 1965-75), some of them playing themselves, some playing fictional characters. Orson himself even turns up briefly as a disembodied voice asking John Houston a question.
The film, then, is an ersatz documentary about a fictional director’s birthday party. This is actually visually rather fascinating, owing to its quick cutting, and random juxtaposition between film type. B&W, color, 8mm, 16mm, different grains, etc. We’re to believe the whole thing was cut together from the footage of a dozen or more cameras wandering about the house at the time.
Yeah, that’s right, kids: Orson Welles invented the Found Footage style. Who knew?
This is contrasted with what we see of Houston’s movie, “The Other Side of the Wind,” which is in beautiful color, very nicely composed shots, neato-keeno cinematography, and no plot whatsoever.
(In essence an androgynous man follows Orson’s naked real-life girlfriend around. Neither of them ever say a word. They have sex. It means….nothing. I think maybe it’s supposed to mean nothing. Of course this film-within-a-film is incomplete, and we’re not getting the whole story, but it seems to be a parody of a particular style of European art film at the time, and my sense is that Orson found it pretty but vapid)
As it turns out, the production is broke. The male lead – Johnny Dale (Played by Bob Random) apparently freaked out during a sex scene, ran off the set, and hasn’t been seen since. They’re out of money, out of time, and out of a leading man. The party is a desperate attempt to hit Bogdanovich up for money to complete it, but that doesn’t really pan out.
The screening is a bomb, Houston loses everything, and floors his Porsche into a drive-in theater screen, killing himself.
So what does it all mean? Well, as with all Welles films, it means what it says, but the thing is I’m just a little less clear on what this says than in his other films. I’m assuming it’s a slice of life of Orson’s own eternal filmmaking torment, and the standard Hollywood bullcrap, but while the failure of the movie does provide a framework for the film, I’m not entirely sure it’s what it’s about.
The most interesting aspect for me was the Johnny Dale character. The androgynous lead of the film-within-a-film, we’re told repeatedly that he was attempting to kill himself by drowning when Houston saw him from his yacht. He saved his life and forced him into acting, against his will. Later on Houston’s own posse do some looking into his past, and discover that Johnny is really named “Oscar,” is super-gay, and that his drowning wasn’t a suicide, it was an audition. Houston is furious and amused that he fell for it.
Johnny/Oscar freaked out during an oral sex scene with Oja Kodar, the perpetually naked lead of the film within a film and ran off.
There’s a curiously gay element running through this picture as well. It’s implied that Houston’s character is a latent homosexual. He has a career-long penchant for discovering handsome leading men, building them into stars, then stealing their women, then discarding both. Susan Strassberg, playing a thinly-disguised Pauline Kael – says this is as close as Houston can get to having sex with his leading men, which she thinks is what he really wants to do. He belts her, which pretty much means she’s probably right.
So is Houston’s character an expy for Orson himself? Yes and no. It has been well documented that Orson was super-de-duper-de straight, so that aspect isn’t him. Also, Orson never had an eye for jailbait, whereas Houston is nailing a 15-year-old girl in the film. I don’t know where that came from (Bogdanovitch says it was a late addition to the script, and that it was a slam at his relationship with the then-19 Cybill Sheppard, which he took offense at, and which made the later stages of production rather chilly)
On the other hand, the fall from early glory, the endless struggle to find financing, projects falling apart for stupid reasons near completion, and the continual hand-to-mouth existence while his acolytes copy him and find fame and fortune – that is all totally Orson. Though he insisted this wasn’t an autobiographical film, it pretty definitely is.
The acting is all over the place. Bob Random and Oja Kodar (Who gets second billing) don’t have any lines in the movie. Houston’s jailbait girlfriend is just a terrible actress (Orson found her waitressing a diner, and insisted she be in the picture. She was not up to the task.) Bogdanovich’s role was originally held by someone else, then re-cast halfway through production. He’s not bad, as he’s basically playing himself, but he’s not an actor. Given the feel of the bulk of the film, this doesn’t really hurt it at all, though. A surprising amount of dialog is improved, but the more scripted stuff stands out as a result.
I’m never sure about Oja. Some people say she was Orson’s muse and the love of his life. Others say she was his Yoko, or perhaps his Zelda, and the love of his life. So did she keep him going or destroy him? Probably neither, but I’m undecided. Something that I’ve never heard commented on before I watched it last night: Oja plays her entire role in “Redface.” Or, technically I suppose, given that she’s naked in 75% of her scenes, “Redeverything.” She’s a Croatian actress playing an American Indian for no explained reason (I’m just going to assume that in the film-within-a-film she represents America or the Frontier or perhaps poor treatment of American Indians. I dunno, man, it was the early ’70s). She’s never given a proper name in the party scenes, but people sarcastically call her “Pocahontas” and “Miniehaha” and stuff like that. In 1973 this would have been nothing at all. Nowadays, with all the Whitewashing kerfluffle, I’m interested to see if there’s any backlash, or if Orson gets to play his “Dead-Genius-Beyond-Criticism” card.
The gay subtext – which is relatively subdued – would probably have been rather scandalous in the day. Again, I’m interested to see how that plays out now, with our modern attitudes on homosexuality. Honestly, this whole film would have been pretty scandalous back then, and I feel like that’s deliberate.
Good lord, is there a lot of nudity in this film! The first shot is a half dozen naked women in a steam bath. Then there’s a hippie night club with nude films projected on the walls, then the “Bathroom Orgy” sequence, where there’s 2 or 3 people in a stall, Oja changing her clothes while an orally fixated lesbian teen looks on, Oja having sex with Bob Random in the car (Which is rumored to have been real, not simulated, but I dunno…), then endless naked wandering through backlots, and the scene on a mattress where she starts to go down on the guy, and he freaks out and runs away. Oh, and her naked with scizors destroying a giant phallic symbol. As I said, it’s a parody of Euro-Art Films)
(I’m not saying this for titillation purposes, but the sex scene in the car is the best-shot sequence in the film. Ignoring the nudity, the car shaking, the rain on the windows, other cars coming past, the rythyms of the camera and the cuts and the lighting are just stunningly put together. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful, and not for the sex. It’s an example that even when he’s just making fun of something, Welles could still do it better than the thing he was making fun of. It’s a pity the scene is too dirty to show your friends, or my Orson-Welles-loving aunt)
My biggest beef, I guess, is the absence of the suicide scene at the end. In the script and storyboards, as I said, Houston slams into the projection screen, killing himself and his car explodes. That shot was never filmed (Because they would have had to destroy the car and the screen, so it would have been filmed last). As a result, the movie just ends with Houston driving off. There’s no real climax as such.
Given the ease of making that scene (They even have Houston’s voice-over!) it would have been easy to shoot it and insert it. Given the amount of money Netflix invested in FINALLY getting this thing made, it would have been a pittance. And Bogdanovich’s opening voiceover has been changed some to reflect the modern day, so clearly slight changes to the film were thought to be acceptable.
So is it a good movie or not? Of course. It’s an Orson Welles movie.
Do I like it? That’s another matter. I’m honestly not sure.