Lady Macbeth aside, female protagonists in Orson Welles pictures don’t fare well in what are largely Stories For Boys, or, rather, Stories About Men Who Remain Boys. In The Other Side of the Wind, released after years of Bleak House-worthy legal entanglements, the critic played by Susan Strasberg (and modeled after Pauline Kael) theorizes that the He-Man director Jack Hannaford (John Huston) sleeps with his actor’s wives and girlfriends because he won’t allow himself to sleep with the actors. Not a novel theory, covered in post-Freud cobwebs even during the 1970s, but to watch a movie probe the performative masculinity of Hemingway types still feels fresh in 2018. So much cinema, independent and Hollywood, dismisses the possibility of men serving as passive objects of desire.
Shot in a riot of 35-mm., 16-mm., and Super 8 film, edited in its first ninety minutes as if going for a movie equivalent of arrhythmia, The Other Side of the Wind abjures passivity. This movie about directing a movie served as Welles’ tinker project for most of that lost decade during which Johnny Carson and Peter Bogdanovich comprised his most stalwart audience (Bogdanovich’s role here as a sycophant blurs the line between art and revenge, especially when “Brooks Otterlake” gets his comeuppance). “You old guys are trying to get with it,” one character remarks. It’s very much of its moment; a post-studio system Hollywood, reeling from the impact of Easy Rider, seeing dollar signs in exploiting the counter-culture; the era when Michaelangelo Antonioni made Zabriskie Point on studio dough and older American directors like Otto Preminger, wanting to get in on that love beads action, directed things like Skidoo. Norman Foster and Edmond O’Brien have supporting roles. Indeed, the film Hannaford directs is a parody, starting with the title, of zonked-out European art house hits in which blank women wander in desolate landscapes framed in extreme long shot.
Or is it a parody? Collapsing the distance between subject and object, Welles was steeped in cinema to such a degree that parody and pastiche are interchangeable, a bit like when The Beatles attempted country, music hall, and hard rock on The White Album to prove they could do it. In film, though, a point of view is essential. Watching The Other Side of the Wind, it’s hard to know what Welles intended except a deliberately inchoate demonstration of his wizardly compositional talents. The people whom he chooses as targets include interlocutors enrolled in newly academized film programs asking sincere questions about symbolism and phallic imagery in Hannaford’s work, and the film critic mentioned earlier, treated by Hannaford/Huston as a ditz who can’t get laid and whom he wouldn’t lay if asked but make sure you do first and maybe he’ll consider it anyway. These are mistakes and would’ve dismissed as such in 1975, as rancid as Huston and Welles’ mephitic cigar-stained breath.
Yet The Other Side of the Wind also serves as the most sustained defense for the talents of Welles partner Oja Kodar, the Croatian actress given co-credit for the script and, in some quarters, directing key moments, particularly a three-minute car sex scene in the movie within the movie that’s one of the most beguiling and sustained editing montages I’ve ever seen. Kodar herself stars as the blank actress in the movie Hannaford’s directing, and she thrusts her sense of challenge like FDR did his chin. No other Welles project besides The Immortal Story boasted as fulsome a female talent.
“One day it might be freed. I hope not,” David Thomson wrote in Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles about The Other Side of the World. Until three weeks ago I agreed. Producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, overseen by Bogdanovich and with the considerable help of editor Bob Murawski, have assembled the most coherent version we are likely to see. And it must be seen. While studio projects like The Bad and the Beautiful and The Barefoot Contessa also showed the travails of macho directors imposing order on material that slips through their fingers, The Other Side of the Wind presaged Bob Roberts and other docudramas whose fractured, disjunctive approaches are the point — fragments shored against the directors’ ruin. The film also puts to rest the myth that Welles preferred to hold court at Ma Maison than to work. It’s a pity he didn’t film a single scene of his and Kodar’s script The Big Brass Ring. Even when he triumphed, it’s impossible for us to ask, “If only…”
The Other Side of the Wind and an entertaining documentary called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead are showing on Netflix.