'The Other Side of the Wind' and Authorship

The newly-released film from the 1970s reveals insights about Orson Welles's legacy.

Netflix Other Side Of The Wind
Netflix

It is remarkable that in 2018, there is a new Orson Welles film. The Other Side of the Wind has been in development since at least 1970, and at the time of Welles’s death was considered to be more complete than many of his other unfinished projects. The film has an incredibly complex, layered history filled with legal troubles, creative deadlocks, a surplus of footage, and the inevitable difficulty of finishing a film after the notoriously meticulous director has passed away. Welles’s career is marked by conflicting accounts of how his films were made, who contributed which elements, and which versions are in fact Welles’s final cuts. The histories of Orson Welles told by film critics and scholars, those who worked with him (actors, cinematographers, producers), and his closest friends and family (Beatrice Welles, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich) are often at odds with each other, pointing to the impossibility of piecing together any coherent narrative about his works and career. While this can seem messy and frustrating, it is what makes Orson Welles a mysterious and fascinating subject that writers and film-lovers return to time and time again.

The “finished” product of TOSOTW (now streaming on Netflix) is a clever, offbeat work of art, an experimental mockumentary that looks and feels unlike any other Orson Welles film. James Naremore, film scholar and author of The Magic World of Orson Welles, notes that while Welles seems to have abandoned his previous visual and sonic style, the film’s themes are distinctly Wellesian: a story told from multiple perspectives, latent/closeted homosexuality, and a smattering of autobiographical elements. TOSOTW presents two narrative threads: a birthday party for celebrated film director Jake Hannaford (John Huston), and a film-within-a-film of Hannaford’s project, also titled The Other Side of the Wind. Naremore notes that Hannaford resembles Welles in many ways: he was once considered a maverick of classical Hollywood, but came to be appreciated once European sensibilities found their way to America, ushering in an age of cinephilia. Hannaford’s birthday party is attended by a swarm of people: Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), Hannaford’s protégé and right-hand man (perhaps mirroring Bogdanovich’s own relationship with Welles), film critics, crew members, the star of his film (Oja Kodar), and young cinephiles hoping to get close to Hannaford if only for one night. Many of these people are thinly-veiled characterizations of prominent New Hollywood figures (for instance, Susan Strasberg’s sharply intelligent and persistent film critic resembles Pauline Kael).

What is striking about Orson Welles’s career is the endless compulsion to consider him an auteur. French film critics and theorists such as André Bazin and François Truffaut lavished praise upon Welles for his particular cinematic style, most notably the long-take deep-focus cinematography of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The politique des auteurs practiced by the critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma in the 50’s and 60’s is based on the belief that certain directors have distinct stylistic, thematic, and narrative traits that stay consistent across their entire careers. Orson Welles, because of his innovative and at times flamboyant style, was always considered one of the most prominent auteurs. Orson Welles secured a place in the “pantheon” of great directors, and to this day resides within this palace of authorship. The Other Side of the Wind offers an interesting case in terms of authorship, since the film was completed and released over 30 years after Welles’s death. How can a movie be attributed to someone who died before finishing the final cut? Since Welles left behind both oral and written accounts of his exact vision for the film, it could be fair to say that as long as the filmmakers followed his instructions, this is still an Orson Welles film. Yet, that statement itself points to the fact that no film is ever one person’s vision, as filmmaking is a collective enterprise. Films are borne out of the labor of hundreds of crew members, actors, extras, set designers, composers, musicians, and producers, which discredits the concept of singular authorship.

The frantic editing, constantly changing film stock (color, black and white, 16mm, 8mm, 35mm…), and near-constant jazzy background music give the impression that this film contains a multitude of perspectives. Hannaford’s birthday party (and the scenes leading up to it) is overrun with people holding cameras, lights, and various other recording devices, diegetically referencing the fact that everyone interprets a singular artist in a different way. Even if Hannaford (and by extension, Welles) has a singular viewpoint, the people surrounding him both onscreen and off filter his words through their own cameras and recorders, through their own perspectives. Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind is also fascinating, as it is a kind of arty, vaguely erotic, European-influenced film that Welles would have never made. The film-within-a-film, presented in grainy widescreen, is full of nudity and beautiful young people making love and walking around mysteriously. The camera’s intent focus on leading man John Dale (Bob Random) reflects Hannaford’s obsessive relationship with the young actor offscreen, suggesting Hannaford is sexually and romantically interested in Dale. Perhaps the greatest performance in the film (despite having essentially no lines) is that of Oja Kodar, the leading lady in Hannaford’s TOSOTW. Much like in Welles’s F for Fake (1973), Kodar’s body is constantly objectified, and she spends much of the film in the nude. She mostly just languorously walks through the frame, tantalizing John Dale’s character, who follows her around until they eventually have sex in a moving car during a rainstorm until she reaches orgasm (it is a beautiful, strange, frenzied scene).

oja orson

Netflix

If all this nudity and sex sounds uncharacteristic of Welles, Joseph McBride suggests that it can be attributed to Kodar herself, and what he refers to as Welles’s “Oja period” in his book Whatever Happened to Orson Welles? In fact, McBride quotes Kodar on the matter: “When you see [The Other Side of the Wind], you will feel that somebody else worked with [Welles] because there were things that he never would have done and never did before… I practically directed some of those erotic scenes, because Orson was a very shy person.” Naremore posits that Kodar probably directed more of the film than we are aware of, and emphasizes her creative influence on Welles. Once again this calls the concept of singular authorship into question, as Kodar worked closely with Welles on F for Fake and The Other Side of the Wind, the latter of which she co-wrote the screenplay for. This also paints Kodar’s scenes in a very different light – although she appears to be an objectified, sexualized character with no lines, this reading does not afford her very much agency. Perhaps instead, Kodar was well aware of her beauty and the way cinema fetishizes the female body, and in response allowed her character to guiltlessly enjoy sexual pleasures and the freedom of being naked.

The fact that Netflix paid millions of dollars to distribute this eccentric Orson Welles film from the 70s is hopefully a sign that more forgotten, unfinished, or unreleased projects from throughout film history will one day see the light of day. Posthumous releases are important because they confront us with the fact that authorship is an endlessly rich topic to explore, and allows us to challenge the idea that the only “auteurs” are straight white males with singular visions. The Other Side of the Wind is perhaps the best example of Welles deviating from his signature romantic style and instead presenting us with a frantic, shifting, experimental work filled with jazz music (by Michel Legrand!), overlapping conversations, and narrative threads that lead us down paths to nowhere. Perhaps this demonstrates Welles’s rejection of his status as an auteur, or, more likely, reflects the tremendous influence other creative voices can have in the creation of a film.

Actual film school graduate. Perpetually sleepy.