I just finished watching The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.
Again, I just finished watching The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.
Only a week after WarnerMedia announced it would be shutting down its FilmStruck arthouse movie service, Netflix releasing Orson Welles’ final film feels like a sick joke. (And let’s not even consider what the late director would say about the streaming giant in general).
The movie itself is nothing short of thought-provoking, a mashed-together combination of a fictional movie and the birthday party of its fictional director. John Huston plays Jake Hannaford, a cigar-chomping, scotch-swilling Hollywood veteran in the middle of cutting together his latest picture: The Other Side of the Wind, a jazzy, wordless neo-noir that wants to be about everything and nothing all at once. Complicating matters is that the film’s male lead (Bob Random) has walked off the picture opposite his exotic femme fatale (Welles’ real-life partner, Oja Kodar). This might be because Hannaford’s a crude crank. Or it might be because he’s lost sight of what he’s doing; as we hear from the cutting room floor, Hannaford’s “just making it up as he goes along.”
Those familiar with Welles and his infamously inefficient productions already see the similarities. The Other Side of the Wind is a surprisingly damning self-portrait, mocking industry journalists’ obsessions over Hollywood palace intrigue while ultimately laying blame at the feet of the palace overlords’ themselves.
Yes, it’s messy, as only something posthumously approximated from hours of dailies could be, and your mileage rests on whether you consider this to even be an Orson Welles movie. On face value, this isn’t as enigmatic as F for Fake, Welles’ treatise on truthiness, and there’s little use in comparing it to Citizen Kane. That messiness is also there for good reason. Nobody talks with the machine-gun chatter of Hannaford’s birthday guests, and in the case of his picture-in-progress, nobody talks at all. They’re two sides of the impenetrable chaos we’re told about early on, a shield for the self-doubting man behind the most influential movie ever made. We’re offered up the canard that movies are nothing more than “great places and pretty people,” but we can see through the fakery. For as much bluster as Hannaford has, he’s only as compelling as we make him out to be, and as the evening wanes, so does his intrigue. The boozing and the grab-ass are just noise for a sad old man to hide behind.
That’s a dour note for one of the all-time greats to leave us on. Again, there are lots of fingerprints on this, many belonging to Netflix, whose involvement remains the biggest surprise in all of this. The company has made a number of high-profile series cancellations in the past few weeks. Luke Cage and Iron Fist, seemingly sure-fire comics-based successes, got the axe. Netflix also will not be renewing the excellent true crime mockumentary American Vandal. In case it wasn’t already clear, we are increasingly at the whims of a few services dictating what stays and what goes. There was little monetary incentive for Netflix to release a movie of limited recognition by a director of limited appeal, but they did it anyway. As to why they did it? That’s another head-scratcher all on its own.