a review — and an effort to explain things — by the Crow.
Searching for the Wind
WARNING: This section contains MAJOR Spoilers
40 years “in the making”, Orson Welles’ final picture finally arrives on the stage.
And where do I begin?
I suppose I should begin where the movie does (once its titles fade out), at the end of our protagonist’s story: a still of a car, or what was left of it after “the accident” — if it was an accident. Narrated in post by one Brookes Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), we are told that the car in question was once meant to be a gift for our protagonist — Jake “J. J.” Hannaford (John Huston)–‘s, latest leading man: Oscar “John” Dale (Bob Random).
Otterlake is here to offer us insight into what happened that day: at Hannaford’s 70th birthday party on a ranch a little way out-of-town. A day documented in detail from multiple angles by the TV and documentary film-makers, as well as all the students, critics, and young directors who had brought their 16-and-8mm cameras to the event. In hindsight, Otterlake doesn’t particularly care about his less-than-flattering image in the footage, and adds that Hannaford’s last — unfinished — motion picture (Tʜᴇ Oᴛʜᴇʀ Sɪᴅᴇ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ Wɪɴᴅ) is “part of this testimony”, and that it will be presented as it was on the final day of his life.
Thrust into the first hours of that day, the movie instantly adopts a frenetic pace. Already, there is a bustle of public amongst the crew as everyone begins to divide themselves between the various means of transport to Hannaford’s birthday party. There’s a lot of looking into the camera going on, as well the flinging around of a host of throwaway lines — of which only a few are useful information. The camera seems untethered from gravity from the moment Hannaford calls a wrap to the day’s shoot, and the cuts between shots are abrupt at their mildest.
We follow the various travellers — especially the trials of one Pister, first name Marvin (Joeseph McBride) “from the Film Institute” — as they make their way to the ranch.
And Pister starts the first of our ‘real’ debates about cinema as an art form with this glorious line:
“Is the camera eye a reflection of reality, or is reality a reflection of the camera eye? …Or is the camera merely a phallus?”
I think that sums up quite a bit, actually, if not immediately clear — or that strong. It immediately put me in mind of Slavoj Žižek’s excellent 2006 documentary The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema. While I think that Mr Žižek and Ms Fiennes’ documentary is more relevant to other parts of The Other Side of the Wind, I welcome the fact that the movie called it to my mind so early into its two-hour runtime.
But allow me to step away from my thoughts on what’s happening for a moment…
Throughout the movie, there are visible signs of damage on the frames, frame counts running by in the bottom left corner, and shifts in the colour balance. I assume these are conscious choices by the crew who worked on the post-production, in line with the ethos stated by the crew during the titles of the movie. Later in the movie, there are entire sequences presented in black-and-white which are not flashbacks. Whether or not this was Mr Welles’ intention or not, I have little idea.
I should have prefaced this with a declaration that I have only watched, in full, two movies by Mr Welles — Citizen Kane (which I am lukewarm towards) and The Trial (which I greatly admire, bar its bookends) — and only one more in which he appeared (The Third Man). But I can see his stylistic influence in this movie nonetheless. It’s a strange thing when a certain artist’s work can be recognised despite so little exposure to their work at large. In my mind, that points both to good, and dismal, art.
To return to the narrative: While the interviews in the car run on, Billy Boyle (Norman Foster) screens (part of) the rough cut of Hannaford’s movie for Max David (Geoffrey Land) to secure a little extra money to help the final production through. It’s during this screening that it’s revealed Hannaford has been shooting without a script (much like Christopher Nolan’s original plans for Dunkirk).
The Other Side of the Wind — the movie within the movie The Other Side of the Wind continues to screen for David, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s visually interesting. The movie, up until this point — which I’ll hereafter refer to as Wind2 — has mostly been playing out long scenes of suggested intrigue, employing juxtaposition, superimposition, and plain every-day comparison in its imagery. But ultimately, David has enough and leaves, leaving us just as in the lurch as he no doubt feels himself.
We cut to the ranch — owned by one Ms Zarah Valeska (Lilly Palmer) — where the party has just picked up, and the lull the movie has been easing itself into jumps back to the staggered, jumpy cuts between scenes from before. And my crows… the amount of soul-draining garbage that is spoken… I think Mr Welles and I could have bonded quite well over our shared hatred for the drivel usually committed to paper about art.
[SHOT MISSING: One day — maybe — you’ll read the rant that I just cut out of this space.]
But it’s not all drivel. There are some decent lines here, too.
The party is by now in full swing, and everyone’s beginning to talk about Hannaford’s movie. It’s here that — what I find to be — the most interesting… question in the movie is posed. It’s a critic, one Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg), that approaches it first. She tells everyone that there’s one character no one will be seeing during the upcoming screening, not until “they find an actor for it” — she says. A character who — according to her, “quoting“ ‘The Baron’ (Tonio Selwart), one of Hannaford’s closer friends — “we’re supposed to feel… spying on the boy, and on the girl too, of course… from the shadows.”
When pressed to make what she’s getting at clear, she says she wants “to know what he [this unseen character] represents.” Some (lame) possible answers are thrown around, until The Baron reveals that the character is an “old man”. Upon hearing this, Ms Riche is instantly convinced that the character is a projection of “Hannaford himself”.
Through various conversations, the idea of ‘god’ is brought into the mix. But it’s not a god, or gods in general. The idea here is established to be about Hannaford being seen as god-like in the eyes of his many “acolytes“ — according to rumour and supposition.
Valeska and Otterlake are the two who are most directly pursued in search of a direct answer to the concept: Valeska through an interview, and Otterlake through a recording of his and Hannaford talking — which Riche picks up on. But it’s only when Otterlake’s half-hearted rendition of “the gospel according to Jake” is spoken of in relation to the movie that Riche becomes especially interested.
Hannaford attempts to shut Riche down, but she presses the subject, quizzing Hannaford directly about the subject of god as related in the tape. She continues with her questions, eventually asking Hannaford if this ‘god’ is a member of Hannaford’s “club, clan, or whatever” that he’s built up around himself.
The immediate take-away is that Riche is asking if Hannaford sees himself as a ‘god’ (however minor… or major), and is therefore inserting himself into his movie in that role, asking him:
“The tape that we were hearing. The subject is god. Is he a member?”
But this is where Hannaford turns the entire question on it’s head and replies:
“We’re all ruled by the wind, aren’t we, lady? So, if the Lord is a lady, and God’s will is Her will, then we can all relax and stop expecting the universe to be logical.”
Otterlake calms the situation, but I feel the damage is done. I find that exchange, which takes it’s own time to be built up and folded into something unexpected, to be the most interesting exchange in the movie.
Allow me now a moment to break from the linear breakdown of the movie I’ve been engaging in so far. The predominant ‘theory’ most people seem to have about the movie is that Hannaford is a closeted homosexual as some of the characters insinuate. This is what the Wikipedia currently states, and many-a-person seems to agree with this interpretation. But I’m pretty sure I disagree.
I posit the movie might not be so simple, and Hannaford immediately hints at it by asking how — if not for the difference in sex — they could be told apart. But I’m going to touch upon that only after I’ve covered what we see of Wind2, first.
Wind2 is the most complete piece of cinema that The Other Side of the Wind has to offer. The Lead Actress / The “Red” Red Indian (Oja Kodar) walks in with Dale to what appears to be a strip-club of sorts. She enters a bathroom and changes in one long, “unbroken“ (well, compared to the rest of the movie) sequence.
“urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into – that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That’s all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder.”
And this is what Hannaford has come to. His movie is a schlocky B-styled movie with copious amounts of nudity and (presumably) violence. Every scene we see from Wind2 up until it comes to its conclusion drips with lurid intent. The movie feels almost pornographic in its (likely) second act.
Eventually, it degenerates into a surrealist mystery of sorts, and comes to a climax in which the leading man is essentially ‘scared off’ the set by the ominous voice of Hannaford that begins to start looming over the action.
And this is where I would like to bring Mr Žižek back into the picture (just for a short visit).
In Žižek and Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Žižek suggests that the very act of looking at a scene in a movie can be considered — in a way — an act of perversion in and as of itself. And The Other Side of the Wind is a perfect movie to explore exactly that avenue of perversion, in multiple ways. I think the movie knows exactly what it is doing in throwing these scenes into the face of the viewer.
A slight correction, as pointed out by Amy Sutherland in the comments below, please keep the following in mind:
This idea, usually referred to as ‘scopophilia’, doesn’t originate with Zizek. Feminist critics like Laura Mulvey were writing about it decades before Zizek, as were Lacanians like Christian Metz.
Recommended viewing: Žižek on Vertigo — The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
(Not directly related to the idea presented above, but another relevant segment from the documentary)
To not beat around the bush, it’s clear as day that Hannaford is a projection of Welles’ own self. This is not simply a movie-within-a-movie, but far deeper — especially considering how the movie was completed following Welles’ death, including sister-documentaries revolving around the days in which Welles himself was still working on the project. This is a meta-media work on multiple levels, and yes, it is Welles in the picture, but it’s not all of him. Only a part.
Hannaford, I think, is a collection of what Welles’ despised (or would have) in himself. And from what (admittedly little by comparison to any scholar) I know of the man, it’s no surprise that he went in hooks-out to destroy Hannaford.
I can see the argument for closeted homosexuality. Lines such as Valeska’s:
“…Men only like men.”
…and the dialogue that revolves around those lines, as well as Hannaford’s own visceral reactions to those who weren’t in the “norm” at the time do seem to point to it, as well as his behaviour during his meeting with Dale’s creepy former teacher. But I can’t see Welles presenting that angle in Hannaford over all else, really.
The lines I think are more relevant are those that echo the following cue:
“Every man contains within himself… the whole condition of humanity.”
I posit that Hannaford is someone who is struggling with not his sexuality, but his (supposed) “masculinity”. I find it difficult to see a person like him caring one whit about homosexuality, those who are homosexual, or whichever other thing society has thought of as “wrong” in the moment (other examples do surface). He pretends to be “ignorant”, as Valeska puts it, and has built an armour of machismo around himself, but he cannot find it within himself to resolve this pretend-character he portrays with who he wants to be. And he especially cannot do so, now that he’s facing irrelevancy in the face of a new generation that wants things he is not in touch with, no matter how much he fronts he is.
What I see is a broken man. A broken man who “should“ know what to do. After all, doesn’t every man contain within himself the whole condition of humanity? Should he not be able to find a logical way to claw his way back to his former glory because he is a man? Surely J.J. Hannaford — the great and powerful — knows what has to be done.
But no. He doesn’t. He’s desperately trying to find the answer. He’s not only out of touch with his audience, but the shroud of masculinity he’s pulled over his own self. And it’s a masculinity I don’t think he ever had (or at the very least, lost long ago). Hannaford has spent his life pretending.
He doesn’t call god “She” simply as a joke. He’s exploring the concept as an avenue to the truth. He seduces the “girl” to his “leading men”, yes. “Men are the subject of his films”, yes. “He has to possess her”, yes. “Because it’s the only way he can possess him.” No. That’s where Riche makes a grave mistake. “Masculinity” to Hannaford is his escape from the radical, nightmarish dimension he has found himself slipping into. But he doesn’t know what it is. I reckon that what Hannaford is trying to achieve with his leading men is to glean masculinity off them — like a vampire of traits, albeit a failed one.
And he can’t. Because he no longer knows what masculinity is. Maybe he never knew to begin with. Maybe what he used to build up the aura of machismo around himself is the masculinity he took from movies he watched as a younger man. And it’s something he’s now realising no longer exists for the new generation.
This is what unsettles Dale. This is why he both leaves Wind2, and refuses to get in the car with Hannaford at the end. It can be argued that Dale — due to past experiences is certainly reading Hannaford’s intentions in the wrong way, but I don’t think Hannaford’s intentions are sexual. In that very last scene, he just seems tired with it all (especially in light of the allegations made towards him), and resorts to a boyish game of “chicken” to prod at Dale.
And it’s not just a question of “masculinity“. It is to Hannaford, but it’s also about a man who has lost his tether to humanity itself. He is simply just finished. And that’s what Orson Welles would have hated about himself, if he would ever find himself sinking so low: not being able to make sense of the world because of a failure to understand it, yet revelling in the image he had built for himself; pressured to keep up appearances, yet not understanding where those appearances come from in the face of a new generation.
I see this movie as a spit in the face of a lot of things; but primarily, it’s a lamentation for those — woman, man, whoever — who get too caught up in the images at large, and fail to recognise who they are any longer.
After thinking so long about The Other Side of the Wind, and after watching it a few times over, I think my thesis stands on some merit. To me, it explains so much more about the movie than accepting the more straightforward theory relating to homosexuality.
I am not saying I must be correct, but I think the closet homosexal angle is just too simple for what this movie is trying to portray. I don’t think Welles would spend so long working on composing such a straightforward tale.
The movie spits in the face of tabloid culture, celebrity worship, and even — to a certain degree — the likes of Andy Warhol (who I truly despise, but that’s a story for another time). And it laments the losing of souls to a machine that expects facsimiles of people instead of people themselves. Valeska knows that, and so does Otterlake, but Hannaford never truly reconciles the truth with himself. And that is what leads to his downfall.
But it also allows them a voice, as small as it might be.
The final scene: “the murder of the ‘great phallus’“ is symbolic — to me — not in terms of sex, but rather in terms of Hannaford’s eventual surrender of his pursuit of masculinity, and what he thought the core of his projected humanity to be. Instead of futilely attempting to glean his desired masculinity from his leading man, he turns his sights to his leading lady, and lets her take the fore as the god that stares back through the camera eye.
Maybe this is how he might have finally escaped his personal struggle, even though the world ends up driving him to suicide. His failure to understand his own identity, shrouded in a cloak of masculinity society has thrown on him which he doesn’t understand, and his being labelled a homosexual predator (to put it as the tabloids inevitably would) is just too much for him.
In light of this interpretation of the movie, Hannaford’s final lamentation becomes one of the best closing lines I’ve heard in a long time. After all…
“Who knows? Maybe you can stare too hard at something, huh? Drain out the virtue, suck out the living juice. You shoot the great places and the pretty people, all those girls and boys – shoot ’em dead.”
THE CROW: 8/10
THE AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE: NA/10
Here’s the official poster: