Still to this day, the critical acclaim and awe surrounding Orson Welles and his classics like “Citizen Kane” and “Touch of Evil” holds strong. The legendary actor / director, who gained stardom in the ’40s and ’50s, is, no doubt, an icon of cinematic history. However, Welles’s latest, posthumous release, “The Other Side of the Wind,” may not resonate with modern audiences unexposed to the rest of his body of work and reputation. Though filled with entrancing cinematic techniques true to Welles’s style, the plot of the film mirrors Welles’s own life, and “The Other Side of the Wind” only connects to a specific, niche audience, while making the typical movie-goer feel little more than confusion and disjointedness.
The film revolves around the major, yet fading Hollywood director Jake Hannaford (John Huston, “Chinatown”). At Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, his newest and final film is debuted for throngs of rowdy party-attendees, reporters and fellow Hollywood associates. The film, also titled “The Other Side of the Wind,” is unfinished, fragmented and likely won’t be distributed, as Hannaford has only four days to complete it. Interspersed between alcohol-saturated conversations with prodding reporters and fame-seeking friends at the party are sequences of Hannaford’s film itself, which can only be described as a bizarre, hyper-sexualized, semi-romantic chase between an attractive man and woman with no dialogue. As the party unfolds, the reporters and fans become increasingly eager to “figure out” the mysterious Hannaford, but as the night goes on Hannaford only becomes more and more closed off, seemingly far more interested in finding another bottle of booze than engaging with his guests.
Reflective of Welles’s use of mirrors and light in “Citizen Kane,” the manipulation of light, dark, visual and auditory synchronization throughout the film is captivating. In both the segments at the party and within the screening of Hannaford’s film, there is an apparently indiscriminate tradeoff between black-and-white and color sequences. With no identifiable pattern for when and why one segment is black-and-white while the next is in color, Welles creates a feeling of intrigue and surprise within viewers. Especially within the film-screening portions, the pairing of sound and image is mesmerizing. In one part of Hannaford’s film, the nameless male and female protagonists hop into a cab to escape the rain. The two begin kissing and touching in the back of the car, illuminated by the bright green and red of the traffic lights and the condensation from the rain outside. The scene is simultaneously sensual and uncomfortable, as the two lovers continue to caress to a drum-like beat while the cab driver sits only a few feet in front of them. As the film with the film has no dialogue, there is nothing to distract from the discomfort we feel, and we are thus forced to watch the peculiar love scene pan out.
Though Welles’s techniques are provocative, eye-catching and evidently creative, for the average audience member, establishing a genuine connection to the film proves difficult. Everything about the film is fragmented. The movie shown at the birthday party is continually interrupted by numerous power outages and conversations between characters at the party are constantly cut short, making it difficult to invest in anyone on-screen. Additionally, there is an overall sense of incompleteness that we can’t help but feel, brought on both by the scattered nature of the filming, the incompleteness of the screened film within the film and the disconnect and tension between Hannaford and his actors. When the credits role, we can’t help but wonder if we should have brushed up on our knowledge of Welles beforehand to make Hannaford, as a protagonist crafted in Welles’s image, more tangible and maybe even make the film as a whole more enjoyable.