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Review: The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)

John Huston and Norman Foster in The Other Side of the Wind

A rupture in time and in the movie industry arrives in the form of rupturing itself - Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, as wayward as its journey to the screen has been. A movie within a movie, each about movies, viewed on a monitor a few inches wide - this landscape of a medium perhaps forever changed is likely not what Welles envisaged, for all his prescience as an artist, nor what he would have wanted. That same industry that spat him out only to half-heartedly embrace him once again did so at precisely the moment that its own ruptures set about a chain of events that has brought us here, snuggled up on a sofa, curled up in bed, watching cinema! Perhaps we're just perched in our own private screening rooms, waiting not the mere minutes our characters must for the next scene, but whole decades for any scenes at all, and indeed not all. The unfinished masterwork that's finished enough to be declared not a masterwork, the approximation of nebulous intentions, the formation of a full, coherent statement of art and artistic commentary combined. Nothing quite compares to this movie.

And perhaps nothing ever again should. It's a curio by virtue of existing, and exist I'm glad it does. This is likely close to what Welles would have produced had he ever finished it, its similarity to the style of his later works bolstered by the diegetic style in its own content, neatly matched by editors Welles (then) and Bob Murawski (now). In fact, The Other Side of the Wind bears its dissimilarities diegetically too, and it's here that it's at its most compelling. Pretentious though it may be, there's genuine aesthetic substance here, and an overt sense that Welles was expanding his storytelling arsenal beyond the grand, cacophonous late-New Wave approximation into which it had evolved. It's interesting, if tiring, to observe Welles explore the intersection of where he was and where cinema was at that time, with numerous layers of meta-textuality manifesting themselves in ever further layers of narrative and thematic concern. He was never the subtlest of filmmakers, though all this detail develops into a distancing excess; our titular movie-within-the-movie is simpler, more direct despite being more opaque, and a much stronger vehicle for displaying Welles' talents.

2018 in cinema will be forever marked by the release of this movie - and in such era-specific style! - but it plays like a historical document, appropriately like a product of its own era (to the full credit of its modern-day crew, whose objective was almost certainly precisely that). Thus, it's as politically problematic as it is artistically inspired, and one senses Welles' own discomfort at adjusting to the new, less restrictive Hollywood style to the one under which he briefly flourished and from which he swiftly fled. The Other Side of the Wind has the manic timbre of an auteur finally in full control of their auteurship, an unleashing it with ramshackle, unbridled force, but when Welles takes the time to linger on a motif or to settle on the fundamental virtues of his work, it's utterly captivating. One recalls the now-mythic status of his Citizen Kane, which then was a younger film than this is today, and sees both how far he'd come and how little he'd learnt, respectively for worse and for better. If this is to remain a curio and little more than a footnote to the old master's career, it might have been just the same had it reached screens 30 or 40 years ago. As footnotes go, it's striking stuff!

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