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Netflix takes on the metanarrative

Netflix as a platform for “serious” film is a newer and controversial concept. Just last March, the prestigious Cannes Film Festival outright banned Netflix originals from competition, citing these films’ lack of theatrical release. However, no matter how much one might hate the idea, Netflix is proving itself to be something of a frontier for alternative and international film.

The streaming service has financed films by Bong Joon-Ho and Noah Baumbach, the next Charlie Kaufman movie and there are even rumors of a Netflix-financed David Lynch project coming up. However, perhaps the greatest testament of the good Netflix can unleash into the film world came with the release of Orson Welles’ long-unfinished swan song, “The Other Side of the Wind.”

“Wind” has something of a legendary past. It began as a sort of pet project for Orson Welles in 1970, with the film periodically shot over the next six years and edited well into the 80s. Welles financed the production himself, hoping for a studio to pick up the film and finance the rest. Welles worked obsessively on the project, which made it all the more disappointing when the director died in 1985, leaving the film unfinished.

Various cuts of the film circled around the film world, but none were even close to being considered finished. It wasn’t until 2016 that the funds were secured by Netflix for the completion of the film. Finally, on Nov. 2, 2018, “The Other Side of the Wind” was released in its completed form.

The film itself is even more of a doozy than its history, somehow. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s suicide, Welles’ mockumentary follows the legendary and aging director Jake Hannaford’s last day alive, spent surrounded by other film-industry types at Hannaford’s birthday party, all the while trying to piece together Hannaford’s final film.

In a way, “Wind” sees Welles adopting the 8½ model, with Hannaford being a clear stand-in for the director himself and the film’s events becoming more and more unhinged as it goes along. Welles cast John Huston, a legendary director in his own right, as the lead role and other major director Peter Bogdanovich in the role of Hannaford’s disciple and right-hand-man, a role Bogdanovich played for Welles himself before production began.

This film-within-a-film is a visually striking yet exploitative pseudo-art film. One senses Welles parodying Antonioni here, with the atmospheric landscape shots and complete lack of dialogue.

In case the appeal of “Wind” for film-nuts wasn’t obvious enough, let it be known that from a pure filmmaking standpoint the film is a monster; viewing “The Other Side of the Wind” today is like opening up a can of fresh cinematic worms plucked straight from the 70s. Fans of late-period Welles will eat this film up.

“Wind” contains the manic editing and disjointed storytelling that “F for Fake” is built on. The mockumentary style is used to create a nightmarish haze, wildly cutting between many cameras and going from black-and-white to color without warning. Even the dialogue in “Wind” is disjointed and strange, but fits snugly alongside the editing. Conceptually, the film is dizzying.

“Wind” contains a metanarrative so elaborate it will either leave you smitten or reaching for the Tylenol, depending on your predisposition for experimental filmmaking.

The film’s metanarrative is, of course, purposeful, yet somehow even transcends what Welles could have intended; similarities between Hannaford and Welles are mind-boggling, right down to their death leaving the film unfinished.

Questions of whether the film was left unfinished on purpose by Welles begin to circle around your mind like a snake on a stick; one could probably make a strong argument that Welles was omniscient and crafted the film around the film’s — and his own — fate. 

“Wind’s” release will certainly boost Netflix’s reputation as an outlet for “serious” film, despite some grumblings from certain European art-film types. Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Personally, though, I believe that a world in which the words “Netflix presents… an Orson Welles Picture” can manifest is a good world indeed, no matter how surreal the phrase can seem at first. And for what it is, “The Other Side of the Wind” is nothing short of an unearthed cinematic miracle.

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