Seen the new Orson Welles film yet? That’s something we haven’t been able to say for at least 40 years. Welles’ last studio-backed movie was Touch Of Evil, released in 1958, but even that was monkeyed around with so much that we’ve still never seen the proper cut.
When he made Citizen Kane in 1941 (which may or may not be the greatest film ever made – discuss), Welles was given full creative control, but that privilege was taken away from him on everything else he did afterwards, eventually forcing him to leave Hollywood and spend most of his career in exile, scrabbling around for foreign investment.
When Welles started planning The Other Side Of The Wind in 1966, it was intended to be his great swansong, his royal return to Hollywood and, more importantly, to be a big slap in the face to everyone that had wronged him over the years. Sadly, it didn’t happen. Filming started in 1969 and lasted, more off than on, until 1976. Three years later, he’d only managed to edit 50 minutes of the film when the original negatives were seized during the Iranian revolution (Welles had financing from the Shah of Iran), and the next thirty years saw the film bounce between a military bunker, a vault in Paris and the Welles estate. Josh Carp’s book, Orson Welles’s Last Movie, tells the bonkers story really well, and it’s definitely worth a read if you want to know the full backstory.
52 years after pre-production started, the film is finally, amazingly, released. The fact that it’s landed on Netflix is almost fitting after all this time. Hollywood moved on from Welles a long time ago – in some ways it was never really ready for him – and the best platform for his final work is the one that brings his incomparable vision straight into your lap, without any fanfare, without ceremony, and without the hypocrisy of an opening weekend.
But is it any good? In a word, yes. But you need to know what you’re in for. Anyone expecting Citizen Kane’s comparatively straightforward storytelling will be disappointed, as this is Welles at his most experimental, cheeky, and divisive. To judge it by today’s standards seems slightly redundant, since we’ve basically been gifted an art-house movie from the 1970s – a lost slice of New Hollywood auteur cinema that would undoubtedly have been hugely influential had it came out when it was supposed to. As much about “new” ideas as it is about old ones, it’s a remarkably confident, assured, brave piece of work by an ageing, broke, exiled artist – and it still somehow has a sharpness to it that cuts through the decades. It is, as expected, another masterpiece.
Yet it’s also frustratingly “experimental” at times too. Switching cameras, sounds, colours and ideas mid-scene (and sometimes even switching the scene itself), watching the film as a single coherant story isn’t that rewarding. There is a plot, but that’s not really what what Welles wants you to invest in – with the film playing out more like a sensory experience than a piece of storytelling.
The Other Side Of The Wind is about a famous film director called Jake Hannaford (played by actual famous film director John Huston) who’s tragic story is told in a documentary by another director, Brooks Otterlake (played by another real director, Peter Bogdanovitch). Hannaford is a celebrated genius – and a hard-drinking, tough-talking man’s man – and the whole thing is, quite obviously, actually all about Welles. Hannaford is washed-up, surrounded by sycophants and biographers, forced to make a sleazy sex film because he can’t make a “real” film anymore. Hannaford crawls through his own after party getting more and disillusioned with everything around him. Hollywood stinks. His entourage stinks. The whole world stinks, and it’s not a place that Hannaford/Welles wants to be in anymore.
It sounds odd and tragic and confusing, and it sort of is – but it’s also directed with such punk energy that it feels like an inspiration. Make no mistake, this is a pretty scathing autobiography (and Welles fans will no doubt find a lot to analyse here) but Welles loved himself far too much to ever make his swansong seem anything less than celebratory. The film might feel like a relic from another age, but it still has plenty to shout about Hollywood today. Those “flashy” editing techniques might look more at home on a perfume ad from a decade ago now, but there’s still a raw edge of creativity that burns through the years. This looks every inch like an old film – a museum piece that feels dug up long after it could have served a real purpose as a teaching tool for film students – but it’s still fun to watch; vibrant, edgy, angry and unique.
More than anything, it’s all very Orson Welles. Self-proclaimed genius, practised liar, raconteur, magician, gourmand, lover, fighter, and mad man, his real multiple personalities tell the story of one of the great icons of the 20thcentury. Simon Callow’s excellent three-part (so far) biography does a brilliant job of trying to understand him, but The Other Side Of The Wind tells us plenty about where Welles was in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In short, he was running around Hollywood with a camera in his hands, trying desperately to fit in.
For anyone hoping for Welles’ version of Fellini’s 8½, The Other Side Of The Wind isn’t that at all. It might all be about the existential problems of making a film, but it’s even more meta than that. If anything, this is the sequel to Citizen Kane that we never expected. Just as Welles’s first film built an elaborate puzzle around the mythic figure of the director himself, he breaks it back down again into abstract fragments to show what a sham it all was; his famous hall of mirrors laying in pieces, the magician finally revealing his greatest trick.
Welles spent his whole career constructing identities of himself on screen. Now, 33 years after his death, we finally have a chance to see the real thing.
The Other Side Of The Wind is streaming now on Netflix.