In 1970, legendary filmmaker Orson Welles began filming what would end up being his final cinematic project: The Other Side of the Wind, a semi-mockumentary look at an aging Hollywood director named Jake Hannaford (played by fellow legendary director and actor John Huston) whose 70th birthday celebration becomes both a showcase for his experimental new film (also called The Other Side of the Wind) and an acidic gauntlet of Tinseltown characters, real and fictional.
But Welles was a long way from his stunning 1941 directorial debut, Citizen Kane, and had spent much of his career scrambling to finance many of his later movies, a number of which were abandoned due to lack of funds. Although filming on The Other Side of the Wind continued on and off through 1976 as Welles was able to obtain money, the project was never finished or released, and more than 10 hours of raw footage spread out over hundreds of reels of celluloid were locked away in a Paris vault for the next several decades.
Years later, with the project’s longstanding legal and financial troubles finally sorted out, Welles confidant Peter Bogdanovich (who stars in the film as a Hannaford protégé turned successful director), producer Frank Marshall (who worked as an assistant to Welles on the movie), and producer Filip Jan Rymsza, along with renowned editor Bob Murawski and a crew of top-shelf technicians, worked for several years to complete The Other Side of the Wind and release it as Welles’ official final work.
And now the question becomes: was it worth the wait? The answer is yes, with reservations. The fact that the final feature film from one of cinema’s true visionaries is now available at last for viewing–thanks to Netflix, which picked up the restoration project after it was stalled or turned down numerous times by other major Hollywood companies and figures–is not even subject to argument. This was an absolutely necessary and vital labor of love, adding a final chapter to the existing filmography of an artist known as much for the projects he never finished as the ones he did.
But it’s also clear that The Other Side of the Wind is a tough, often frustrating sit, partially because of its still-raw quality and also because of Welles’ bold editing and filming techniques. Those tools, 40 years later, which include constantly changing film styles (from color to black and white, from stills to moving images), use of overlapping sound and dialogue (with which he paved the way for later auteurs like Robert Altman and Terence Malick), and abrupt shifts in time and setting, are in service of a film that seems more now like an odd relic than a summation of a career.
Yet at the same time, the film touches on subjects that resonate just as sharply today: the jockeying for power and prestige that is a hallmark of how Hollywood works, the false friendships, backstabbings, and betrayals also endemic to the business, and the vicious gossip that can bring down a career even quicker than a box office flop. The movie also explores the topic of repressed sexuality, as Hannaford is badgered by the constantly hovering press about rumors that he likes to hit on his leading men, while the leading man of his new movie (played by Bob Random) stays conspicuously away from the party.
Random’s Oscar “John” Dale is the androgynous actor who stars alongside an exotic, intensely sensual and unnamed actress (played by Welles’ partner in his later years and the film’s co-writer, Oja Kodar) in Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind. The film-within-a-film is clearly Hannaford’s attempt to make a provocative, explicit movie that will find favor with New Hollywood, yet its artistic pretensions, lack of dialogue, and general incomprehensibility make it a parody-within-a-parody as well. It also makes Hannaford, for all his flaws, an almost sympathetic figure. A man desperate to find his place as the times in Hollywood change, we can almost see in Hannaford’s eyes that he doesn’t even like his own movie.
Huston, who chews the scenery here, thankfully never had to endure the kind of career degradation that Welles did, but it’s clear that the actor and character are avatars for Welles himself, who moved back to America in the late 1960s with the idea of resuscitating his own filmmaking career. The film echoes real life in many ways: Bogdanovich was a protégé of Welles’ (although hopefully not as sycophantic and smug as his Brooks Otterlake) and was writing a book about him at the time, even as his character proclaims he’s the only one not doing so.
Welles also cast a number of other real-life directors and filmmakers–Claude Chabrol, Henry Jaglom, Dennis Hopper, Curtis Harrington, Norman Foster, and others–either as themselves or loose fictional versions of themselves, further blurring the lines between the movie’s actual production and the story Welles was trying to tell. While Welles himself did not suffer the same fate that Hannaford does at the end of the movie, he died nine years after abandoning it for good, still trying to get projects off the ground but mostly relegated to appearing in wine commercials and on talk shows.
Is The Other Side of the Wind for the casual viewer looking for something to watch on Netflix? Probably not. It’s too unconventional and iconoclastic and ragged. Is it essential viewing for cinema buffs, film history completists, and Welles aficionados? Without a doubt. Is it a scabrous poke at a business/art culture that ground Welles down or a last creative gasp from a filmmaker whose immense talents were matched only by his restless, difficult nature? That is the riddle Welles left us with, but at least now we can see The Other Side of the Wind and look for the answer ourselves.
The Other Side of the Wind is available to stream on Netflix, along with They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary on the history of the film and the last 15 years of Welles’ life.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye