What beautiful fragments the gods leave from their unfinished visions. Orson Welles was cursed with having entered the arena of the cinema by immediately reaching its peak. In 1941 he made Citizen Kane, that grand work of cinematic biography- taking the story of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and transforming it into a reverie of immortal imagery. Welles was merely 24 at the time and it would be his fate to fall while leaving beautiful trails behind. He would direct titles like Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, all butchered by the studio system, yet all considered masterful. His 1948 Macbeth is one of the great underappreciated Shakespeare adaptations, a work of brimstone and gothic poetry.
Now Netflix brings us The Other Side of the Wind, a final work of bitter resistance by the master. Edited by Bob Murawski, it is Welles’s final act of vengeance against the system that raised and then wounded him. In it he is satirizing everything he found to be shallow and destructive of old Hollywood (and maybe the current one as well). The plot, if we can call it that, takes on a mockumentary style that follows around a big time director on the last day of his life named Jake Hannaford (John Huston, a legendary director in his own right). Followed by journalists and sycophants, Hannaford is trying to finish an epic, trippy experimental film named “The Other Side of the Wind.” What the movie is about no one can tell. Hannaford seems to make up the story as he goes along. He needs money to finish the film, and footage is screened for supporters and colleagues at special screenings and his 70th birthday. The movie itself shows a Native American woman (Oja Kodar) chasing a drifter played by an actor named John Dale (Robert Random) across vast, arid desert vistas. Claiming to help Hannaford is a sneaky hanger on, Brooks Otterlake (another great director, Peter Bogdanovich), who has found success directing, even as the press accuses him of basically stealing from Hannaford. As the days and nights turn into debauched parties and even gunplay, it starts to dawn on the director that he may not be a god, and his great work might never be finished. It doesn’t help that Dale runs off from set during a nude scene.
The more you know about the chaotic history of this lost film, the more intrigued you will be by Netflix’s restoration. Josh Karp chronicles the entire grueling gestation in his riveting book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind. In conjunction with the release of the film itself, Netflix has also produced a new documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which chronicles Welles’s final years and the effort to make this final statement. From 1970 to 1976 Welles filmed The Other Side of the Wind, throwing in cameos from fellow notables like Dennis Hopper and Claude Chabrol. Financing came from figures as colorful as the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. But the auteur’s self-destructive nature would leave the project buried and unfinished, scattered in bits among 100 hours of footage. Now Murawski has put the pieces together and what emerges is a clunky, but fascinating piece of bitter satire. There is the feeling in every frame of an artist who has nothing left to lose. Corporate culture, the French New Wave, gossip columnists- all are ripe for Welles’s satiric blade in this howl.
Welles seems to have been channeling everything he was observing about the film industry and the general vogues of the times. Gone is the trademark elegant look of his earlier films, this tale is shot in a jerky, hand-held style, with barely any attempt at making the lighting picturesque. The “Other Side of the Wind” sequences are brilliant in the way they ape hallucinatory, experimental 70s road films that were so in vogue at the time. Oja Kodar wanders the desert naked, adorned in Native American jewelry. Some incoherent scenes find her walking down an aisle of stalls where an orgy is taking place. Then she’s making love with Dale in a car during a rainstorm with editing that becomes an intense, claustrophobic crescendo. Welles is taking apart the very aesthetic of films like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, which today stand as curious arthouse artifacts from the era of free love and sex as revolution. He might also have intended there to be winks at Easy Rider, which set the standard for counterculture road epic upon its premiere in 1969. Of course part of the joke here is that it’s hard to connect the images of the film with a persona like Hannaford, aged and puffing on his cigar like a leftover from John Wayne’s Hollywood. Yet these are the most visually rich moments of The Other Side of the Wind, with a fever dream power. One can only imagine what Welles would have made if he truly had attempted a New Wave feature. In 1964, amid his well-known attempts to make Don Quixote, Welles was indeed approached to complete a double bill which would begin with Luis Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert, about a Syrian saint standing atop a pillar for years. Like many of Welles’s what ifs, the project never came to fruition.
In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles does something insightful, and in a sense ahead of its time. The clips of Hannaford’s “movie” are a fun jab at the culture or pretentious arthouse. Today there is a great, snobbish love for films which are slothful incoherencies, yet are tagged as brilliant or profound, many times based solely on the reputation of its maker. Last year I had a similar experience with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which I felt showed Anderson’s brilliance for imagery and atmosphere, but left me cold in terms of any meaning or voice. This is a minority view, I know. Yet I would constantly meet people who assured me that not only was it a masterpiece, but would apply meanings to the film that felt like complete shots in the dark. My favorite remains a comment from someone who insisted it was the defining film of the Trump era. On purpose Welles is cutting together orgiastic images, meditative shots of a naked woman walking through the desert, and meandering scenes of the young lead riding off on a motorcycle. These moments do not have any clear meaning, but Welles doesn’t intend them to, though he knows someone in the audience will desperately attempt to find substance because, after all, it is Orson Welles.
By 1970 Welles himself was a director chiseled in stone, his body of work so impressive it did not matter that he himself was now narrating TV specials about Nostradamus or King Tut’s treasures (to which he would always add his eloquent flare). Part of Welles must have surely identified with the rebel auteurs of the age like Jean-Luc Godard, who used editing to assault our very sense of reality. Godard’s Weekend uses a road trip by a married couple in the French countryside to imagine capitalism’s ultimate apocalypse, as travelers become guerrillas and cannibals. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles sees Hollywood as cannibalizing itself. The executives only care about profits, if you’re famous your friends simply want to appear basking in your attention, and the money lenders are terrified of anything edgy in the work you’re producing. It is important to remember that with his first film Welles had inspired the wrath of the world’s mightiest newspaper publisher, who nearly succeeded in getting the major studios to cower and destroy the negatives. Before that, in 1938, Welles staged Julius Caesar on Broadway decked in Fascist tones evoking real fears of the age (and our own, one might add). In They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead we hear Welles himself lament that when he made Touch of Evil, where he plays a corrupt police captain in the U.S.-Mexico border, the studio was “horrified.” Of what they were horrified they were never able to clarify.
It is fitting that the center of the film’s universe is Hannaford, brilliantly cast with John Huston, a man who made quite a few masterpieces himself. He is the stereotypical director as god-like ego. His inner circle speaks of him in legendary terms. Hannaford snarls at fools and makes sarcastic, at times eloquent commentary on what he sees around him. It is almost impossible not see this character as a personification of Welles himself, aged, experienced and left bitter by the system. Hannaford is surrounded by characters who all represent something from the world that had absorbed Welles and abused him. There is Susan Strasberg as Julie Rich, a critic modeled after famous New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who wrote a groundbreaking essay claiming Kane belonged more to its writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz , than to Welles, who would hate Kael from then on. Lilli Palmer plays a refined hostess who knows everyone and all the gossip as Hollywood aristocrats tend to do. She lounges on couches, like Cleopatra, and nearly purrs her dialogue. Geoffrey Land appears as a studio head hesitant to give Hannaford the necessary cash to finish the movie, an experience Welles knew all too well. Peter Bogdanovich’s Otterlake is the typical leech basking in his master’s glow while preparing to stab him in the back. In real life Bogdanovich was indeed a Welles student, who then found great success with his tale of wayward youth in the backlands of Texas, The Last Picture Show. But Bogdanovich was a great defender of Welles until the end, going so far as to make it a point to fight back against Kael’s essay. Hannaford creates an alluring orbit of power around him, even as he intimidates with his dark charisma. Whenever I have met directors in person such as Oliver Stone, it is easy to understand what Welles was trying to conjure through this character. Hannaford will throw an acidic glance or make a piercing jab, but he is the great director, the weaver of cinema magic, so everyone instead grants him the authority of a Sultan…except the studio bosses of course.
There is not much of a smooth flow to this film, which is after all assembled from what Welles left behind. But it is a glorious mess that captures the sheer stress and madness of trying to make a movie while maneuvering through the waters of the film industry. Life within this glitzy metropolis, where fortune can seem near yet so far, and fame is ultimate passport to status, anarchy reigns. Early in the film executives watch a test screening, wondering what Hannaford’s movie is even about. At one point Hannaford grabs a rifle and starts shooting dummies of his lead actor, then encourages Kodar (who was Welles’s lover) to do the same. We can imagine Sam Peckinpah, another rebel whose work was continuously chopped by the system, reveling at such a fantasy. Most of the film revolves around parties, which in Hollywood are not so much leisure as politics, “networking” they call it. Getting to know people in the industry you wish to work in is never bad, but here Welles portrays the Hollywood of the late 70s as a shark tank. He would eventually meet the fate of other masters like Fritz Lang, forever loved for the works of their youth. Lang himself would constantly meet with film students dismissive of his Hollywood films, instead eagerly asking about Metropolis, M and his other notable movies from the Weimar Republic.
The Other Side of the Wind is Welles lost in the Age of Aquarius. Of course now it’s all changing yet again, which gives the release of Welles’s fractured opus via Netflix a special irony. The studio system which rejected him is now finding itself under assault by the rise of streaming and the digital revolution. Somewhere in the beyond Welles might be smiling with satisfied sarcasm.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.