Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Orson Welles & Oja Kodar
Composer: Michel Legrand
Starring: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Cameron Mitchell, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Bob Random, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart, Gregory Sierra, Tonio Selwart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll, Stafford Repp, Joseph McBride
When Orson Welles began his directing career his first motion picture became the highest praised film in the history. For the rest of his life, he lived under the massive shadow of that victory as he struggled to find support for his late period works like The Trial and Chimes at Midnight. Thanks in part to Netflix we now have the opportunity to watch what was considered one of Welles’ lost masterpieces.
Violence/Scary Images: A girl holds a knife to a boy.
Language/Crude Humor: Significant language including f***, s***, and multiple blasphemies.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink and smoke heavily.
Sexual Content: Significant female nudity throughout, one graphic sex scene, discussions of sex.
Spiritual Content: Some snide references to religion.
Other Negative Content: Implied pedophilia in one scene.
If Citizen Kane represents the fruitful start of Orson Welle’s prolific film career then The Other Side of the Wind represents the diminishing end. Welles started life as a famous, attractive, beloved celebrity with the world at his fingertips and ended it exiled, indebted, and iconoclastic. After nearly two decades making films in Europe and scratching by on meager financial support, the one-time creator of the greatest film in Hollywood history returned to his former stomping grounds in 1970. He entered Hollywood in what many consider a golden age of the industry. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s the studio system had broken down so utterly that they’d been forced to take massive creative risks to stay afloat.
As a result, a brand new generation of young, radical filmmakers took the reins and created a slate of motion pictures ranging in tone, complexity, and artistry from 2001, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and The Deer Hunter to high-concept blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman. This was the perfect moment for Welles to galavant through the industry’s doors and start making demands. Instead, he did the opposite. He turned his attention to a smaller, low-budget, and highly-ambitious excoriation of that same industry that had once held him up so high. He was, as ever, a self-described maverick and one not inclined to bend a knee to the money changers.
The Other Side of the Wind became his obsession. Without the proper backing and financing Hollywood traditionally afforded the movie became the most famous tumultuous production in history. Over the course of 1970 to 1976, the film did principle photography across California and Arizona at multiple locations, utilizing student filmmakers and often playing fast and loose with permits. Welles had to continually stop and start the production at the behest of his ability to self-finance by taking acting jobs on the side.
The film was co-conceived with cinematographer Gary Graver who himself had sought out the elderly Welles while he was staying at a local hotel and was immediately embraced by the master. Welles considered it good luck on the grounds that his last cinematographer Greg Toland had sought him out and embraced Graver. However, Graver didn’t have Toland’s backlog. He primarily made his money by shooting softcore films to make ends meet but when Welles gave him the opportunity for a big break he jumped in feet first.
As the production neared completion Welles sought desperate help from all sorts of financiers and found an unlikely partner in the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. Matters took a turn for the worse when the Iranian Revolution threw the royal family into chaos and resulted in the film’s negatives being locked indefinitely in a French vault for what ended up being nearly forty years. Welles died in 1985 before he could cobble together the nearly 100 hours of footage and Gary Graver subsequently attempted to piece the film together but he too passed away before he could finish. It was clear to those surviving inheritors of the Welles estate as well as surviving crew that the film would need a much larger push to bring Welles’ final creation to the screen. Three years ago, they found a possible answer.
In May of 2015, the surviving crew and members of the Welles estate launched an Indiegogo campaign asking for $2 million to finance the film’s restoration. I myself contributed $50 to the campaign in an effort to show my support to what I deemed a valuable artistic endeavor. Despite massive contributions from multiple members of the Hollywood establishment the campaign ultimately failed and only managed to secure less than $500,000. While the wheels of progress had slowed the campaign didn’t stop behind closed doors.
Within two years the team had managed to secure an additional $5 million in funding from Netflix to begin the monumental restoration task. At long last, the film’s post-production went underway in March 2017. Helmed by The Hurt Locker editor Bob Murawski and overseen by former Welles associates like Peter Bogdanovich, the year-long process of sorting and scanning film and editing and composing The Other Side of the Wind went into action. The goal was to have the film prepped by spring of 2018 to make the qualification for the Cannes Film Festival but it ultimately didn’t compete due to a last-minute rule change excluding films distributed by streaming services.
Netflix released The Other Side of the Wind on November 2nd, accompanied by a pair of documentaries about its production. A Final Cut for Orson depicted the post-production process, the difficulties inherited by the post-production teams, and the fascinating solutions the team turned to overcome the massive hurtles of editing so much raw footage. The second documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, comes from documentarian Morgan Neville whose fresh off of his recent success earlier this year with Won’t You Be My Neighbor and his previous successes with The Best of Enemies and 20 Feet From Stardom. He based his documentary on Josh Karp’s excellent novel Orson Welles’ Last Film. Both are vital and excellent companion pieces that paint the depths and difficulties of the work and its troubled production processes in their fullness. The film took 48 years to complete and outlived its creator and now fans of the greatest director in history can finally see it.
The Otherside of the Wind is a scathing indictment of the contemporary new Hollywood of the 1970s. So much of film culture in the wake of the destruction of old Hollywood had been to lionize the idea of the auteur filmmaker. The auteur theory in filmmaking suggested that the way to properly analyze and digest a film was to consider it the full embodiment of the director’s vision. The director ought to be recognized as the sole artist at the driver’s seat of a massive production whose will dictates every frame that the viewer ultimately comes to watch.
This was a philosophy Welles never agreed with. Welles looked back on his successes as collaborative in nature. He knew just how intelligent and capable he was but he never took sole credit for his accomplishments. The Otherside of the Wind was Welles’s attempt to lay his philosophy of filmmaking bare. The story reveals the fullness of what we come to understand as a once great Hemmingway-esque director in the final hours of his life as an elderly suicidal fool, a misogynist, and a man suffering from deep existential anxieties that may or may not have ultimately driven him to alcoholism and suicide.
The movie starts on a brief narration by the man we come to know as that great director’s protege looking back on the one time master in the aftermath of what we come to understand was a fatal car crash. The framing device is that of a mockumentary depicting the last day of this legendary director’s life. Peter Bogdanovich, the man who in real life was Welles’ protege and close friend, narrating adds a fascinating layer to the film. The original plan was for Welles to deliver the speech but he never recorded it in time. Changing a few lines of dialog allowed for opening exposition to ring with a sadness and nostalgia founded in the real-life tragedy. The speech itself is vital to the movie’s context. We’re supposed to understand that everything that happens in the story is colored by the fact that the main character would be dead within a few hours. It’s made intentionally vague as to whether Jake’s death is an accident or suicide but that’s part of the point.
While the recontextualized speech suggests that this is a movie about the relationship between a protege and his master, the lead character, named Jake Hannaford’s, actual connection to Orson Welles is questionable. Welles stated that Jake was never intended to be a stand-in for himself. There’s some evidence to this in that the actual Orson Welles was a far more gentle soul than his megalomaniacal reputation permitted. That being said it’s generally considered that Jake is a pretty naked stand-in for Welles in some aspects of his life. Both were exiled American great filmmakers who fled to Europe and returned to Hollywood in the 1970s. Both had significant money troubles. Both were womanizers and egotists.
Whatever the truth is meant to be from Orson, Hannaford’s role in the story proper is clear. He’s an ugly, depressive, and self-destructive soul on his last legs as his indulgent and disturbingly revealing art-film flounders without proper financing. Hannaford is portrayed by John Huston who began his career as the director of classic films like The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep, and The African Queen.
He was a man’s man of a director and regularly partnered with Humphrey Bogart on pictures together at the height of their careers. He was also a famous drunk who once mutually avoided suffering from a malaria outbreak during the production of The African Queen due to him and Bogart’s rampant drinking. Neither of them drank water for the entirety of their trip. The rest of the cast and crew did. Huston’s penchant for alcoholism combined with his character’s damaged masculinity creates a unique and melancholic performance rooted in the tragic downfall of a once great artist.
The film’s documentary style offers us some of the most interesting insights into the presentation. We come to see it in one of two styles as it is presented largely in a combination of different camera formats brought about by the real world limitations Welles’ grappled with as a low-budget filmmaker. Since what we’re seeing is supposedly just archival footage of Jake’s last day on earth it is grainy and claustrophobic. The actors even lampshade the trope by calling attention to the overly large number of people walking around his house with cameras. Despite being dually a wrap party and a birthday celebration for Jake the characters occasionally poke fun at the gratuitous number of camera operators by calling out just how unlikely some of the camera placements are. Some of the best laughs come from the camera cutting to seeing another cameraman sitting in an awkward position adamantly taping the situations.
The style completely shifts during the segments dedicated to the movie within the movie segments where we get to see snippets of Jake’s exploitation art film presented. These scenes range from some of the most psychedelic and engrossing moments into some of the creepiest. Late in the story for one we are forced to endure an intimate love scene film shoot wherein the set audio had yet to be replaced so all of the romantic caressings of the characters is commented upon by the creepy elderly voice of the director egging the couple on. It’s clear that the film is a largely naked expression of Jake’s sexual insecurities and desires and seeing them play out at times gets rather uncomfortable. For these scenes, the film’s style changes completely from the claustrophobic grain of the mockumentary footage to widescreen technicolor. It’s as though Jake’s protege is cutting between the footage of his master’s lost film and the archival footage of the night in question in real time.
In a documentary entitled The Lost Pictures of Orson Welles, Welles’ former lover Oja Kodar described her one-time artistic partner and lover as “the wind.” To her, he was a force of nature. The Other Side of the Wind is a movie about a director who makes a movie called The Otherside of the Wind where he displays the fullness of his insecurities and dies before he completed the film. Orson Welles in an act of unintentional hubris lived out this prophetic story, dying before his work was finished and leaving behind him a film that offered the fullness of his life laid bare. Welles believed he existed to make great art and frequently suffered the indignity of irrelevance.
With his final film, we see another shade of the man that we lost with his death. We see a flawed, sad man facing down the cruelty of life as he buried himself in his vices and watch the accomplishments he built around him crumble for reasons both in and out of his control. As the cliche saying goes, the greatest story Welles ever told was his own. He had a remarkable way of capturing his life in his art. This film is a once in a lifetime accomplishment of love and affection resurrected by people who fought for decades to make it happen. The Other Side of the Wind is a masterpiece and the best film of 2018.
+ Spectacular Story of a Brilliant Director's Fall from Grace + Complex and Experimental Shooting/Editing Style + Solid Performances from John Huston and the Lead Actors + Great Editing/Music Composition
- Some Creative Decisions that Might Not Have Been the Artist's Original Vision - Some Bizarre/Weak Performances of Side Characters
The Bottom Line
The Other Side of the Wind is a masterpiece resurrected from the dead. What was once just a large pile of abandoned filmstock in a French vault has become a living breathing monument to one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived.