Orson Welles famously hated it when critics tried to draw clean lines between his work and his tempestuous inner life, but here goes, anyway: It wasn’t mere bad luck that he died with his self-eviscerating/self-aggrandizing semi-autobiographical summing up, The Other Side of the Wind, in fragments. It was destiny — another, more cosmic, summing up. It was How It Had to Be.
The movie that arrives on November 2 (in theaters and on Netflix, which coughed up the bucks to pry loose the estimated 100 hours of footage from interested parties) is a jaw-dropping bombardment — a teeming, fractured faux documentary of the last day (principally, a 70th-birthday party at an actress’s desert estate) in the life of a madly self-indulgent director, J. J. “Jake” Hannaford (John Huston), intercut with scenes from the film he’s working on and will never have the money to finish, also called The Other Side of the Wind and meant (by Welles, not Jake) as a parody of Antonioni’s lush sex-and-alienation epics.
Just setting the scene leaves me winded, but watching the film is no walk in the park either. It’s a hard first-time watch. Few frames are held for longer than five seconds, and Welles jumps between black-and-white and color and among different film stocks (35-mm., 16-mm., Super 8). Faces pop up and recede into the crowd and pop up again — Hannaford’s lovers, acolytes, enablers, colleagues, actors, fellow directors (recognizable even now: Claude Chabrol, Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom), critics, and hangers-on, as well as documentary cameramen shooting the footage we’re supposedly watching. Hannaford’s chief acolyte — so chief he insists on calling himself an apostle — is penniless film journalist turned rich Hollywood director Brooks Otterlake, played by penniless film journalist turned rich Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich, called on to reenact his weird relationship with Welles on-camera. Welles elevates Bogdanovich and mocks him at the same time. But then, no one gets away clean — not even the audience.
Welles seems to be deconstructing The Other Side of the Wind even as he’s making it, all while blowing raspberries at critics who want to analyze him, frame him, reduce him. (Welles is very sly: When Jake is reminded of Prospero’s decision to abjure his magic at the end of The Tempest, he says he has no idea what abjure means.) The film even features a loud, jabbering super-critic, Welles’s ludicrous fantasy of Pauline Kael (played by Susan Strasberg), who wants the Hemingway-esque Hannaford to come clean about his latent homoerotic inclinations. It’s no wonder that Jake — blotto, broke, knowing that he’ll never get the money to complete The Other Side of the Wind, parts of which he screens for blank-faced guests before the power quits — drives into a ravine.
Don’t dig too deep into The Other Side of the Wind: It’s largely surface. But what a surface. And what a chest of toys for a man who never lost his childlike delight in playing with the medium. Better known in the ’70s as a toddling barrage balloon on talk shows and in Paul Masson commercials, Welles had something to prove. In 1968, he’d made his first color film, the rarely seen Isak Dinesen, a.k.a. Karen Blixen, adaptation The Immortal Story (he hated color — he once told Bogdanovich it made faces “look like meat — veal, beef, baloney”), and its stately rhythm left critics wondering if Welles were old and tired — as old and tired as he looked onscreen in the role of a dying millionaire. Actually, he was young enough to transform his style yet again to suit his material, but now he would make sure to show off his vigor — and even poke fun at himself by having characters poke fun at Jake for trying to compete with young ’60s and ’70s filmmakers. Welles sought to ape the frenetic, often pseudo-documentary techniques of other young directors — to ape, lampoon, and transcend them. In the film-within-a-film, meanwhile, there’s a sex montage between Oja Kodar and Bob Random that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen: She goes down on him in a moving car deluged with rain, rattled by wind, and stabbed with passing lights — a consummation that goes on and on with death and oblivion pressing in.
It was Kodar, Welles’s Croatian-born girlfriend and co-writer, who came up with the film’s title, describing Welles himself as the very embodiment of the wind, a magnificent force of nature with a vulnerable backside. (My double entendre was unintentional, but I’ll let it stand — Kodar has said that men like Welles sleep with other men’s girlfriends as a way of sleeping with those men.) The problem is that the wind is hard to pin down, and there’s a void at the center of The Other Side of the Wind — a hoary, magnificent void but a void nonetheless. With his weathered, totemic mug, all-purpose saturnine grin, and font of cynical rejoinders, Huston has the trappings and suits of a great Welles protagonist, a romantic individualist vanquished by brutal corporate efficiency (here seen in the form of a punk exec modeled on Robert Evans). But just about everything that happens in the film happens around him. It’s no surprise to learn that much of the movie was shot without Huston present: Those actors were looking at the offscreen Welles. The real tragic hero is behind the camera.
A control freak to the core, Welles wanted people to believe that a film director was someone “who presides over accidents” and that with The Other Side of the Wind he was putting himself in the middle of a mêlée, daring the fates. I think he also wanted to be brought down. It’s no coincidence that Welles dies in a lot of the films he directs. (Of the ten in which he appears, he survives in only two, and one of those — The Trial — he wasn’t supposed to act in.) This man who wouldn’t be ruled, who did everything his own way even when it cost him dearly, both professionally and personally, was in love with playing men who experienced the ultimate loss of control and could no longer call the shots.
And of course he couldn’t, finally. Between Welles’s death, in 1985, and the middle of this decade, the footage (shot between 1970 and 1976) had sat on several continents in ill-marked cans, the bulk of them in a Paris vault, at the mercy of financial claims and counterclaims. Welles had blamed, among others, an unsavory Spanish co-producer and the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose revolution rendered everything connected to the overthrown shah the property of the state. (The shah’s brother-in-law had stepped in with financing.) By the reckoning of Filip Jan Rymsza, who co-produced this new assemblage (with Hollywood super-exec Frank Marshall, a production manager on the original film), Welles edited 30 percent of the movie and left behind notes and annotated scripts. It was editor Bob Murawski who labored to channel the spirit of Welles and bring The Other Side of the Wind to the form it’s in now.
Actually, the story of The Other Side of the Wind — how Welles made it and what happened to it after his death — is as illuminating as the film itself, which is why some very smart people at Netflix are bringing it out cheek by jowl with Morgan Neville’s superb free-form documentary of its making, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Here are not just brilliant editors and talking heads — Murawski, Bogdanovich, Kodar, etc. — but all kinds of shots of Welles feeding lines to his actors and trying to keep the whole monstrous enterprise aloft. Some people will want to see Neville’s doc before the feature, but I say see the movie first in a virginal state, dive into the doc, and then rewatch the film. Make it an orgy. Welles would have been tickled to see how the two works mingle and melt together in your mind. The movie and its making are the masterpiece.
*This article appears in the October 29, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!