LIKE FORBIDDEN FRUIT, a movie that people are prevented from seeing becomes the one they want to see. Orson Welles’s legendary last film, The Other Side of the Wind—which he shot dozens of hours of footage for in sporadic bursts during the course of several years in the 1970s but never finished—had remained unreleased for more than 40 years because of disputes over ownership rights. In the meantime the movie became legendary, a source of cineaste intrigue.
Now, 33 years after Welles’s death in 1985, The Other Side of the Wind has at long last been completed and released. The film is being screened in theaters and shown on Netflix, the studio that finally succeeded where no one else had by untangling the legal mess surrounding The Other Side of the Wind and bringing the film out of limbo and into the flickering light.
A blur of life imitating art and art imitating life, the movie is about itself: a legendary but aging director has returned to Hollywood after a decade of exile in Europe and is trying to make his comeback film, but he can’t finish it for lack of financing in an industry swept by changing public tastes. John Huston, a venerable director in real life, plays the alcoholic moviemaker Jake Hannaford, an amalgam of himself, Welles and Ernest Hemingway.
Not so much a story as a whirling—and often dizzying—kaleidoscope of images and dialogue fragments spliced together from multiple cameras and viewpoints, some in color, others in black-and-white, the movie centers around a 70th birthday party for Hannaford, at which he attempts to screen a cut of his would-be comeback film, also called The Other Side of the Wind. The guests are an entourage of friends, crew members, studio flunkies, movie critics, biographers, sycophants and hangers-on. Peter Bogdanovich, then the hot young director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon and still years away from his own fall from the heights of Hollywood, plays Hannaford’s protégé turned nemesis, the successful young director Brooks Otterlake.
The Other Side of the Wind mirrored Welles’s career and the chaos of its own production, while also foretelling its legacy.
The movie within the movie, the one that Hannaford screens at the party on the last night of his life, is supposed to be his character’s attempt at trendy, artful filmmaking. For Welles, it parodied what he saw as the slow, boring, pointless European movies being made by directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni. Welles’s movie switches back and forth between the party at Hannaford’s ranch in the desert—where the electrical power goes out, rendering incomplete the screening of the incomplete movie—and Hannaford’s film, which contains some stunning shots but is mostly pretentious and empty. Oja Kodar, Welles’s real-life mistress, stars in Hannaford’s movie but has no speaking parts. Her job is to be beautiful, naked and erotic, and she obliges.
The Other Side of the Wind mirrored Welles’s career at the time while also reflecting the chaotic nature of its own production and foretelling its future legacy. Like Hannaford, Welles himself would die at 70, never having completed his final cinematic statement or revived his once-brilliant career.
Welles spent six years filming The Other Side of the Wind on and off, as financing would dry up and then trickle forth again. As author Josh Karp writes in his definitive book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, it was “a film that could never be finished. Because to finish it might have meant the end of Orson’s own artistic story—and that was impossible to accept. So he kept it going and going.” (Karp co-produced a documentary about Welles’s last film. Called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, it is also airing on Netflix.) And since The Other Side of the Wind remained unfinished and unreleased for so long, its mystique grew.
Bogdanovich and Huston, as Otterlake and Hannaford.
It’s reassuring to know that stories can come back to life decades after being declared dead, that a person’s hard work and dreams, even after appearing to have been defeated by external forces, can finally emerge into the world. But in the end, the legend of Orson Welles’s lost masterpiece may have been more interesting than the movie itself. Despite its flashes of genius, Welles’s final film becomes as tedious and pointless as Hannaford’s—which, after all, is what we’re seeing for about half the running time. The other half is a vortex of close-ups of the partygoers’ faces and scraps of dialogue.
In his early teens, Orson Welles studied drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and had a studio on Rush Street. After moving to New York and establishing himself as a wunderkind in theater and radio, he made his name as a film director in 1941 with his landmark first movie Citizen Kane. Like his other films such as The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, Kane combined a compelling story with extraordinary visuals. By comparison, the bookend to Welles’s moviemaking career, The Other Side of the Wind, is mostly style with very little story, making it a chore to watch. After a while, you just want to escape it.
When a movie is renowned because few people have been allowed to see it, fascinating audiences with the lure of the unobtainable, its mystery vanishes when it’s at last shown to the public. The fact that Orson Welles’s final movie has been extricated from the legal and financial knots that had held it hostage and out of view for more than 40 years will have film nerds lining up for screenings and tuning in to Netflix to watch it. But then The Other Side of the Wind becomes what it likely would have been four decades ago had it been completed and released on a more traditional schedule: an art-house curiosity or midnight movie that soon fades into obscurity.
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Greg Beaubien’s first novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Shadows the Sizes of Cities.