The best part about watching Orson Welles’s last film is the big man at the centre of the narrative.
Welles comes across as ambitious, intrepid, as well as stymied. The Other Side of the Wind has an accompanying documentary, Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which documents the making of this last, inexhaustible work. Welles left around 100 hours of footage behind, and what has been culled out of it for The Other Side of the Wind, a loose narrative around the making of an experimental, Euro-centric soft porn film, has a burnt-out credo and humour about what is traditional and what is in vogue, what is real and what is fantasy. He has used various kinds of cameras, colours and textures in the film, but what shines is his statement about cinema itself: How does a fallen genius live up to a culture of film-making perennially riding on new waves?
Welles mocks European traditions of non-linear narratives that America borrowed in the 1970s through the character of a soft porn director, Jake Hannaford (played by Welles’s friend, director John Huston) soaked in self-loathing machismo and misogyny and on his last legs. The film has been shot in Spain, the deserts of Arizona, unused corners of big Hollywood studios and a house in Bel Air, incidentally next to the one Michelangelo Antonioni blew up in his film Zabriskie Point (1970), which was an ode to 1970s’ American counterculture.
The Other Side of the Wind was pieced together by one of Welles’s proteges, Peter Bogdanovich, who also plays a role in the film, and Hollywood producer Frank Marshall. Welles spent six years shooting the film, and struggled with funds for it. Netflix funded the project and released it on its online platform recently.
It is a film within a film. Hannaford’s film about a man named John Dale (a Jim Morrison lookalike) chasing a woman played by Oja Kodar, a Croatian-born actress. Kodar was Welles’s “last muse”, and she also wrote the script of the film with the director. Between sex scenes shot in psychedelic light and the nude woman walking in expansive deserts and claustrophobic urban ruins, we see the director explaining what he is trying to do. He doesn’t exactly know his purpose with the film. The project is sinking. We see him and his collaborators hang out with peers, real directors of Hollywood at that time, talk about why they make films.
In the midst of this grand, self-defeating project, the director is being pursued by a belligerent journalist on the sets. Legendary American film critic Pauline Kael wrote a scathing critique of Welles’s most celebrated film Citizen Kane (1941), challenging his one-man view of the world, and it is obvious Welles wanted to portray a deviously intrusive version of Kael in his film.
Hannaford’s racism and misogyny are astonishing in their casualness. He refers to the character of the leading Native Indian character played by Oja Kodar as “Pocahontas”.
So is this director in The Other Side of the Wind a self-portrait of Welles? Did he make one last attempt to make sense of his failing legacy through this character? In the accompanying documentary, Welles says the film has no autobiographical resonance. It is, he says, an immersive experiment with form. But it is difficult to believe him. Hannaford is a rakish iconoclast. The film he is shooting is a send-up of the surrealist films of the European directors, most notably, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Parallels between Hannaford and Welles are obvious, including the fact that when he started The Other Side of the Wind, Welles was in exile in Europe, unable to get an American studio to hire him.
Welles wrote, produced, directed and acted in Citizen Kane. For the first time, a director blocked his frames and moved the camera in ways that were to become gold standards for storytelling devices in Hollywood. The scene in Touch of Evil (1958), where a shattering hall of mirrors becomes a metaphor for moral dilemmas, is an example of how Welles pushed the limits of the medium to convey emotions and conflicts in his work. His later career, after the 1960s, couldn’t live up to his smashing early success.
The making of The Other Side of the Wind is a story of profligacy, self-destruction, and as the film and the accompanying documentary shows, delusion. By that time, he was alarmingly overweight. At one point during a press meet, a journalist asks Welles what is cinema, to which Welles replies, “It is divine accident.” He says with The Other Side of the Wind, he was in search of a series of divine accidents. “Sometimes a film is what you can’t see or talk about.”
It’s clear he had no way of getting out of or finding a resolution for this last project, it had become a way of living. His cinematographer Gary Graver says in a speech included in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead that he had no idea what to do after the day Welles died, which, incidentally, was the day parts of the documentary were shot.
As Welles says in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, some films are films because they aren’t made. He meant The Other Side of the Wind to be a comeback masterpiece that would break moulds and force new ways of seeing. In its non-existence, this film could’ve been a masterpiece. It certainly isn’t the way it is now. But by releasing it, Netflix has done a service to film history. The Other Side of the Wind is not just a film geek’s new watch. It is film history in an intriguing, mainstream capsule.