Twilight of the Idol: Orson Welles’s Long Lost The Other Side of the Wind

Reviewed by Alci Rengifo

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.

Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind.

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.

Dennis Hopper, John Ford and John Huston during filming

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.

On set, Actor Robert Random (as John Dale, the taciturn lead in Hannaford’s “movie”) and Director Orson Welles.

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. . .

John Huston, Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of The Other Side of the Wind

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