I finally saw Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind now that it has “debuted” on Netflix. After all these years – shooting on the film began in 1970 and was not finished when Welles died in 1985 – others have finished the editing.
The film is pretty messy. Right off, it is a film-within-a-film. There is the black and white documentary a crew is shooting about the director at the center of the movie. John Huston, a real director, plays Jake Hannaford, an aging director trying for one last successful film. And there is the color footage for the movie Hannaford is trying to finish, The Other Side of the Wind.
Welles started the film after his return to Hollywood after 22 years of being an self-imposed ex-pat in Europe. Of course, Hannaford will be seen as Welles. (Welles said later he regretted not taking the part himself.) The film within the film is a satire of the avant-garde films of the New Hollywood of the 1970s. It reminds me of Zabriskie Point, a 1970 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The Arizona house where Welles shot the party scenes looks like the house Antonioni blew up in his film.
The film often seems improvised, and Welles did like magical accidents that occur on a set. But it was scripted. That party has a bunch of directors (Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, Curtis Harrington, Claude Chabrol and Dennis Hopper) appearing as themselves.
After many stops and starts, principal photography ended in 1976. Welles did some editing in the 1980s but all kinds of things stopped him from finishing, including, I suspect, some of his own confusion on how to shape it into a coherent film.
Now, 137 million Netflix subscribers in 190 countries can see the film. Would Welles be happy to have a shot at that mass audience? Probably, yes. But I doubt it will get that many viewers. It is most appealing to Welles fans like myself who are curious. There are a good number of us who check out sites like wellesnet.com. But I wouldn’t even ask my wife to watch it. Like many people, she would bail out after 15 minutes.
I watched the film and then I watched Morgan Neville’s the companion feature-length documentary by Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor) called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and then I watched Ryan Suffern’s 38-minute documentary short “A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making.”
Oja Kodor was Welles’ lover and collaborator in the last part of his life. She is the actress in the film-within-the-film and she worked on the script. She said that in later years she thought the best thing to do with the footage was to make a documentary about it rather than try to complete the film Orson intended to make. She might have been correct. She also got the self-admitted prude Welles to add some nudity and sex into the film. (She is the nudity.)
The movie is full of cameos and it was fun to try spotting them. For younger viewers, it would be a trivia challenge to identify most of them, such as vaudevillian George Jessel. He toasts Hannaford as “the Ernest Hemingway of the cinema, the Murnau of the American motion picture. Who Murnau is, I don’t remember.” (The film is supposed to take place on July 2, 1961, the day Hemingway committed suicide.) Susan Strasberg plays a tough critic who is probably based on Pauline Kael. She says about Hannaford that “What he creates, he has to wreck, it’s a compulsion.” Critic Kael’s wrote an article called “Raising Kane” in The New Yorker in 1971 which pissed Welles off bigtime. Lilli Palmer is an aging Marlene Dietrich type and Orson’s buddies Mercedes McCambridge and Paul Stewart pop in and out.
Director Peter Bogdanovich played a “cineaste” in the early shooting and then became a young director in later shoots. Of course, Peter was a young director in real life. His own very successful first film was The Last Picture Show in 1971. Bogdanovich was also a friend of Welles for many years and wrote and made films about him.
Netflix doesn’t like theatrical releases, but it will appear in a dozen cinemas in eight states. Welles probably wouldn’t be into people watching his film on TV screens, tablets, laptops and smartphones. He would have been happy that before Netflix it played in about 20 cities worldwide at special screenings following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August.