This article is part of my “Some Kind of a Man”: The Orson Welles Blogathon. Thanks to everyone who contributed!
On October 10, 1985, Orson Welles suffered a fatal heart attack at his Hollywood home while working on the script for a TV production called Orson Welles’s Magic Show. Hours earlier he’d taped a session of the Merv Griffin Show, the last bit of video ever captured of him in his lifetime. Welles left unfinished at that time his last and ultimate movie project: The Other Side of the Wind, a bizarre satirical epic he’d begun filming in 1970 and which was supposed to be his grand return to Hollywood. Although everyone thought the story of Orson Welles was over, miraculously, more than 30 years later, The Other Side of the Wind achieved wide release on Netflix in the autumn of 2018. This represents one of the most epic feats of resurrection in the history of movies: Welles, dead for over three decades, finally had his long-awaited laugh at the excesses of Hollywood. You can’t keep a good man down, even, apparently, when he’s dead.
The Other Side of the Wind is a very strange film. It’s a mockumentary about Hollywood itself, told in a frenetic and self-indulgent style, and nothing really makes much sense. Beginning with a brief narration apparently from the present (2010s) by one Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdonavich), the film launches backwards in time to the 1970s to chronicle the last day alive of iconic filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston), who’s throwing a wild party at his desert mansion for various proteges, hangers-on, gossip columnists and people associated with the film he’s currently making, which is also called The Other Side of the Wind. Occasionally we see rushes from this unfinished film, featuring a sex goddess (Oja Kodar) and the sexy young longhair John Dale (Bob Random), who apparently walked off the set and is now imperiling the completion of the picture. After a booze-soaked party and a partial screening of The Other Side of the Wind at a drive-in, a totally smashed Hannaford drives off in a car he intended to give Dale, who has just reappeared; Hannaford wrecks the car, killing himself, and presumably The Other Side of the Wind dies unfinished with him.
The trailer for The Other Side of the Wind communicates the film’s gravitas and bizarreness, but little of its sense of humor. That’s a shame, because it is a funny film.
The story behind The Other Side of the Wind (the real film) is legendary, and I’ll only briefly touch on it here. Welles, who in 1970 was living on the Spanish island of Ibiza, filmed bits and pieces of the picture, and cast about Europe and Hollywood endlessly searching for financing to finish it. Much of the picture was filmed in 1974, including the party scenes with John Huston that give the movie what narrative backbone it possesses. Financial disasters and repeated halts in production made everyone skeptical the film would be completed. And it did sit in cans for years, when a legal agreement between Oja Kodar and one of Welles’s daughters, reached only in the past few years, enabled a concerted effort by Welles’s surviving friends to finish it. Netflix, an institution that didn’t exist during Welles’s lifetime, provided the main thing that he could never find in his life: someone who was actually willing to distribute it.
Although most of it is “about” Jake Hannaford and the party, the most stunning thing about The Other Side of the Wind is the host of sequences shot for the film-within-a-film, which lack narrative structure (by design) and appear to involve a sexual cat-and-mouse game between Kodar and Random. In these stunning sequences we see, once more, the visionary auteur who made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles plays with glass buildings, slatted sunlight, motorcycles, concrete slabs and the ruins of a Western movie set as a colossal paint box, spinning images of stunning grandeur, popping in 1970s wide-screen color and with 2010s digital processing. The sexual energy in these scenes is delicious. Random is androgynous and attractive regardless of your gender, and his 7-minute (!) sex romp with Oja Kodar, taking place mostly in a car on a rainy night, is one of the greatest sex scenes I think I’ve ever seen in a movie of any era (and that is saying something). The final joke of the picture is Kodar attacking a giant inflatable penis with a knife. What does it mean? Who cares? This is Welles having as much fun as he’s ever had making a movie.
Probably because it’s a recent movie now on Netflix, there are very few clips from The Other Side of the Wind available. Here is one, apparently taken from footage incorporated into a pre-2018 Orson Welles documentary.
The party scenes are less grandiose, many of them in black-and-white, and only marginally more coherent. Hannaford appears to be a pretty rough character, seldom without a tumbler of hard liquor in his hand, and the people he’s wronged and who bear him grudges pile up like suspects in a mystery adapted from an Agatha Christie novel. The relationship between Hannaford and Otterlake is mysterious, but it ultimately hints at betrayal or at least mutual disappointment. There’s also a parade of aging Hollywood who’s-that-guys, including Dennis Hopper, Edmund O’Brien and Paul Stewart (a long-time Welles collaborator), who all apparently play caricatures of people who annoyed the real Welles during his long career. It seems to be one big inside joke, and I guess you had to be part of the Hollywood establishment in the early 1970s to understand it all.
The film contains so many in-jokes and subtle references that you’d need a Ph.D. in cinema studies to understand even half of them. It’s by total chance–and a looking-up of trivia on the Internet–that I learned the mansion where the party scenes were filmed is next door to the Arizona house featured in (and repeatedly blown up in) Michelangelo Antonioni’s dreadful epic Zabriskie Point, one of the worst films ever made and even more incomprehensible than this one. The scene where people are shooting at cardboard dummies strewn around in the rocks must mean something, but I’m clueless. Knowing Welles as I do, though–and you must understand F for Fake to get this–I suspect there’s less going on here than meets the eye. Welles loved trickery and artifice, and he loved laughing at pretentious people taking things too seriously. Maybe he would have laughed at this blogger writing a dissertation on his final joke picture, 34 years after his death; if so, I join in the laughter. It’s all supposed to be fun.
Here, movie vlogger Jor-Els Alexandria reviews The Other Side of the Wind. He liked it as much as I did. He also drops a reference to one of my favorite books, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. (NSFW language)
Welles’s later work, and especially The Other Side of the Wind, hits me in a sympathetic place. As with F for Fake, even though it’s not really that successful as a movie, it makes me want to write a book that’s in the same style or resonates in the same spirit. Indeed, in one of my many notebooks where I scribble down ideas, I’ve got some notes on the narrative structure of The Other Side of the Wind, as an exercise to see perhaps what a novel in the same structure might look like–if I can ever figure it out. Thus Welles’s last film joins my probably never-to-be-consummated list of literary ambitions, like writing a “Russian” novel, that sometimes appeal to me in my increasingly rare moments of spare time, when I’m not teaching history online or writing books about climate change. The Other Side of the Wind is a rare film that feels like a very expensive and very unique toy that Orson Welles gave to me, as an adult, not in a mocking or self-important way, but as an honest and kindred spirit, from one creative to another. I of course never knew Orson Welles, as Peter Bogdonavich and Oja Kodar did. But it’s true that films sometimes feel like they “speak” to us, personally and on a knowing level beyond how they engage with general audiences. The Other Side of the Wind speaks to me on that level.
The Other Side of the Wind is not Orson Welles’s best movie. But I think it’s fair to say that, strange as it is, it’s probably my favorite. If this blogathon–which is now closing and which I thank everybody who participated–was a film festival, perhaps on the island of Ibiza, with several long days of screenings of his work interspersed with dinners and cocktail parties, you would probably catch me at the showing of Citizen Kane and maybe the first half of The Magnificent Ambersons, and then I would probably retreat to the bar with a glass of wine to enjoy the company more than the pictures. Except for the very last screening, which would invariably be The Other Side of the Wind: I would be right there in the front row, listening to Welles’s deep baritone voice in my head: “The joke’s on you, Dr. Munger, but as you don’t seem to mind, you have my respect.”
Some kind of a man, indeed.
The screenshot for The Other Side of the Wind is copyright (C) 2018 by Netflix. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.