The fact that this film is being released at all is miraculous. It is a rare privilege whenever a film long-thought to be lost is discovered and then worked to completion, and never before has one come along of this size and prestige. The Other Side of the Wind is legendary director Orson Welles’ final completed film. Forty years after it was initially shot, it has finally been completed. It’s tragic to say this is not the first time something like this has happened to one of Welles’ films. Few films from his filmography have escaped untampered or untainted by some type of outside interference. Some of his films were fortunate enough to receive a restoration as close to his intent as can be approximated without his presence, while others were never completed enough to be given such a treatment.
The Other Side of the Wind sits somewhere in between these two outcomes, as the film was already in the early stages of editing before a web of legal issues and lack of funding prevented Welles from completing the film before his untimely death. The long overdue completion of this film is an unprecedented and historic event. There never has been, nor will there ever be, another film like this.
The events leading up to this film’s long-anticipated release are plagued by tragedy, deceit, hopelessness, and, finally: triumph. The Other Side of the Wind suffered through a long production history due to Welles being unable to obtain funding via traditional means, as with all his later films. This was only made worse when significant portions of the funding were allegedly embezzled from the production, which led to the infamous legal issues that left the film nearly forgotten and abandoned since Welles’ death.
Before passing, Welles asked his close friend, Peter Bogdanovich, to see the film finished someday. “Orson said to me, ‘If anything happens to me, you will make sure you finish it, won’t you?'” For years, Bogdanovich and many others have been working to see that promise through. Nearly 40 years later that promise has been fulfilled, as in March of 2017 it was confirmed that Netflix would fund the completion and release of The Other Side of the Wind, as well as a companion documentary detailing the arduous journey of the film, lovingly named after a quote from Welles towards the end of his life: They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018). And now, the film is released. As of November 2nd The Other Side of the Wind is available through Netflix’s streaming platform, ready to be appreciated and judged by all of us who have been desperately waiting to see what Welles left with this conclusive film.
What you’ll first notice while watching this film is all the various parallels to Welles’ own life as a filmmaker and Hollywood celebrity; as the saying goes, “Art imitates life.” John Huston, a prolific director who, like Welles, made his Hollywood breakthrough with his debut feature in 1941, The Maltese Falcon (1941), stars as a reclusive director returned from exile in Europe to complete his latest experimental film. It is no coincidence that his character Jake Hannaford’s film bears the same name as this film. Just based on these similarities many have labeled Hannaford as a direct reflection of Welles, as many did in 1941 when comparing Citizen Kane (1941) to the life story of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
The similarities in both cases are undeniable for sure, but to try and claim either of them as a one-to-one translation misses the point of Welles’ intentions entirely. As with Kane, Welles drew on multiple inspirations for the character of Hannaford. In the film he is called “The Ernest Hemingway of the cinema,” and this was the initial starting point from where Welles wrote the character. He also shares characteristics of acclaimed directors like John Ford and Michelangelo Antonioni, but Hemingway is the clearest inspiration. The film tells the story of Hannaford’s last day, on his 70th birthday party before he dies in a drunken accident while driving a sports car. Voice-over narration from Bogdanovich’s character, Brooks Otterlake, opens the film, telling us that no one believes it was intentional, but the events leading up to his tragic accident potentially indicate a different motivation by the end.
The story of The Other Side of the Wind is an early example of a mockumentary-style film, advertised as being collected from various sources but actually being intentionally filmed as such. This pre-dates the styling of films such as The Gods Must be Crazy (1980) and This is Spinal Tap (1984), which helped to originally define this type of film, as well as taking a more serious approach to its material than these comedic counterparts. Throughout the film, Hannaford and his “disciples,” as they are called, are followed around by journalists, film students, and hopeful biographers, all looking to gain some insight on the legendary director. The film is made of all different kinds of footage shown from the perspective of these onlookers, ranging from grainy 8mm cameras to black-and-white footage, as well as seeing the glorious 35mm footage of the actual film within the film.
This perspective of an all-seeing-eye provides commentary for the lack of any privacy provided to these celebrated characters, leaving them having to constantly provide a kind of showy persona for their adoring fans. It expands this concept even further in that the lens of the camera is God, meaning that all that is shown is truth. Jean Luc-Godard once said, “The cinema is truth at 24 frames per second,” and that sentiment is true to an extent. Here, everything we see is the unabashed truth but only the truth that Welles wants us to see. Despite appearing so, Welles never intended The Other Side of the Wind to fully mimic reality. There are shots in the film that seem to be from a character with a camera’s perspective, but upon examination make no logical sense or would have been plain impossible given the circumstances. Welles implements the technique of this pseudo-documentary style in whatever way best reveals the truth of his characters and isn’t afraid to drop the facade if it benefits that truth.
There are two truths at the center of this film: truth of the artist, and truth of the art. Jake Hannaford is a troubled, manic, and inspired man. The world he lives in is not understood by those around him and not even completely by himself. He struggles with the repressed guilt of his desires and the chaos his larger-than-life persona causes. His words are always cryptic, and he’s never without a drink in hand. For these reasons his motives and actions are constantly questioned by those around him, attempting to understand what it is this supposed genius has to say.
The film he is making is radical, laden with sexual imagery and challenging ideals. We learn more about the director through his film, even hearing snippets of his direction through the unfinished product. Slowly, we learn bits and pieces about Hannaford’s character, as the mysteries surrounding him begin to unravel. At one point a character proclaims, “What he creates he has to wreck, it’s a compulsion.” Hannaford attempts to use his art to understand more about himself, and in doing so discovers something he must reject. This rejection stems outward, projecting itself on everyone around him in various cruel and violent manners. The actors of his film bear the brunt of his abuse, as evidenced in the verbal lashings they receive in his directions, as well as the traumatic aftermath they endure. By the end of the film, it’s clear how far Hannaford’s conflict within himself has not only permanently damaged himself, but also those around him. Their tragic fates seem inevitable once everything is laid out.
The other key theme of the film is that of filmmaking itself, and very much a commentary on the changes occurring when this film was originally shot. The perversion of cinema is very evident throughout the film, most obviously in the overtly sexual material displayed in Hannaford’s film. Phallic images pervade Welles’ film, making the seemingly ordinary presence of a large boom mic take on new meaning. This again goes back to the actors and their treatment within Hannaford’s film.
Oja Kodar, Welles’ collaborator and long-term girlfriend up until his death, plays a nameless actress with no lines whatsoever. Her character is Native American, though she herself is Croatian. Before dismissing this portrayal as inherently tasteless consider what Welles’ intention may be. Despite the agency her character is given in Hannaford’s film she is still largely objectified as a sexual being. She parades around most of the film completely nude, and without any dialogue isn’t actually given much a character to speak of. Outside the film, in attendance of Hannaford’s party, she is arguably treated even worse. She’s more like wallpaper, sitting around and looking pretty, and if characters need her attention they’ll often bark an offensive name at her like “Pocahontas.” This is Welles’ condemnation of the kind of exploitative filmmaking that took off in the late 60s and early 70s: the kind of perverse films that only exist to satisfy the lustful gaze of the viewer.
The Other Side of the Wind is a profoundly fantastic film to be the last of Welles’ illustrious career. It’s a fitting conclusion for his filmography, mirroring the same pieced-together type narrative that solidified Citizen Kane as a revolutionary film, while providing a commentary on the state of filmmaking as he saw it grow and change in his time. Always the innovator, Welles’ inspired filmmaking proves him yet again a master at his craft. Though we’ve seen this type of film before, never has it been accomplished in such a myriad of different techniques as this, and never on the same level of artistry as Welles. It almost seems destined that this film were to be left incomplete, as the scattered variety of footage involved for the film is like a puzzle beckoning to be constructed into a complete narrative.
Bob Murawski had the impossible task of completing Welles’ final masterpiece, studying the orphaned notes and footage so he could best emulate Welles’ ambitious style. It’s an amazing job all things considered, and nigh impossible to tell where Welles’ editing stops and Murawski’s hand comes in. Perhaps seeing just the 40 minutes Welles edited would reveal more of Murawski’s work, or even seeing the screenplay would enlighten more as to how much liberty he took with Welles’ vision. On the other hand, it may be best to never know these things, as the film is as Wellesian as I had imagined in my grueling anticipation.
At the end of it all, preserving the magic of Welles’ vision is the real accomplishment here. The Other Side of the Wind is an amazingly realized film, but is only so because of all the parties involved. Many thanks are needed to the likes of Murawski, Bogdanovich, Kodar, Frank Marshall, everyone at Netflix, and all the nameless others who over the years have worked tirelessly to see this film through to completion. I myself cannot imagine a better ending to the magnificent career of the great Orson Welles. Like the magician he is, his voice has returned more than 30 years after his passing, stronger than ever, to gift us with his last great accomplishment. If you listen well you can even hear him in the film, the last remnants of this cinematic genius.