Easily one of the most famous unfinished movies in world-cinema history, Orson Welles’ elusive The Other Side of the Wind—filming for which spanned 1970 to 1976—finally entered public view, more or less, when producer Frank Marshall supervised assembly and post-production of Welles’ decades-old footage, leading to a 2018 debut at the Venice International Film Festival. (Marshall was also part of the original Wind crew.) While not exactly a proper completion of the project, since Welles died in 1985 without finishing so much as a rough cut, the Marshall-supervised approximation of Wind is now available for examination by any cinematic explorer with a Netflix password.
Though it seems rather crass to discuss this unique artifact in such mundane terms, the question of whether Wind is worth watching depends entirely on who is asking. Those eager to discover some lost addition to Welles’ mainstream canon should pass without a moment’s hesistation. Those willing to burrow into the madness of a guess at the final form of an experimental film made in an improvisational manner by an artist prone to abandoning projects for reasons that confounded his collaborators should have a better idea of what to expect.
First, the plot, such as it is. John Huston plays J.J. Hannaford, an aging director in the tough-guy mode eager to make a hip new picture full of intense sexual content and youthful angst. One evening, Hannaford assembles his social circle, plus lots of groupies and sycophants, for a work-in-progress screening. Welles shoots the Hannaford scenes with myriad angles, as if everyone at the party has a camera, and he occasionally cuts to more polished footage comprising Hannaford’s picture, the plot of which falls somewhere between cryptic and nonexistent. Sloshing through this soup of intriguing, lofty, and/or pretentious concepts are performances by Peter Bogdanovich, whose character has a twisted apprentice/mentor relationship with Hannfaord (shades of Bogdanovich’s real-life bond with Welles); Susan Strasberg, as a Pauline Kael-esque critic; Norman Foster, as a has-been actor reduced to serving as Hannfaord’s errand boy; and Oja Kodar, Welles’ real-life mistress, as the actress who stars in Hannford’s movie.
As should be apparent by now, this is a whole lot to process, especially since Welles largely eschews conventional plotting mechanisms, forcing viewers to piece the “plot” together. It’s relatively easy to follow the broad strokes, but tracking subplots and the interrelationships of supporting characters is quite challenging. The Other Side of the Wind is so overstuffed that it’s hard for the viewer to separate what the film is trying to be from what the film actually is—the piece demands but only occasionally rewards close scrutiny.
Every so often, a random character will drop a great line, as when someone explains to Hannaford that several acolytes fled: “Five of our best biographers just went over to Preminger!” Just as intermittently, the film locks into a spellbinding stretch—best of all, perhaps, is a long erotic sequence from the film within a film, permeated with so many psychedelic visual effects that it’s both a full-on freakout and a study in meticulous technique. The relationship between the Huston and Bogdanovich characters is poignant and weird, rendered effectively by both actor/directors. (One almost wishes Welles nixed his overbearing visual gimmickry during the characters’ sad falling-out scene.)
Situated dead center in this whole bizarre enterprise is Kodar, who never delivers a line of dialogue and frequently performs without the encumberance of garments. Not only is there something unseemly about Welles crafting arty nude shots of his decades-younger girlfriend, but Kodar is not an especially compelling presence. Her centrality thus provides an apt metaphor representing the way in which Welles misdirected his attentions. His innate talents are evident throughout The Other Side of the Wind, but artistic discipline is wholly absent. In one scene, studio boss Max (Geoffrey Land) views some of Hannaford’s footage, then asks Billy—the errand boy played by Foster—what happens next. Billy’s sheepish reply? “I’m not really sure, Max.” And so it goes throughout this only fleetingly exhilarating glimpse into Welles’ voluptuous creativity.
FYI, Netflix commissioned a feature-length documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making of Welles’ movie. Although it leaves many key mysteries unsolved, the imaginatively assembled doc is essential viewing after experiencing The Other Side of the Wind.
The Other Side of the Wind: FUNKY