For decades, we’ve known that Orson Welles shot The Other Side of the Wind in the first half of the 1970s but that the footage was never edited and a hundred or so hours of it was sitting on a shelf – tied up in financial/legal limbo thanks to the Fall of the Shah of Iran, a political-cultural event which also lead to the death of Sid Vicious and brought to power Ronald Reagan. Now, thanks to an infusion of cash from Netflix – a production/distribution entity which would have seemed like science fiction when Welles was shooting – and the work of editor Bob Murawski, under the supervision of interested parties Beatrice Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, we can see an actual finished film. Whether it’s what Welles would have done with the material had he been able or inclined to carry the project to term is not the point. It’s part of the Orson Legend that all his films save Citizen Kane exist in forms that were wrested from him and worked over and over again – some of which he wrested back and played with even more. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that any number of other cuts of The Other Side of the Wind could be assembled, and we’d still have less difficulty settling on a definitive text than we have deciding which cut of Touch of Evil to select for viewing from a BluRay set that seemingly has up to half a dozen.
It’s possible this counts as an abandoned project rather than an uncompleted one – but, let’s face it, the same is true of The Magnificent Ambersons, which Welles could have fought for but opted to take a long and self-indulgent South American holiday instead. He came back from that with a lot of footage but no film too. And, even setting aside Don Quixote, there’s The Deep – a near-complete thriller (based on the novel later filmed as Dead Calm) from the late ‘60s that languishes in an even more obscure film vault. All Welles’ films feel like ghost stories – so many of them are set in haunted houses – and he remains as ghost auteur, a whale-like spectral presence lingering in film culture. Attending one of the scant cinema screenings – at lunchtime in the Phoenix, with male cineastes of a certain age – was much like going to a séance, only the ghost is the one asking ‘is there anybody there?’ Devised with his late-in-life companion Oja Kodar, who also figures as one of the enigmas of F for Fake, The Other Side of the Wind is a scurrilous Hollywood story packed full of a clef characters – it’s so bitter about the film industry that you’d swear it was based on a novel by an aggrieved screenwriter rather than fabulated out of nothing by an underemployed genius.
One reason for that high exposure-to-edit ratio is that Welles hits on something like found footage – after we see a still photo of the mangled car in which ageing director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) has died in a crash, the bulk of the film takes place at the ranch house birthday party the evening before, to which Hannaford has invited dozens of folks with cameras to chronicle the event. The conceit is that the film is woven together from all these takes, which accounts for switches between colour and black and white and various qualities and aspect ratios. During the party, Hannaford screens footage from his stalled work in progress – also called The Other Side of the Wind – which turns out to be a widescreen, richly-coloured, wordless arty counterculture meander that echoes Russ Meyer, Sergio Leone and Michelangelo Antonioni. In one of Welles’ many critic-defusing asides, someone sneers at Hannaford for trying to keep up with the kids – and the living embodiment of the parade having gone by is Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), a Hannaford fan-disciple-critic who has abandoned his long-in-the-works biography to become a currently successful studio director.
Welles’ voice is heard as one of the party documentarians, tossing questions at folk, but notably didn’t cast himself as Hannaford. The few details we’re given about Hannaford’s career don’t jibe with either Welles or Huston – more novels have used Huston as a model of troublesome great director than any other true-life character – and the film within a film is on the knife-edge between parody and pastiche. The many who poke fun at it or are bored or puzzled aren’t in the wrong, and there’s a sense that this is the self-doubting Orson trying to fake himself – in so many of his interviews, he’s testy and prickly and torn between pride in and contempt for his films. Huston would just shrug this one off and go on to the next gig, hoping for The Dead or Under the Volcano but happy to do The Mackintosh Man or Annie in the meantime. Hannaford is also compared to Hemingway (uh oh) and Huston plays him as a dry shambles of a man, croaking comebacks but obviously on the last day of his life … The most knowing element of the film is the relationship between Hannaford and Otterlake, and Bogdanovich plays a version of himself with much the same endearing semi-amateurishness as he does in Targets. At a first viewing, it’s an exhausting experience – the party chat is non-stop aphorisms, and the camerawork has that Blair Witch dizzying quality – with lumps of undigested early 1970s daring that pin it in time to the moment of its making.
Also present at the party are Julie Rich (Susan Strasberg), a sniping critic (Pauline Kael?) who needles Hannaford about a scarcely-buried secret, and Billy Boyle (Norman Foster), a long-time fixer who struggles with the practicalities of executing his boss’s orders. Plus Lilli Palmer as a Marlene-like hostess, character actors as in and out members of the auteur’s entourage (Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Tonio Selwart, even Stafford Repp from Batman), film folk playing themselves (Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington, Claude Chabrol, Stephane Audran, George Jessel) and on-their-way-to-somewhere faces (William Katt, Gregory Sierra, Frank Marshall, Cameron Crowe). And multiple mannequins posed on rocks to represent the protégé who has walked off the set of the film after being forced to do a nude sex scene on bare bedsprings. There’s an intricate backstory about John Dale (Bob Random), who might be based on Mark Frechette (the lead of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point), and the way he came to Hannaford’s attention. Welles obviously liked the idea of the older genius sexually fixated on a charismatic youth since he reused it in The Big Brass Ring, a script he could never get financed (though it was eventually filmed by George Hickenlooper). Hannaford’s rosebud seems to be John Dale’s buttocks, but Orson might be laughing at himself here – we hope so.