Now that The Other Side of the Wind is finally here, forty-eight years after Orson Welles began shooting it and over three decades since his death, some critics and Wellesians are understandably reluctant to pass immediate judgement. “I need to see the film more than once in order to get to grips with it,” wrote David Bordwell after last month’s world premiere of the newly reconstructed version in Venice. Film historian Joseph McBride, the author of three books on Welles who actually appears in The Other Side of the Wind, also notes that he’ll need “a chance to think about it further,” even though what he saw during the U.S. premiere in Telluride “exceeds even my high expectations.”
On Saturday, New York Film Festival director Kent Jones will be joined by Martin Scorsese as they moderate a conversation with a long, formidable roster of panelists. The participants are Hollywood producer Frank Marshall, Welles’s production manager during the shoot and a major proponent for the completion of the project over these past decades; European producer Filip Jan Rymsza, who’s been crucial in securing the rights necessary for that completion from Welles’s daughter and sole heir, Beatrice, and Oja Kodar, Welles’s partner during the later years of his life; director Peter Bogdanovich, a close friend of Welles who appears in The Other Side of the Wind as a character very much like himself; editor Bob Murawski, who’s shaped the hundred hours or so of footage Welles shot from 1970 to 1976 into a two-hour feature; and Morgan Neville, who’s directed a documentary about the film’s making, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Following another NYFF screening on October 10, Netflix, which provided the final round of funding for the reconstruction, will begin streaming it on November 2.
The Other Side of the Wind is not only the title of Welles’s final narrative feature but also that of the film within the film, directed by the cantankerous Jake Hannaford, played by another of Welles’s old friends, John Huston. Many have suggested that Hannaford’s Other Side of the Wind is Welles’s jab at Zabriskie Point, and yet, as Robert Abele observes at TheWrap: “Even when Welles is in parody mode—turning loose a majestically nude, dusky-hued Oja Kodar (credited as Wind co-screenwriter) and boyish hunk Bob Random in stark, color-saturated and surface-reflective urban landscapes straight out of Antonioni (and studio backlots)—he still can’t help but make these consciously abstract images some of the most dynamic of his career.”
Hannaford screens his incomplete film at his seventieth birthday party attended by old pals like Claude Chabrol, hotshot young directors like Dennis Hopper (and more than one reviewer has suggested that there’s a thematic overlap between Wind and Hopper’s The Last Movie), film critics played by McBride and Susan Strasberg (whose barbed questions aimed at Hannaford suggest that Welles was thinking of Pauline Kael), and other hangers-on. And all of them are wielding cameras. These party sequences are made up entirely of the attendees’ “found footage.” Ten years before Cannibal Holocaust and nearly twenty before The Blair Witch Project, Welles had invented a new form of narrative. As David Bordwell notes, Welles once told his trusted cinematographer Gary Graver: “I have to be steps ahead of everybody. I have to be more inventive and do things that nobody has done.”
But while the film is forward-looking in its form, some have already noted that it also reflects unsavory racial and sexual attitudes from the period. Reviewing The Other Side of the Wind for Screen, Jonathan Romney suggests that it’s “a safe bet that many contemporary viewers will find the film confusing, abrasive, pretentious, and antediluvian in its sexual politics.” In the New York Times, Brooks Barnes calls the film “a politically incorrect fever dream that involves dwarf sidekicks, Ms. Kodar in ‘redface’ as a Native American woman,” and “’70s-era views of women (disposable) and inclusion (nonexistent).”
In the Telegraph, Robbie Collin adds that the film’s “relentless, almost hallucinogenic craziness makes it a hard film to engage with, and the viewer drop-off rate when it launches on Netflix later this year will undoubtedly be steep. But as a mad satire of movie-world tumult, and a furious love letter to the business that made and unmade its maker, it could scarcely be improved.” And at RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny suggests that, “for as much as it lashes out at the film culture that Welles had no small part in creating, [Wind is] also a vessel for Welles’s own self-loathing.”
Could that be why Welles never finished it? Not likely. The difficulties Welles faced financing post-production after he’d edited around a third of the film were genuinely insurmountable. Still, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw floats another theory: “Perhaps leaving it unfinished was Welles’s ultimate, secret tribute to the central truth of The Other Side of the Wind: how the agony and the ecstasy of creative art lies in the process not the product, and how the finished work will never measure up to the ideal version in your head.” Welles has given us “a vivid snapshot of a turbulent zeitgeist, the ordeal of making a film independently, the agony of feeling oneself obsolete.”