“Jake is just making it up as he goes along.” – Max
“He’s done it before…” Billy.
In The Other Side of the Wind, this exchange is said as a criticism of Welles’ character, but of course the truth is that all stories are made up as they go along.
With The Other Side of the Wind, the final film from legendary director Orson Welles, now streaming on Netflix, we actually get two final Welles films for the price of one: the main narrative, which tells the story of the last night in the life of a legendary film director and a screening of his final film, and the footage of that film – the film within a film, a study of sex and desire. The parallels are obvious enough to be written in neon.
Welles’ rise to fame hardly needs repeating, and his crushing rejection by Hollywood on productions such as The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil is still a bitter pill to swallow.
In 1970, after years spent working in exile in Europe, Welles returned to Hollywood and gradually put together the pieces to make his next movie. Pieces is the operative word, as The Other Side of the Wind would be made like a jigsaw, finding money to film here and there, shooting when and where he could, the only man with a true sense of the story leading a rag-tag team of acolyte filmmakers who would work themselves to the bone to realise his vision, for six long years.
Funding to complete it fell apart, not least because of the Iranian revolution, as one of the producers was the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran, who saw his assets seized, including the existing footage of this film. If Welles had a history of using smoke and mirrors to represent his life and career, this was one moment even he might not have been able to conjure up.
Sadly, Welles would never complete an edit of The Other Side of the Wind, and the film seeped into legend as one of cinema’s great lost productions.
Thankfully, the film was finished in 2018 after a high-profile crowdfunding campaign and a hefty influx of cash from Netflix, by a team including Frank Marshall, producer of countless blockbusters including Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose early Hollywood career saw him working as a production assistant for Welles (he can also be seen in this movie, as part of the documentary camera crew, following Welles’ alter ego, Jake Hannaford, as played by John Houston). The team completed the film using an existing rough cut and Welles’ copious notes to get as close as possible to Welles’ intentions
The completed film has a lot to say: it is, of course, also about the passing of the Hollywood old guard to the new Hollywood, as visualised perfectly in Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and represented here by Peter Bogdanovich, clearly flagged up in the scene between his Brooks Otterlake and Tonio Selwart, as The Baron, and in Otterlake’s relationship with Hannaford, and how that passing of the torch is reflected in their friendship and the betrayal of that friendship (which also comments on Bogdanovich and his real-life relationship with Welles).
The Other Side of the Wind is seeped in the very DNA of Hollywood, drenched in the process of filmmaking, in the selfish, obsessive nature of the creative drive (and therefore of the creators), and as much about film itself as anything else, reflected even in the nature of its completion.
While it’s self-referential, autobiographical and, yes, masturbatory, The Other Side of the Wind is also fascinating and frustrating (the array of underdeveloped characters flag up the film’s fractured development), while its very presence is a cause for celebration. The film’s content and form are as much of their time as they are as fresh as anything to grace a screen this year – the film within a film is ravishing and vivid, astonishingly sexy and unlike anything else Welles created (the sex scene in the car is beyond breathtaking). Full of Welles’ trademark sly humour and questing, experimental nature, it’s as far from the work of an ageing talent as it’s possible to be, and instead reinforces Welles’ genius.
Falling somewhere between a confessional and a documentary, the film has now become inseparable from its myth, and perhaps cannot be fairly judged on its own terms. But we’re still judging Welles by many of the myths he created around himself, so this seems perfectly apt for the director’s final work, as a comment on both the man, his life and his body of work.
“Almost every kind of story is a lie… except this time”.
Welles once said that on camera, in F for Fake. That’s also a lie, particularly when it comes to The Other Side of the Wind.