It was only when the giant phallus started to slowly deflate that I belatedly decided yes, Orson Welles’s last movie is definitely a parody.
The Other Side of the Wind has a long and tortured history dating back to six years of intermittent shooting in the 1970s. Welles, so successful so early in his career with Citizen Kane, had increasing problems financing his later work and, at his death in 1985, left 100 hours of footage for The Other Side of the Wind but no finished film. The posthumous version created by producers Frank Marshall and Filip Rymsza, which showed up on Netflix before Christmas, is by turns puzzling, intriguing and downright infuriating.
A movie about a famed director trying to finish a movie, The Other Side of the Wind is diehard movie-nerd territory, littered with inside references to Welles’s sad attempt at a Hollywood comeback in the 1970s and the fickle industry around him. Meanwhile, the documentary They’ll Love Me When I Am Dead, also on Netflix, provides a glossary of sorts and some elucidation, but only some.
So what is the more circumspect viewer to make of this movie à clef? Thinking I was more interested in knowing about The Other Side of the Wind than watching it, I turned to the Morgan Neville documentary first. Mistake. It does explain some of the circumstances that so delayed The Other Side of the Wind, but it also makes Welles’s movie look unwatchable, a mess of indulgent self-referentiality and pretension posing as depth.
When I set prejudice aside and watched its actual subject, I found that The Other Side of the Wind creeps up on you, gradually establishing itself as a subtle, humorous and brave exposé of the way fame distorts art. It’s slow and it’s dated – even if this edit was only just completed – but it is also a rare and fascinating artifact, testament to both the genius and the flaws of its original director.
Welles was always known as an innovator and The Other Side of the Wind features an amusingly inventive narrative. It is a movie-within-a-movie, including footage of the arty picture that the celebrated director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) is making while the main action features a pseudo-documentary shot by multiple Hannaford hangers-on in both black-and-white and colour depending on their cameras. This mainly takes place at a disastrous ranch-house birthday party intended to celebrate the director and his film, but ultimately exposing Hannaford as a bankrupt bully whose leading man has abandoned ship. Welles’s real-life acolyte, critic-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich, plays Brooks Otterlake, the Hannaford protégé who has now surpassed the master and acts as the viewer’s guide through a morass of enabling staff, nosy followers, skeptical financiers and wordless stars.
The movie-within-the-movie is typical of this project’s odd mix in that it uses some remarkably striking cinematography to advance a laughably misogynistic plot: In wordless scenes played out in the desert and on an abandoned movie set, a young man pursues a naked woman, played by Welles’s late-life companion Oja Kodar, who is also co-credited with writing the script. Once the young man (the Canadian actor Bob Random) is sufficiently ensnared, she stops escaping, turns on him and toys with castrating him using a pair of scissors. The giant phallus makes a late appearance, at which point it becomes clear that Welles intended this archetypal scenario partly as a spoof of New Hollywood pretensions. Yet the shots themselves are always original and arresting: Random’s naked body is seen from below, his flesh pressed into the coils of an old bedspring. Kodar darts between wooden flats on the set, her image bifurcated by bars of shade and light.
Kodar is Croatian, but she is cast as an Indigenous woman; she also appears occasionally in the main sequences without ever saying a word and is referred to dismissively by various characters as Minnehaha and Pocahontas. That is one of several aspects of the film, which also includes Hannaford’s lecherous condescension to a teenage actress and his bullying of a gay school teacher, that now only appear offensive.
Still, it is not like any of these guys are supposed to be attractive. In Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles had followed the rise and fall of large characters in big sagas; here we only see Hannaford at the moment of his collapse and have only the word of his less-than-impressive followers that he is a great artist. In Huston’s unforgiving hands, the director seems dictatorial yet ineffectual while Bogdanovich, who began playing his own part in Welles’s semi-autobiographical movie when Rich Little had to bow out, makes Otterlake a Nick Carraway figure, an amoral observer of the mayhem.
Welles may use the film to get back at enemies – Susan Strasberg plays an annoying critic filled with cheap psychoanalysis who is based on Welles’s nemesis, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael – but he is also offering a devastating self-portrait of an artist big enough to have inspired a following and small enough not to escape it. With both megalomaniacal delusion and self-deprecating parody, Welles artfully prophesizes his own downfall. Perhaps the saddest scene in the doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is the moment in 1975 when the American Film Institute presents Welles with a lifetime achievement award and he makes the mistake of using the ceremony to pitch for money to complete The Other Side of the Wind. Oh yes, they revered his genius … just not that much.