‘The Other Side of the Wind’: Welles’ final bow is a 1960s trip, an artifact, a triumphant mess
Once of the best films you can catch right now, you can’t catch in a theater. It is a new release from an American filmmaking maverick, starring a filmmaking maverick and about a filmmaking maverick. If that sounds recursive, it is, and well-intended – it’s a movie within a movie, and something of an in-your-face takedown of Hollywood, like Robert Altman’s “The Player” in 1992. It’s also got shades of 1960s psychedelic pop (think “The Trip”), gobs of over-sexualized free-love fetish petting by the camera (think “Barbarella”) and, well, the Kardashian butt decades before it became a thing.
The film might offend some, be dismissed by others as a “better left where it was” lesser effort or hailed as masterpiece by more discerning eyes. Still not with me? The late-arriving, posthumous work is Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” a project begun in 1970 that was finally this year pulled together, edited and released for theaters in Los Angeles and other cities and for streaming on Netflix with the not-to-be-missed companion documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” by “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville – a making-of film doc that’s worthy of comparison with “Burden of Dreams” (1982) and “Hearts of Darkness” (1991).
“The Other Side of the Wind” is both the name of the (mockumentary) film about a legendary filmmaker making his last film on the last day of his life, and the film being shot, which is loosely but best described as a surreal road lust flick – more on that later. The filmmaker, J. J. Hannaford, is played by John Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The Maltese Falcon”) whose gruff voice and cagey demeanor call to mind Pa Hemingway. His film project’s in financial trouble (as was Welles’, which was financed by the Shah of Iran) and there’s myriad hangers-on including Mercedes McCambridge, Edmund O’Brien, a young Peter Bogdanovich (who would shoot“The Last Picture Show” and more during its filming) as Hannaford’s onset biographer, Geoffrey Land as a Robert Evans-style producer, and Susan Strasberg channeling Pauline Kael for her film critic role.
You can see where where Welles is going with the rambling project, which he shot willy-nilly over the years. At one point, as the documentary tells us, Welles was rooming with Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd’s house while shooting. The film within the film stars Welles’ latter-years love, Oja Kodar (co-writer) as simply “The Actress” and TV star Robert Random as a Jim Morrison-looking hunk named John Dale, who says little and mostly provides boy toy pleasure for Kodar’s passion seeker, more metaphorically looking for meaning and her place in the universe. For much of the surreal cutaways, Kodar, a Croatian beauty, appears naked, the camera hanging on her ample posterior. Some of the scenes are brilliantly shot, with a great psychedelic-blues score.
Probably the cheesiest is the bathroom orgy scene, which is lurid and alluring, but then there’s the sex scene in a muscle car when the driver suddenly realizes his girlfriend and a stranger are having sex as he drives. It’s done on a rain-soaked night, shot and edited with a hypnotic eroticism. It’s interesting to learn in the documentary that the car the whole time was stationary, and that the torrential rain was the result of three men with garden hoses – to think back, the scene is even more of a win than initially perceived. The documentary and film deepen each other in unsuspecting ways.
The documentary not only underscores the difficulty Welles had making the film financially (he actually created a shell corporation to game the Shah) but also the struggles the filmmaker had as an outcast from Hollywood, ever tied to his freshman effort, “Citizen Kane” (1941), hailed universally as the greatest movie ever made.
For those familiar with the works of Welles, “The Other Side of the Wind” is more in line with “F for Fake” (1973) than his more renowned black and white efforts (“A Touch of Evil” and “Chimes at Midnight”). Given his career, it seems fitting that “The Other Side” ultimately made it to the screen. For me it’s an eye-popping wonderment steeped in incredible circumstance. Given the Hollywood history, I was just happy to hear Huston’s indelible voice shouting out direction offscreen to the buxom Kodar, standing in the far off distance of a desert with a phallic something protruding in the fore.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.