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Netflix’s Orson Welles revival is strange, fascinating, and frustrating

Welles struggled for years to make The Other Side of the Wind

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

More than three decades after Orson Welles’ death, he’s joined the ranks of famous directors making movies for Netflix. At age 25, Welles made his directorial debut with 1941’s Citizen Kane, which completely changed the language of filmmaking. His final fully produced project, The Other Side of the Wind, was recently completed after years of attempts to assemble the existing footage, and on November 2nd, it’ll debut on the streaming giant that’s spent the last few years expanding its reach as a source for new movies. That means Netflix subscribers will be among the first to see a film that, for many years, was more rumor than fact. The project has largely been glimpsed in strange bits of footage that surfaced in documentaries over the years, but due to a tangle of creative and legal logistics, it seemed unlikely it would ever be completed. But curious Netflix subscribers are likely to find it an extremely peculiar viewing experience, especially compared to comparatively easy Netflix viewing like Sandy Wexler or the latest episode of Big Mouth.

Understanding the story behind Other Side of the Wind helps. In 1970, after spending years working in exile in Europe, Orson Welles came home to Hollywood. Sort of. Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Welles had a troubled childhood that took him from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin; to Woodstock, Illinois; then to Ireland; then back to Woodstock; all before he made his way to New York and stardom on the stage. He’d worked and lived in Los Angeles for a couple of stretches. And he ended up dying there in 1985, at age 70. But calling it home was a stretch.

Besides, the place had changed since his youth. After losing control of his troubled production of Touch of Evil, Welles fled the city. The old Hollywood system was cracking, and the kids had started to take over, with their wild visions and new ideas. In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde brought the influence of the French New Wave crashing down on Hollywood. A few years later, the studios stood by baffled as big-budget spectacles failed, while Dennis Hopper enjoyed tremendous success with younger viewers via the strange, low-budget Easy Rider. A new generation had arrived. They revered Welles, but they also respected the European art films that flooded arthouses in the 1950s and 1960s. And they had notions of their own, fueled by the insurgent counterculture, with its new drugs and free love, which had a way of making everything that came before it look a little square. If Hollywood was home, Welles didn’t recognize it by 1970.

But maybe he did see it as the sort of place where he could get some work done. Welles had spent the preceding decades starting projects he couldn’t complete for reasons ranging from cast deaths to budget issues: an ambitious take on Don Quixote and a thriller called The Deep; a Merchant of Venice to join his Macbeth and Othello. When he did manage to get movies fully funded and shot, like The Trial and The Immortal Story, they sometimes went largely unseen. Chimes at Midnight, a particularly towering work, disappeared in murky legal disputes.

But Welles kept pushing forward, always believing his next project could reverse his fortunes. With The Other Side of the Wind, he hoped to do that by turning his lenses on Hollywood itself, via the story of Jack Hannaford, a famed director attempting to make a comeback in the new Hollywood of the early 1970s. But the theoretical comeback required him to actually finish the film. Welles worked on his attempted revival project off and on between 1970 and 1976 — often more off than on. The interruptions came for a variety of reasons, most of them tied to Welles’ difficulty in securing financing (and keeping the money he did line up), with post-production interrupted by even stranger causes.

Orson Welles on the set of The Other Side of the Wind
Orson Welles on the set of The Other Side of the Wind
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Josh Karp’s 2015 book Orson Welles’s Last Movie and Morgan Neville’s new documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead — which will premiere on Netflix simultaneously with The Other Side of the Wind — do a decent job of spelling out those causes, and how complicated the film’s production became. Welles was never able to finish an edit of The Other Side of the Wind, which seemed destined to become one of cinema’s great lost works. As usual, money was a factor — but so was the Iranian Revolution, which locked the existing footage in a legal battle, due to the fact that it was funded in part by Mehdi Bushehri, the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. Finally finishing the film in 2018 took a high-profile crowdfunding effort, a big influx of Netflix cash, and a team that included Frank Marshall, a powerful producer whose early time in Hollywood included working as a production assistant for Welles. Working from a rough cut and Welles’ detailed notes, Marshall and his team were finally able to complete the project.

The Other Side of the Wind unfolds on two planes at once. Co-written by Oja Kodar, Welles’ romantic partner for the final decades of his life, it follows famed film director Jake Hannaford on his final night, a 70th birthday party that includes the screening of footage from his latest film, The Other Side of the Wind. On one plane, there’s Hannaford’s film, a kind of dreamy pastiche of European art cinema seemingly inspired in equal parts by Last Year at Marienbad, Persona, and Michelangelo Antonioni. It’s revealed in a series of screening sessions that begin in a studio screening room, and end at a drive-in.

The film-within-a-film’s narrative, such as it is, concerns a young man (Bob Random) who follows a beautiful woman (Kodar) through a barren cityscape to a trippy nightclub to a Hollywood backlot. If Welles was attempting to parody art films, he failed; Hannaford’s film is too beautiful to be a send-up of anything. It contains some of the most stunning images of Welles’ career, and it pushes boundaries in ways that seem perfectly suited to the era, including a long, explicit sex scene in a car that’s sensuous to a degree never previously seen in a Welles film.

Behind the scenes on The Other Side of the Wind
Behind the scenes on The Other Side of the Wind
Photo courtesy of Netflix

On the other plane, there’s Hannaford’s raucous, booze-soaked celebration, a party filled with New Hollywood types and others of the generation that succeeded his. Some, like Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Henry Jaglom, and Paul Mazursky, play themselves. Others are actors playing characters inspired by Pauline Kael, John Milius, Robert Evans, and others. Then there’s Peter Bogdanovich, who plays a Hannaford acolyte who’s become more successful than his mentor. (Bogdanovich took on the role after the original actor, celebrity impressionist Rich Little, left the movie under disputed circumstances.) His character occupies a gray zone between fact and fiction.

Really, the whole film exists in that zone. Welles denied that The Other Side of the Wind contained any autobiographical elements, but the parallels are hard to ignore, Welles’ tendency to self-mythologize doesn’t sit comfortably next to Wind’s not-so-flattering depiction of a director struggling to hold onto his place. And it’s hard to get around the parallels between his own life and the story he crafted about a director trying to make a comeback in a changed Hollywood that may no longer have a place for him.

For a while, it even looked like Welles would play the Hannaford role. He initially filmed without a leading man, playing Hannaford so other actors could react to the character, until his friend John Huston — probably the only person as capable of playing a larger-than-life, as-much-myth-as-man filmmaker as Welles — assumed the part. What’s more, blurring the line between what’s real and what’s created is part of the design of the film. That party footage makes a stark contrast to the beautifully composed footage of Hannaford’s film. Ostensibly taken from footage shot by the journalists and film freaks at the gathering, it’s Cloverfield years before Cloverfield, even though it’s more concerned with rampaging egos than rampaging monsters.

Those egos — the outsized, Hemingway-esque machismo of a certain type of male artist — are the subject at the heart of the film, even more than a changing Hollywood, or the echoes of Welles’ life. Hannaford blusters and berates those around him, as if for him, making art depends on keeping everyone around him in their place. His failures enrage him — particularly his leading man’s decision to leave the film. He alternates drinks with cutting remarks. He’s earned a reputation as a genius, but sustaining that reputation has started to wear on him. And if he can’t keep it going, what awaits him but death?

Does the movie work? That might not be the right question. The footage of Hannaford’s film is breathtaking, but it’s also too narratively wispy to stand on its own. At their best, the party scenes have a kind of haunted quality. They’re foreboding for reasons other than their honoree’s impending death. They also contain so many half-developed characters and subplots, it’s hard to imagine that Welles’ actual planned final cut wouldn’t have found a way to cut through some of the noise. By the time little people in cowboy boots show up, it’s all become a bit exhausting.

But as frustrating as The Other Side of the Wind can be, there’s really nothing else like it. The restored film captures an artist trying to push at the boundaries one more time, determined to become part of the future instead of a fixture of the past. In 1970, it seemed like Welles had failed. In 1975, the American Film Institute honored him in an event broadcast on national television, and his acceptance speech doubled as a plea for money to finish his movie. Nobody bit, and Welles spent the last decade of his life moving from talk-show appearances to wine commercials and other work-for-hire projects. But here we are in 2018 talking about this movie, a movie unlike any other, and a project no one else could have made — or would have dared to attempt. Failure doesn’t always last forever.