In the mythical land of FilmNerdistan, it is written that a vanished prince would one day return to rule in beneficence and wisdom. This weekend the prince returned, still bearing traces of his regal looks but aged and frail in a shabby cloak, and after some dutiful bowing by some of the high priests, FilmNerdistan turned its back on him with faint embarrassment.
The vanished prince is Orson Welles’s late passion project The Other Side of the Wind, which has just appeared on Netflix. Among all of the unfinished films of legend it was perhaps the most fabled in the minds of cineastes, who convinced themselves that the unseen work was a lost masterpiece. It isn’t.
Having long since been persona non grata in Hollywood, Welles in the 1960s had some success making art films in Europe (The Trial, Chimes at Midnight). His idea for a return to Hollywood was a work much like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, an interior look at a filmmaker’s passions as he fights to finish a project. But Welles had no money, relying for funding on offbeat sources such as the shah of Iran’s brother-in-law. So, starting in 1970, he shot Wind on and off for six years whenever he had the cash and was still tinkering with it when, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it was taken away from him, locked away in a Paris vault as an Iranian asset. Welles died in 1985, and though the movie was mostly finished, it still needed substantial work and remained mired in legal battles, seemingly never to exist except as an ideal.
Enter Netflix! Hollywood’s latest open-checkbook savior, which is seeking to curry favor among cinema elites amid sniping that it’s ruining the movie business by luring filmmakers to the small screen, agreed to finish the film as a public service. Moreover, Netflix has simultaneously released a documentary about the saga, called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Which is a movie about the making of a (real) movie about the making of a (fictional) movie.
The Other Side of the Wind is an early mockumentary about an aging Welles-like filmmaker (John Huston) who, prodded by a Peter Bogdanovich–like critic-turned-filmmaker (Peter Bogdanovich), struggles to complete an arty sex movie called The Other Side of the Wind that builds up to a moment when a nude woman silently marches across a barren landscape to attack a giant penis with scissors. It’s a spoof of neo-realist filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni and groovy Flower Power cinema like Blow-Up.
Wind, like everything Welles did, contains enough inspiration and beauty to provide fodder for a film-school paper, but like (almost) everything he did it’s undisciplined to the point of exasperation, beset by so-so sound quality, amateurish lighting, ragged editing, and wooden acting, all in the service of a script as flabby as its auteur. The film stock, color, and aspect ratio are variable. Far from being a successor to 8 ½, Wind is mostly hot air, with all the rambling self-pity of a student film. Welles, who was very much in “experimental” mode, may well have wanted the finished version to be as choppy and freewheeling as it is, but just because Orson Welles, Genius (™), wanted it that way doesn’t mean the film works.
Ah, but those scattered moments of brilliance. The black-and-white sequences, much more carefully composed than the color portions, are strangely intimate in the manner of a John Cassavetes film (or Woody Allen’s own take on 8 ½, Stardust Memories), and there’s a fantastically evocative sex scene in a moving car during a rainstorm. Huston is a screen-filling presence, issuing aphorisms and swilling whisky, seductive and self-destructive in a Hemingway, er, way.
You’d be better off watching instead the movie about the movie: They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (the title refers to one of Welles’s mordant self-observations) explores the relentless, almost purposeful squandering of talent that is the Welles tragedy. The documentary, directed by Morgan Neville, shows how Welles was a sort of anti-Kubrick, a visionary bursting with ideas who couldn’t keep the big picture in his mind. “The greatest things in movies are divine accidents,” Welles used to say. Kubrick might not entirely disagree. Marrying the “Blue Danube Waltz” to the docking scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey was, for instance, an accident that happened because Kubrick happened to be playing the music in his editing suite, and someone else remarked that the music was a perfect soundtrack.
But moviemaking is, more than anything, about managing chaos, not seeking it. Welles’s stated intent to go “fishing for accidents” illustrates how unlikely Wind was to succeed. “I’m not sure he knew where this movie was going,” says the comic and actor Rich Little, who appears in the movie as a party guest (along with Les Moonves). Others whispered that Welles never intended to finish the damn thing.
Toward the end of his life, as people like Bogdanovich ensured that his early work entered the canon of great filmmaking, Welles seemed defined by failure. “No other director has ever been held up to such an impossible standard,” he would say, or whine, about the reaction to 1941’s Citizen Kane, his first film and one that has frequently been called the greatest one ever made. (The prestigious Sight and Sound poll of film critics so cited it in every one of its decennial surveys from 1962 to 2002). More revealingly, he said, on receiving a career-capping award late in life, “I’m afraid that I will be taken away before I’ve justified the luck and joy that I’ve had.” Though Welles left bits of other incomplete work, the release of The Other Side of the Wind, such as it is, closes the books on his career, if we assume that the even-more-legendary missing reels from his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, remain lost. The land of FilmNerdistan turns its eyes to the horizon, awaiting its next redeemer.