2018’s most electrifying cinematic experience was filmed more than 40 years ago, and it won’t be coming soon to a theater near you. After languishing unfinished in a vault for decades due to a thorny tangle of rights issues, Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” has been painstakingly restored and completed by a cadre of the late filmmaker’s old friends and former collaborators.
Now available on Netflix — the streaming service ponied up a reported $6 million to finance this technically daunting rescue mission — Welles’ long-mythologized pet project, shot over a period of several years in the early 1970s, is at last revealed to be an astonishment even wilder and more rewardingly confounding than its fabled reputation. Prickly, perverse and almost half a century later still way ahead of its time, I watched the movie twice the day it premiered and haven’t shut up about it since.
“The Other Side of the Wind” stars John Huston as hard-drinking, chest-thumpingly macho filmmaker Jake Hannaford, a relic from Hollywood’s Golden Age washing up on the rocky shores of Me Decade counterculture. He’s a blustery, larger-than-life character not unlike Huston himself, but importantly shares more than a few traits with Welles in a movie that’s very much a hall of mirrors. The bulk of the film takes place at Hannaford’s 70th birthday blowout, a raucous bacchanal tempered only slightly by news that the studio has pulled the plug on this has-been filmmaker’s latest picture in the middle of production, leaving the old man broke and in rampaging self-destruct mode. By morning he’ll have killed himself.
The party is packed with cinephiles and sycophants, all carrying 16 mm or Super 8 cameras, and Welles’ outrageous formal conceit is that the film we’re watching has been stitched together years after the fact from material shot by these guests. So yes, just as Orson Welles invented the mockumentary with the fake “March of Time” newsreel that opened “Citizen Kane,” it turns out he also invented the found-footage movie before those “Blair Witch” kids were even born.
It admittedly can be tough sledding in the early scenes, as we’re dropped directly into a cacophony of old pals and bitter resentments, with jarring jumps from black-and-white to color and back again on dizzyingly variable film stocks. You won’t find the deep focus, cathedral-esque long takes Welles pioneered in “Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” as this is more a progression of the twitchy, visceral flutter-cutting explored in his 1973 curio “F for Fake.” The movie feels like it’s inventing its own new cinematic language as it goes along, and the fine filmmaker Rian Johnson has quite astutely compared the experience of watching it to when your eyes adjust after entering a darkened room.
Relationships gradually reveal themselves, the most central being Hannaford’s testy mentorship of the marvelously named young hotshot Brooks Otterlake, pointedly played by the filmmaker’s real-life protégé Peter Bogdanovich. So many of Welles’ pictures are about the collapse of male friendships, more than once during “The Other Side of the Wind” my mind returned to his great Shakespeare mashup “Chimes at Midnight,” in which Prince Hal must cast aside his dear, disreputable Falstaff on the way to greater glory.
Similarly, Otterlake is a blockbuster director whose star has long ago eclipsed that of his teacher — much in the way that Bogdanovich ruled the roost in a New Hollywood that wouldn’t give Welles the time of day when this picture was being shot back in the ‘70s. There’s a crackling confessional undercurrent to Hannaford and Otterlake’s interactions that comes from somewhere pungently, unflatteringly personal.
(The illuminating Netflix documentary “They'll Love Me When I'm Dead,” commissioned to accompany this restoration, delves quite movingly into the interpersonal messes made during the endless production. It also provides a sturdy set of training wheels for this difficult picture if you’re wondering which one to watch first.)
“This machine consumes more than it produces,” Hannaford utters in a moment of inadvertent self-diagnosis, and indeed much of “The Other Side of the Wind” is devoted to tearing down genius myths and the popular mid-century idealization of great American artists as swaggering, virile alpha dogs. (Along with elements of Huston and Welles, there are generous portions of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer in Hannaford’s bare-knuckle bloviating, and it’s no coincidence that the movie takes place on Aug. 2, the day Hemingway blew his brains out in Ketchum.) There’s a show-offy, self-lacerating quality here in the tradition of Federico Fellini’s “8½” or Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” grandiose, poison-pen semi-autobiographies by outsized personalities who didn’t believe their own baloney.
Welles can’t help undercutting his hero’s machismo at early every turn, with a Pauline Kael-ish film critic played by Susan Strasberg speculating that Hannaford’s habit of seducing his leading men’s significant others is just a blatant sublimation of his repressed homosexuality. The movie doesn’t offer much in the way of disproving her thesis, as none of these fellas seem all that interested in women except as objects to be swiped from the other guy. Watch how coldly and casually Hannaford helps himself to Otterlake’s party date — a dim-bulb teenage blonde in an Archie Bunker T-Shirt with no idea she’s a pawn in a power play.
Then there’s the matter of Hannaford’s never-to-be-finished film, also called “The Other Side of the Wind” because everything in this movie must be some sort of reflection of itself. We see chunks of it here and there during interrupted screening attempts throughout the picture, the luminous 35 mm Technicolor a soothing respite from the jagged, lo-fi party footage. It’s a fairly savage satire of 1960s European arthouse ennui tropes, some of it even filmed in the house next door to the one blown up by Michelangelo Antonioni at the end of “Zabriskie Point.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s kind of amazing. Pretentious nonsense to be sure, but also staggeringly beautiful, with Welles’ late-life lover and co-writer Oja Kodar wandering nude across dazzlingly photographed landscapes fraught with tacky symbolism. Old Orson had it bad for Oja — you may remember the bit in “F for Fake” when he filmed her stopping traffic by wearing a miniskirt — and it’s really sort of sweet to see how happily horny these two were in their work. The film-within-the-film contains an epically protracted sex scene between Kodar and a Jim Morrison-lookalike in a moving car that’s as startlingly erotic as anything I’ve seen in an American film.
The last remaining reels of Hannaford’s incomplete opus wind up projected just before dawn at a dilapidated drive-in, the grounds as fascinatingly ravaged as Huston’s craggy visage, while on the screen we see the air being let out of a gargantuan, inflatable phallus. “Our revels now are ended,” Otterlake intones, only half-kiddingly, because with Welles all roads lead back to Shakespeare.
In these final moments “The Other Side of the Wind” manages to muster an emotionally overwhelming, ruined grandeur that feels like a fine bookend to the abandoned Xanadu of “Citizen Kane.” This knotty, abrasive and endlessly self-reflexive film turns out to have been worth waiting four decades for, a proper last will and testament from a reckless innovator and combustible talent, the likes of whom we won’t see again.