When Orson Welles died in 1985, he left behind a compendium of unfinished projects. There was his contemporary adaptation of Don Quixote, abandoned as a partially-filmed trainwreck. There was his self-starring (as Shylock, of course) The Merchant of Venice, the allegedly-completed reels of which went mysteriously missing from his Roman editing room.
And then there was The Other Side of the Wind, a jagged opus about a cranky, beleaguered director confronting an endless raid of journalists, a rapidly changing Hollywood, and the lingering trauma of his dad’s suicide. Sound familiar? “Everyone will think it’s autobiographical, but it’s not,” Welles insisted.
Nearly fifty years after production began, a close analog of Welles’ original vision is now streaming on Netflix. The film is the result of hours of footage, leftover notes, and a few rough-cut scenes interpreted and assembled by an archival team led by Peter Bogdanovich, who, flaunting tinted glasses and an aura of virile mystique, stars in the film as a fictional variant of himself.
Heavily stylized—it’s shot on a variety of film types, both in color and black and white—the film mostly unfolds over the course of one rollicking evening, which also happens to be the last in the life of venerable film director Jake Hannaford (John Huston). Snide and superior, Hannaford is a blatant Welles proxy, though we also detect some notes of Ernest Hemingway. It’s the day of Hannaford’s 70th birthday party and, we learn in the first scene, he will die in a car accident before the night’s end. A crowd of admiring students, press, and industry disciples are in attendance, all eager to get a glimpse of Hannaford’s in-progress feature which is set to screen at the event.
Nearly half of The Other Side is occupied by this film-within-a-film, which turns out to be a ludicrously erotic desert romance drenched in the beguiling languor of Antonioni. To add to the myriad meta dimensions, Hannaford’s film stars Oja Kodar—Welles’ real-life partner for the last quarter century of his life—as an impassive siren (Monica Vitti-style) who drifts, naked, through barren lands with a silent Americana lone wolf (Bob Random) in tow.
It’s clear that Welles is in on the joke, here: Hannaford’s empty mood piece, which he hungrily watches among his party guests while chewing on a cigar, is meant to mock the old guy. The larger, sadder joke is that, like Hannaford, Welles too struggled in later life to appeal to changing cultural interests—though he never succumbed (at least not fully) to the sulky, wantonly sexual art cinema he’s parodying.
But ennui-inflected Euro fare wasn’t the only thing that irritated Welles about his contemporary film landscape; the American hotshots posed an even greater threat. And at the time, towering among them was, not too coincidentally, Bogdanovich. A close friend of Welles who’d recently been inducted into the exclusive New Hollywood club, Bogdanovich plays Hannaford’s chief acolyte Brooks Otterlake. It’s a crucial role, and one that allows Bogdanovich, in his present day reconstruction of the film, to blur the lines between himself and his character: “He died many summers ago,” Bogdanovich says, in contemporarily-recorded opening voiceover. “For years, I personally didn’t want this document shown because, frankly, I didn’t like the way I came off in the piece. But I’m old enough now not to care anymore how my role in Jake’s life is interpreted.”
This opening voiceover and the film’s postmortem construction make it, in addition to a final masterwork by a fading mastermind, a complex and ambivalent tribute to that mind. Welles clearly intended the film to be, on some level, a work about male friendship and loyalty; a key plot line concerns the dwindling funds available to finish Hannaford’s movie and the possibility that Otterlake will bankroll the rest as a favor to the mentor he eclipsed. “Of course you are close, you two. You have to be. You have no choice,” says a nosy female film critic (a sendup of Pauline Kael), which inspires the men to share a knowing glance and witty response. Clever exchanges can be found in nearly every scene—most often between Hannaford and his competing disciples—and it’s sad and eerie, all these years later, to witness the men’s sharp quips and rapid-fire sparring.
As a whole, The Other Side is circular and more consistent thematically than plot-wise; the absurdity of the story can be summed up by noting that one scene finds midgets literally, and inexplicably, on a rooftop setting off fireworks. “I’m afraid we’re getting out of sequence,” a party guest informs the projectionist when he accidentally plays Hannaford’s reels out of order. “Does it matter?” the guy responds. We feel something of the same about Welles’ film: you could basically pick the movie up at any point without missing a beat, and some of the funniest lines are overheard between partygoers without context: “He’s a man who could take a mediocre idea and do something absolutely atrocious with it”; “The ontology of its iconography is so incredibly facile.”
Yet The Other Side is richest when viewed as a companion piece to They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Morgan Neville’s diverting documentary, also streaming on Netflix, that uses first-hand interviews and original footage to delineate the film’s history and bizarre making. Alone, Welles’ final film is enjoyable. With the added dimensions and complexities, it transforms into a subtle and fascinating document, every shot reverberating with Welles’ voice, vision, and legacy. It’s up to us to interpret it.