“There are these divine accidents. It’s the only thing that keeps films from being dead.”
Orson Welles often attributed the best part of films to what he called “divine accidents”—the perfect shot or even the perfect scene was born from these, he claimed. Perhaps it’s a divine accident then that after over four decades since he first set out to make his last film, The Other Side of the Wind, it would grace the world last November on Netflix, over thirty years after his untimely passing in 1985.
For some people, Welles is most famous for directing, producing, co-writing, and starring in his groundbreaking first feature, Citizen Kane, a staple and often topnotcher on “greatest films of all time” lists. To others, however, he is more famous for his penchant of leaving his works unfinished. The Other Side of the Wind was one of his many incomplete projects.
While it is undoubtedly his movie, it was not completed without the help of producers who made their best effort to put together a film that best captured Welles’ original vision posthumously.
Trouble from the start
Filming first began in 1970 and stretched over most of the decade due to financial difficulties; at the time, as with most of Welles’ later features, he had abandoned Hollywood and gone independent. In fact, he had mostly paid out of his own pocket to produce his movies. By 1976, they wrapped up filming, but the troubles didn’t stop there.
One of the financiers of the film happened to be the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran, the highest ruler at the time. When the Shah was overthrown by an uprising, the film, being legally an asset of the previous Iranian administration, was locked away in a Paris vault, preventing Welles from pursuing his editing work. He had only managed to edit 40 minutes of the film at that point, and he spent the remainder of his life embroiled in a legal battle for ownership.
Decades afterwards, most of the legal issues were resolved; however, the problem was finding the needed money to complete it. By 2017, Netflix entered into a deal, ponying up additional funds to ensure that the film would see the light of the day.
Two films in one
The film takes us to the 70th birthday of reclusive but renowned director Jake Hannaford (John Huston), who is revealed in the opening narration to have died in a car crash on the same night. Before his untimely passing, Hannaford was in the midst of making a last ditch effort to revive his failing career with his yet unfinished comeback picture, also titled The Other Side of the Wind.
For the duration of the movie, the film cuts back and forth between the events in Hannaford’s party and the events inside Hannaford’s latest film. The first is presented in a pseudo-documentary-esque approach through film footage shot by his own guests—a mixture of journalists, film critics, and fellow directors—while the second is inspired by European avant-garde films.
The party scenes featured frenetic editing and overlapping dialogue, giving a sense of a continuing conversation between characters who sometimes are not really discussing with one another. The shots also switch between color and black-and-white footage interchangeably, making the story of his last day feel like an authentic documentary decades before found-footage films became a norm.
Peter Bogdanovich steals the show for most of his scenes portraying Hannaford’s protégé Brooks Otterlake, as he seamlessly mimics other celebrities to poke fun of their mannerisms. This is overshadowed only by Huston’s own turn as Hannaford, who does his best to channel the macho personas of Ernest Hemingway and John Ford.
The film-within-a-film, meanwhile, sticks to a more cinematic approach, presenting visually striking and over stylized shots. Absent of any dialogue, it follows a man on a motorcycle (Bob Random), who pursues and is pursued by a woman (Oja Kodar) through bizarre locations, studio backlots, and arid deserts.
What this all means—the two silent characters, the beautiful scenery, the chase—is never explained. Before Hannaford’s party, one of the producers watching the rough cut of the film-within-a-film remarks that “Jake is just making it up as he goes along,” a fact that is only solidified by the admission of one of the director’s entourage that there was no script to begin with.
Hannaford’s party falls into chaos as the night goes on. Power outages, unruly guests, and forced venue changes plague the event. During the mess, Hannaford, who was built up as a larger-than-life director at the onset, is slowly deconstructed by his peers and critics, questioning his relevance, his masculinity, and his ability to finish his movie.
From past to present
The Other Side of the Wind is admittedly a product of its time, a film about Hollywood satirizing both the rise of New Hollywood and the influx of arthouse European cinema, both major film movements in the 1970s. Callbacks to famous directors and critics of the time, including Welles’ own personal acquaintances, would go over most modern viewers’ heads.
Despite its aged references, The Other Side of the Wind still holds up as a revolutionary film even today in terms of cinematography and editing, a testament to the ingenuity Welles brings to the table. The mishmash of footages and unconventional angles throughout maintains a certain sense of claustrophobia, a parallel to Hannaford’s growing sense that his career is collapsing around him. The juxtaposition of his absurd film only heightens the fact he could never possibly finish what he started.
While not much can be said of the story, the way in which the dialogue is interspersed and intertwined through clever editing is evidence of an auteur at work, pushing the boundaries of how film as a medium can be presented. Exchanges between characters are created artificially because of this, but the subtext and motive of each person is only made clearer because of this unconventional presentation.
However, the way the film was completed does beg the question how much of this can be attributed to Welles’ brilliance alone since he edited less than half of the film itself, and the editors who continued his work could only approximate what the director had envisioned in his mind. But while we may never agree on who to credit most for the finished product, we can at least agree that what we got after all these years was worth the wait. As one of the guests in Hannaford’s party noted and summarized best, “I think it’s relatively easy to make a good movie. Not a great one. That’s… something else.”
The Other Side of the Wind is, without a doubt, something else.