After 40 years of waiting, seeing the words “Netflix presents…An Orson Welles picture” is incredibly surreal. The excitement that came with discovering that The Other Side of the Wind was to be completed for this year, was like seeing an article about lost silent films that were found in someone’s barn after believing they would be lost forever. Now, one of Welles’ last big pictures is available to everyone with a Netflix subscription.
Welles was an auteur who was always experimenting with new ways to tell a story. This is seen most famously in his first film, Citizen Kane. The director perfectly utilizes all the stylish camera techniques used at the time and puts them together to depict the rise and fall of the world’s biggest business magnate, Charles Foster Kane. Where the narrative is concerned, it doesn’t stay on the traditional paths that Hollywood storytelling walked on up to that point. It’s not linear or chronological — instead, it relies heavily on flashbacks and several narrators to express different points of view and recount different parts of Kane’s life. If The Other Side of the Wind proves anything, it’s that Welles never stopped experimenting.
Welles’ jagged opus is reflective of his own life as it follows director Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a blatant Welles proxy, with the plot revolving around his 70th birthday. Hannaford, just like Welles, comes back to Hollywood after hiatus to make one last great picture. The film shows the director on the last day of his life, struggling to complete his final picture after its star, John Dale (Bob Random), stormed off the set. During this time, Hannaford is surrounded by journalists who wish to document his life, creating a film that is shot in a pseudo-documentary style.
The opening introduces the viewer to the chaotic production of Hannaford’s film. Michel Legrand’s fast-paced jazz score fits perfectly with an introduction that can feel confusing as it jumps all over the place, quickly identifying every one of the director’s collaborators — whose names and roles in the story you’ll quickly forget.
The Other Side of the Wind finds Welles switching between Hannaford’s Arizona ranch during his birthday party and the completed footage of the film within a film. The birthday party is where the narrative falters and becomes a product of its time. As Hannaford mingles with friends, fans and journalists, misogynistic, racist, and homophobic dialogues are exchanged. This last big hurrah reveals many things: We learn that the director is viewed as a “God” with his collaborators referring to themselves as “disciples”; we learn the director’s relationship with the media; we learn the guests’ perspectives on politics and how its corruption shapes the film industry. Though the festivities are shot through a mix of both colour and black-and-white footage, the real eye-catching and, to be frank, interesting part of the film is Hannaford’s experimental production.
A woman, played by Welles’s lover Oja Kodar, is being pursued by an unsavoury character on a motorcycle (Random’s John Dale). She spends most of the reels drifting naked through the desert, walking as aimlessly as the unfinished product. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, with the actors speaking intensely only with glances. It’s rife with an unconventional amount of nudity, sex, and violence. While it may seem gratuitous, it also feels like a liberation, as though Welles is saying, “The studio system is dead! Let’s go off!” He’s able to finally do things here that he was never able to do before under the constraints of the production code. The footage is flashy, displaying an incredible use of colour and cinematography that is reminiscent of the vibrancy and freedom of the ‘70s and of the Giallo thriller genre.
Huston’s Jake Hannaford is quoted as being “a man who can take a mediocre idea and do something absolutely atrocious with it.” Welles could do the same. Whether or not the film is beautifully atrocious or just atrocious is going to be divisive, but ultimately, The Other Side of the Wind portrays a director contemplating his legacy, and in Welles’s case, it cements it.