Greetings again from the darkness. Film nerds unite! Most of us who (proudly) wear that label have known that filmmaker Orson Welles left a few unfinished projects when he died in 1985. The most famous – or infamous – of these was THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. It was to be the comeback film for Mr. Welles, who had slipped from the artistic throne with his run of TV projects, shorts, and unsuccessful features during the 1960’s. Known as a perfectionist, and as someone more dedicated to the filmmaking part more than the “finishing” part, Welles filmed scenes for the movie from 1970-1976, and then picked it back up in the early 1980’s to begin the editing process … a process he never finished.
Best known for his all-time classics CITIZEN KANE (1941) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), Welles left mountains of copious production notes, and almost 100 hours of footage in multiple formats, and in both color and black and white stock, on this project that, even today, might best be described as experimental. Over the past 30 years there have been numerous attempts to raise the money required to finish the film, but all fell short until this one spearheaded by Peter Bogdanovich and Beatrice Welles (Orson’s daughter).
In what we can only interpret as semi-autobiographical, what we see on screen is the making of a documentary on a legendary director’s comeback film (his poke at artsy filmmakers). Clips of the unfinished film are shown throughout, while an industry party plays out, and numerous documentary filmmakers capture the scene from various angles with their always-present cameras. Got that? Don’t worry, it takes at least a few minutes as a viewer to get the rhythm and layers of what’s unfolding before our eyes.
John Huston (himself an industry legend with 2 Oscars and 15 nominations) plays director Jake Hannaford, who is walking the fine line between Hollywood power and has-been. It’s his 70th birthday party, and Hannaford is compared to Hemingway (a description that better fit Huston than Welles), silently endures insinuations of his closeted homosexuality, desperately seeks funding to finish his film, and skulks around his own party winding through the hangers-on and those waiting for the final curtain.
Hannaford’s artsy film within a film, at least the clips we see, feature an inordinate amount of nudity from the leading lady (played by Welles 4th wife and the film’s co-writer Oja Kodar), and some ultra-coolness from the lead actor John Dale (played by Robert Random). Part of Hannaford’s desperation (both professional and persona) stems from a James Dean-type Dale walking off the set mid-picture.
Guests at the party include Peter Bogdanovich as director Brooks Otterlake, a young director once mentored by Hannaford. It’s an example of the student becoming the teacher. Susan Strasberg (daughter of famed acting coach Lee Strasberg) plays film critic Juliet Riche, a thinly-veiled portrait of Welles nemesis Pauline Kael. Other familiar faces in the cast include: Lilli Palmer, Mercedes McCambridge (Oscar winner), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar winner), Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart (from CITIZEN KANE), Tonio Selwart, Geoffrey Land, Norman Foster, Dennis Hopper (2 Oscar noms), Claude Chabrol, Stafford Repp (Sgt O’Hara from “Batman” series), plus Cameron Crowe (Oscar winner), William Katt, Frank Marshall (5 Oscar noms), Rich Little, Leslie Moonves (recently fired in disgrace CBS President), and Paul Mazursky (5 Oscar noms). It’s fascinating to see so many we recognize from more than 40 years ago. Of course, it’s Huston, with his face that’s made for black and white film, who is the dominating figure (his scenes were filmed prior to his work on CHINATOWN).
It’s easily viewed as a satire on the film industry, and it’s quite a fun, messy-by-design, now retro look at a fragile industry – and the even more fragile people who make movies. Welles’ love/hate relationship with the industry takes on an art form. He shows what’s good and what’s deplorable. Is it an experimental movie commenting on the post-studio world of independent filmmaking, or is it an iconic filmmaker, glory days behind him, in the midst of self-reflection. Perhaps it’s both. In addition to Welles’ early editing efforts, Oscar winning editor Bob Murawski (THE HURT LOCKER) was brought in to finish up what can now be described as a master class in film editing. It’s a wild ride for us film nerds. Are you ready to join us?
Premieres on Netflix Friday, November 2nd and in limited theaters.