Orson Welles’s Recovered Last Feature Is An Absolute Masterpiece

Orson Welles’s Recovered Last Feature Is An Absolute Masterpiece

How a fabled film, long in the works, was ultimately released––and triumphed.
Benjamin Kerstein
By

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two,” Orson Welles said in his last film, the magnificent “F for Fake,” “but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes.”

Certainly, many of Welles’ films did just that. He never made a fake, but treasures like the original “Magnificent Ambersons,” the unfinished “Don Quixote,” “The Deep,” and “The Merchant of Venice,” all fell—at least in the form he intended them—into the ultimate and universal ash.

But suddenly and seemingly impossibly, a resurrection has occurred. Long thought to be a lost film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” Welles’ last feature, was released by Netflix on November 2. It is astounding, a stunning echo and assault on “Citizen Kane,” a defiant statement of absolute artistic integrity thrown into the face of an industry that so often seems intent on destroying precisely that, an aesthetic triumph and a final work of devastating emotional power. It leaves the viewer shattered and somehow elevated by the experience.

Story Behind The Story

The making, unmaking, and ultimate resurrection of “The Other Side of the Wind” is a legendary tale in itself. Welles lived with the story for a decade before he began to shoot it in the early 1970s with a skeleton crew and, at first, his own money.

Scenes were shot and reshot, actors hired and discarded, and crews worked beyond reason, apparently happy to be slaves to a god of cinema over the course of a shoot lasting six years. Afterward, a series of disasters, all having, as in many Welles projects, to do with money, prevented the release of the film, and it languished in a Paris vault for years, the editing incomplete.

Ever since, Welles allies including cinematographer Gary Graver; collaborator, star, and lover Oja Kodar; and famed director Peter Bogdanovich, who himself gives a magnificent performance in the picture, labored to somehow complete the film. There were deals made, crowdfunding campaigns undertaken, backers courted, a prospective alliance with Showtime, but all collapsed.

Over the years, the film almost seemed to be cursed, doomed forever to incompletion. Yet, ironically for a film made before the personal computer even existed, it was rescued by a new technology. Streaming giant Netflix stepped in and gave us poor suffering cinephiles the ultimate gift: a lost Welles picture completed in accordance with something like its director’s original vision.

Expectations are, of course, astronomical. In fact, before I finally clicked on the play icon I was almost trembling with both anticipation and fear: what if it was not the masterpiece we have longed for after so many years? Could it possibly be the equal of Welles’ previous treasures?

Such fears were unwarranted—“The Other Side of the Wind” is a masterpiece. But it is the best kind of masterpiece, one that achieves greatness by being utterly unlike anything we might have expected.

Film Legend Jake Hannaford’s Party

The film’s narrative is simple: On the last day of his life, legendary filmmaker Jake Hannaford (a titanic John Huston) holds a birthday party at a friend’s mansion. He has almost completed what he hopes will be his comeback picture—a sex- and violence-drenched fever dream called, of course, “The Other Side of the Wind”—which he hopes will both reignite his career and make him relevant again in the youth-obsessed New Hollywood of the ‘70s.

Throughout, he is surrounded by his acolyte Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), a director whose success has now outstripped his mentor, a team of cronies from the old days, a pugnacious film critic who despises him, and a plethora of hangers on and friends of friends who watch clips of the new film while the power goes off and on, dummies are shot to pieces, and alcohol flows like water. Slowly, Hannaford’s soul begins to erode, sending him into a tailspin of macho self-destruction. It all ends at a drive-in where the last reels of Hannaford’s film unspool and he drives off to his death.

None of this scratches the surface, however, of what makes the film so compelling. In “The Other Side of the Wind,” there is no style over substance, the style is the substance. The film within a film is a beautifully shot, surrealist, thoroughly bizarre amalgam of images that is clearly a vicious satire of the art films of Welles’ bete noire Michelangelo Antonioni.

The overall narrative, however, is a jigsaw of rapidly edited shots ostensibly from the numerous cameras in the hands of reporters and documentary crews filming Hannaford’s birthday party. The extraordinary rapid-fire editing creates a montage that shifts effortlessly between film stocks, colors, and textures, sending the viewer spinning, as if caught up in the vertiginous collapse of Hannaford’s psyche.

Especially powerful is the interaction between Hannaford and Otterlake, which is clearly modeled on Welles’ fraught relationship with Bogdanovich. The two-handers between them are affectionate, touching, angry, and ultimately devastatingly sad. Otterlake finally tells his crumbling father figure, “Our revels now are ended.”

Indeed, the performances are sparkling with energy, verve, and often overwhelming emotion. Like most of Welles’ films, “The Other Side of the Wind” is a tragedy, and this holds true for all its characters. They are all on their way down, and we only go with them as far as Welles is willing to take us in what amounts to an extraordinary act of cinematic empathy.

Leading Ladies And Men

Unquestionably, however, Huston anchors the picture. His performance is big, brash, violent, and obsessively compelling. “I love this man, and I hate him,” Welles once said of the character. In his and Huston’s hands, Hannaford is both monstrous and an object of deepest pity.

He is a dying lion, a Hemingway-esque figure lurching from moment to moment, becoming progressively debilitated by age and alcohol, struggling to maintain his macho façade even as hints of a troubled sexuality—personified in his fetishization of his leading man—bubble occasionally to the surface. The scene in which Huston, in a fit of explosive rage, smashes a glass of Scotch against a statue so hard he spins around is so intense that the viewer feels the impact with frightening immediacy. It is unquestionably Huston’s greatest performance, likely the result of his close friendship with Welles, with one great director leading the other to emotional heights never before attempted.

In a radical departure from Welles’ previous films, “The Other Side of the Wind” may also be one of the most erotic films ever made. The beautiful Kodar as Hannaford’s leading lady drifts mostly naked through the film within a film, and both a sapphic bathroom scene in which she taunts a female admirer with an ice cube and a garish sex scene in a car drenched by a ferocious rainstorm show Welles fearlessly moving into new territory at an age when lesser directors were more than content to rest on their laurels.

Welles’ greatness always lay in his willingness to make leaps of artistic faith, and here he does so again, embracing a subject his previous, mostly prudish films carefully avoided. It is a testimony to Welles’ continued vitality and aesthetic courage.

Welles: More Radical — and Gifted — Than We Knew

There is no doubt that, thanks to that vitality and courage, we will now have to make a major reassessment of Welles himself. We now have living proof of a filmmaker who, even as the twilight gathered, was still experimenting, still remaking the medium, still remaking himself.

We now know that in “The Other Side of the Wind,” Welles abandoned his stately, ornate style in favor of cinema verité montage, left behind his obsession with the past to engage completely with the present, threw out theatricality for naturalism, abandoned cinematic chastity for unabashed eroticism, and thus made a masterpiece both in keeping with his previous work and unlike any he had previously achieved. We must now assess a different Welles, even more radical and gifted than the one we had previously known.

What we are left with in the end, however, is not merely a triumph for Welles but a triumph for cinema. Somehow, in spite of all obstacles, a great work of art has survived all attempts to stymie and destroy it. The brutal economic realities of the movies, a system that made every possible attempt to decimate Welles and his work, and even the stark and relentless passage of time failed to dim “The Other Side of the Wind,” its director, and the stubborn admirers and collaborators who somehow helped the picture defy death itself.

Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer, editor, and novelist.

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