Updated on November 5 after watching the accompanying Netflix documentary,Orson Welles and Netflix might have been a perfect match. There wouldn't have been any worries about how many paid admissions each project of his could draw, and they wouldn't have depended on him overmuch to attract new subscribers. All that would have mattered, presumably, was how much money he spent and when he delivered the product. Of course, what sort of product he proposed to deliver would make a lot of difference. Batting out something like F for Fake on a relatively regular basis might not have been much of a problem. A narrative film, alas, would have been a different story.
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead.
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead.
It's interesting that Welles brings up Hemingway in this picture, since it reminded me of some things Hemingway said. Hemingway said of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon that the it was no masterpiece in the making, but that it showed that Fitzgerald had just enough skill to keep publishers interested enough to advance him more money. Of a Norman Mailer novel -- The Deer Park, if I recall right -- Hemingway said that the author had blown the whistle on himself. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles portrays his director protagonist (John Huston) as a Hemingway type, if not more obviously a darker version of himself. Wind, however, is an attempt at what Hemingway, describing his own efforts, called a bank shot, touching several thematic bases at once. It's a work of self-criticism to an extent but also a satire of the whole cult of the director, almost as contemptuous toward "cineastes" (a repeated sneer-word here) as those filmmakers of the generation before Welles who hated (or affected to hate) analyzing their careers. It could be seen equally as an indictment of the creative bankruptcy of auteurism or a confession of Welles's own creative bankruptcy.
The way he tells the story clearly interests Welles more than the story he tells. That story, based on what Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich and others have salvaged from the surviving footage, attempts to account for the creative exhaustion of the Huston character, Jake Hannaford, who's showing excerpts of his in-progress production "The Other Side of the Wind" at a birthday party in the hope of raising the funds needed to finish the project -- much as Welles himself screened scenes at his AFI lifetime achievement award ceremony. The film within the film is both to some extent a parody of Zabriskie Point and a way for Welles to show what he can do visually in color and widescreen. A man stalks and courts a mysterious woman (who may be a terrorist) who goes about naked a lot (Oja Kodar) and torments the man in many ways. They wander through an old move backlot before she meets such fate as she has in the desert. As a commercial project it seems hopeless, but what's specifically stalled it is Hannaford's falling out with his neophyte star, Johnny Dale (Bob Random). The director made a project of the young man, apparently a drifter, after rescuing him from an apparent suicide attempt, but became suspicious of his authenticity. Dale turned out to be a boarding-school dropout involved in some sort of homosexual scandal. Hannaford tormented him on the set of the movie until Dale stormed off, buck naked, after a scene that teased his castration. His departure, and a failure of funding, has let the film a confused jumble, and it's unclear that any amount of money, in the absence of the original inspiration, can solve its problems.
The film proper is kaleidoscopic, showing Hannaford surrounded by fans, sycophants, critics and parasites, many of whom are shooting their own documentary or home-movie footage of the film party. The fatal flaw of the film as a whole is Welles's belief that diversity of film stocks could substitute for diversity of character. None of the characters feels genuinely fleshed-out; you get the sense that Welles knows more about them than the footage used here actually shows, but you also get the suspicion that he knew more about them than he could or cared to show. Many are probably analogues for cronies of Welles himself, and Bogdanovich definitely and almost masochistically -- taking over for an absconding Rich Little -- plays a version of himself as a pushy superfan with ambitions of surpassing the master. The mock-festive setting reminds me of a truly amateur movie of the same period, Norman Mailer's Maidstone -- and Welles' raving about improvisational filmmaking, captured in the accompanying documentary, suggests at minimum a coincidence of his thinking and Mailer's -- while the flailing experimentation anticipates a similar work of what we could call neo-amateurism, Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again. Unfortunately, Wind lacks any sense of spontaneity, mainly because of Welles's late-career choppy style of editing together shots taken months or possibly years apart, and probably because his control-freak auterism had overcome his interest in improvisation at some point in the production. You get one shot of a character talking, and then we cut to a shot of the next character talking, when what's arguably needed is the more naturalistic overlapping dialogue of Robert Altmann's films. To be fair, Welles may have meant to mix the sound differently -- and for that matter I think I would rather have seen the film without a music score in the absence of any Wellsian input on the selections -- but there's no way to know that for certain. What seems inescapable is a sense of exhaustion with storytelling even as Welles remains fascinated by the possibilities of editing and composition. In simplest terms, the ultimate subject of this film may be not the death of cinema, but the inevitable if not necessary demise of a certain kind of filmmaking, with the far more lively F for Fake showing the way ahead. The really sad thing about Wind is that, as the documentary makes clear, much of it was filmed after Fake, as if Welles hadn't realized, or wouldn't admit, that the project was a creative dead end.
Demoralizing as it may be, The Other Side of the Wind probably should be mandatory viewing for movie fans, if only for the unexpected encores it provides for so many long-gone character actors, from Mercedes McCambridge to Cameron Mitchell, from Edmond O'Brien -- bloated and roughened to the point that he resembles Lon Chaney Jr. -- to Angelo Rossitto. One would have liked the film to have proved a buried masterpiece, but contrary to what the film itself may suggest, even the ambitious failures of an auteur like Welles can reward watching, as cautionary tales or tragic hints of what could have been. As a work of art it isn't much, but like any Welles film it has many memorable moments of pictorial power. As a historical document, I highly recommend it.