The myth of The Other Side of the Wind has outgrown the film itself, to the point where you have to keep reminding yourself that it now exists for our consumption. Welles scholars have pored over this work with unrelenting zeal, unearthing reason after reason for why he never managed to complete it, and why no one else could after he died. Its troubled history is the reason why most thought it would never see the light of day, despite the footage existing. It was like a curse that could never be lifted—until now. Now, for the first time in over forty years, the world can visit a little site called Netflix and watch a new Orson Welles film—he last will and testament from the man who brought us Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. You see why I had to assure myself that I was not dreaming. The dead do not speak to us so frankly.
It is, as expected, a staggering accomplishment. Even if a lot of the editing was not touched by Welles’ hands, you can detect that spirited abandon almost instantly in the cacophony of cameras and conversations that serve as the prologue. We are jetted hither and thither between unfamiliar faces and names, valiantly attempting to assemble a tethering line in the hubbub as lines dart through the air: a prestigious director, a birthday party, biographies and needling interviews, a counterculture film of dubious quality, questions of cinematic philosophy, missing actors and prop dummies… everything falls out of the air at once. Scramble we must to learn these secrets before they combust. We’re only told that it all leads to death, and how and why that death is precipitated is within these scraps. Literally scraps—the mockumentary format is framed as the bits and pieces collected by a horde of cameras spying and prying in the shadows, secretly filming interactions without the characters’ knowledge. It is the cinematic equivalent of the cento poem: a whole assembled using a patchwork of sources. How ironic is it that the film talks to itself in this way, for it was only completed by pasting together the dead man’s letters.
It will shock no one that the film is heavily rooted in its period, with referents that few people today would use. Hannaford was clearly influenced by Ernest Hemingway, who was the masc writer of his generation. Welles strips away the varnish and queers him, making him a sadder husk of forced machismo than even I had predicted. The film-within-the-film is evidently a scathing pastiche of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, though in other ways it plays subversively, with a frequently nude Oja Kodar quietly mocking the male gaze’s perversity and coming off the endeavour rather triumphantly. Meanwhile, the house party is comprised of a melting pot of garish Hollywood types, most of them insecure in their selfhoods and treating Hannaford as their last Messiah. It’s pitiable idol worship, though slathered in Wellesian entertainment value: trenchant visual gags, barbed one-liners, and bubbling turmoil that broils and broils with each passing (diegetic) hour. Even better is Welles’ aesthetic approach: he mixes colour and black and white photography indiscriminately, and even causes a blackout in the narrative so he can shoot in rich chiaroscuro. John Huston’s cavernous face will never be seen again, so why not let us marvel at it under low-lit conditions?
The view from the other side of the wind is caustic, though—marbled in melancholy and a distinctly fatalistic view of the film world’s excesses. The landscape is fettered by false prophets and unflattering imitations, and every surface is grazed by deceit. Oh yes, this is not a mischievous curtain call as F for Fake was. This is noticeably rancorous and tired of the frills. The tiredness in Welles’ breath remains potent all these years later, because in some ways we have learnt very little. This is a mirror into the past, but in some truly striking ways, it is our reflection being refracted across a generation, foretold by a man who did nothing else during his earthly life other than trailblaze and set convention alight. How lucky—how incredibly lucky we were to have him, and to have this, his final communication. His final memorandum.