Nudity, ‘redskins’, dwarfs ... the ‘new’ Welles movie is not for the PC
Late auteur's work on Netflix is very much of its time
Magic loomed large in the imagination of Orson Welles, and here is the maestro’s final trick: a flabbergasting curveball tossed from beyond the grave.
When it was originally shot, The Other Side of the Wind was supposed to be Welles’s comeback film: filming began in 1970 following the director’s return to Hollywood after two decades in professional exile, and was finished by early 1976, by which point Welles had also cut between 40-50 minutes of his footage into shape.
But the project became mired in legal and financial problems, and was only recently completed thanks to a group effort involving – among others – the streaming service Netflix, Welles’s disciple (and one of the film’s stars) Peter Bogdanovich, the producer Frank Marshall, and a crowdfunding drive on the Indiegogo website.
Its belated completion almost 33 years after Welles’s death is a story worthy of a film itself, and indeed there is one: the new documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, directed by Morgan Neville.
But the film more than speaks for itself: with seemingly spacetime-bending prescience, it is about a legendary director whose final work, titled The Other Side of the Wind, seems doomed to remain unfinished.
John Huston plays the director, JJ Hannaford – a rumbling, crumbling king figure of the type Welles was perpetually fascinated by, and a lightly veiled version of Welles himself, with Ernest Hemingway overtones. Hannaford is working on a raunchy arthouse project in the style of Zabriskie Point, packed with full frontal nudity, psychedelic pop and stark desert vistas, which he hopes will connect him with a younger crowd.
This film-within-a-film is his loftily titled late-period opus The Other Side of the Wind: Oja Kodar, Welles’s partner in later life, plays the nameless lead actress, and spends much of her screen time slinking around in a state of partial or total undress. But Hannaford’s leading man (Robert Random) has gone AWOL after suffering repeatedly humiliations on set at his director’s hands.
So the project is trapped in limbo, and Hannaford’s various courtiers, including his protégé Brooks Otterlake, played by Bogdanovich, are trying to devise an 11th-hour fix. The strategising unfolds at a wild party at Hannaford’s ranch, at which an attempted screening of the film as it stands descends into chaos.
The guests include an enormous number of media hangers-on, most of whom have brought their own cameras – and it is from their footage, captured in the heat of the moment in a mix of black and white and colour, that the bulk of Welles’s film – ie everything but Hannaford’s film-within-a-film – has been supposedly assembled. The result, set to a sensational, frenetic jazz score by Michel Legrand, is a sustained blast of frantic cinéma concrète: a blitz of jagged angles and loopy zooms that feels very of a piece with Welles’s 1973 documentary F For Fake.
Since it was shot a decade before Cannibal Holocaust and almost three before The Blair Witch Project, The Other Side of the Wind must surely now qualify as the first ever found footage film: trust Welles to be a generation ahead of the curve. Elsewhere, though, the film’s vintage is proudly on display.
The whole thing is scorchingly un-PC, with extensive female nudity, Kojar playing her Native American character in redface, double-entendres blaring all over (Hannaford describes a scene in which his leading lady holds a pair of scissors to her male screen partner’s genitals as “pure Hitchcock”), and a pair of trouble-making dwarfs as comic relief.
Huston’s dialogue is also often muffled, though whether this was Welles’s intention or a consequence of the original recordings’ degraded state is unclear. Either way, in context it doesn’t feel like a mistake – and Huston’s handful of fruity Wellesian monologues, including a spine-tingling closing narration, ring with all the leonine grandeur you would expect.
Its relentless, almost hallucinogenic craziness makes it a hard film to engage with. But as a mad satire of movie-world tumult, and a furious love letter to the business that made and unmade its maker, it could scarcely be improved.
• The Other Side of the Wind and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead are now on Netflix.
- © The Daily Telegraph