ORSON WELLES died in October 1985; his latest film, The Other Side of the Wind, was released in November 2018.
The film itself — shot mostly between 1970 to 1976 — feels like the bookend to Mr. Welles’ debut feature Citizen Kane: a powerful man in a state of decline, his life and career dissected by a variety of witnesses. Unlike Kane which was a puzzlebox of testimonies fitting together to reveal an opaque enigma (what does “Rosebud” really tell us about the man?) but which was shot and edited in a more conventional manner (radical for classic Hollywood, relatively conventional for us), this film’s very style reflects those fragmented views, shifting from monochrome to color to 35 mm to 16 mm to Super 8. The film breaks down to either three sections or two halves — six depending on how you look at it: a crew closing its shoot to go to a viewing party, the party itself, the party’s aftermath in a drive-in; also alternates between crew and viewings of the film itself, titled The Other Side of the Wind (you could argue that the film breaks down to hundreds of shots, each shot in a different style from a different point of view and a different emotional tone but for simplicity’s sake let’s stop at six).
The film’s first 20 or so minutes should be offputting — are we even in the same movie? — if it wasn’t for an entire cable channel and three of Oliver Stone’s feature films (JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon) regurgitating the style to the public for decades. Helps to keep in mind that the film’s all about Jake Hannaford (John Huston): in a piecemeal process — one nugget of info at a time — we learn that he’s a veteran bigshot, that several documentaries and books are being written about him, that he’s in search of investors to put up completion money for his work in progress. You recognize aspects of Mr. Welles in the portrait — the high reputation, the ultraloyal crew members (who feel by turns vindicated and betrayed, depending on how Hannaford is treating them at the moment), the rabid nonfans (who moments before may have been loyalists). You can’t not see a bit of Mr. Huston in the role (the big-game hunting, the Irish heritage), especially how the actor-director plays him, with generous servings of charisma and charm; you can’t not see a bit of Ernest Hemingway, who was Mr. Welles’ initial inspiration (the guns and hunting, the insistent machismo, the filmmaker’s ultimate fate). Feels like a descendant of John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe in Howard Hawk’s Twentieth Century grown to monstrous proportions, with echoes in Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross striding across the screen of Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (Rush’s film was made in 1978, the novel it was adapted from written in 1970 — but the filmmaker’s outsized personality is arguably Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Rush’s creation, presumably channeling Mr. Huston and Mr. Welles).
The film touches on among many things — an aging filmmaker’s role in an industry where he’s become obsolete, on the excesses of the 1960s European art movement, on the way filmmakers (translate: Mr. Welles) abuse the people who support him. The latter feels especially relevant in light of the Me Too movement — filmmakers building up and breaking down actors’ careers, the industry as a meat market from which a filmmaker or producer can select the choicest cuts. At one point the college professor of one of the production’s lead actors is singled out for mockery — arguably the single cruelest and most disturbing scene in the film, and one that raises a few unanswered questions: Is Mr. Welles condemning homophobia (Especially the hypocritical kind, as some of the tormentors are bisexual)? Or does the scene, due to its extended and ambiguous nature, cross the line into actual homophobia? Mr. Welles, according to editor Bob Murawski, directed and edited this particular sequence but refuses to provide any clear answer.
The film is a Mr. Welles film if only for the fact that it dwells on the classic Mr. Welles theme of betrayal — not just Hannaford’s towards any number of his minions, but inflicted on Hannaford himself by his brightest acolyte Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich). If Other is populated by caricatures of real-life personalities, Otterlake may be the most intricate of all — when film production started his status as critic-turned-hit-filmmaker looked like a generous prophecy; when production neared its end, that same status must have felt like an albatross weighing on Mr. Bogdanovich and Mr. Welles both. The viewer may find it difficult to separate the history between Otterlake and Hannaford from the history between Mr. Bogdanovich and Mr. Welles, and Mr. Welles himself — probably deliberately so — makes this attempted separation all but impossible.
As for the film within the film — Mr. Welles intended it as a parody mainly of Michelangelo Antonioni’s American productions (with traces of Federico Fellini’s later pictures and of Ingmar Bergman’s more stylized modern-era work). Majority of the complaints made against the film are directed at this parody — too long, too self-indulgent — and the complaints hold water with one crucial problem: the footage is breathtaking. There’s a sequence where The Actor (Bob Random) pursues The Actress (Oja Kodar, Mr. Welles’ collaborator and companion) across abandoned film sets; their vanishing in and out of colorful flats ornamented with noirish striped shadows feels more smoothly orchestrated and edited than a similar sequence in Lady From Shanghai; later there’s a scene involving beaded necklaces, a rusty-springed iron-frame bed, and a daggerlike pair of scissors that helps goad the audience into new levels of unsettled arousal — also driving the lead actor to walk off the set, naked.
There’s a car hurtling through the rainstorm night — the car in reality is motionless, with a hose supplying windshield rain and a man holding two lamps while sitting on a wheelchair providing oncoming traffic. The Actress caresses The Actor while The Driver (Robert Aiken) grows increasingly jealous — the Actress’ heavy beads swing against her heavy breasts while red and green stoplights flash at her face in simulated orgasm. Perhaps the single most erotic sequence in Mr. Welles’ career (though The Immortal Story and F is for Fake have their moments, and Mr. Welles did once edit the shower scene in a porn film [3 AM, directed pseudonymously — he had to eat, after all — by Other cinematographer Gary Graver]), it stands out as an exploration of sexuality — and if we read Ms. Kodar’s predatory Actress as Hannaford seducing his male lead — as an exploration of Hannaford’s sexuality, possibly of Mr. Welles’.
Mr. Welles disliked psychoanalysis of his films and likely anticipated all this thinking by talking of “directing with a mask on.” But putting on a mask also has the sometimes unintended consequence of revealing too much: the masked man feels safe, liberated from exposure, is often unguarded in his actions — in this case possibly his art. Also possible that Mr. Welles recognized a little psychoanalysis can go a long way towards exciting interest in a work, and planted little red herrings here and there — y’know, for the unwary.
Is the film a mess? Sure. Is it a masterpiece? Probably not (I would personally vote for his take on the character of Falstaff). But considering that this finished product assembled by others represents only 2% of all the footage Mr. Welles shot, that there are questions about what Mr. Welles actually edited and helmed (Ms. Kodar reportedly did a few scenes), with conflicting statements from different parties on record — perhaps it isn’t the last statement on the subject, nor should it be. Perhaps it’s possible maybe five or 10 years down the road to make another version of Other, done by yet another young punk editor or filmmaker (A 40-minute dialogueless art film? A three-hour party picture?), and that the whole debate will rise again, never to be definitively settled, sealing (or rather unsealing) Mr. Welles’ reputation for years to come. Is this the best film Mr. Welles ever “directed?” Perhaps not, but there’s a good case to be made that it’s the best trick he’s ever pulled.