In the beginning of 1970, Orson Welles returned to the United States. It had been 29 years since Citizen Kane was released in theaters, and much of his work in the interim was plagued with issues: squabbles with producers, lack of funding, bad press. Films were left unfinished or altered without his consent. He had spent most of the previous decade in Europe, the second of two exiles from the United States that, while productive, helped perpetuate a fall-from-grace narrative in the popular press that mirrored his most famous screen character. “I drag my myth around with me,” he told the critic Kenneth Tynan in a 1967 interview.
Welles still drags around that myth 33 years after his death. Nowhere is this more evident than in the controversy surrounding The Other Side of the Wind, the filmmaker’s most notorious unfinished project. After decades of legal complications and various attempts at completion, the film will finally reach the public, following a series of festival screenings — it premiered at Telluride in August, and will be presented at the New York Film Festival later this month — via Netflix, which provided last-minute funding and will add the film to its streaming service starting November 2.
Welles began shooting Other Wind — its abbreviated clapboard title during production — in August 1970, not long after his return to the United States. Its origins date back to a confrontation with Ernest Hemingway over a decade prior. Welles was hired to record the narration, written by Hemingway, for Joris Ivens’s documentary The Spanish Earth. During a preliminary meeting, Welles suggested some changes. The novelist made a homophobic remark, which led to a fist fight. “Oh, Mr. Hemingway, you think because you’re so big and strong and have hair on your chest,” the writer Joseph McBride, in his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, quotes Welles as replying in mock-mochismo defense.
Although he would have kinder words to say about Hemingway later in life, Welles used the encounter as inspiration for the protagonist of Other Wind. The film revolves around the debauched 70th birthday party of the gruff, hard-drinking Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a veteran director working on a project that mirrors the pretensions of the then-burgeoning, auteur-influenced New Hollywood. Shadowed by a parade of followers — young filmmakers, photographers, reporters, producers — Hannaford struggles to raise money for his flashy, gratuitous-sex-laden film. But attempts to screen finished sections keep comically failing, and Hannaford, who also harbors unrequited feelings for the film’s male lead, seems to descend into mental collapse.
Other Wind shifts, sometimes suddenly, between the film Hannaford is making and scenes of his birthday party. The bizarre film within a film, also called Other Wind, bears a striking resemblance, at moments, to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially Red Desert and his then-recent American production Zabriskie Point. In the scenes that we see, Welles’s muse, the actress Oja Kodar, wanders through barren landscapes, often nude, following or being followed by a shaggy-haired man. While parody, these sections also contain the film’s most visually striking scenes, including a long, psychedelic-colored sequence that begins in a rock club and evolves into an erotic car ride that feels like it’s happening in the middle of a monsoon.
The rest of the film is framed as a scattershot mockumentary patched together from camera-toting party guests’ verité footage. It haphazardly splices together a complex array of voices and movements, comical and abrasive, and occasionally shifts from color to black-and-white. Many of the guests share cruel jokes aimed at the director about his possible homosexuality or the ambiguous ethnicity of the film’s main actress, who is occasionally referred to Pocahontas. Hannaford glides around the edges of this swirling mass of people, most of whom talk about him as if he is already dead.
Without drawing a strict autobiographical line, it’s clear that this long-unfinished film about an unfinished film is also about Welles himself. The party guests are played by the director’s real-life friends, including Peter Bogdanovich, who viewed Welles as a mentor, and whose character verges on self-parody; figures from Welles’ past, such as the director Norman Foster and the actor Paul Stewart; and young fellow filmmakers, such as Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, and Paul Mazursky.
Other Wind was Welles’ satirical answer to his own deep ambivalence about the state of filmmaking and his place in it, and it was meant to be his grand statement. Welles initially financed the project with $750,000 of his own money, and the freewheeling nature of the film — by many accounts, precariously held together by young cameraman and confidant Gary Graver — is reflected in how it was produced. The full cast was never cemented — while deciding if he wanted Huston or Peter O’Toole in the lead role, Welles shot around the main character for the first three years of production — and financing concerns led to the accumulation of funding from some questionable sources, including a producer who ran off with $250,000 and another who was the brother-in-law of the shah of Iran.
The shooting stretched over six years, and much of this troubled history is thoroughly detailed in Morgan Neville’s You’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary that will join Other Wind on Netflix and also screen at the New York Film Festival. While entertaining, the documentary is also better as an afterthought — so many of the problems surrounding Other Wind have to do with its history. Now that we can see Other Wind, in its completed form, it’s better to watch the film on its own terms and save the backstory as a postscript.
But there’s also the question: is the film really completed? This is one version of Other Wind, put together with care by people who were close with Welles and collaborated with him on the film. At times, its reconstruction shows it stitching. While it’s better than nothing — its chaotic history belies its dynamic shape and lively charms — it should not be considered definitive. Based on the amount of material Welles shot over the years for projects that were never completed, it’s clear that he loved the process of making films more than settling on a finished form. So it might be better to say this is a version of Other Wind that takes the approximate shape of how Welles would have liked to see it completed. But the real version of Other Wind has always been around — half-edited, confusing, its pieces locked in vaults, various parties fighting over its scraps.