The film’s frisson of autobio-bio-biography, of bioallegorical industrial psychoanalysis, of scattershot score-settling directed at Peter Bogdanovich, John Milius, Pauline Kael, Michelangelo Antonioni, and so many others would have swamped the coverage of the movie had it been finished in Welles’s lifetime. But it wasn’t so it didn’t.
In 1975, Welles was given a lifetime achievement award by the AFI. With The Wind basically shot and several sequences edited, he took the occasion to announce that all he needed was “end money” to bring the production to a close. No one came through, and the film remained unfinished. By now, though, you know that it is finished and streaming on Netflix. If it is the sort of thing you want to watch there is a good chance you have watched it, or you may have watched They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, the feature-length documentary directed by Morgan Neville that accompanies it and tells its backstory. Or you may have watched both. If you are a completist, you may also want to watch A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making, a fascinating, 40-minute making-of directed by Ryan Suffern that you can find under the “Trailers and More” tab. All three, according to producer Filip Jan Rymsza, were included in the 2015 term sheet they signed with the studio/streamer. The Wind is finished and then some.
For us, today, after the scores no longer need settling, and after the layers of biography are largely antiquarian, The Other Side of the Wind arrives as a muted lesson about Hollywood’s past and as a contemporary landmark available for immediate, and intensive, critical attention. It is not simply the movie Welles would have made had he completed it; it is the movie Welles would have made had he been the digital filmmaker he was not.
In the making-of and in person, everyone involved with getting The Wind finished says it couldn’t have been completed until now. It took new digital tools to find the right snatches of the original negative to match up with Welles’s workprint. It took Industrial Light & Magic to complete and composite shots of a bunch of dummies being shot. And, of course, the production made use of the whole range of now-ordinary digital processes to get the score ready, to loop missing dialogue, to edit and color correct and execute the final shot in which a drive-in screen fades to white as a dawn train rolls by.
In this mishmash of now and then, of state-of-the-art digital processes and radically innovative analogue processes, Welles has indeed made and been made into a portrait of the industry — today’s industry. “We are only here tonight because of Netflix,” producer Frank Marshall explained at a USC screening. “They stepped up; they never wavered; they supported us all the way.” They were the end money, at last.
The central conceit of The Other Side of the Wind has remained consistent from its first elaboration until now. The film contains two movies. The first is a piecemeal documentary set on the last day of the life of Jake Hannaford, played by Huston. The second is an eponymous film-within-the-film that exists in an incomplete state. Following the credits, the movie launches with Hannaford grabbing the final shot of the day — a group of laughing, naked women in a steam bath introducing our heroine (Welles’s companion and co-writer Oja Kodar) to a strap-on. It isn’t a single shot, but a dozen, giving the lie immediately to the faux documentary, but the rapid editing continues into the mad dash to the director’s ranch where there will be a party for his 70th birthday. Subsequently, we see extended portions of the nested film in three locations. One chunk is shown to a potential funder in a studio screening room. The funder passes. A couple more installments are screened at Hannaford’s ranch. Those screenings are punctuated by power outages and party overflow. Finally, after everyone has given up trying to get the power back at the ranch, the whole party decamps to a drive-in for the last bit. There, Hannaford’s relationship with his successful protégé Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich) will come apart; after, Hannaford will die in a car wreck.
The phony Antonioni of Hannaford’s film is visually stunning. Low horizons, blue-black skies, vague intrigue, and lots of sex. It’s also vapid, intentionally so. Hannaford is losing it, and despite his conviction that he can shoot the thing without a script, he has missed important shots. The would-be funder (a shot at Paramount’s Robert Evans, the subject of The Kid Stays in the Picture) is put off by the missing details about a kidnapping/robbery/bomb plot. The partygoers (who are usually playing themselves when not playing analogues of New Hollywood icons) encounter “SCENE MISSING” intertitles more than once. And the drive-in audience is treated to reels out of order. The upshot is clear from beginning to end: having driven away his young male star in a spate of sexual provocation, there’s no chance Hannaford can finish the film.
Just as stunning, but radically different, is the pseudo-documentary that surrounds the Hannaford film. A crazyquilt of different stocks, sound sources, and levels of craft, the assemblage is fun and assaultive, giving dozens of speaking characters the chance to break the fourth wall, giving Hannaford the chance to perform and be caught performing, giving the film a sense of the New Hollywood scene, this re-professionalized society, breaking down in full auteurist self-obsession.
Whatever Hannaford’s plan, the diffused production of The Wind was not the result of a principled commitment to improvisation. Welles’s film wasn’t unscripted. It was tightly written but constantly evolving. Everyone involved in principal photography was amazed at his ability to track what footage was still needed — to remember that there were reverse shots to be picked up across several years and a couple continents. And Welles’s editors were amazed by his work in postproduction, a more radical version of the work he’d been doing in Europe, swinging, incredibly quickly at times, from decentered and theatrical social portraits to tight, realist psychological revelations. Everything about the production of The Wind bolstered the notion of an auteur at work, endlessly. Only a studio with endless money could possibly keep up, and, for now, Netflix has endless money, a stream of monthly subscriptions and a willingness to spend it on content, up to $13 billion in 2018.
Both The Wind and They’ll Love Me bend toward death, yet both comfort themselves that the great directors miraculously direct from beyond the grave. Wind gives the very last word to Huston, after the final credits roll: “Cut.” And They’ll Love Me cagily suggests that our interest in the endless obsession with Welles-not-finishing might be exactly what Welles imagined all along. (There’s footage of him saying as much in 1966. There’s also a late interview in Josh Karp’s book, Orson Welles's Last Movie, where Welles suggests that if he did get access to the film again, he’d add a third layer of self-reflection. Then again, there’s footage of Welles saying or imagining doing everything. “Don’t look for keys,” he said about the search for his biography in the movie. That goes at least double for multi-decade-spanning strategery.)
Neville and Karp and plenty of reviewers besides depend on the idea that the decades of struggle to get the movie finished are colorful and fascinating, replete with interesting characters and dramatic turns. I’m not inclined to agree. The frittering away of the film in a thicket of negotiations and legal actions is just a drag. The real-world characters never quite come off. Welles’s French producer relied on Iranian funding courtesy of the Shah’s brother-in-law. He might have been the bad guy, but over the years, everyone who met Mehdi Bushehri was taken with his gentlemanliness. When the Shah fell, the new Iranian government — certainly bad-guy candidates! — might have seized or destroyed the film. They didn’t. They simply requested a decent accounting of its chaotic budget and wondered if they might make a return on the people’s investment. Presented instead with a bill for past-due taxes, they dropped the whole thing. The other conflicts over The Wind simply waste themselves in drawn-out contract negotiations while the negative sits safely in Paris.
The lawyers never appear in They’ll Love Me. Instead, Neville’s documentary makes use of a nifty trick that pulls you in precisely by making you self-aware. When interviewees are recounting conversations with Welles, instead of having them continue to speak and deliver Welles’s words as they remember them, Neville grabs a version of Welles saying them from somewhere — from Kane or Lady from Shanghai or Filming Othello or a TV interview or a recording made for Bogdanovich’s book, or, really, anywhere. It’s cute when we’re only getting a single word from Welles, but it’s uncanny, and almost deep, when we get a full line. The documentary all but declares that Welles’s entire corpus is not just of a piece, but a piece of continuous performance, rendered in just a few tones. As a result, the context is always erasable — because it is a corpus — and the great lines are always quotable.
The technology that makes They’ll Love Me’s infinite quotability possible may be simple enough (text searches on transcripts), but when that technology is scaled for “enterprise” uses, it produces the equally uncanny reality of uniform, ideological discourse. When The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, for example, patches together a string of Fox News talking heads maundering on about “the caravan” or whatever the issue of the day might be, they are relying on a tool like SnapStream. In days gone by, and still for the underfunded, clip montages took the efforts of dozens of bleary-eyed tape loggers. Now, those lowly assistant producers can conduct non-linear searches across the text of vast transcripts. The results will then take them right to the exact moment in the video file which they can then clip and export — to a reel for the show or to social media.
The technological similarity between Neville’s nonlinear searching and the political comedians’ presumes and instantiates a baseline claim: there is ideology here. Yes, there is the ideology of the auteur, but there are also Welles’s political commitments. So far no one has been talking about those, but they, too, are remarkably consistent across his career. The politics of The Other Side of the Wind are very nearly Welles’s version of the politics of the Popular Front. As Michael Denning has argued, Welles is fascinated by the psyche of the great man, ideally the great media magnate, and he remained so. Like Kane, The Wind begins with its protagonist’s death. Like Kane, The Wind involves a lot of drunken stumbling by its aging hero. Like Kane, The Wind revolves around documentary practice. In Kane, that is the “News on the March” sequence that gets the investigative narrative rolling. In The Wind, the documentary is essentially everywhere, and the film-within-the-film centers on the explicit sexuality — the nudes on the march — that was prohibited in 1940s Hollywood.
Denning contends that “Welles’s gigantic hero-villains were both fascinating and repulsive, tricksters that disobeyed any straightforward political logic.” At the same time, the Popular Front context of Welles’s work in the ’30s and ’40s made it clear that despite any ambiguities, these were fascist showmen — fascist because they were showmen. But as Welles evolved into a perpetual showman himself, the political equation had to be rejiggered. Where the analogy between Kane and Hearst was irresistible, no one involved in making The Wind drew any comparison between Hannaford and Nixon, much less between the chaotic party scene and the political ferment in the wake of the ’68 revolts.
To put it more polemically: The sort of politically prophetic credit extended to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation with its magic anticipations of Nixon’s taping obsession doesn’t seem to apply to Welles and his equally tape-obsessed movie. Instead, just as so much Welles criticism forgot his Popular Front politics until Denning put them back at the center, so the broader significance of The Wind has been unexplored, and the film, perhaps, already reduced to a guessing game of autobiography.
The nearly empty “Zabriskie Pointed” politics of Hannaford’s film seem to short-circuit any political reading. Still, the shadow of Vietnam appears in Kodar’s vague role as a bomber in the film-within-the-film and in her spooky silence, playing to and playing up the taciturn Indian stereotype. (She is in redface without makeup.) That colonial/genocidal undertone comes to the fore on several occasions at the ranch, but, again, critics seem to have ignored it in favor of formal fascination. At one point, Huston smashes his glass against a wooden Indian. At another, he viciously recounts a story of white genocidal violence to Kodar before presenting her with an engraved Indian bone. This, too, Welles loved about his great men: their power and their arrogance make them ideal candidates to confess the violence that underlay the whole place. That such confessions take the form of verbal abuse captures the ambivalence at the heart of the project.
In They’ll Love Me, Welles explains that although his protagonist is a he-man, “This picture we’re gonna make is against ‘he-men.’” Welles makes that rejection real by showing that Hannaford’s sexuality is a mask for his repressed homosexual attractions. He puts the insight in the mouth of the Pauline Kael figure (Susan Strasberg), and for her insight Hannaford smacks her across the face. Repressed homosexuality as biographical key is cliché, but within Welles’s lingering, post–Popular Front conception of the tycoon, that cliché overwhelmed a longer reckoning with mass-mediated populism.
Stepping back into the autobiography, it is clear that Hannaford’s sexuality isn’t Welles’s, but his relationship to Bogdanovich’s Otterlake is. As Alan Cumming explains in his voiceover narration to They’ll Love Me, over the course of the production “Peter Bogdanovich went from playing exactly who he was in 1970, a young writer, to exactly who he was in 1974, a celebrated movie director.” Bogdanovich, in character, provides the tag: “My book on Hannaford’s been cancelled. Indefinitely.” (He published This Is Orson Welles in 1998.)
For a time, Rich Little played the young critic-acolyte-turned-director, but he left the movie after three weeks (accounts differ as to why: his time was up, he was fired, the usual Wellesian fog). Bogdanovich, who’d been playing a documentarian while doing his Jerry Lewis impression, stepped in to replace Little. With that change, the mania or broad comedy of the initial conception of the film gave way to a more comprehensive sad-sackery. (The mania survives in some bullhorn addresses, a sequence where Hannaford and Kodar shoot up dummies, and, regrettably, a pair of wandering “midgets” who break into the wine cellar and also set off fireworks.) The final stretch of Hannaford’s movie (and nearly the movie as a whole) suffers from this tonal shift. We see a naked Kodar standing amid the titular wind. It blows the head off a dummy, and it knocks over the giant flat of a building facade, very nearly crushing her. The scene is a hyper-Freudian vision of Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Kodar then takes a pair of scissors and Psycho-stabs away at a plastic-shrouded, chicken-wire Watts Tower that is ludicrously phallic, but, alas, not actually ludicrous.
Those around Hannaford seem to see his films as confessing the sexuality he can’t admit to himself. That is the reduced, if not entirely depoliticized, version of Welles’s 1930s politics, where the Mercury Theater struck a series of what Denning calls “compromises between Popular Front struggles and the culture industry.” To escape, or at least dwell in those compromises, Welles amplified his ambivalence about his heroes and turned reflexive. “Kane’s story becomes a hall of mirrors in which the cultural apparatus sees itself,” Denning explains in one version. By making his tycoon a media baron, Welles “allows the mass media to reflect on the mass media.” The Wind takes to heart that reflexive auteurism and so short-circuits its power. The Popular Front contradictions — between populism and dependence on mass media, between horror and admiration for the tycoon — have lost their purchase.
In place of contradictions, we now find an endless ordering of preferences, a vast bibliotechnological apparatus that promises to allow us to locate ourselves according to protocols constantly reinvented and reprioritized. Last year at Netflix, that looked like American Vandal, with its own stunning party sequence. This year, it is The Other Side of the Wind. Welles was the wetware version of the algorithm, constantly reconfiguring his movie to serve his own evolving preferences. Watching him work, his collaborators saw the future.
That future takes many forms. One is the humanist narrative of The Wind, with its impossible coherences and endless prolepses. Another is the contradictory omniscience of They’ll Love Me, with its ability to cash any prediction or any retrospection at the bank of Wellesian discourse. A third appears in the short making-of documentary, Final Cut for Orson, in which Video Gorillas, a gutty startup in an L.A. garage, saved the production, or at least saved it a lot of money. Welles left behind a workprint including several fine-cut sequences and several other assemblages. But he also left behind 100 hours of negative, a pile of reversal film in smaller gauges designed to simulate the documentary footage, and a patchy, largely handwritten, logging system. Finding the original negative for the edited sequences in the workprint would have been tremendously time-consuming and, as a result, prohibitively expensive (according to market logics, which, again, are taken for granted in this process). Enter Video Gorillas, which has developed a way of largely automating the intensely laborious processes of conforming and comparing. First, all the negative (and reversal) was scanned in. Then it was digitally compared with the edited, positive footage through the use of some very complex math and the reduction of images to “Frequency Domain Descriptor Interest Points.” (It only pays attention to the things that change.)
At one end, then, Neville treats Welles’s entire corpus as a means of narrating its endless and endlessly predictable auteurism. They’ll Love Me gives voice to the sense that it’s all just waiting for a voiceover. At another end, Welles’s own chaotic improvisation of the party reveals itself to his collaborators as endlessly, surprisingly a means to his prescripted-yet-evolving ends. In between, we have Video Gorillas, where that evolution finds its source and destination.
Inside the New Hollywood, The Other Side of the Wind might have found its place alongside mode retro entertainments and downbeat genre exercises, and it might have signaled Welles’s continuing political commitments even in the wake of their relevance. The Wind arrives already accompanied by its avatars, whether those are its trailing documentaries or its corporate neighbors. Welles never finished it — thwarted, of course, but also enamored with the endless process of preferring: this shot to that, this cut to that, this actor to that. Now at Netflix, the movie takes its place in a matrix of possible preferences, where our own endlessly monetized processes of preferring have been part of the plan all along.
J. D. Connor is an associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Hollywood Math and Aftermath:The Economic Image and the Digital Recession (2018) and The Studios After the Studios (2015).