Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” was, for many years, the second most infamous unfinished film of all time. (A certain Jerry Lewis film earned the top spot within incomplete cinema.) As everyone knows by now, the film was posthumously stitched together 42 years after principal photography was finished and is now being made available via Netflix. To be blunt, it would have been better if Welles’ unedited work was left in oblivion.
“The Other Side of the Wind” cannot be taken seriously as an Orson Welles film. In reality, it was an Orson Welles home movie, with the master filmmaker recruiting many of his longtime pals for parts in a warped roman à clef self-pity tale about a party for a down-and-out director (John Huston playing Welles) who is trying and failing to raise funds for his latest project, an Antonioni-style art film designed to connect with a youth culture that has shunned the old master’s canon.
Much of the footage takes place during a party where the director’s work is being screened, and guests include characters who are thinly disguised to resemble Welles’ friends and frenemies including Marlene Dietrich (Lilli Palmer), Pauline Kael (Susan Strasberg), John Houseman (Tonio Selwart) and Peter Bogdanovich (played by Bogdanovich – Rich Little, who was initially cast and departed the production before its completion, can be spotted in a few scenes). Other old-time Hollywood types including Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, George Jessel, Benny Rubin and midget icon Angelo Rossitto turn up, along with early 1970s Hollywood players including Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazurksky and Henry Jaglom. Welles’ real-life and reel-life collaborator Oja Kodar co-wrote the screenplay and appears in the film-within-the-film segments as an American Indian who spends a surplus amount of time wandering around naked without betraying any clue that she is capable of acting.
Welles shot “The Other Side of the Wind” in a mix of 35mm, 16mm and 8mm formats, with switching between color and black-and-white. The result is a visual hodgepodge, which is not helped by a strangely incompetent score by Michel Legrand that rarely matches the mood of the visuals. (In fairness, no score was recorded during Welles’ life and Legrand tried to guess what Welles might have approved based on sketchy notes.) The stop-and-start nature of the six-year production history is fairly obvious, especially when it becomes clear that certain actors are isolated in segments where they do not share the frame with their castmates. (Lilli Palmer, in particular, seems to be in her own movie.)
In an attempt to fit in with the shifting cultural liberties of the early 1970s, Welles stuffed “The Other Side of the Wind” with mild obscenities, sexually charged sequences for the film-within-a-film footage and a half-considered homosexual subplot, but these come across as clumsy rather than cutting-edge. Overstuffed hammy performances by actors who have no connection to the central story – most notably Cameron Mitchell doing a bogus Texas accent as a disgruntled make-up artist and Norman Foster as a candy-addicted ex-alcoholic crony of Huston – create irritating distractions, and some vague talk about film theory and the Hollywood studio system are thrown in to appease the cinephile snobs.
Ultimately, “The Other Side of the Wind” is not so much an artistic achievement as it is the cinematic equivalent of throwing spaghetti against the wall – sadly, nothing really sticks, leaving the viewer with a wasted pasta of a movie.