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‘[Welles] comes back from the grave, gives you a masterpiece and you groan.’Nick Pinkerton, Film Comment’s Best of 2018 talk at Lincoln Center, 2018
If the key aim of the documentary form is an attempt to tell The Truth, then Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is just that. A life told in fragments as jagged as the spears, mirrors, and faces that occupy his films, it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction in the cinema of Orson Welles. In some respects, you wouldn’t want to. A Shakespearian who supposedly moved from the Midwest to live as an Irish farmer at 16 before taking over The Gate theatre in Dublin, and lived a life on the stage before he ever moved into movies at 25 with Citizen Kane (1941), Welles was such a consummate mythmaker that half of his career is unfinished, from the studio interference on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) to partially shot Don Quixote and his imagined debut, Heart of Darkness. Even in death, the appearance of The Other Side of the Wind, in its final form on Netflix 40 years after a shoot of dribs and drabs concluded, is like finding the corner piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
Shot over 6 years from 1970 to 1976, The Other Side of the Wind details the final day in the life of Jake Hannaford, a Welles/Ernest Hemingway hybrid played by John Huston. A director in the process of making a difficult final film, he celebrates his 70th birthday alongside his protege Brooks Otterlake (Welles mentee Peter Bogdanovich, at whose house the film was largely shot and where Welles lived in and out off), and stand ins for New Hollywood figures like Pauline Kael (Susan Strasberg) and John Milius (Gregory Sierra). By the time a stoned Dennis Hopper shows up to monologue about living in a society, it is clear that Rivette’s aphorism that ‘every film is a documentary of its own making’ has never been more apt.
Unlike truncated works hampered by studio interference like Touch of Evil (1958), to experience The Other Side of the Wind on its own terms is folly. In its original intended format, The Other Side of the Wind is a fiction film. But the ‘truth’ of this legendary unfinished film, that was seen by scholars in snippets through a screenplay and oral histories by cast/crew, is in that fragmentary nature. Now it exists as a complete document, ergo, a hybrid documentary.
This multi-channel, cross medium way of experiencing The Other Side of the Wind through its history begs the question of film. Is it the light that flickers on a blank space for its duration? Is it the production, and the history around that? Is it the reputation in some sort of cultural canon? Is it the memory of each viewer? It is all of these things at once. Bazin is pragmatic about this ontology: ‘As long as it satisfies the dream needs of the masses, it becomes its own dream.’ If one has experienced the film as a gofundme or through the mandala of social media before even laying eyes on Welles’ footage, then the film is as a dream. One might see The Other Side of the Wind as an experimental documentary, just as Goran Olsson refashions archival footage in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011) to express a particular point of view, or Stephen Soderbergh posting Raiders of the Lost Ark in black and white to Vimeo shifts its POV to that of the prolific filmmaker. Yes, the POV in The Other Side of the Wind is Welles, and the footage is shot and directed by Welles to fashion a fictional narrative. But at some point in the 35 years between filming and release, the film became about Welles in a sense that goes beyond self-portraiture. For a film already about the end of a certain kind of 20th century male genius narrative, the meta-context of its production shows the lengths that culture has moved away from Welles, and its inability to dismiss him completely.
To view The Other Side of the Wind as a documentary helps it escape some of the circular questions of authorship that a face value viewing brings up. Can this object be considered ‘True Welles’? Oja Kodar ostensibly had a large hand in driving the creative process, particularly in the unforgettable sex scene in the interior of her boyfriend’s car in the film within a film, conveniently also named The Other Side of the Wind. Then there’s Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall who drove the completion of the project and assembled the final cut alongside Bob Murawski, perhaps Hollywood’s DIY editor supreme. Certainly, Bogdanovich’s voice over narration as Otterlake centres him to the extent that one wonders how large his role would have been otherwise, sexualised father/son overtones with Hannaford/Welles aside. At the very least, Bogdanovich’s contribution to Welles scholarship makes mincemeat of the cursed, 3-hour Mark Cousins docu-sychophancy The Eyes of Orson Welles. Also released in 2018, Cousins uncovered incredible research about Welles and then used it to make a self-indulgent letter that smacked the viewer over the head with the original revelation that Charles F. Kane might resemble Donald J. Trump. But Cousins’ inability to resist drawing himself into the narrative through his epistolatory ramblings shows the lure of the Welles mystique that Bogdanovich has demonstrably spent his career trying to be a part of.
The influence of Netflix itself as author cannot be discounted. After all, the streaming service saved the doc from a failed go-fund-me, and commissioned the Welles primer They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), made by the commercially-minded Morgan Neville. It is the kind of supplementary DVD extra that gains a vital introductory resonance as a streaming title in its own right. This turns The Other Side of the Wind into a ‘package’ that develops Netflix’s brand for supporting auteur content. Compare this to the more general documentary style that Netflix has become known for: a salacious tabloid documentary filmmaking mode of easily digestible narratives, talking heads, and celebrity footage. Who is Tiger King’s Joe Exotic (2020) if not a Wellesian hero, beset by traitors and betrayed by lovers? The context-free appearance of The Other Side of the Wind in the infamous Netflix algorithm alongside the always-trending Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (2020), has a disorienting effect. Draw the parallels between the conspiracies and charismatic villains at the heart of Netflix’s documentary output, from Epstein to Wild Wild Country’s Rajneesh (2018), and Welles’ characters like Harry Lime and Mr Arkadin, and it’s hard to disavow the connection that Welles has to the Netflix form, even if it’s impossible to find his films without searching.
Considering its investment in this dubious material, Netflix ironically appears to reward products that deliver clear moral arbitration to its audiences. Viewers who tie aesthetic judgement with moral citizenship are tired of the genius male artist myth, and question why someone with so many failures continued to make films in whatever form. The gigantic wide-angle sex scenes may appear on screen as mountains of flesh that might actually reach God, but that is less important to those who wince at Huston/Hannaford when tells his teenage girlfriend ‘I’ll write a note to your teacher.’ An Open Secret indeed. Yet these are the kind of incidents which make The Other Side of the Wind a documentary. Because they are true. The latest season of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, which dispels the romantic myths from 20th century Hollywood stories, focussed on production designer Polly Platt after Longworth gained access to her unpublished memoirs. Platt, who was married to Bogdanovich at the time, presents The Other Side of the Wind’s set as a madcap carnival without direction. She recounts Welles’ snack intake including KFC bargain bucket; several steak tartare (he’s offended that Platt can’t finish her portion); and accusations towards the film crew of finishing his Tapioca Pudding when he is clearly seen with pudding residue around his mouth. Platt also depicts Welles as essentially kind and generous, recognising her talent and helping her during her breakup with Bogdanovich.
For Bazin, ‘nothing in cinema is entirely accidental, and nothing is entirely false either.’ In interviews, Welles repeated the notion that the director is a ‘Presider over accidents.’ If that’s the case, then Welles accidentally unspools those tapioca pudding-filled guts in every shot. The footage itself captures, as Platt noted, the chaotic, ramshackle film set that doesn’t function as one would expect a ‘great director’ to. It is its own Behind The Scenes film. In Welles’ footage as edited by Murawski, central is the relationship between the past and present, older authors and their younger counterparts in conversation. Accidentally or not, this captures the very ideas inherent in its making across half a century. In the raw footage assembled to form a narrative – each aspect ratio shift, incorrect eyeline, switch between colour and monochrome, actor change – the very bones of cinema are on full display. That makes The Other Side of the Wind a documentary as much as They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, or You Must Remember This, or Tiger King.
In 2018, along with The Other Side of the Wind, Netflix released Shirkers, Sandi Tan’s documentary based on her own incomplete first film of the same name. After filming a striking indie with friends in her native Singapore, the film’s producer Georges Cardona stole the footage. Shirkers in Netflix form combines the original footage with a true crime style account of the production and Tan’s search for the stolen film. The wilful obstruction of her film echoes Welles in ways too numerous to mention here, although it’s worth noting that Cardona was a cinephile devotee of a masculine American cinema that is derived from Welles.
The case is made in Shirkers that the film was a key part of Singaporean film history. It is a lost masterpiece, like Welles’. And Netflix, in returning these artifacts to us, get to profit and improve their cultural cache by keeping them in their archive, accessible but no more significant to their algorithm than reality shows like Too Hot to Handle (2020). They will ultimately decide who gets to see Shirkers in 5, 10 year’s time. Netflix is the ultimate, algorithmic synthesis of Cardona-esque cinephilia. They can continue to promote trash over art, empower voices in only the most profitable sense, and bankroll projects like The Other Side of the Wind for as long as it’s useful to the algorithm.
The joy of Welles is in the imagining. Imagining the unfinished projects, the apocryphal stories of lovers and bar fights and tapioca pudding. His legend is tied to romantic myths of genius 20th century men, from Hemingway to Bogdanovich. The Cardonas of the world necessitate the fragmented, imagined brilliance of Shirkers and The Other Side of the Wind. In our dream of a brighter culture, we find a real Hybrid documentary closer to Welles’ true vision.