A Review of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind

Most people are probably going to spend the weekend talking about The Avengers.

But I’d rather talk about something nearer and dearer to my heart – The Other Side of the Wind. I’ve never seen it, and neither have you. But it still occupies an important place in cinematic history for those increasing few that like to keep track of that sort of thing.

The Other Side of the Wind was supposed to be what finally revived Orson Welles. In the decades after Citizen Kane, Welles was viewed as a one hit wonder who took whatever project he could as long as the check could clear. He still directed other films. Some of theme are amazing. But none of them were completed in a manner Welles approved of. They were recut, redone, redubbed, and failed to find an audience.

Welles tried to take control of his work by financing everything on his own. The Other Side of the Wind was shot over the course of five years and was never released, owing to legal issues related to the Iranian revolution (Yes. Really.) and Welles inability to pay anyone involved. Producers promised money and rescinded at the last possible moment. The negative is locked up in a Parisian vault. To date, only two scenes from it can be seen – they’re available on the documentary Orson Welles: One Man Band. Others have been leaked, but are buried just as quickly.

Last year, the New York Times announced that the film would finally be released in May 2015, to coincide with Welles’ 100th birthday. As I write this on May 1st, and I have not seen anything from The Other Side of the Wind. No release date, no premiere, no trailer, no new stills, nothing. It will probably remain lost in the wind, the same way Welles’ career has been outside of people who love to imitate The Brain.

But still, in April, Josh Karp’s exposè on this lost masterpiece was released. It’s the first “making of” book about The Other Side of the Wind in existence. Karp, who previously wrote a book about National Lampoon its effect comedy, seemed well versed to expose forgotten pieces of pop culture. I read it with great anticipation, hoping to get new insight onto the work – perhaps even new footage or descriptions of new scenes.

It doesn’t. If you search The Other Side of the Wind on Wikipedia, you’ll find out everything the book reveals about Wind’s production. There is nothing really revealing about the content of the work. Nor is there anything revealing about how Welles tried to find money to finish it, sneaking onto backlots with crews posing as amateurs.

This was an incredible disappointment to me. I know most of what happened during Wind. I also know about Welles’ money troubles and how he loved to lend his voice to whatever he can. I also know how Welles was inspired to make it and why he felt it would revive his career.

But Karp lends an incredible voice to the proceedings. There’s a sense of urgency about Welles and how much hinged on this film. There’s also an emphasis on how inadvertently original the making of Wind was. At the time Welles was shooting, there was no such thing as “independent film making.”  Welles (along with John Cassavetes), inadvertently created a revolution. Karp’s work gives a sense of that accomplishment – and helps us lament the loss of how sad Welles’ situation has become.

There are numerous descriptions about how Welles was being given life time awards – which were meant as an insult. It confirmed that Welles deliberately didn’t attend the Oscar ceremony and the only reason he attended the AFI ceremony was to raise funds for his films. But Karp offers a unique perspective about how Welles still inhabited that larger than life figure. It was the classic Norma Desmond syndrome – Welles is big, as he called up his crew at 7 in the morning after four hours sleep and lived with Peter Bogdanovich. It’s the pictures that got small.

Because of this, the book is never boring. Karp frames the book as a Orson Welles work, including the opening death scene (I take it that Welles’ death in 1985 won’t come as a surprise to anyone) and the italicized opening narration that Karp invites us to imagine in Welles’ voice. The third act is a little clunky and has no resolution, but that’s only because the story of The Other Side of the Wind remains incomplete and unreleased. Still, we do hear about how the film evaporated as money disappeared and Welles alienated those he was working with. His sad death is described as the sort of Shakespearean tragedy that would have appealed to Welles.

But, overall, Karp’s work is just another brick in the gigantic The Other Side of the Wind road. There will be no end to that road until the film is finally released. Until then, we are stuck with glimpses like this. The film may very well exceed all expectations, but if this scant information is all someone like Karp has to work with, then maybe The Other Side of the Wind is doomed to remain a footnote.

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