Director: Morgan Neville
Cast: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Alan Cumming
Watch The Other Side of the Wind online in the UK: Netflix UK
Read our interview with Morgan Neville.
“Everybody will think it’s about me, but it’s not,” said Orson Welles of The Other Side of the Wind, his dizzyingly playful satire of Hollywood and last shot at a masterpiece to go down in history (read our review here). Unfortunately, it did go down in history, but for all the wrong reasons: after years stuck in post-production, due to financial nightmares and legal battles, the film became famous for being the movie Welles never made. Fast forward 48 years and a group of filmmakers have restored and completed it – and, with Netflix funding the project, it’s only natural that they should commission another Netflix original film to go with it.
Enter Morgan Neville, of 20 Feet from Stardom, who pieces together a documentary that gives us a vital account of the end of Orson Welles’ career and a useful guide to the patchwork swan-song of a fanatically ambitious filmmaker. Presented with delicious wit by Alan Cumming, it opens with a Citizen Kane-like narrative within a narrative, as we see a news report summing up Welles’ own story – only for Cumming to detach us from it, dissect it and dive enthusiastically into the mystery of Welles’ final years.
Neville is clearly a fan of Welles’ work and he matches his passion for the innovative storyteller with his own knack for formally inventive filmmaking, brilliantly editing together his commentary with clips from Welles’ own movies. A shot from Touch of Evil here, a snatch of Citizen Kane there, it’s a wonderful piece of meta-cinema that puts Orson in direct conversation with the narration, questioning, agreeing or interrupting every few minutes. It’s a delightfully fun device, but it’s also one that makes for an incredibly informative watch – this is a film that genuinely feels like it understands as well as admires the deliberately elusive director.
Indeed, this was a man who repeatedly appeared in his own films with fake noses, because he didn’t like his own, and avoided ever having himself laughing on tape. Neville is quick to ensure that a similarly critical tone pervades, never steering the movie into hagiographic territory. Welles’ difficulties getting funding is presented as partly self-inflicted tragedy, as he entered into deals with people such as the Shah of Iran to get his work made. He was also, we learn, a director who often failed to finish his movies, from The Deep to The Dreamers.
There’s an attractive theory that Welles sabotaged his own work to keep them in the excited, immortal stage of being in production – a limbo when real world compromises or lacklustre feedback can’t damage his original vision. But there’s also a clear glimpse here of a filmmaker who was a perfectionist, who would draw out productions simply due to a fastidious need to get them right.
All of which makes The Other Side of the Wind such an interesting undertaking: in his later years, as with F for Fake, Welles sought to break free from convention, creating a work that was entirely improvised, yet shot like a documentary. What made his other films different to this one? “Every frame was controlled,” he told one interviewer, launching into a speech about his desire to make a movie that was full of the kind of lucky accidents that could never be scripted. The result was a film that did just that, but also ballooned to hundreds of hours of footage.
With the sheer amount of that film incorporated into this, the line between The Other Side of the Wind and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is almost invisible; Neville echoes Wind’s mystery by ditching on-screen titles to explain who each contributor is, but provides enough context surrounding its scenes to bring structure and meaning to the chaos. From nods to Hemingway and Welles’ satire of Hollywood masculinity to the fact that he filmed the whole thing next door to the villa from Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, this is packed with details that not only enlighten and entertain, but actually improve The Other Side of the Wind.
We hear, for example, from Peter Bogdanovich, whose relationship with Orson was one of support and respect, but also presumption and abuse – a bond that feeds directly into the central relationship we see in The Other Side of the Wind. We also hear from Oja Kodar, Welles’ partner and co-writer, plus the star of the film’s sex scene, which was apparently filmed over three years in different vehicles and locations – a telling insight into the movie’s production, both in style and technical achievement, as well as in ethos.
Kodar provides the most notable observation, when she describes Orson as like the wind, a creative force whom nobody ever saw the other side of. If that’s the case, then there’s a compelling argument to be made that this knowing documentary, which could have been a mere promotional puff piece, is the more complete movie of the pair – that They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is not only an essential companion piece for cinephiles, but the real The Other Side of Wind after all.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
This review was originally published at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018.