Continuing our desire to highlight upcoming independent and foreign films we think you should be aware of, we look at something we never thought we’d be typing in 1988 let alone 2018: the new film from iconoclastic filmmaker Orson Welles.
How important is this? I am fifty years old. I’ve been attending movies just about as long as I can remember, and I can remember quite a bit. Jerry Lewis movie theatres. Betsy Ross Ice Cream Parlors. Gemco Stores. Doing “The Bump” to KC and the Sunshine Band. Baseball cards packed with the strangest concoction purported to be gum. Screenings of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, in 3-D, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale CA. Supertrain and The Waverly Wonders and Quark and every crappy NBC show from the 1970s that was cancelled after three to six episodes. But one thing I have never been able to do is turn to a friend or a loved one or my significant other and say “Hey, you want to go see the new Orson Welles movie?” Welles’ last film given a proper American theatrical distribution cycle happened when I was about fifteen months old, and I certainly wasn’t going to be interested at that age in either The Immortal Story or the A title of that double feature, Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert.
But now, in 2018, thirty-three years after Welles’ passing, we finally have what is likely to be his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this week, before its debut in select theatres and on Netflix, in early November.
Netflix’s synopsis is rather simple. “A completion and restoration of Orson Welles’s unfinished film, this satire follows the final days of a legendary director striving for a comeback.” John Huston, as legendary a director, writer and actor as Welles, stars as Jake Hannaford, who is trying to complete his newest film, entitled “The Other Side of the Wind,” which he has run out of funds to finish. As the incomplete film is screened for potential investors, the movie is intercut with scenes from various moments in Hannaford’s recent life, including the making of the film and at the 70th birthday party for the director. In addition to Huston, Welles was able to line up a cast that any filmmaker would kill for, including Peter Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, George Jessel and Cameron Mitchell, as well as such filmmakers as Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, PauL Mazursky, Henry Jaglom and Curtis Harrington.
So why is this film only coming out now? Orson Welles had a horrible habit of starting films before he had all of the financing in place, and often needed to abandon them before completion. Some films, like It’s All True, ended up being finished as a documentary about the history of the project which feature footage from Welles’ original production, while others, like Don Quixote, after tinkered with by friends and family from fragments of completed footage. The Other Side of the Wind, however, seems to have nearly completed at the time of Welles’ death. But in a strange twist of fate, what has kept the film from being completed and released until now was not a lack of funds but a question of who actually owned the film elements. Some of the film had been financed by the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. When the Iranian Revolution hit the country in 1979, all of the Shah’s family’s assets had been seized by the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Khomeini, including the film. It would be several years before the Iranian government finally deemed the film’s negative (which actually sat in a film vault in Paris) to be “worthless,” which would open up a new round of litigation as to whom actually owned the film. Beatrice Welles, the youngest daughter of the filmmaker, claimed that her father left many of his assets to her mother, his estranged wife Paola Mori, whom Welles never divorced despite splitting from her nearly twenty years earlier, and that when Mori died a year after Welles, those assets transferred to Ms. Welles. However, the director also left other assets, including full ownership and artistic control of all his unfinished film projects, to Oja Kodar, his longtime companion, mistress and collaborator, who was the lead female actor in The Other Side of the Wind as well as billed co-writer of the film with Mr. Welles. In 1998, it appeared many of the legal questions has been resolved, and the cable network Showtime was willing to front the funds to complete the project, but more legal woes would rear their ugly heads, and it would take another eighteen years before the stars would align and the heavens would smile upon the project.
In April 2016, it was reported that the streaming service Netflix was going to spend five million dollars to complete the film and produce a documentary about the film’s nearly half century journey from creation to completion. Work on the restoration and completion begin in March 2017, when the original negative and other elements travelled from Paris to Los Angeles, and a rough cut of the film was screened for a select number of today’s biggest filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne and Rian Johnson, as well as Huston’s son, the actor Danny Huston. Legendary French film composer Michel Legrand was hired to score the final film, which finally had its world premiere this past weekend. The reviews from the Venice Film Festival are as you might expect, ranging from ecstatic reverence to “what the fuck did I just watch?”
We may never be at this point again in history. The arrival of a new work from one of cinema’s greatest innovators, quite possibly from the very last time, is something to be celebrated. Netflix has already stated the film will play in a select number of theatres on November 2nd, the day it also premieres on their service, but it’ll only be a handful of mostly independent theatres in large cities, because the large exhibitors don’t want to give space to a movie that people can also essentially see for “free” in their own homes at the same time. Maybe Netflix will see the value of a proper theatrical release, and let this go out to theatres a few weeks before it hits the streaming service. I know that I will be taking my wife, who is Welles’ eighth cousin four times removed, to see the movie wherever it’s playing in the Los Angeles area on whatever day it opens in theatres. Netflix is great, and deserves every thanks possible for making this happen, but you see a new Orson Welles film in a movie theatre for the first time.
To learn more about The Other Side of the Wind, visit the Netflix page for the film.