For film buffs, movies that were never made or have never been seen hold an undeniable fascination. Last year’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune detailed the impressive (and likely impossible) plans Alejandro Jodorowsky had for Frank Herbert’s novel before David Lynch got his hands on it, and this year has already yielded two similar efforts: Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau and The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? The never-released Jerry Lewis Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried remains the Holy Grail for connoisseurs of unseen cinema. In a day and age when nearly every piece of pop culture detritus is preserved in some form or another, such lost movies fire the imagination. Actually seeing them might only disappoint.
That may well be the case with The Other Side of the Wind, the movie Orson Welles spent the last 15 years of his life trying to complete. No other major director amassed as many unmade or unfinished works as Welles, from his proposed first film Heart of Darkness to his several attempts at adapting Don Quixote to his aborted last attempt at a feature, The Dreamers. Nearly every Welles production was troubled in some way, but as Josh Karp details in this engrossing new book (Amazon, iBooks, Powell’s), The Other Side of the Wind topped them all.
Although Welles often denied it was autobiographical, it’s hard not to see reality poking through Wind’s story of an aging movie director adrift in the New Hollywood of the early ‘70s. John Huston starred as the lion-in-winter character Jake Hannaford attempting to make a comeback movie (which plays as a film-within-the-film). Welles protégé Peter Bogdanovich played a thinly-veiled version of himself, as did New Hollywood filmmakers like Dennis Hopper and Henry Jaglom. Welles envisioned a stylistically daring piece, shot on a variety of film stocks, “a mixture of Hannaford’s smooth, elegantly filmed picture and the raw, quick-cut cinema verite footage.”
At this point in his career, Welles could no longer count on traditional studio financing, and Wind would not be filmed on any sort of conventional schedule. Scenes were shot on whatever locations became available at little to no cost, over a period of years, while the budget was pieced together from a variety of sources. That became the film’s undoing, as the Byzantine tangle of rights holders, including an Iranian group headed by the Shah’s brother-in-law, fought over ownership of Wind for the rest of Welles’ life and far beyond. For decades there have been announcements that the film is finally completed and will see the light of day, but none have panned out. Most recently, production company Royal Road Entertainment announced that it had reached an agreement with the warring rights-holders and that the finished film will be screened in time for the centennial of Welles’ birth, May 6, 2015.
That seems unlikely to happen at this point, but should we even wish to see The Other Side of the Wind after all this time? Karp’s book offers tantalizing descriptions of some of the scenes, suggesting that Welles’ creative fire had not dimmed. Of a shoot in Century City, then under construction, Karp writes of Welles conjuring a futuristic landscape by “having his crew put large, smoked and clear glass mirrors on rolling platforms that he positioned at different angles so they’d capture reflections off the existing buildings and create the image of a strange, seemingly uninhabited city that didn’t exist anywhere but in his mind and on the camera.”
Karp’s book is most valuable for its portrait of a frustrated, aging artist, a man capable of great rage and jolly camaraderie, still struggling to achieve his dreams in a Hollywood that has left him behind. It’s true that Welles bears some responsibility for the misfortune of his later years, but it’s a shame that at a time when the industry was still willing to take chances, one of its greatest talents was left to fend for himself.