One of the most fascinating new movies of 2018 — and if you want to argue that it’s one of the best, I’m all ears — is actually over four decades old. The director who bullied it into existence died 33 years ago, in 1985. It’s called “The Other Side of the Wind,” it’s Orson Welles’s long-lost last movie, and you can watch it on Netflix right now.
And, man, should you ever.
That we’re able to finally see an unseen work by Welles, one of the major talents of film history as well as one of its greatest and most self-destructive egos, is an unexpected left-field delight. In the early 1970s, the director was coming off two decades of exile in Europe, where he had been driven by years of Hollywood mistrust and mistreatment.
To the executives of the classic studio years, he was a pariah: the smartass 25-year-old who made “Citizen Kane” and thought he was better than the rest of the town. But to the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1960s — the hip young producers and stars whose European-influenced movies spoke to the counterculture — Welles was a rebel patriarch. To his chagrin, that didn’t translate into money to make new movies.
The aging auteur pressed on regardless. Over the first half of the 1970s, Welles worked with a core crew and a rolling banquet of actors on “The Other Side of the Wind,” a film meant to both parody New Hollywood excesses and beat the kids at their own game. But funding ran low and then out, and when the Iranian Revolution cut off the finances of a chief investor (who happened to be related to the shah), the film was seized by producers and locked away in a Paris vault for decades.
Many people have worked over the years to get Welles’s swan song out of movie-rights jail and completed according to the late master’s notes and wishes. Director Peter Bogdanovich, a Welles acolyte who stars in “The Other Side of the Wind,” and producer Frank Marshall, a major Hollywood power player who worked as a crew member on the film, spearheaded the efforts, and Netflix ultimately kicked in the funds needed to get the project into the final phases of completion.
Begun in 1971, “The Other Side of the Wind” debuted at the Venice Film Festival this August and premiered last week on Netflix. (It’s showing theatrically in New York and Los Angeles and may yet come to Boston screens.)
The movie’s a mess — intentionally and otherwise — but it’s also a gas. “The Other Side of the Wind” is actually two movies in one. The first is a roiling, chaotic mockumentary about a storied Hollywood director, Jake Hannaford (played by storied Hollywood director John Huston, clearly standing in for Welles himself), struggling to get his final film made.
That film is also called “The Other Side of the Wind” and in the lengthy excerpts we see, in studio screening rooms and at an endless party Hannaford throws for himself, it’s a parody of what’s-it-all-mean arthouse movies by Antonioni, Bergman, and the Hollywood directors who emulated them.
Because Welles was apparently incapable of making a bad movie on purpose, those film-within-a-film sequences are also mesmerizing, shot and edited with unerring moviemaking skill and featuring the striking (and mostly undraped) form of Oja Kodar, a statuesque Croatian actress and writer who was Welles’s companion at the time.
If Hannaford’s “The Other Side of the Wind” is a piece of pretentious twaddle that’s also pretty amazing (or vice versa), Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” — meaning the desperate scrum of backbiting and flattery that surrounds Jake — is rich, Rabelaisian, and full of pointed Hollywood observations. Because Welles shot for years and invited everyone he knew to the party, the movie’s practically a face-book of early-’70s working actors.
Bogdanovich plays a young director whose career has commercially outshined his mentor’s (as it did in real life); he replaced comedian Rich Little in the role, but Little still pops up in the faux-doc’s corners. Dennis Hopper offers stoned musings, Susan Strasberg floats through as a movie critic suspiciously like Welles’s bête noire Pauline Kael. Old Hollywood faces like Cameron Mitchell, Mercedes McCambridge, and Edmond O’Brien play Hannaford cronies, Lilli Palmer shows up in what has to be considered the Marlene Dietrich part, and studio-era director Norman Foster has the most touching role as Billy Boyle, an aging hanger-on.
So was Orson Welles the man who invented the mockumentary? Well, yeah — back in 1941 with the fake newsreel that opens “Citizen Kane.” The many-lensed chaos of “The Other Side of the Wind” has more of an Altman-esque circus vibe to it, but the bite of the dialogue — the mordant, exhausted asides on celebrity, the media, filmmaking, Hollywood power games — is all Welles.
To add to the meta-movie hijinks, a 98-minute documentary about the much-fraught making of “The Other Side of the Wind” accompanies it on Netflix. Directed by Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”), “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” is as fascinating as the Welles film and, in certain ways, more outrageous as it details the behind-the-scenes creative tragicomedy of an endlessly sprawling production.
(For completists, there’s also an excellent 40-minute mini-doc about the effort to rescue and edit Welles’s film, called “A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making,” tucked away in Netflix’s “Trailers and More” section of “The Other Side of the Wind.”)
Should you watch the movie before the documentary or the documentary before the movie? It depends. If you’re coming to Welles with nothing but a college screening of “Citizen Kane” under your belt, Neville’s doc should bring you up to speed while preparing you for the shaggy, throwback-’70s style of “Wind.” If you’re an old movie junkie and/or a longstanding Friend of Orson, dive right in and then let “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” provide dishy background.
Fan or not, it’s up to you to decide whether this is “The Other Side of the Wind” Orson wanted, directed by him from the other side of the grave. Of course the movie was never finished: Despite Welles’s claims to the contrary in the Neville documentary — and like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hapless playwright in Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 meta-movie “Synecdoche, New York” — the legendary outcast seems to have filmed a version of his life that somehow merged with the real one.
You could argue that all of Orson Welles’s movies were about Orson Welles in the end. More than any other, “Wind” may have been the great white whale that he simultaneously chased and was.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.