DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: When Orson Welles died in 1985 at age 70, "The Other Side Of The Wind" was incomplete. He'd shot it all - 100 hours over several years in the mid-1970s, with production stopping each time the money ran out. But the movie would come together or not in the editing room. And with only about 30 percent done, the footage was locked away in a Paris vault controlled by the Iranian government. The last budget chunk had come from the shah's brother-in-law. And when the shah fled, the ayatollah became Welles' creditor. You might think, of all the lousy luck. But I submit Welles made his own luck and that dying with "The Other Side Of The Wind" unfinished was his destiny.
He'd been making movies piecemeal since Hollywood stopped funding him after the flop of "Touch Of Evil," in dribs and drabs, using money from disparate investors or his own acting jobs. Out of the chaos came one genuine masterpiece, "Chimes At Midnight," and a lot of projects that were always on the brink of collapse. As it happens, "The Other Side Of The Wind" is about an unruly, old director, Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, who dies with his last film unfinished, the money gone. It's a faux documentary set on Jake's 70th birthday, a mad bacchanalia on a desert estate, intercut with scenes from Jake's arty, sexually explicit new film, a sort of Antonioni parody called "The Other Side Of The Wind." This final "The Other Side Of The Wind" was edited by Bob Murawski with input from many hands. It's a bombardment. Few shots last more than a couple of seconds. Welles jumps between black and white and color and different film stocks. Faces pop up and recede into the crowd - Hannaford's lovers, acolytes, enablers, colleagues, critics, as well as documentary cameramen shooting the footage we're supposedly watching.
Hannaford's chief acolyte - so chief, he calls himself an apostle - is a film journalist turned rich Hollywood director played by the film journalist turned rich Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich, who's reenacting his own bizarre Oedipal relationship with Welles. In one scene, he goes at it with a critic played by Susan Strasberg, modeled on the late Pauline Kael.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As paparazzo) Mr. Otterlake? Is it true you're planning a Western?
PETER BOGDANOVICH: (As Brooks Otterlake) This is Mr. Hannaford's night. Let's save the questions for him, huh? You two are very close, aren't you?
SUSAN STRASBERG: (As Julie Rich) Yes. I'd like to ask you about that.
BOGDANOVICH: (As Brooks Otterlake) Why?
STRASBERG: (As Julie Rich) Come on, Otterlake. Why do you think you have to be as rude as he is?
BOGDANOVICH: (As Brooks Otterlake) As rude as you are. In print, anyway.
STRASBERG: (As Julie Rich) I liked your last one.
BOGDANOVICH: (As Brooks Otterlake) Yeah. Sure.
STRASBERG: (As Julie Rich). No. I know that it was - it was repetitive, but for what it was, it worked.
BOGDANOVICH: (As Brooks Otterlake) Yeah. Well, she wasn't that kind to me in her review. Not that you did me too much harm. I mean, how much harm can you do to the third-biggest grosser in movie history to make that much?
JOHN HUSTON: (As Jake Hannaford) How modest.
STRASBERG: (As Julie Rich) Yes. Did you know that when his own production company goes public, that your friend their plans to walk away with $40 million?
BOGDANOVICH: (As Brooks Otterlake) Yeah. And she's going to say that I'm - she's going to keep on writing that I stole everything from you, Skipper. I'm never going to walk away from that.
HUSTON: (As Jake Hannaford) Well, it's all right to borrow from each other. What we must never do is borrow from ourselves.
EDELSTEIN: I knew Pauline Kael, and Strasberg's character - who wants the Hemingway-esque Jake to own up to his latent homosexual impulses - has only a fraction of her wit. But then Welles mocks everyone, including Bogdanovich, including his own alter ego. He seems to be deconstructing the film while making it, blowing raspberries at anyone who wants to analyze it, all while dazzling us, demonstrating he hasn't lost his delight in the medium.
There's one stupendous sequence in the film within the film, a sex montage between Oja Kodar, Welles' lover and co-screenwriter, and actor Bob Random, set in a moving car deluged with rain, rattled by wind and stabbed with passing lights, a consummation that goes on and on with death pressing in. But there's a void at the center of "The Other Side Of The Wind" that knocks it down a few pegs. John Huston is a magnificent camera object, with a saturnine grin and the trappings of a great Welles protagonist, a romantic individualist vanquished by brutal corporate efficiency.
But he's passive. The movie happens around him. What's missing is a real tragic hero. He's there, but off screen. It's Welles himself who, before shooting, told the press, a director is someone who, quote, "presides over accidents" and that for this film, he'd stand on the sidelines, whip up a frenzy and see what happened. This lifelong control freak was daring the fates.
The story of the movie, how Welles made it and what happened to it after his death, is more fun than the movie itself. That's why Netflix is simultaneously releasing Morgan Neville's superb, free-form documentary, "They'll Love Me When I'm Dead," which chronicles Welles' last 15 years. Some people will want to see Neville's doc first. But I say see The Other Side Of The Wind," then the doc then re-watch the film. The two will mingle in your mind. And from that mingling, you'll get something close to the cinematic event for which we've waited almost four decades.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Jonah Hill or our interview about how the Supreme Court became so politicized, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.