A not so astonishing documentary on Orson Welles

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12The magic of Orson Welles transcends the confines of Hollywood. Welles, proving to be too ahead of his time, was the essence of entertainment for many generations, and it’s that very quality that caused audiences to become transfixed with his creations. Director Chuck Workman relies on Welles’ magic charm for his basic attempt at capturing — or rather confining —the great life that is Orson Welles in the new documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.”

Workman provides a comprehensive look into Welles’ life, offering up the documentary as a nostalgic treat for Welles fans who want more of him and his work. But for the Welles beginner, it can come off as a choppy attempt. Many points of Welles life aren’t clearly stated within the documentary. Instead, the film relies on the viewer to be aware of everything on the screen — the pictures, the narration and various quotes that appear. Overall, it proves too confusing for someone looking for a calmer viewing experience.

The film itself is broken up into five sections, giving a basic chronological order of Welles’ life. The beginning starts off with the fundamentals: from his birth to that of his career spanning 1915 to 1941, labeling it ‘The Boy Wonder’ period of his life. This section discusses his start in theatre while attending the Todd School for Boys. There are also snippets of interviews from Welles’ children, classmates, friends and other big names of Hollywood (Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese), all of whom attempt to convey to the audience the man that they once knew or admired amongst all of his genius. But the real gold is through the insightful and incredibly funny archival interviews of Orson Welles himself, which can be seen throughout the film.

With a slow start, filled with uncompelling pictures of Welles’, young and old, the documentary could just as well have been heard, without the need to also be seen. The film finally picks up when Welles’ revolutionary and controversial radio performance of “War of the Worlds.” This moment is filled with lots of excitement as the viewer can actually see and hear parts of Welles’ memorable performance that caused mayhem for part of the population.

With the good times for Welles rolling on, the film moves on to discuss him making his way to Hollywood and the creation of his masterpiece “Citizen Kane.” Yet immediately after this, things begin to go downhill for Welles as from 1942 to 1949 the film moves on to describing him as “The Outsider.” This part describes Welles’ downfall in Hollywood, as production companies stopped trusting him to make movies because they weren’t seen as marketable successes.

Then, from 1949 to 1957 we enter “The Gypsy” era of his life. Where he made his own movies, traveling, usually finding his own funding and appeared in other movies whenever he needed the money. His independence when it came to filmmaking helped pave the way for many filmmakers to this day, with director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) calling Welles “the patron saint of indie filmmakers” in an interview within the documentary.

As the film comes to a close, after the last two sections of Welles’ life — 1958 to 1966 was “The Road Back” and 1966 to 1985 was “The Master” — the viewer is left feeling relieved that they were able to finish the somewhat comprehensive look into Welles’ life. Unlike Welles’ use of the camera, the documentary makes ill use, as the shots of scenery and clips of interviews seemed to have been scrounged from somewhere else along with music that’s oddly placed. It doesn’t feel original, but rather like a collage of Welles’ life, attempting with bits and pieces to build it without the man himself.

This film proves that Welles’ life and impact is so monumental that Workman lets film move itself. The tactic doesn’t entirely work. The film is dry at times, and the constant use of photos and text on screen is a letdown. It is saved by the use of film clips and interesting interviews. Yet Welles’ magic still proves to move beyond the screen.


Contact Jeanette Zhukov at [email protected].