Friday, April 17, 2015

'Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles' review (2015 River Run Film Festival)

I've been "working" in the movie blogging business for nearly four full years now, and this year, I'm finally getting the chance to attend my first film festival. The River Run International Film Festival takes place every year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in April, and with it being in close proximity to my home in Charlotte, NC, I'll be able to attend six films at the festival over the course of two days. I arrived at the festival today, and the first film I saw was Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, a new documentary from director Chuck Workman. Chronicling the life of the acclaiming director from his childhood to his death in 1985, Magician is able to entertain and engage for 94 minutes, despite its length and somewhat disheartening lack of insight into why certain things happened in Welles's career.


Magician takes a look at the entire life of Welles, starting with his status as a childhood prodigy and his prickliness that put some people off. He was a theatre, musical, poetic and directorial genius and that began very early in his life. After years of working with The Mercury Theatre and on the radio with broadcasts like War of the Worlds, Welles transitioned to Hollywood, making his debut with the masterful Citizen Kane which was undoubtedly the highlight of his career. Magician focuses mostly on Welles's life after Kane and his odd charms as a director and performer. What never changes is Welles's immense genius and his passion for the art forms that defined his life.

In all honesty, unless you make the most dry and flat documentary possible, it's kinda hard to mess up a film about such a larger-than-life figure. Orson Welles was an inconsistent and maddening artist, but he was undeniably a creative mind. He had a passion for everything that he did and gave fresh life to a movie industry that thrived off of formula and consistency. It's just too bad that he was never able to finish half of the projects that he started. As acclaimed director Richard Linklater notes in the film, Welles was a true independent filmmaker and by operating out of the studio system completely, he was able to pick and choose projects, using mostly personal funds to finance his movies. And when he did work with studios, his movies were shredded, their artistry discredited in favor of marketability and profits.

Magician does take a chunk of time to take a look at some of Welles's biggest successes- Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Touch of Evil. When I first saw Kane a few years ago, I remember reading Roger Ebert's essay after, which noted that modern audiences could never understand how revolutionary the film was when it was initially made. Every single technical revolution changed cinema forever and Welles may have not even known it (in the doc, he seems to be modest about all of the different things that he did, but in reality, I think that he knew what he was really doing).

His other two greatest achievements, The Third Man and Touch of Evil were both done when Welles was severely in need of money. He took a straight payment for The Third Man, when in reality, he could have made an absurd amount of cash off of the film's profits. In Touch of Evil, Welles was originally only supposed to play the villain, but when Charlton Heston suggested that he direct as well, Welles took of the project. Of course, Universal butchered the film and didn't include half of what Welles wanted, but that seems to be the common theme of his entire career.

Director Chuck Workman does a great job of compiling a ridiculous amount of footage with major Hollywood filmmakers and even some old interviews with Welles himself. His film is well-researched and constantly entertaining, but it starts to run out of steam in the late goings. The film comes in at a meager 94 minutes, yet somehow, it still manages to be too long. Late in Welles's life, he didn't really do much and that makes for a soft ending to the film.

What Workman seems to getting the most heat for is a lack of insight into Welles's mind. Why did he clash with the studio so often? How come he almost never finished his films? Did his childhood have a long-lasting impact on his life? These are questions that Workman might not know the answer to, but I have to agree with the criticisms- he doesn't really seem to make an attempt to uncover those answers.

There are flashes of intrigue, like when a woman who was with Welles later in his life recalls a time when he was alone in a room watching The Magnificent Ambersons and just crying. That's interesting and insightful, which was something I wanted more of. In the end, Magician plays out like a much better and well researched version of the film history projects I would do during middle school: it runs through Welles's life but not much else. That has been the main criticism for this film all along and it's a valid one.

Despite its shortcomings, Magician is a well-edited look at Welles and the profound effect he had on Hollywood. I was always entertained during the film and Welles is such a bizarre figure that there's no way this film can't intrigue you just a little bit. Through an effective mix of clips from movies where Welles was a main character, interviews, historical footage and film clips, Workman is able to construct a comprehensive look at Welles and his life. Just don't expect to understand why it all happened.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                              (6.9/10)


Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, YouTube, Indiewire, NY Post

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