At an age when many of today’s adults are moving back into their childhood bedrooms with graduate degrees tossed somewhere in a milk crate, Orson Welles co-wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane.
In Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg joins the cineaste chorus in calling Kane “one of the great movies ever made” and attributes the achievement of a 25-year-old Welles to “courage and audacity.” Later in his life, Welles downplayed it to “the confidence of ignorance,” saying, “I didn’t know what you couldn’t do.”
The bulk of Chuck Workman’s documentary focuses on what happened once Welles finally realized how much he could, indeed, do; in the words of so many frown-inducing report cards, he stopped “living up to his potential.” It wasn’t laziness that held Welles back, but perfectionism (and, often, a lack of funds). Clip after clip lets audiences glimpse projects the director either never finished or refused to pronounce done, including Don Quixote, which he tinkered with for years without producing a version he was satisfied with.
Magician might have benefited from a slightly less obsessive Welles-ian approach. The 94-minute documentary is a mishmash of film scenes, commentary from colleagues dead and alive (including Sydney Pollack, Anthony Perkins, Peter Bogdanovich, and weirdly, Wolfgang Puck), and frequent interviews with Welles from every stage of his life, in no particular order.
Though Workman divides the film into chapters—beginning with “The Boy Wonder” and ending with “The Master”—there’s little sense of linearity, just a cannonball into Welles’ bio that rarely comes up for air to linger on any particular aspect of his life. A further distraction in this whirlwind: facts that appear in the corner of the screen while the talking heads do their thing. It’s a curious and rather off-putting experiment that suggests Workman rein in future urges to experiment. (A slightly foreboding piano score is another odd choice, but it can be easily tuned out.)
One of the most interesting parts of the film is its look at Welles’ notorious 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which, of course, drove listeners bonkers with its realistic telling of a Martian invasion. The reaction was so widespread and serious, in fact, that police got involved. But Welles escaped unscathed, at least in terms of his physical freedom. “I didn’t go to jail,” he said. “I went to Hollywood.”
Magician’s central gist is that Hollywood was no place for Welles despite his instinctive and precocious talent. As Richard Linklater, who directed 2008’s Me and Orson Welles, says in the doc, Welles is “the patron saint of indie filmmakers.” As the studio system rejected him, Welles, with his ever-increasing girth, regressed into a starving artist, turning to work in commercials to earn a living.
Viewers who aren’t terribly familiar with Welles—particularly ones who are good with catching quick snippets of information—will get the most out of the documentary. But that doesn’t mean Magician isn’t worth the diehard fan’s time. Its bevy of interviews with the man make it feel as if he’s telling his own story—and between Welles’ baritone and bon mots, it’s impossible not to be entertained.
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles opens April 3 at E Street Cinema.