Friday, December 12, 2014

Documenting the Life and Work of a Genius

"I didn't know what you couldn't do. I didn't deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, why not?" - Orson Welles, speaking about Citizen Kane.

At the 1971 Academy Awards, John Huston, accepting the Honorary Oscar for Orson Welles, said that "Genius is a word that must be used very sparingly, especially in this world of films." Quite true, but everyone agrees Orson Welles was an artist who truly deserved the title of genius; his body of work is clear evidence of that. In a new documentary by Chuck Workman titled Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, we are treated to an in-depth look at the incredible path that Welles took en route to becoming arguably the most creative genius of American cinema - perhaps world cinema - during the 20th century.

Workman, an Oscar-winner, who is best known for his short films (he made a new one each year for more than two decades for the annual Oscar telecast), has crafted a painstakingly detailed work that denotes the special moments in Welles' life, from his schooling in Woodstock, Illinois as a youth to his work for the Federal Theater in the 1930s all the way through his final films in the 1960s and 1970s. Welles would constantly amaze those who worked with him; fellow actor Norman Lloyd recalls at one point in this film that when you were present at a play directed by Welles, "you had an experience in the theater you never had anywhere else."

Every famous moment in Welles' career is highlighted here, especially his memorable War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, one that scared thousands of people from coast to coast. We read excerpts of letters to Welles about this event, some of them quite positive in their praise for his storytelling, others written in a pejorative tone ("inhuman" is the term used by one angry individual). There are clips of Welles himself being interviewed about the public's reaction; he was quite surprised to learn of the controversy he created. He recalls that there were police in the studio while the broadcast was going on looking for the proper person to arrest.

While this moment made Welles a household name across America, it was his work in films that cemented his reputation, as a true original, one who "freed the camera," as Martin Scorsese mentions in one clip. Workman has a good deal in the film about Citizen Kane, but he also devotes much time to his other films, especially works such as The Trial and Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight. Given that these two films are rarely seen works, this is a wise decision on Workman's part.

Workman also devotes time to several of Welles' unfinished films such as Don QuixoteThe Deep, The Dreamers and The Merchant of Venice. What's fascinating about this section of the documentary is being able to watch scenes from these films, as we are reminded that Welles actually shot sections of these works, unlike other famous directors who also had unfinished projects. Unfortunately, Welles had so many of these unfinished movies - for reasons ranging from financial problems to personal ones - that his reputation suffered from this facet of his life. One illuminating clip has director Henry Jaglom recalling that while so many in Hollywood wanted to meet Welles and have lunch with him, too many people were worried that "he was not predictable." Welles himself says in one of this film's clips, "Do you know that I always liked Hollywood very much? It just wasn't reciprocated."

What I love most about this documentary is that Workman keeps the talking heads aspect to a minimum; there are insightful interviews with writers - especially Simon Callow, who wrote the most authoritative biography of Welles - as well as with a few directors - there is a hilarious moment of Paul Mazursky recalling his first meeting with Welles - that are entertaining and informative. But it is the inclusion of so many clips of Welles himself offering up his thoughts on one of his films or his struggles to complete a film that make this documentary so entertaining (in an interview with Workman, he told me that he was fortunate in this aspect, as Welles made so many television and industry appearances in his career, so he had much to choose from).

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is highly recommended not only because it is a complete look at the work of this genius; it also delivers great insight into the contradictions that were at the heart of Orson Welles' life. As with any great artist, the troubling moments in his career defined him just as much as the celebrated triumphs.

Here is the link to my interview with Chuck Workman about this film. I spoke with him at the Chicago International Film Festival this past October. His insights are a valuable companion piece to his documentary.

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