Hard on the heels of the tantalizing, can-it-be-true news that Orson Welles’ last unfinished project, “The Other Side of the Wind,” may get released from its 30-odd years of captivity comes a documentary film about the infant terrible of American cinema.
Chuck Workman, who has made short films for the Directors Guild of America and Oscar presentations, plus docs on the Beat Generation and artist Andy Warhol, has shifted through many interviews recorded down through the years with Welles and key films, finished or unfinished, to produce “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.”
If one is newborn to film studies or perhaps fell to earth from Mars, this could be an excellent place to begin with the curious case of Orson Welles. Here in a quick 94-minute film are most of the key events, players and films from Welles’ exhaustive though often troubled career on stage, radio, TV and in the movies.
No need to wade through all those lengthy tomes about the man and his movies.
But anyone expecting a bracing vision about his life’s work or a critique of that output will be disappointed. It is compilation over serious biography; it is names-facts-figures rather than a thoughtful overview.
Not that thoughtful comments don’t come from many voices in this film. Especially trenchant observations come from Welles biographer Simon Callow, film editor Walter Murch and indie filmmaker Richard Linklater.
But even these voices speak too briefly then disappear. Indeed many appear to come from old interviews not fresh ones and a few choices are extremely random.
Julie Taymor, who appears more than once, has no connection to Welles’ life. She is included presumably to give a prospective of a stage director transitioning into movies.
Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck pops up to describe Welles’ astonishing appetite. (“He makes love to food!” exclaims the chef.) All rather off-topic for such a short film about such a long and often great life.
Meanwhile critic and Welles biographer Joseph McBride is allowed only the briefest commentary and decidedly vintage interviews with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg make you wonder: Couldn’t Workman get these gentlemen to sit down for more in-depth, present-day interviews?
Admittedly, it would be a daunting task to tell Welles’ story even in a three-hour doc. Staging Shakespeare when in grade school, B.S.-ing his way into Dublin’s Abbey Theatre as a teen, then making the most legendary American film, “Citizen Kane,” the first time he set foot on a movie stage, Welles lived a lifetime by the time he was 25.
Fortunately and then again in some other ways unfortunately, he had a long life, much of it spent in frustration as projects fell apart or were abandoned, money and reputation were squandered and he wound up a caricature of himself, camping his way through wine commercials and celebrity roasts that exploited his fame and wit but failed to advance the cause of Wellesian cinema.
The film offers a plethora of examples of his cinema and, much more usefully, generous clips from many of those unfinished films such as “The Deep,” “Don Quixote,” “Moby Dick,” “The Merchant of Venice” and, of course, “The Other Side of the Wind.” The imagery, mostly in black-and-white, will make any cineaste weep for the lost pleasures.
Welles was a director with an audacious vision and enormous capacity for artistic self-realization. But he was also a horrible fund-raiser and self-destructive producer. He was often his own worst enemy.
Workman does captures this aspect of Welles. And by means of vintage interviews, mostly on TV chat shows or personal appearances, the movie catches him in different versions of the same oft-told tales.
Linklater does pin one key point down: Welles was a pioneer of indie filmmaking. In a day when you either made Hollywood films or were unemployed, Welles camped out in Europe, raising money, shot until that money ran out, then did an acting gig so he could re-start production.
He was, Linklater insists, the “patron saint of indie filmmaking.” Left unsaid is the fact that a patron saint is not necessarily a role model.
Any one of these areas — artistic genius, show-biz charlatan, indie film pioneer or self-destructive madman — would have yielded great riches. But Workman insists on jamming key facts and minor trivia into the same overstuffed bag, giving equal weight to all.
Welles’ love life is certainly impressive and the many clips from movies that feature fictionalized portraits of him and his films —you forget how many there have been over the years —is no less so. But what does this all add up to?
Ken Burns gets knocked for his old-fashioned, lengthy cinematic dives into subjects ranging from baseball to the Civil War. But ‘Magician” makes a counter argument: If you race through a subject and fail to give an overarching viewpoint to your documentary material, you can seriously short change a subject.
Orson Welles deserves a lengthier and much more considered documentary tribute.
Opens: December 12, 2014 (Cohen Media Groupr)
Production companies: A Calliope Films production presented by Cohen Media Group
Director/editor: Chuck Workman
Producer: Charles S. Cohen
Co-producer: Alice Henty
Directors of photography: John Sharaf, Tom Hurwitz, Michael Lisnet
Historical consultant: James Naremore
Assistant editor: Pat Katz
No rating, 94 minutes