Magician: A Look at Orson Welles Only for the Knowing

Directed by Chuck Workman
Calliope Films, 91 minutes, PG-13
* *

Last fall I went to a conference in which a very thoughtful undergraduate issued a reminder every storyteller, teacher, and director should take to heart. He is a film studies major, but he admonished that very often he finds himself watching "famous" films, but not understanding why they are famous. That's because his professors too often assume that everybody already knows why the movie, actors, or directors in question are renowned. Well, no…. Is it reasonable to expect that an 18-year-old will fall down at the altar of Fellini, whose 1993 death took place four years before he was born? If you want a student, viewer, or movie fan to observe greatness, give them some guidance.

Chuck Workman's new documentary of Orson Welles suffers from a lack of cues, clues, and context. The title embeds Workman's thesis: Welles was a magician who dazzled with his brilliance, prescience, intellect, and talent. I believe that to be objectively true, but that has something to do with the fact that I had observed Welles for years before his death in 1985. Alas, Workman's film is directed to the cognoscenti, not the curious. There's simply not much in the film to explain Welles' importance to those who are less familiar with him. Workman is best known for the montages he assembles for Academy Award broadcasts and his portrait of Welles is a bit like these—random snippets that rely upon the viewer to recognize images and infer connections. It is not a conventional or sequential biography. Although there are plenty of clips and some linking narrative, a casual viewer probably won't see Welles as a "magician," as most of what we see and hear is a litany of box office flops, aborted projects, and ego clashes. We are told repeatedly that Welles was a genius–especially by director Peter Bogdanovich–but it's Welles' well-earned reputation for being difficult that's most on display. Nor do we learn that films such as Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil were popular and critical flops in their day that attained iconic status due to the work of film scholars.

Orson Welles certainly deserves a biography, but I suspect it needs to come from someone less worshipful than Workman. He was a fascinating individual; also an infuriating one whose major magician act might have been not being ridden out of town on a rail! If you don't know about Welles, you should read about him. You should also watch (at minimum) Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Third Man, The Trial, The Lady from Shanghai, and Long, Hot Summer. (Unlike Workman, I'm not a fan of The Magnificent Ambersons.) Then you should have discussions about all of them. Do these things and you'll have no need for Workman's misguided documentary. If you don't  want to spend that much time, you'll learn more about Welles from Richard Linklater's 2008 fictional film Me and Orson Welles.  Rob Weir

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