You don’t need me to tell you that Orson Welles was one of the cinematic and theatrical geniuses of the 20th century. You probably don’t even need Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 13) to tell you that: even 30 years after his death, his legacy remains intact.
A giant in all respects, Welles seems as alive today as he ever was, and it’s his avuncular presence that renders this documentary worthwhile. There’s not a great deal of value in seeing that snow globe roll out of Charles Foster Kane’s hand for the umpteenth time, but to hear the great man describe it as “a rather tawdry device” is illuminating, amusing, and rather telling.
Orson Welles was rarely, if ever, satisfied. After the relative commercial failure of Citizen Kane in 1941, he was (almost) never allowed to make another film unsupervised (The Trial being a triumphant exception). Producers knew he would keep filming and keep cutting in the endless pursuit of perfection; they also knew that Welles’ final cut (if such a beast were to exist) would rarely if ever fit within the tight constraints of Hollywood formula.
So from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) to The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and beyond, Welles found himself constantly struggling against the philistines controlling the purse-strings; the barbarians at the studio gates. Such was his disinterest in budgets and deadlines that he spent a full decade shooting and editing The Other Side of the Wind – a legendary production that remained incomplete at the time of his death in 1985, fifteen years after filming began.
Magician is a decent if all too brief encapsulation of Orson Welles’ life, bolstered by interview footage with loved ones (daughters Christopher Welles Feder and Beatrice Welles-Smith; companion Oja Kodar) and colleagues (Peter Bogdanovich; the apparently immortal Norman Lloyd) alike. The real star of the show, however, is the great man himself, seen in interview segments filmed throughout his life.
The young, chastised Welles is here, trying to make amends for the Mercury Theatre’s panic-inducing radio production of ‘The War of the Worlds’. Here also is the profoundly confident and puckishly amused Welles of later years, the Welles who relied on selling “no wine before its time” in order to earn enough money to fund another reel of The Other Side of the Wind (which, incidentally, is once again mooted for imminent completion).
The man was a font of witty, self-deprecating bon mots, and some of his best are here: Kane was the result of “the confidence of ignorance”; his lifelong love of Shakespeare provided him the “great feeling to be dealing with material that is better than yourself”. Even if you’re not terribly keen on all his films (as I am not), listening to Orson Welles speak is an incomparable pleasure.
If you want to get all the grim details about Welles’ stunted career, you’ll want to read one of the many fine books about him (my personal favorite is Clinton Heylin’s ‘Despite the System‘). Even if you’re already read the books, however, you’ll want to see Magician, if only to fully appreciate the Wildean wit of America’s greatest Renaissance man.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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