This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles”, directed by Chuck Workman.
The personal and professional life of filmmaker Orson Welles is explored to see how one influenced the other.
Attending The Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, Orson Welles was one of its most memorable students. As a chubby boy, he was never very athletic, but young Orson did manage to find other ways to excel as a student: cleaving towards more intellectual pursuits, he participated extensively in theater, writing and art. Orson eventually got tagged with the moniker of “prodigy” when his accomplishments gained considerable notoriety in the local newspapers; this would serve to be something of an albatross for the remainder of Welles’ life – his exceptionalism was accompanied by high expectations.
In college, Welles’ involvement in the theater intensified and he found his mission in life was to create and perform; whether acting or directing, he was most passionate about participating in Shakespearean plays and eventually created his own theatrical troupe where he could also write his own plays. Finding increasing success, the studios noticed Welles’ various talents and brought him to Hollywood. There, he was introduced to filmmaking . Upon being offered work, he would turn down jobs in order to negotiate a better deal – not for more money, but more control over the work. If they wanted him to act, studios would have to let him direct and sometimes even write the screenplay as well.
Although Welles’ filmmaking efforts within the Hollywood studio system brought him even greater fame, it also proved to be his downfall as well. Insisting on greater power and gaining a reputation as a prima donna, opportunities became fewer and further between. As a result, Welles decided to continue making films, but would work outside of the traditional Hollywood system. Partnering with various production companies both in the United States and abroad, he wound up with the freedom and control he sought, but often realizing that he would have to sacrifice funding as a part of the trade-off. Needing money in order to make the type of films he wanted, he would wind up taking jobs which he felt were beneath him so he could continue with more artistic pursuits.
With the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth coming next year, this timely documentary reminds film devotees how driven and dedicated the filmmaker was to his craft; arguably, Welles may have been this country’s first and most notable independent filmmaker, even though both the concept and popularity of independent filmmaking was decades away. To say Welles may have been before his time in such progressive thinking only serves to buttress his stature as a creative genius and someone who took great pride in making motion pictures. Due to his intellectual interests, however, reaching a mass audience eluded him; this is something that Welles himself admitted vexed him throughout his life.
This documentary is clearly made with great love and admiration for its subject, but it is not lacking in objectivity. As its director, Workman does not sidestep the controversies in Welles’ life, many of which were often caused by Welles himself. These controversies occurred in both his personal and professional life and to some extent, even continue to this day, nearly 30 years after Welles’ death at the age of 70. Among them are the resulting chaos from the famed “Martian invasion” radio broadcast as well as Welles’ paternity issue regarding director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the documentary’s director, Chuck Workman. Workman was fascinated by the fact that Welles often had trouble completing much of the work he started, especially given that he was adamant about maintaining control all throughout the production. The director believes that this was part of Welles’ creative genius being a disadvantage; he maintains that once Welles got involved in a project, he would be initially fascinated by its various challenges. However, once Welles felt he had conquered the obstacles, he would move on to the next mountain to climb and essentially lose interest in the task at hand – whether completing a shoot or post-production on his footage.