Welles and the Magician

On February 27, 2015 by Lori Z

This is a post by JBFC Programmer Andrew Jupin


The further we get from a director’s final film, the easier it is to take that artist for granted. It’s easy to lose sight of how influential a filmmaker was, especially when the most recent examples of that person’s presence in pop culture are outtakes from a frozen pea commercial. Orson Welles was a revolutionary filmmaker who, like all the greats, was producing work decades before his time. Everyone remembers his Greatest Hit, but what about the deeper cuts in his filmography? Does anyone remember The Stranger? What about Mr. Arkadin? Fortunately, Academy Award-winning director Chuck Workman (Precious Images), has delivered the exact refresher audiences need.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is a documentary that serves as both a helpful and entertaining reminder of Welles’ fantastic oeuvre and a perfect crash course for Welles newbies. “Did you ever make a film after Citizen Kane,” Welles was once asked by an Italian waiter. This question not only highlights the raw deal Welles received from the film industry — some of which was most definitely brought on by the man himself — but also exemplifies the precise reason why documentaries like this and others of its kind (Ron Mann’s Altman for example) are necessary the more removed we are from these filmmakers’ heydays.

Magician covers a lot of ground, chronologically, from Welles’ birth and subsequent upbringing in the American Midwest, through his early successes in theater and radio, to his quickly achieved status as a Hollywood Wunderkind and even quicker decent into One Hit Wonder territory. Finally ending up in self-imposed exile, stretching every dime and starting projects but never getting them finished, he died in Hollywood, the town that turned its back on him, in October of 1985, hours after making his final public appearance on The Merv Griffin Show where he spent the segment doing what he did best: telling stories.

This documentary is being released in time to celebrate Welles’ centennial — he would have turned 100 on May 6 — while several of his unsung masterpieces are finally seeing re-release or, in some cases, finally seeing the light of day. Othello and Chimes at Midnight are now available in new, digital restorations and, fingers crossed, Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, will be released later this year after remaining unfinished for thirty years; largely delayed due to lack of funding, Welles died while still meticulously and obsessively working on the film.

The purpose of this doc is to inform audiences on the films of Orson Welles as well as shine a spotlight on the man behind the larger-than-life persona — and the even larger ego. It will inspire young filmgoers to seek out the works they don’t show in film school and it will remind them and veteran cinephiles alike that there were indeed films after Citizen Kane, a great many films that are just as entertaining and, maybe, even better.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles opens at the Burns on March 6. Tickets are on sale now.

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