Clip Art, by Tyler Smith
Ah, the clip show. A staple of sitcoms from the 80s and 90s. So common, in fact, that it was parodied mercilessly in more recent television shows. While I’m hardly a TV aficionado, I’m pretty sure that this practice- filling an episode with clips of famous past moments and passing it off as something new- is a thing of the past. And, for good reason, as it always felt lazy and phoned in. We never learned anything new, never felt anything we hadn’t already felt before. A clip show was always a disappointment; the frustrating realization that we’d have to wait another week for our favorite show to return.
This is how I felt while watching Chuck Workman’s Magician, a documentary about respected film director Orson Welles. Since Welles is already one of the most documented directors of all time, one would expect a movie made in 2014 to dig a little deeper, trying to figure out what made this enigmatic and charismatic character tick. Being a Welles fan myself, I was excited to not only celebrate his work, but maybe learn more about who he was, both as an artist and as a man.
Unfortunately, Magician is little more than a clip show, a “best of” that features all of Welles’ greatest hits, from stage to radio to film to his entertaining interviews. A discussion of his War of the Worlds broadcast? Yes! Coverage of Kane? Of course! His humorous radio commercial outtakes? Magician‘s got you covered!
If you’re an admirer of Orson Welles, this film will probably please you at first. I found myself smiling during the first thirty minutes or so, as I was welcomed into the unusual world of Orson Welles, the boy genius who revolutionized every medium he touched, all with a wink and a smile. However, as the film progresses, a question started to arise in my mind.
Why did Welles explore the themes that he did in films like Chimes at Midnight or Mr. Arkadin? Why was he unable to work successfully within the studio system? What drove him to make decisions that so differentiated him from other filmmakers?
These questions not only remained unanswered; they were never even posed. Instead, director Chuck Workman is content to focus on the razzle dazzle of Welles the showman and personality, never wondering what drove the man underneath the surface. The result is a film with a limited appeal.
For those that love Welles, the movie feels incomplete; a good start that doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know. We know plenty about the art, but we’d love to know more about the artist. For those that might be new to Welles, the film doesn’t even delve quite deep enough into the films themselves to justify Welles’ reputation as a genius and master filmmaker. The documentary skips across the surface of Welles’ filmography, giving a little bit of detail about each film, then moving on to the next thing. I feel that it is entirely possible that somebody could walk away from this film thinking of Orson Welles not as a cinematic titan with a dynamic personality, but a charming man that made a few movies.
In the end, it seems appropriate that the film is called Magician. Welles was a lover of magic, and often viewed the dramatic arts as a type of magic trick; the ability to manipulate the audience into looking at your left hand while your right hand- the one making the “magic” happen- goes unnoticed. I feel like Chuck Workman sought out to make an in-depth film about the life of Orson Welles, but got distracted by the flair and theatricality of the man and his work. And, in focusing on that, he lost interest about how it all happened. He didn’t care about how the trick worked; he just wanted to applaud at the end of it. This is all fine for a magic act, but it makes for a pretty forgettable documentary.