‘Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles’ on Cohen Media Channel and free on Kanopy

Orson Welles in Chuck Workman's documentary Magician

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014), directed by Chuck Workman and released in time to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Orson Welles, is not in the running for the definitive portrait of the artist. At a brisk, dense 90 minutes, however, it is an excellent introduction the life and work of the Welles with a focus on the creative.

Workman brings elegance and visual musicality to his work (such as the remembrance montages of the Academy Awards ceremonies) and a density to his documentaries. This is no different. His nearly breathless editing pace sweeps us through a wealth of film clips (many of them rare) and new and archival interviews with the likes of biographer Simon Callow, critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, collaborators Norman Lloyd, Charlton Heston, John Houseman, and Jeanne Moreau, and daughters Christopher Welles and Beatrice Welles-Smith.

And along with clips of his feature films, we get audio of his radio work, newsreel footage of the legendary “Voodoo” Macbeth stage production, clips from the TV version of King Lear directed by Peter Brook, and scenes from unfinished films Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Merchant of Venice. Die-hard Welles aficionados will likely have seen some (if not all) of these, but to everyone else this is a glimpse into hidden treasures.



Most importantly, Workman understands that Welles is not a “failed” director—too many ill-informed commentators (and some who should know better) still echo the cliché that Welles never returned to the artistic heights of his debut feature Citizen Kane—but a restless artist who never stopped exploring and engaging with cinema even when the industry turned its back in him. Workman clearly respects Welles and loves his work.

At a mere 90 minutes, he can’t delve deeply into the contradictions and complications, but we do get snapshots and quick impressions, with plenty of clips of Welles himself talking about his work and career that give us insight to his personality as a person and an artist. He was a storyteller in all aspects of his life. And we get a glimpse of a career that is full of wonders, many of them only recently available on home video and streams but all of them so intriguing that it may inspire new fans to seek out these rarities (hint: YouTube and import DVDs).

Rated PG-13

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles [DVD]
Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles [Blu-ray]

https://streamondemandathome.com

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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