Train wreck

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Ma­gi­cian: The As­ton­ish­ing Life and Work of Or­son Welles, doc­u­men­tary, rated PG-13, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3.5 chiles This is the big­gest elec­tric train set a boy ever had! — Or­son Welles, on his first visit to a movie stu­dio Or­son Welles was hailed as a ge­nius at 18 months and de­rided as a has-been be­fore he was 25. His 1941 film, Cit­i­zen Kane, tops the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute’s list of the great­est movie ever made. He blazed like a comet through the worlds of theater and film, and died at the age of sev­enty trail­ing a spec­tac­u­lar string of leg­endary suc­cesses and fail­ures in his wake. He was that en­dur­ing bib­li­cal cliché, a prophet not with­out honor ex­cept in his own coun­try, a dar­ling of Euro­pean crit­ics, and of­ten a whip­ping boy in the Amer­i­can crit­i­cal press. In the 30 years since his death, his rep­u­ta­tion has been on the rise, and the carp­ings of his crit­ics have re­ceded. Films like Touch of Evil and Chimes at Mid­night, once dis­par­aged, are now gen­er­ally con­sid­ered mas­ter­pieces. The Other Side of the Wind, a satire star­ring John Hus­ton that was mired (like many of his projects) in fi­nan­cial and le­gal dif­fi­cul­ties and un­fin­ished at his death, is to be com­pleted and re­leased this year to mark the 100th an­niver­sary of his birth.

In other words, this is a guy well worth another look, and that is what veteran film­maker Chuck Work­man gives us in Ma­gi­cian: The As­ton­ish­ing Life and Work of Or­son Welles (the ti­tle al­ludes to Welles’ con­sid­er­able tal­ent as a stage ma­gi­cian). Some cinephiles and Welles mavens may sneer that Work­man of­fers noth­ing new to the al­ready well-chewed feast of the great man’s biog­ra­phy, but for most of us it’s a chance to watch, won­der, and sigh over the high­lights and missed op­por­tu­ni­ties in the life of a the­atri­cal ge­nius who was prob­a­bly his own big­gest fan and worst en­emy.

Work­man carves up his sub­ject’s life into chrono­log­i­cal chap­ters. “1915 to 1941: The Boy Won­der” starts us off with Welles’ birth and boy­hood in Kenosha, Wis­con­sin, where the fam­ily doc­tor rec­og­nized signs of pre­coc­ity in the tod­dler and show­ered him with gifts de­signed to bring it out. “He was fawned on as re­mark­able from an early age,” notes one bi­og­ra­pher, ac­tor Si­mon Cal­low; and Welles re­flects with wry amuse­ment that “there’s noth­ing more hate­ful on earth” than a child prodigy, adding, “I was one of them.”

This sec­tion takes us through his school days, when his the­atri­cal tal­ent be­gan to emerge, and when his in­abil­ity to play nicely with oth­ers also at­tracted no­tice. “He had no empathetic skills,” re­calls a class­mate. The film moves on through his early suc­cesses, as he ran off and lied about his age to be­gin a pro­fes­sional theater ca­reer that soon brought him to New York, and his col­lab­o­ra­tion with John House­man in the Mer­cury The­atre, both on stage and on the air. That led to the leg­endary 1938 broad­cast of The War of the Worlds, a Hal­loween prank that pan­icked thou­sands of gullible ra­dio lis­ten­ers with its breath­less news cov­er­age of Mar­tians land­ing in New Jersey and brought a bar­rage of law­suits and a na­tional scan­dal. “I didn’t go to jail,” Welles quipped. “I went to Hol­ly­wood.”

Work­man’s first chap­ter ends with Cit­i­zen Kane, which es­tab­lished Welles’ cre­den­tials as a cin­e­matic ge­nius but earned tepid crit­i­cal re­sponse and a lack­lus­ter box of­fice. In the next sec­tion, “1942 to 1949: The Out­sider,” Work­man be­gins to chron­i­cle the odyssey that set Welles adrift from Hol­ly­wood. His sec­ond fea­ture, The Mag­nif­i­cent Am­ber­sons, though maimed by stu­dio re­cut­ting, was still a crit­i­cal suc­cess but lost money. And from then on, it’s a ca­reer of almost mind-bog­gling ups and downs, with the downs car­ry­ing the day as Welles sparred with stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives and gen­er­ally came out on the short end. Cal­low marvels at how “this ex­tra­or­di­nary man was outwitted by such lesser men.”

Work­man keeps things mov­ing with a nim­ble nar­ra­tive that cuts be­tween a fas­ci­nat­ing as­sem­blage of clips from films and rare stage footage, along with ex­ten­sive rem­i­nis­cences and ob­ser­va­tions from fam­ily, friends, crit­ics, lovers, ad­mir­ing col­leagues, and plenty of old tele­vi­sion in­ter­views with the great man him­self, at dif­fer­ent ages, stages of health, pe­ri­ods of ac­com­plish­ment and frus­tra­tion, moods, and at­ti­tudes. Some­times he’s self-ag­gran­diz­ing, some­times self-jus­ti­fy­ing, some­times self-lac­er­at­ing, but al­ways mag­netic and en­ter­tain­ing.

As the young ge­nius aged and failed, slam­ming Hol­ly­wood doors be­hind him and alien­at­ing the pow­er­ful with his an­tic, ar­ro­gant, and of­ten ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior, dodg­ing the tax man, mar­ry­ing and di­vorc­ing, bal­loon­ing into an obese car­i­ca­ture, work­ing as an ac­tor and, later, an ad­ver­tis­ing shill (“We will sell no wine be­fore its time”) to try to bankroll his di­rect­ing dreams, that early prom­ise re­ceded fur­ther and fur­ther from his grasp. And yet even his glanc­ing en­gage­ments with ex­cel­lence as he ex­plored and pi­o­neered in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing left him stand­ing taller and cast­ing a longer shadow than most of his con­tem­po­raries.

The test of Work­man’s col­lec­tion of clips and sto­ries will be not so much in whether it breaks new ground, but in its suc­cess in bring­ing a new au­di­ence to its sub­ject, and in re­mind­ing Welles’ fans of what amaz­ing things he ac­com­plished, and what a tan­ta­liz­ing lot he left un­done.

— Jonathan Richards

Or­son Welles di­rects his re­cently un­earthed com­edy from 1938,

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