Posted by Susan Doll on November 24, 2014
Movie lovers will recognize Chuck Workman as the filmmaker responsible for Precious Images, the original name given to the short documentary that encapsulates the history of American film in eight minutes. Originally commissioned by the Directors Guild, the film is a compilation documentary consisting of brief shots from 470 classic movies. Precious Memories won an Oscar for Live Action Short and is listed on the National Registry of Films. Workman is also responsible for The First 100 Years, a similar compilation documentary produced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of projected motion pictures. Workman’s montage style in which he makes visual and thematic connections through clever editing is more complex than the pleasing surface of Precious Images suggests. The approach harkens back to the theories and practice of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Workman’s latest documentary on director Orson Welles also involves film history but in a different way.
At Sarasota’s Cine-World Film Festival, which closed last week, I caught Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. The great director makes for a timely topic considering next year is Welles’s 100th birthday. Given Workman’s skill and background in assembling clips, it is not surprising that the film contains well-organized snippets from archived interviews with Welles and some of his associates long since dead. There are also new interviews with former classmates, associates, and romantic companions.
At the time of his death in 1985, Welles’s reputation had been diminished by petty jokes about his weight and by the Paul Masson commercials in which he uttered, “We will sell no wine before its time.” Even today, behind-the-scenes footage of Welles appearing to be drunk on the set of those commercials populates Youtube. The jokes deflated his position as a master director and left an image of him as a rotund celebrity spokesperson, at least to mainstream audiences. Workman’s documentary does not skip over the commercials and his indulgence in superficial celebrity, but clips of Welles in interviews and talk shows reveal how smart, funny, and entertaining he was. A great storyteller, he talked about his adventures in Hollywood with humility, grace, and just a touch of mythmaking.
Workman lets his collection of clips and interviews tell Welles’s story, and he masterfully weaves them together into a coherent biography, but not in the pedantic manner of the Biography Channel. Scenes from Citizen Kane are intercut into the documentary while Bernard Herrmann’s score from the film is used to punctuate key moments in Welles’s life. The material is divided into four sections that coincide with the phases of his life and career, beginning with “The Boy Wonder,” which was one of the nicknames pejoratively thrust on the director by Hollywood insiders. Workman acknowledges the negative origins of the nickname but also changes this connotation by proving to viewers that Welles was indeed a boy wonder. From the time he was a student at the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, to his adaptations of Shakespeare on Broadway, his intelligence, imagination, maturity, and ability to produce innovative work defined him as an individual and artist.
Having read several Welles biographers, I knew about his education at the Todd School, his stint with the Dublin Players in Ireland, and his work as a director and writer for the Federal Theater Project. But, I didn’t realize how far he operated out of the box until I heard a Todd classmate talk about his precocity, adding that he was “the only person I knew who had absolutely no empathetic skills.” I didn’t wholly understand the impact of his updated version of Macbeth set in Haiti with an all-black cast until I saw old film clips and photos from the production. Norman Lloyd, who was a member of Welles’s Mercury Theatre, talked about the eeriness of the authentic voodoo drummers whom Welles had imported from Haiti. The effect is to re-establish and re-freshen Welles’s identity and accomplishments, dusting off the cobwebs from standard accounts.
The “boy wonder” connotation is the first of several long-standing perceptions that Workman challenges by digging deeper into the legends surrounding Welles’s life and looking harder at the material he left behind. The running thread that ties the stages of his life together is that he never fit into whatever “system” he was a part of, because he wanted to push the envelope of norms and conventions. He always met with resistance to his goals, but he managed to accomplish them anyway. That was his strength and his weakness: It was a strength because he studied and understood the conventions of a medium before subverting them, which is a key to artistic innovation; it was a weakness in that he was unable to calculate the long-term cost of working outside the norms.
The high price of pushing the envelope is clearly shown during the segment on the production of Touch of Evil. Universal took the film out of Welles’s hands, cutting it down and weakening the narrative. Workman contrasts the studio-tampered version of the legendary opening tracking shot with the modern-era restoration that is closer to Welles’s intent. The studio put credits over the opening sequence, destroying the suspense and undermining the connections suggested between the characters and events, while Welles’s version features no credits, allowing the sequence to visually set up the exposition of the film. Touch of Evil may have been a visual tour de force ahead of its time, but what did that matter if 1959 audiences did not get to see Welles’s innovations.
Workman’s documentary offers a different perspective on the films Welles made during the 1950s and 1960s. Struggling to obtain money, which often resulted in production delays, the great director labored outside the Hollywood studio system in order to retain creative control over his films. In history books, this phase of his career is discussed in lesser terms because of the circumstances of production, suggesting the films are minor works, failed efforts, or unfinished experiments. But, Workman did not agree with that perspective. He consulted authorities and biographers who feel that such films as Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff) and The Trial represent some of the best work of his career. He also unearthed footage of the films to help dispute the party line. Welles scholars and associates are quick to point out that the director continued to shoot film for most of his life. His last years were consumed with The Other Side of the Wind, a self-reflexive, self-referential story about a strong-willed director who battles the studios over his groundbreaking work. After years of legal issues, The Other Side of the Wind may finally be released next year in time for Welles’s 100th birthday. To Workman, Welles was not a failed director who fell apart after Citizen Kane, but someone whose personal vision and struggle for creative control make him the father of the independent film movement.
Those newly interviewed for Magician represent a combination of Welles associates and scholars such as director Peter Bogdanovich, producer Frank Marshall, and biographer Simon Callow, contemporary filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Julie Taymor, and family members and friends who knew him personally. In an online interview available on Youtube, Workman noted how no one would speak with him until Bogdanovich decided to participate, though he wanted to know the exact approach and perspective before agreeing. Apparently the Welles “camp,” as Workman called them, had been burned many times, agreeing to participate in projects only to be disappointed in the results. For example, a few years ago, the PBS series American Masters produced The Battle for Citizen Kane, interviewing the Welles camp at length. The documentary’s suggestion that Welles left Hollywood with his tail between his legs never achieving greatness after Kane was not the impression Welles’s friends and associates had wanted to give.
Other delights in Magician include clips of Welles’s appearances as a celebrity on a variety of television shows from I Love Lucy to The Muppet Show, as well a segment in which Welles and his legend are referenced in fictional films, including Radio Days, Day for Night, Ed Wood, and Get Shorty. A montage of photos and clips of women that Welles wooed throughout his life concludes with interview footage of his last companion, Oja Kodar, who reveals that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is Welles’s son by actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. Though not a Hollywood secret, the information reveals a convoluted personal life that now impacts legal decisions regarding his work.
Some reviews of this film note that there is nothing new in Magician, as though every documentary and biography has to unearth new revelations. I have learned from years of reading bios on Elvis Presley that new material is not as important as challenging existing views to see if they were born of the prejudices and shortcomings of another time. If you think you already know about Welles because of his high profile in film history, you will be surprised at the depth and understanding that comes from Workman’s documentary.
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