Director: Mark Cousins
12 | 1h 55min | Documentary | 17 August 2018 (UK)
The mellifluous vocals of filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins are once again our guide through film history (film buffs should make it a mission to digest his epic The Story of Film), as Cousins tackles the big beast himself: Orson Welles. If you are familiar with Cousin's work, you'll know he is very much a personal essayist as opposes to a clinical documentarian, filtering his studies through the prism of his own history, feelings and contradictions. The Eyes of Orson Welles is no different, with Cousins addressing the iconic director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, who has been dead over 30 years with no autobiography left behind him, personally, as if engaged in a letter writing back-and-forth with the mercurial film titan. But with Welles having been endlessly dissected by film historians and fans over the decades (not least by Simon Cowell in a multi-volume biography), is there anything left to say?
It helps Cousins that, not only is his narration so clearly fired by his deep passion that it bypasses accusations of preciousness (even when he gets another actor to voice an imaginary Welles letter back to Cousins), but that he had, via Welles's youngest daughter Bethany, exclusive access to hundreds of Welles' private drawings and paintings. These archive materials range from cards sketched with his own hand to ideas for film sets painted with his own brush. Cousins does a pretty nifty job of finding the right material to illuminate the aspects of Welles's personality and creative focus that he finds compelling and demonstrating the artworks were integral to his creative process. Obviously, Welles's interests in ambitious and striking stage designs and eye-popping camera angles show up time and again in his strong use of lines and heavy contrasts in many sketches, his charcoal-like landscapes for Macbeth are particularly memorable. But Cousins offsets these examples of Welles's forceful vision of what would go in front of the camera with glimpses of a younger man's touching and innovative Christmas card designs (his design incorporating a helix like central trunk with dabs of green at intervals makes for pleasingly abstract approach) which he made annually in memory of a mother who's charity work and political commitment inspired him throughout his life. Welles's was well known for taking variety of wives and lovers in his time, but some of his cards and sketches to partners such as Paola Mori and Rita Hayworth seem almost childishly plaintive; lots of kisses and various sketches of a cartoon Welles crying with either heartbreak or a surfeit of love. Curiously, Welles could be incredibly passionate in his letters and cards addressed to men too, though Cousins sees nothing sexual in this, it just serves as more proof of the giant passions roiling inside this larger than life figure.
I wouldn't say The Eyes of Orson Welles offers any stunning insights into Welles's filmmaking if you are somebody who brings a fair amount of knowledge of his career to the table, but it works much better at explaining why this polymath of a man might appeal so strongly to someone like Cousins. Welles's archive suggests a constantly busy mind; a wanderer, a dreamer, a shameless eccentric and a lover of chivalry, someone who, as Cousins muses in the final minutes, couldn't help but identify with both Falstaff and King Henry in his own Chimes of Midnight (Cousins even called him "...the King, forced to abdicate"). Cousins also keeps returning to a black and white photo of Welles in his prime, reclining on a bed, looking to camera with hungry eyes. It makes him look like a man wanting to gorge on it all; and you can feel the earnest love Cousins has for such an appetite for the production and consumption of art throughout this cinematic essay.