Film Review: Lucky

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Director: John Carroll Lynch

15 | 1h 28min | Comedy, Drama | 14 September 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

A touching, whimsical shaggy-dog salute to an acting legend in his twilight years, John Carrol Lynch's Lucky is a quiet and quirky tribute that invites you to bring all your knowledge of Harry Dean Stanton's life and carer to the experience of watching him potter about an isolated Southern United States town as the titular character. Lucky is a gruff, wire-thin 90-year-old atheist who has out lived and out smoked all of his contemporaries. A creature of habit whose daily routine - yoga in the morning, a cup of coffee at 9am in his favourite seat in the local diner (woe betide you take it) followed by a trip to the grocery store to stock up on the two essentials of milk cartons and cigarettes- you could set a watch to. Lucky's pinched, wrinkled and haunted-looking face is like a ancient map of some mysterious land, but the man himself has little interest in behaving like some mystical old wizard dishing out advice, though he appreciates the odd discussion on whatever word has stumped or intrigued him in the weekly crossword. Nor is he allowed a great deal of onscreen dignity: Stanton's frail, wiry body is frequently on display to us in various unflattering underwear choices (and yoga stances), and his strained face betrays the effort it takes to move his joints now in his ninth decade.

But Stanton, who sadly passed on shortly after completing this film, was never an actor who gave the impression he needed to be liked, so this sour/sweet framing makes perfect sense. He just liked working, and thus we have a admirably long filmography packed with outsiders, grifters, loners and struggling working men. Stanton might have been in the background more than the fore in most of his film career (notable exceptions being Paris, Texas) but he never blended into the furniture, and his choice of roles and collaborators (David Lynch) gave the impression of a man on his own radio wavelength and sort-of happy for things to stay as such, or maybe accepting things could never be any other way. Lucky, as portrayed by Stanton, feels like a sort of collage of all those experiences and roles, as if Lucky himself might have lived all those character's offbeat lives. There was always a sense of admirable persistence to Stanton too, one which is reflected in a meta sense in Lucky's 'gotta keep truckin'' attitude. That being said, one thing I did appreciate about Lucky was how the screenplay and Stanton's elegiac performance hint at self-doubts, sadness and regrets that lie unspoken underneath a surface of unrepentant 'zero fucks given' gruffness. If there is one thing Stanton was always good at conveying, even when younger, was WEIGHT. Not physical weight (the guy looked like he lived purely off cigarettes, which he unrepentantly chuffs away on throughout this swan song), but the weight of decisions taken or not taken, people loved and lost, and fortunes won but a minute later thrown away. Adios, Harry Dean.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: American Animals

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Director: Bart Layton

15 | 1h 56min | Crime, Drama | 7 September 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Ok, I admit, it fooled me. Going into director Bart Layton's heist thriller American Animals cold, the film's cheeky opening declaration 'not based on a true story' and a series of scene-setting, documentary-style interviews with a roster of 'real life' talking heads who smell like actors hamming it up, had me thinking that this was a fake story masquerading satirically as a true one. In fact, leaving the screening and perusing Wikipedia, I discovered the opposite is true; this is a true story about a astonishingly inept robbery committed by four bored middle class American students in 2003 that is mischievously told as if it is a send-up of the 'based on a true story' dramas regularly stinking up cinema screens. Given Layton is the British director who made the 2012 documentary The Imposter, I should've been better prepared.

I found myself wondering for some time if Layton's slippery, docufiction-ish approach (those are the real heist participants in the interview sequences, for one thing) to the material really added anything to what would be, on its own, still a raucously enjoyable, loopy dash through a stupendously bungled, staggeringly lazy crime job. I've since decided Layton just about justifies it, in part because the blurring of reality and movie nods to the lack of ability to tell the difference that we learn motivated the real-life crime, and made the downfall inevitable. Layton also uses the multiple talking heads, looking back on 14 years past, to slap us upside the head on the odd occasion in case we were getting too carried away rooting for the bad guys (as many heist movies inevitably encourage), by bringing in the real life victims of the crime to comment on their experiences. Sometimes the interviewees flat out contradict each other too, provoking 'do-overs' in the playing out of the 2003 sequences and leaving us to figure out who to root for. This can seem a bit of a trendy approach, but the eclectic deployment of it throughout means you always have something additional to chew on beyond simply watching the mechanics of a heist come together.

Why would four relatively 'ok' twenty-somethings grinding their way through college in 2000-era suburban Kentucky - Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Erik (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner) - want to give up their comfy, middle-class suburban existence and cook up a heist in Warren's garage to rob the local college’s very rare first edition art books? Peer pressure? Privilege? Toxic masculinity? We get some ideas about the ringleaders at least in the build up to the break-in. Spencer is an art student who mopes around, droning on that he feels his life has no-meaning, that he needs something exciting, even if tragic, to happen in his life to inspire greater artistry. Warren meanwhile is a student on an athletic scholarship, but one look at his face at the family dinner table is enough to tell that he is only doing this to get his dad off his back. He delights in fucking things up, including one ballsy drop-the-mic confrontation with his exasperated college dean which concludes with the young man driving his scholarship place off the literal cliff. Downtown Lexington too doesn't look like the most exciting place to 'do art' from Spencer's perspective; he no doubt thought making great art meant a Lower East Side New York loft apartment with plenty of booze and women on tap at all hours. What unites all these men appears to be a massive degree of self-destructive self-involvement, a belief that being an American man means, even demands, instant exceptionality. "It used to be that being a bum was the worse thing you can be', Spencer worries, 'but there is nothing worse now than just being average'.

Keoghan's and Peters's committed performances in their appealingly chalk vs cheese pairing, combined with the scrapes we see their characters get up to later on, suggests we should consider that maybe being bored and unfulfilled in this kind of actually quite comfortable middle class life might not be a heroic or sympathetic stance, its actually pretty narcissistic. Spencer seems to spend more time being frustrated than trying to do anything productive about it. Warren is a guy shown to be constantly sabotaged by his impulsiveness and arrogance. Add these traits to the fact that these American males seem to have reached a midlife crisis too early, before it could be tamed by the wisdom of the actual lived years, and you have a recipe for the chaos that follows.

Regardless of how slippery and half-formed the ultimate motivations of the quartet might seem by the end of the first act (the two additional members don't get as much screen time), Layton does at least ensure that the meat of the film - the planning and the execution of the heist- is packed with batty and tense incidents, all dusted with appropriate coatings of stupidity and hubris. Warren, according to his own (and possibly fake) account, actually went to Amsterdam to arrange a sit down with underworld art fences, an event that plays out hilariously on screen with a scenery-chewing cameo from Udo Kier. The gang build their plan in large part on their playlists of greatest heist movies (did they not watch these films to the end?) which tells you all you need to know about where their ideas of idealised American insta-success, and the kinds of thrilling life experiences they feel 20-years olds are entitled to, are coming from.

Layton runs further with the movie magpie approach and tricks us out by throwing us mid-film into a hyper-stylised raid on the college books, with Warren and Spencer moving in hilariously OTT finger-snapping style to a jaunty Jazz score worthy of Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, only to pull back and reveal its just Spencers' movie-tinged visualisation of it. We get plenty of fourth wall-messing moments too; at one point, Warren and the actor playing him share a conversation in the front seat of a car. The film is, for the most part, fast on its feet and impatient-feeling in its structure and editing, just like the in-over-their-heads plotters.

Yet Layton also judges well when it is right to pull it all back to let reality more firmly re-intrude. Two later raids; one a dry run (with the gang kitted out in ludicrous fake beards and clothing from Target's senior range, one of the many nicely weird beats) and the next one being the real thing, see Layton dialling back the elevated style elements notch by notch, until we are literally seeing the middle aged female librarian- the one human obstacle the gang could not avoid - piss her pants in real time whilst tied up on the floor. A haunting close-up keeps re-appearing in the narrative at certain points too; a sketch of a large, red bird which dominates the illustrations in John James Audubon’s volume Birds of America, those doll-like eyes starting out as if in reproach at all these stupid young American males unable to settle for just being good enough.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Cold War

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Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

1h 24min | Drama, Romance | 31 August 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

The picture looks perfect but the love is strained, in Paweł Pawlikowski’s exquisitely shot, carefully paced, and exceedingly wistful Cold War-set drama. It is the follow-up to his Oscar-winning film Ida, and like that movie, it is set in an oppressed and oppressive Poland (though in later acts, we move to various other European countries either in or free from the Soviet Union) during the height of the iron curtain divide across Europe, and is shot in gorgeous monochrome, with a slow pace and lengthy shots that encourage contemplation. Personally, I fell for Cold War’s visual approach right away, appreciated the fine cast, whilst still wishing there was a little more fire in the love affair that the entire thing hinges on. Bleak and occasionally violent though this film is (even as it is beautiful to look at), one thing that should stay with you though, is the power of the music.

The main duo who’s love affair we are to trace through its up and downs across the Iron Curtain, an undeniably sexy and charismatic pair. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a darkly handsome pianist and composer with intense eyes and a rakish, tall build. He gives off an urbane vibe. Scrappy blonde  singer teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig) claims in contrast to be from the country and acts proud of it, whilst looking a bit like a younger Lea Seydoux. Their intense but elliptical affair begins in a wintry and ruined Soviet Poland in the late 1940s, an atmosphere conveyed with immense effectiveness by that aforementioned irresistible monochrome palette. We first meet Wiktor and a fellow broadcaster are they are deep into touring various remote villages with beat-up looking recording equipment, gathering recordings of folk songs whilst hoping to recruit a troupe of young people for a show of authentic traditional Polish song and dance. These youngsters will be billeted in a country house for a month, drilled to within an inch of their lives for various starring roles, and then sent off on tour. 

As glorious as this sounds in practice, and as thrilling as it is to see all the a cappella performances by the roster of very talented vocalists the pair pluck from the countryside, the political shadow cast by the rulers of the Polish state is never absent. We learn that the performing amateurs that make the grade will not be allowed the freedom to display their musical talents uninhabited; they are fated to be shown off at theatrical evenings to party officials and politically congenial foreigners. Wiktor is clearly disillusioned by this co-opting of art, which manifests in its most chillingly absurd way when the glass-eyed finalists have to sing an ode to Stalin in a concert hall while an insanely gigantic banner of the dictator unfurls behind them. What keeps him pleasantly distracted is the fact that Zula was one of his chosen finalists, and their affair began almost immediately, despite her total understanding that she was probably chosen for her looks, not her talent. She’s not even from the country and thus suitably ‘rustic’; as their racist and suitably oleaginous political commissar,  Kaczmarek (Borys Szyquickly) spots. Zula has a reputation for wildness, which attracts Wiktor (at first). She once attacked her own father with a knife (to stop him mistaking her for his wife, she explains).

As performing musicians forced to play along the Soviet propaganda machine’s lines, Wiktor and Zula daydream about escaping to the creative freedom of the West. A chance comes to make a break for it when the music troupe are sent Paris to show off the superiority and cultural sensitivity of the USSR. But both make a split decision that puts them on opposite sides of the fence: Zula being unwilling to trust that simply flinging it all away for a man she has only known for months is going to be emotionally and physically sustainable. This is where some viewers may choose to depart from Cold War, as, instead of spinning us an affirming tale about love conquering the divide, Pawlikowksi’s film is more keen to quietly emphasise the continuing divide, as these two damaged people never quite find their time and space to blossom, even as the years march on and various stages of political detente and tension change the environments around them (the progression of musical styles and ease of travel helps chart this). Years separate each meeting in various locales spanning Europe, from France to Germany and on to Yugoslavia and elsewhere, Wiktor travelling on a new French passport whilst Zula progresses from travelling under Soviet observation to marrying her way into an Italian passport. Both chance and planned meetings between them don’t begin with tears and melodramatic embraces ; these are two people who have experienced years of separation and have grown used to being apart from each other, even if they still find each other immensely attractive. And as much as they clearly would love to be together, something just seems broken between them.

Cold War can frustrate by not allowing the kind of emotional accessibility that other film’s might as this arc slowly progresses, but you can parse out some sense of the sources of friction during of their global travels: Zula for one thing doesn’t care for the bourgeoisie lifestyle, and is less comfortable being away from Poland than her lover.  Wiktor, for one thing, can’t return to Poland to see Zula unless he is prepared to either face years item gulag or betray other emigres. It is as if being wrenched from their home, no matter how oppressive it was, has made the ground too unstable for them to just love and live. At least the film doesn’t shove a load of self-pity in your face, and dark humour is never absent.

But even if Cold War might frustrate some with its emotional distance, darkness, and seeming disinterest in going deep into the motivations of its lovers or anyone else, it sure as hell works as a bleakly beautiful tone poem to this era of divide and exile. Even if Wikto and Zula can’t get into the same rhythm, one thing that does stitch their journey together for us as viewers is the film’s sensational soundtrack and striking locations, most of which we experience via some superbly-choreographed live performances ranging from the rustic folk songs of rural Poland performed in concert halls to sultry jazz bands belting out the greats in smoky Paris basement bars. And all of it shot in the ‘slow’ style that has lovers of transcendental filmmaking such as Paul Schrader so enamoured of Pawlikowksi. Thus, although it is not a perfect film, Cold War’s brisk 82 minutes offers more than enough for your eyes and ears.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman

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Director: Spike Lee

15 | 2h 15min | BiographyComedyCrime | 24 August 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Having come off a refresher course on Spike Lee Joints - I recently watched or re-watched Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues and Summer of Sam - I am more alive than ever to the ‘Spikisms’ that have on enthralled (and in some cases, exasperated) audiences over four decades of the outspoken and mercurial director’s work. A willingness to mix in absurdity with a clear-eyed analysis of prejudice. The odd fourth-wall breaking moment. Bravura camerawork such as the yes of the ‘double dolly’ sequence. Eclectic, punchy soundtracks saturated in black musical history, ranging from jazz to the cutting edge of hip-hop. Provocative, charismatic, but also contradictory leading black characters that are used to highlight the racial injustice of American history and the multiple, sometimes competing, ideological standpoints developed within black communities to analyse and respond to their oppression. This is the filmmaker who ended his acclaimed Do the Right Thing with two onscreen extracts from speeches by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, placed side by side. Who was right?

Much of the above can be sensed, and enjoyed, in Lee’s riotously entertaining, vividly angry, and unashamedly urgent new film: BlacKkKlansman, which is set in Colorado Springs the politically turbulent 1970s. Like other Lee films, it too suffers from much the same flaws: it is overlong, self-indulgent at times, and hardly subtle. But Lee is not making this film in subtle times. He is making them in Trumpian times. Thus when our lead character, rookie undercover cop (and the first black man in the Colorado Springs force) Ron Stallworth, is told by his Sergeant that the Ku Kux Klan his team is investigating have their eyes ultimately on getting their suited and well-coiffed leader, David Duke, into the White House, Stallworth’s scoffing at the idea is meant to evoke a knowing groan from progressive-minded audiences fresh from President Trump’s ‘very fine people’ comment about the notorious Nazi marchers who so troubled Charlottesville in 2017. Lee, always keen to inject archival footage directly into his films to slap you upside the head with a realisation that outside his movies, real life is actually going on to provide him with his material, even shows us camera footage of the appalling murder of Heather Hay by a far right activist who ploughed his car into crowds of anti-Nazi protesters. A chilling line is drawn between what we see Stallworth’s team fighting, and what we see on our TV’s today. Are the good guys winning, Lee asks us. Unspoken also is an answer to the question: ‘are Spike Lee’s films still relevant?’ Trump may be beyond most satire, but maybe not beyond Lee’s form of anger-drenched satire.

I certainly couldn’t deny that Lee, who is diving once again into the 60s-70s period to find source material, has an interesting story on his hands. The aforementioned cop Ron Stallworth actually was an undercover detective who, as ridiculous as it sounds, got himself fully signed up to the KKK through using his ‘white voice’ on the telephone in conversation with various Klan figures, right up to and including the Klan leader David Duke. Played mostly with simmering restraint by relative newcomer John David Washington (son of longstanding Lee Collaborator Denzel) Washington, another way Lee’s film connects neatly back to his own film history), Stallworth is an interestingly ambiguous figure, and reminiscent of some of Lee’s other black leads who sit on uneasy faultiness that cross their communities' prejudices and expectations, their jobs demands and status, and their own stated beliefs. Stallworth, who dresses pretty slick and sports a formidable afro (he evokes black style icons such as Shaft, figures who are directly referenced as  touchstones in the narrative itself), is seen in the opening few minutes signing up for his local police precinct’s minority recruitment drive. This requires a gruelling interview with two police higher-ups, one black, who make it clear in queasily frank terms that he will be in for a shit-tonne of racist abuse as a black rookie. Turn the other cheek will be expected. “I’ll do what is necessary” is Stallworth’s reply. So is this ambitious trumping a desire for justice? Or is Stallworth looking to subvert the system from within? Washington gives a pretty fair sense of the anger that still roles under the surface as, stuck in a records room role, he has to deal with one casual (and not so casual) racist cop after another slapping request sheets dismissively in front of him. Busting out wacky karate moves when all his peers are out of sight helps him let off steam.

Stallworth’s ability to straddle various of various camps is put to the real test when his fist investigation as an undercover cop - a role he basically blags his way into to get out of records, impressing his gruff precint chief - is an order to infiltrate a black consciousness rally where real-life intellectual Stokely Carmichael AKA Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is to speak. Ture’s speech allows Lee to deploy another ‘Spikism’; slowly zooming the camera in, during an extended take, onto a black figure delivering an incendiary commentary on race, power, oppression, and black pride. Lee also pans the camera onto various faces in the crowd, focusing on several at key moments and using computer effects to drop out the background momentarily to let them hover alone, suggesting the transporting effects of Ture’s message of finding the beauty in blackness. Its heady stuff, especially when Ture suggests the Vietnam War disgusts him so much he’d prefer a black man killed a racist cop in self defence rather than Vietnamese at at least the latter incident would have a reason behind it. When Stallworth gives a fist to the sky in salute, is this an act, or is he buying it? Is this a ‘pig’ infiltrating his own people, or the beginnings of a black awakening?

It is Stallworth’s growing relationship with the Colorado Springs black student president Patrice (Laura Harrier) that allows the question of his loyalties and consciousness to be debated, and Washington and Harrier have palpable chemistry as they walk-and-talk. But the film kind of ducks any resolution to this in favour of getting back to the compelling main story: Stallworth’s alternately ludicrous and genuinely high-risk infiltration of the Colorado Spring chapter of the Klan, which progresses from Stallworth’s blackly funny phone calls to the local Klan president, all of which involve the rookie having to literally go through the racist dictionary top to bottom to keep the conversations going convincingly (this remains queasily funny throughout), to having to then find a white officer to take on the physical role of ‘white Ron’ when the Klan actually want to recruit and use him in their various endeavours (most of which involve pedestrian meetings in cramped and chintzy living rooms where popcorn is munched, not quite the locale of racist overlords about to triumph). Enter Flip Zimmerman, an insouciant veteran undercover officer, who provides a more interesting reflection and point of debate on Stallworth’s lived experience. Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew who expresses annoyance at Stallworth’s ‘rookie crusade’ attitude towards what should be a job, finds that the Klan’s hatred of Jews requires he do in person what Ron does over the phone: mouth spit out racist epithets like he was born to it. Zimmerman comes to realise his ability to ‘pass’ might have helped him doge the kind of bullets Stallworth’s skin colour rules out, day by day. Adam Driver is as reliable as ever in this kind of role, playing a character whose slowly shifting viewpoint is credibly transmitted, and he and Washington on screen together not only provide some of the film’s comedy high points (as Stallworth tries to teach Zimmerman his own idea of a white voice, a truly bizarre notion) but also serve as a charming nod to the mismatched buddy cop cliche.

The film’s latter acts bring the figure of David Duke to the fore, embodied more than adequately by the disarmingly fresh-faced and genteel-mannered Topher Grace, but also allow Lee to deliver perhaps his most memorable flourish. At one black consciousness meeting organised by, a senior activist recalls a horrific occasion from his youth where young black colleague was lynched openly in a southern town, the locals treating the event as if a country fair, even snapping photographs to use as souvenir postcards. Lee cuts repeatedly between this meeting (which features a cameo from black acting icon Harry Belafonte, no less) and a KKK induction ceremony that Zimmerman is attending, where the notoriously racist but cinematically significant D.W. Griffiths epic Birth of a Nation is being screened, to rapturous applause by its racist audience at the sight of KKK figures crushing black-faced figures and saving a fictional post- Civil War USA from a perceived downfall at the hands of the newly liberated slaves. Such cross-cutting not only allows these two different forms of conciousness and activism to be contrasted to the detriment of the racists, but nods to the fact that cross-cutting to create dramatic tension is one of the cinematic legacies of Griffiths's movie. Beyond being a form of reclamation and criticism, this co-opting/homage also to me feels like a personal exploration by Lee of his own feelings of despair and rage at watching Griffith’s movie at film school as a young man, wondering why the amazement at the film’s aesthetics smothered fury at such blatant racism, racism which was widely attest to have helped rejuvenate the Klan in the 20th Century. So BlackKkKlansman is, in its own way, Spike Lee vs D.W Griffiths. And Lee wins this one.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: The Eyes of Orson Welles

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Director: Mark Cousins

12 | 1h 55min | Documentary | 17 August 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

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.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.