Anyone who suspects that nearly all there is to say about Orson Welles has already been said is in for a nice surprise in The Eyes of Orson Welles. As the title suggests, the iconoclastic Northern Irish documentarian Mark Cousins has chosen to focus on the way the late creative polymath saw things, literally so, not only in his films but in his voluminous but far less known paintings and sketches. Extrapolating, often in inspired ways, from this premise and geographically following in Welles' footsteps all over the world from Kenosha and Broadway to Agadir and the Aran Islands, Cousins makes a lively argument for the creative dynamo's abundant hand-drawn work as an integral part of his creative process, even if Welles never advertised himself publicly as a brushes-and-canvas man. Festivals and arts-inclined television will gobble this up worldwide.
Not one to stay in the creative shadows and let his work speak for itself, Cousins boldly positions his almost continuous narration in the form of a long, adulatory, occasionally impudent letter to the late director/writer/actor/magician/political columnist/raconteur/vagabond and all-around man of the world. Cheekily informing his silent correspondent that we now have “a president who thinks he's Charles Foster Kane,” Cousins coyly poses the question, “Can we look at you again, Orson?”
The filmmaker does just that via access granted by Welles' youngest daughter Beatrice, now in her early 60s, who appears periodically onscreen. In lieu of an autobiography, Cousins posits, Welles left behind his art, which turns out to be both revelatory and, in the end, something else altogether. Starting when he was 9 years old, Welles kept dashing out drawings for the next six decades, doing so very, very quickly, often creating striking caricatures as well as moody landscapes.
There are sketches from 1927, when the 12-year-old Orson toured the world with his father and then, just four years later, when the precocious lad went to Ireland on his own. The Aran Islands seized his imagination (he arrived just as Robert Flaherty, whose Nanook of the North little Orson had adored, began shooting Man of Aran), as did the nearby town of Galway, where, Cousins reminds his subject, “You claimed to be famous and then, in Dublin, became so.”
In 1933 there was a visit to Spain, where he much later maintained a residence, and to Morocco, and their visual starkness and contrasts fed several of his later films, notably Othello, Mr. Arkadin and Chimes at Midnight. His witnessing the rise of fascism during this period fed directly into his theater work, specifically his New York breakthrough with Julius Caesar, when he was just 22.
So absorbed is Cousins by Welles as a creator and a man that his ruminations about him veer far afield from the immediate subject of his “eyes” and visual work. The doc takes a particular interest in the evolution of its subject's politics, especially during his theater days of the late 1930s; treads comparatively lightly through his love life; addresses his “archaic” attraction to “outmoded chivalry” (Welles' unfinished Don Quixote providing the ultimate expression of this); pinpoints the “dark exuberance” of much of his film work; and ultimately draws the conclusion that, increasingly, Welles' films themselves were sketchbooks, “jagged and fractured” creations that only sometimes achieved the status of finished works.
Cousins never comes right out and says it, but the unavoidable implication running through Eyes — one that could be said to play directly into the hands of his detractors — relates to the subject's alleged fear of completion, a trait that in his critics' view explains why he left behind so many unfinished projects. A hallmark of most of Welles' dashed-off drawings seen here is that the human beings have no faces; we see their profiles, garments, hair and sometimes objects or landscapes, but they are very often deprived of visages.
Oddly, the hyper-attentive Cousins takes only passing notice of this quite unignorable fact. As Welles never meant for any of these dashed-off doodlings to be considered as “art” to be judged and analyzed — they as often as not seem like mental reminders of potential compositions, character conceptions, wardrobe, hairstyles, visual perspectives — it's entirely unfair to assess them that way, but the spectre of “unfulfilled promise” increasingly dogged the man during his life and will likely continue to do so.
Drawing his many insights and ruminations into something of a conclusion, Cousins takes the view that for Orson Welles the filmmaker, right now would have been the ideal time. As history plainly shows, there was little room for a radical independent like Welles in the Hollywood studio system. He and his brilliant Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland dreamed of a time when “there would be no film in the camera,” just light. Eyes makes the argument that Welles could have thrived in the current environment, shooting (i.e., sketching) as much as he pleased, spending little money in the process, beholden to no studio, taking whatever time he needed and showing only what he ultimately wanted to present. It's not difficult to imagine one of today's stupefyingly successful cable or streaming outlets giving a Welles virtual carte blanche to do more or less whatever he wanted on an ongoing basis. His sketches, in other words, could ultimately have blossomed into finished works.
Freshly conceived, mordantly whimsical, light on its feet and fleet of mind, The Eyes of Orson Welles rightly makes no extensive claims for Welles 'drawing and painting skills, but positions them honestly as one heretofore overlooked aspect of the man's polymorphously abundant talent.
Production companies: Bofa, BBC, Filmstruck
Director-writer: Mark Cousins
Producers: Mary Bell, Adam Dawtrey
Executive producers: Mark Bell, Mark Thomas, Michael Moore
Director of photography: Mark Cousins
Editor: Timor Langer
Music: Matt Regan
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
World sales: Dogwoof