The Eyes of Orson Welles
Filmmaker and film critic Mark Cousins journeys through hundreds of sketches, drawings and paintings in The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018), the first documentary to explore the still life works by the great filmmaker. Cousins previously made the epic 15-hour The Story of Film (2011) and, as in that sprawling work, he favors themes over chronology to structure his journey. This production, however, is more personal. Cousins, who narrates in his distinctive, playful Irish brogue, opens with the words "Dear Orson" then proceeds to frame his film as an open letter to Welles. "It's my film letter to a dead dad," is how Cousins described the film in an interview with Anne Thompson. "We are all in some way in the western world the offspring of Orson Welles. He's a towering figure."
Orson Welles painted and sketched all his life. For a brief period as a young man, he was a student at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago where he worked out ideas for costumes and sets for theater productions with pencil and ink and paper. He also sketched visual ideas in the margins of his film scripts and when he left Hollywood to become, in essence, an independent filmmaker in Europe in the late 1940s, he became even more involved in designing the look of his films with drawings, paintings, storyboards and thumbnail sketches. In the 1955 British TV series Orson Welles' Sketch Book, he sketched on camera to illustrate his stories and remembrances. Yet apart from Les Bravades, a storybook he drew for his daughter Rebecca which was published as a gift book in 1996, there are few glimpses of his artwork in the scores of documentaries and thousands upon thousands of pages of biographies and book-length studies of Orson Welles.
Welles' youngest daughter, Beatrice Welles, approached Cousins with a proposal to make a film that focused on her father's drawings and paintings, many scattered across the world in university special collections. When she showed Cousins her personal collection of her father's artwork, he saw a different side of the filmmaker. "I felt I was seeing somebody more vulnerable and self-doubting, more playful and regretful, and just more fun, than I thought I knew," he confessed to Guy Lodge in an interview with The Guardian. Beatrice told him about a box containing even more pages of his art in a temperature-controlled room in New York. "No one had been through it before," he told Lodge, and it was an eye-opening experience. "This is off-duty Welles, mind-tipping-over Welles, Welles entertaining himself and his dining companions. What we're seeing is something much more improvised, more jazzy, going on than what we see in most of his films."
It was the beginning of a process of discovery. Cousins travelled from one special collection to another, taking in the art without knowing what he would find or where such discoveries would lead. The artworks on display run the gamut from sketches by the artist as a young man traveling the world with his father to whimsical cartoons and Christmas cards to formal paintings to costume and production sketches. In some cases, Cousins draws direct parallels between his drawings and images in his films, but his primary focus is on seeing through, as the title says, the eyes of Welles. "[T]here's a connection between how the visual mind works and things like one's graphic sense of the world," he says in his interview with Kaleem Aftab. "What sort of image pleased Orson Welles? Was it a composed image, or was it a detached image?"
Cousins wanted to, as he explained to Anne Thompson, "take away the awe" by rediscovering the person behind the legend. He takes us back to Welles' childhood to explore his formative experiences and is reintroduced to Welles' political beliefs and social convictions, tracing it from those early years with his politically active mother and world-traveling father to his outspoken civil rights activism on radio and, of course, the themes of his movies. "The social-justice, anti-racist Welles is even more admirable and courageous than I realized," Cousins told Lodge.
The Eyes of Orson Welles made its world premiere as the opening night event of the Cannes Classics section of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It was to be one of three films celebrating Welles, along with the long-awaited reconstruction of Welles' unfinished The Other Side of the Wind and Morgan Neville's companion documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, until Netflix pulled them from the line-up. It shifted even more focus to Cousin's personal project, which won the Golden Eye award and was widely praised for its fresh look at the filmmaker. "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," praised Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter, while at The New York Times, Glenn Kenny proclaimed that "Cousins is smart, passionate and searching to the extent that he has more than earned the right to experiment. His sharing of his immediate experience of Welles is very likely to enrich your own."
"Mark Cousins - Director," Kaleem Aftab. Cineuropa, May 9, 2018.
Orson Welles at Work, Jean-Pierre Berthome and Francois Thomas. 2008, Phaidon.
"'The Eyes of Orson Welles' Review: An Idiosyncratic Look at an Enigmatic Master," Glenn Kenny. The New York Times, March 14, 2019.
"Orson Welles: actor director... painter?," Guy Lodge. The Guardian, August 4, 2018.
"'The Eyes of Orson Welles: Film Review, Cannes 2018," Todd McCarthy. The Hollywood Reporter, May 9, 2018.
Young Orson, Patrick McGilligan. 2015, Harper Collins.
"One Orson Welles Movie Made It to Cannes: Mark Cousins' Love Letter 'The Eyes of Orson Welles'," Anne Thompson. IndieWire, May 9, 2018.
Les Bravades, Orson Welles. 1996, Workman Publishing.
By Sean Axmaker