“A gem of cineast cinema.”
If you have ever wondered whether Orson Welles’ larger-than-life persona could get any more layered with creativity, Mark Cousins has delivered the answer: more than most would imagine. With The Eyes of Orson Welles, Cousins has produced a gem of cineast cinema: a story of a filmmaker, told masterfully through the medium Welles dominated so masterfully himself, which illuminates forgotten tales of history with striking relevance and a remarkable amount of fun. It’s great.
The documentary builds its approach from a literal treasure trove of artworks big and small, all hand-made by Welles himself, who produced over 1,000 drawings, paintings, sketches, and the like — many of which directly influenced his designs for films and documentaries of his own. It is structured in numerous parts, with the overarching hook that they are meant as a letter directly to Welles, delivered by Cousins in a second-person voiceover. The narration produces a fascinating narrative; the drawings function as pictorial evidence of Welles’ immense creativity and eye for visual complexity, while the shots by Cousins and his team breathe life into the diverse settings and characters within the brushstrokes. From Ireland to Morocco, from New York City to his western later-life abode, Cousins follows Welles’ travels and matches them flawlessly with the art he created in those spaces, partially with the help of his third daughter, Beatrice Welles, who offers priceless information and first-hand takes on how his personality influenced his artwork, and vice versa.
The chapter-based structure works excellently, as Welles was such a complicated figure, both as a creative and simply as a man, that every side of him could warrant its own documentary. Most captivating is the chapter that Cousins wisely positions first in the progression, regarding Welles’ unfailing pursuit of social justice. There are some truly moving examples of his feelings towards the powerful, the powerless, and the power-hungry, especially along racial lines. For the detailed and remarkable story of Welles’ ‘Officer X’ broadcasts alone, this film ought to be seen the world over, especially anyone debating the relationship between art and social justice. When done well, this film suggests, one complements the other. Later chapters on his romantic entanglements and approach to film as art are just as immaculately well-measured, yet perhaps strain the runtime a tad. That is, until a delightfully surreal turn late in the film, which offers yet another reason why Cousins has made a fabulous choice of subject, and approach.
Intriguingly, Cousins’ film offers a pleasant, optimistic take on the relationship between past and present, history and future, of talent then and of talent now. Welles’ astonishing creativity, and perhaps even genius, are not presented nostalgically, as if we will never see another like him and we should all give up now (a conclusion to which numerous reverent biographies unfortunately default), but rather as a beacon of inspiration for all who share his outlook on justice and the power of art as a healer and an educator. We should not give up, it seems to say, but rather take a cue from creators as wonderful as this.
Helped along by a buoyant score by Matt Regan and splendid animation by Danny Carr, The Eyes of Orson Welles is a stupendously well-conceived and well-made presentation, and worthy of its multifaceted subject’s legacy.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 June)
See The Eyes of Orson Welles at the EIFF