A Peek Through ‘The Eyes of Orson Welles’

The Eyes of Orson Welles is a documentary that premiered in May of 2018 at the Cannes Film Festival. The date for its US theatrical release was March 15 of this year. Northern Irish director, writer, and film critic Mark Cousins directed it and narrated. Cousins is perhaps most known for his 2011 TV mini-series documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a comprehensive take on the history of film and filmmaking, made up of fifteen one-hour episodes.

At a Q&A session promoted by the Irish Film Institute, when discussing how the idea of making The Eyes of Orson Welles came about, Cousins recounted meeting Beatrice Welles (Orson Welles’ daughter) at Michael Moore’s film festival. Over martinis, she confessed having seen some of his work, and after letting him know about the existence of numerous private paintings and sketches by her father, she asked Cousins if he would be interested in making a film about them.

Cousins accepted the challenge, and conceived a documentary centered on what traces of Welles’s spirit can be found in his artwork, exploring the correlation between his casual, everyday graphic art and the psychological forces that drove him, as a man and as a filmmaker. Given exclusive access to the artwork (courtesy, of course, of Beatrice Welles), Cousins went digging for new ways to better understand the fascinating, complex, and multidimensional Orson, spotlighting the genius, the lover, the political animal, the artist, and the human being.

In the tone of a personal letter, as you would in a eulogy, Cousins addresses Welles directly throughout the documentary, never in the third person. Cousins’ approach is not impartial; he does not hide his admiration. At the outset, in a poetic declaration of principles, he asks rhetorically: “Can we look at you anew, Orson? Can we tell your story anew? Can we? I went to this secure storage unit in New York… and found this box. What’s in the box? An aspect of you, Orson. (…) What’s in the box, Orson? Visual thinking.”

Welles didn’t leave behind an autobiography but left behind a wealth of, you could say, intimate artwork, assorted drawings and paintings, something that he started doing early in life, at the age of nine, and continued doing prolifically throughout his life. This work, which he wasn’t particularly known for, served several purposes.

One of those purposes is more or less obvious: Cousins deftly makes the practical correlation between the imagery contained in some of Welles’ drawings and sketches, and their subsequent materialization on the big screen, whether it be in sets, costumes or overall visual composition. This documentary makes it clear that Welles’ mental point of origin, as a director, was visual.

Another purpose for his artwork was that of a continuous inner commentary that Welles, the human being, juxtaposed to life as he went through it. You could call it an outward introspective exercise. And that is at the root of why this documentary makes so much sense: that, because the material is so abundant, we get the chance to, however faultily, look at things through Welles’ eyes, revisit him in a way that doesn’t repeat all the common place biographical facts, and hopefully learn something new, perhaps intimate, by way of insight into his psyche.

Welles studied drawing at The Art Institute of Chicago, in his early teens, and remained a compulsive drawer throughout his life. But he also traveled a lot, and he started traveling early in life. So Cousins’ examination of Welles’s artworks is at times chronological, at times psychological or emotional, but also inevitably cultural and geographical. And The Eyes of Orson Welles does a fine job of visually accompanying Welles’ artwork with footage of places and people he depicted in his sketches, some of it purposely shot on location for the documentary.

Cousins shows us Welles’ stops around the globe and the visual worlds within: the city of Chicago and the art inside its Art Institute, Ireland (Welles was an impressionable sixteen year-old when he travelled there by himself, and felt the shock of experiencing ancient Celtic culture), Spain and Morocco (visited in 1933, Catholic and Arabic cultures contrasting against Welles’ own Waspy background), New York City (where, in Harlem in 1936, Welles helped mount an African-American theatre production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), and other destinations like Paris, France.

All these places, their landscapes and their peoples’ facial features, were absorbed by Welles and registered in his sketches. But Welles’ sketches are also echoes of emotional states, political and philosophical stances, artistic choices, and correspondence with the women he loved. The fascinating and well-researched journey Cousins takes us on is one of unusual depth. You will easily surrender to his guidance, his free association, and his comprehensive knowledge of art, history and film.

Cousins in the second person again: “You took a line for a walk. Portraits, sketches and letters, costume designs, stage layouts, backdrop plans, Christmas cards, pictures of your loves, and travels. You drew compulsively. (…) Do your sketches show us your unconscious?”

They almost certainly do, but even though the way Cousins’ guides us through the material is useful and very educational, he can at times be overreaching by hinting at psychological conclusions that make you wonder whether he’s romantically projecting onto Welles traits that don’t belong to him. These presumptions, combined with Cousins out-in-the-open reverence for Welles, make it difficult to discern the thorough researcher and the knowledgeable director from the swooned admirer.

But Cousins is a legitimate cinephile, he truly knows his field, and furthermore, like Orson Welles, he began by studying art, not film, so he is uniquely qualified to spearhead the ambitious task of decoding Welles’ graphic art. You’ll just have to forgive him that he does it so eagerly and so uninhibitedly, and reconcile your gratitude for the precious endeavor of his documentary with your nagging suspicion that he may be, here and there, a tad off on his interpretations and extrapolations.

Nonetheless, The Eyes of Orson Welles is a beautiful documentary. It is a novel and remarkable resource to anyone interested in knowing Orson Welles better or anew, by following the traces of his visual thinking.

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