A charming, very personal filmic conversation, The Eyes of Orson Welles is Mark Cousins’ documentary/love letter to the Art of The Great Bearded One.
Any photograph of Welles, especially the one of Orson lying on a bed facing camera which Cousins returns to most frequently in the film, draws you into looking at those eyes. And what wonders those eyes saw: vast halls, translucent ceilings, faces both grotesque and beautiful. And from so many angles too.
By looking at a treasure trove of drawings and sketches done at various points in Welles’ life, we are directed to look again at the films themselves – a vast art gallery he saw as a teenager informs the soulless emptiness of Xanadu in Citizen Kane; the verticals of his theatre sketches for a production of Julius Caesar become the terrifying Rooms of the Law in Welles’ 1962 film of Kafka’s The Trial.
Cousins’ lyrical Irish voice talks to Orson in second person, musing on how the world has changed since the Great Man’s times and on how he might view it now, through a lens or through those eyes. Cousins hones in on Welles’ role as an orator for the disenfranchised, the Unequal, the Persecuted and sees him as a Man of Our Time, one who we need now to give us a perspective on the world, like the angles and designs we see in his films.
Cousins reminds us too how Welles has become a focal point for other film makers: Me and Orson Welles is a fictionalised account of the Fascist-styled stage version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, while The Cradle Will Rock re-tells the story of how Welles overcame bureaucracy to stage Marc Blitzstein’s left-wing musical play. In Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the eponymous director of awful films, on the brink of despair, is inspired by an encounter with Welles in a bar. Welles has become a work of art himself.
And had he not been a true Renaissance man, loving theatre, sketching, oratory too, then the World may have gained another great 20th Century artist. His initial training was in Art and he continued throughout his life to ‘take the pen for a walk’, showing us landscapes and characters. Sometimes, as when he became angry at having the edit of Touch of Evil taken from him, he would pour his anger onto a canvas, the one Welles’ daughter Beatrice shows us.
Welles’ love of Shakespeare is evident, Cousins offering for our consideration the idea that those who enjoy the literary conceits of Olivier’s films of the Bard’s work are less enamoured of the rough and violent strokes of Welles’ treatments, stage and film. Like Othello in the play, Welles ‘loved not wisely but too well’ at times, falling in and out of passionate relationships. Many of the women he adored – Hayworth, Del Rio, Kodar, Mori – appear in sketches and films, both worshipped and observed dispassionately.
Cousins’ film is affectionate, whimsical at times, but never less than constant in its wonder of how Welles was able to scratch with the pen, then bring those images to life on stage and film, sometimes many years later. Enough has been said about the man’s flaws and the flaws in his work – the poor sound on most of his films from Macbeth onward, for example – and we forgive him because he was giving us what he saw with those eyes.
The Eyes of Orson Welles is out on DVD on 17th September 2018 courtesy of Dogwoof, available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers