'The Eyes of Orson Welles'
Orson Welles, the subject of Mark Cousins'
By David Fear,
March 16, 2019
The Eyes of Orson Welles uses
a brilliant filmmaker's non-cinematic work to investigate his aesthetic from a
refreshing -- and thoroughly entertaining -- perspective.
What you do get out of this,
however, is an extraordinary, singular, complex take on a man whose work still
inspires rhapsodies and close readings. The last words you hear are Cousins
saying, “Thank you.” It’s an appropriate ending. Gratitude is exactly the
sentiment you feel as well.
Welles…” — that’s the first thing you hear in Mark Cousins’ essay-cum-tribute to the man who gave us Citizen
Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch
of Evil, some of the most baroque screen adaptations of the Bard
ever made and the template for the modern maligned-maestro
Cousins frames his look back
as an open letter to the larger-than-life figure, though it becomes quickly
apparent that it’s really a mash note. Such adoration can often be blinding, but
not this time. If you can say nothing else about this
free-form valentine, it’s genuinely eye-opening.
exactly an easy task — going back to the Welles
for fresh water — when you’re talking about an artist’s life story and a
filmography so thoroughly perused and pored over. And it’s why Cousins is really the perfect person to venture
once more unto the breach regarding the baritone-voiced visionary.
Irish critic, documentarian, raconteur and harder-than-hardcore cinephile,
Cousins produced a number of
movie-mad portraits of directors, regional new waves, recurring screen subjects
and other bits of celluloid-centric flotsam. Personal is his
default factory setting; his best-known work, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, is a 15-episode miniseries that elevates previously obscure or
overlooked corners of cinema to the top of the canon per his own
preference. (Be the film history you want to see in the world.)
He’s also mastered the art of the
tangent, which was something Welles
excelled at as well, and has a gift for making travelogues feel more like
cultural tours than tourist slideshows. It’s a surprisingly simpatico mix
between the guy working the camera and genius subject at the center of it
So while there is the requisite story of Welles’
early interest in magic, his twentysomething-years creative rethinking of
theatrical works, Kane, the curse of botched or stillborn
projects, the excuses and excesses of the later years et al., Cousins also
underlines the connection between Orson’s work and the geography of the places
he loved (Ireland, Morocco, Spain, NYC, Chicago, Paris).
a major focus on Welles’
sketches and drawings, which the doc uses as a sort of constructed
Rosetta Stonehenge for how the man saw the movies and the
world. It circles back to visual motifs and unpacks them with insight, focusing
on compositions and his love of oddball angles; it isn’t until the doc presents
the Chimes at Midnight scene of Welles’ Falstaff
being rebuked by Prince Hal, the moment isolated from the rest of the narrative,
that you realize it can be interpreted as the older self-loathing version of the
filmmaker in conversation with his bright-young-thing self. (For this viewer, at
And Cousins keeps coming back to a single close-up of
a muttonchopped Welles
lying on a bed, hand on his cheek and mouth agape, as a grounding element. The
artist is neither the boy wonder nor the fat elder you usually associate him to
be. It’s Orson captured in a split-second of permanently
All of which may sound like catnip to folks who would
happily pore over seven hours of Criterion Collection supplements or the last
word in eyeroll-inducing pretension.
Eyes of Orson Welles may not be your jam if
you have an allergy to flowery voiceovers (even ones delivered in lovely,
gravelly Gallic lilts) or highly subjective docs; abandon all hope, ye who crave
just-the-facts-ma’am portraits of your artists. That’s not a
judgment call so much as a buyer-beware warning — it’s not what
best, or really, at all.
What you do get out
of this, however, is an extraordinary, singular, complex take on a man whose
work still inspires rhapsodies and close readings. The last words you hear are
Cousins saying, “Thank you.” It’s an appropriate ending. Gratitude is exactly
the sentiment you feel as well.