The Eyes of Orson welles
- Review by Patrick Byrne
Mark Cousins begins his new documentary with a long and delicate monologue, welcoming Orson Welles to the modern age, and warning him of all the new and unnerving developments on and off the cinema screen. Between musings on the continuing relevance of Welles’ cinema, and the artist’s early life, Cousins is granted access to a cardboard box, heavily sealed and locked up behind thick metal shutters. When deftly and reverently opened, it is seen to contain fat stacks of drawings and paintings by Welles himself, and which Cousins believes hold the key to understanding the visual development of Welles’ best loved films.
The film then proceeds at a leisurely pace, with Cousins providing an extended soliloquy on Welles’ artwork, freely associating between it and his films.
The dulcet voice-over is near constant, and in the film’s opening stages I could not help but feel a flicker of frustration; was this Cousins’ movie or Welles’? Isn’t there something a little off-putting about a filmmakers’ near emoting over Welles’ genius, it’s breath scope and hitherto unexplored visual pupation, while at the same time implying himself as the one to understand it, so detailed and long is his commentary?
The consistencies then began to build up. A hastily drawn figure reappears in one film, another contains a set of early drawings of which can be found in Welles’ colossal pile. The same design for a glaring spotlight is tracked from drawing to drawing, before finally appearing on screen. Through the combined care of his soft-spoken monologue and a well-mannered visual scrapbook of photos, video diary and sumptuous location coverage, Cousins takes the viewer on an engrossing and worthwhile tour of the mind of a genius, even if it is as much an opportunity for him to pour his heart out as to explore Welles’ doing so.
The passion for Welles’ work is so evident that it is all the more impressive how well disciplined Cousins’ documentary is. His immense store of fact and opinion is very well marshalled into six distinct sections, each an exploration of a different facet of Welles’ character, both on the sketchpad and the screen. We can admire this not only as an example of Cousins’ filmmaking talent but as a further testament to his lifelong engagement with and love of the great man.
While I will sign off by encouraging the reader to see this film, one key caveat must be made. In the end it is as much Cousins’ film as it is Welles’. It is a ‘letter’ to the great man in every sense of the word, driven just as much by the spoken word as by its visual agility.