What with all the innumerable biographies, monographs, and documentaries over the years, you might think there isn’t much more to say about Orson Welles, who died more than 30 years ago. But just last year we had the premiere of his restored, benighted “The Other Side of the Wind” as well as the fascinating Morgan Neville documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” about its making.
Now we have “The Eyes of Orson Welles,” a digressive, idiosyncratic, and altogether fascinating documentary by Mark Cousins, an Irish filmmaker based in Scotland who is best known for his 15-hour “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” The focus of the new film, which is structured literally as a love letter spoken by Cousins to the director, is Welles’ little-known artwork: the sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings that he rendered throughout his life, beginning in childhood and continuing through his precocious teenage years knocking about Ireland and Morocco and then on to fame in New York and Hollywood, from which he ultimately self-exiled for lack of commercial support.
It seems almost comically unfair that, given his great gifts as director and actor, Welles should also, as it turns out, be a marvelous artist. Some of his caricatures are as deft as Daumier’s. This side of his talent is virtually unknown, but Cousins makes the point early on that, for Welles, who as a boy attended the Art Institute of Chicago, painting was always a mainstay. Welles is quoted as saying that, beginning at age 9, which was also the year his mother died, painting was “what I loved the most always.” (Magic and bullfighting were equal loves too.) As is always the case with Welles, these grand pronouncements should be taken with a grain – no, make that a ton – of salt.
But in a larger sense – and this is the crux of Cousins’ movie – Welles the filmmaker was first and foremost a visualist. (He also used sound more creatively than any other director, but that should be the subject for yet another documentary reassessment.) Still, Cousins goes in for a lot of wild speculation: He imagines, for example, that Welles’ penchant for shooting upward from very low angles was influenced by his years in Chicago, that city of sky-high edifices. I don’t know that it matters very much why Welles saw the world in the way that he did. What is more important is how he saw it.
Cousins had access to a treasure-trove of material from Welles’ youngest daughter, Beatrice, as well as material from archives at the University of Michigan. They include storyboard sketches Welles made for several of his films, including “Macbeth,” which he filmed hastily on the set of a “poverty row” Hollywood studio when no major studio would finance him, and “Chimes at Midnight,” his masterful Falstaff movie in which he also gave his finest performance. Welles described his cinematic vision of “Macbeth” as a “violent ... charcoal sketch of the play,” and in the clips that Cousins provides, that’s just how it looks. For “Chimes at Midnight,” we are shown the drawings he made for the Battle of Shrewsbury, which I consider the greatest expression in movie history of the dreadful wages of war. Seeing the sketchbook origins of this scene is like being privy to the first stirrings of a great symphony.
Cousins doesn’t unduly dwell on “Citizen Kane,” as if to emphasize, as he should, that there was far more to Welles than that movie. He perhaps overdoes the art/film references in “Mr. Arkadin,” one of Welles’ lesser achievements, but he draws all sorts of fascinating connections with such films as the Kafka adaptation “The Trial,” which, as a piece of visual art, he compares to a linocut, or “Touch of Evil,” which he calls a fresco. He describes how Welles assisted in painting the sets for “The Lady From Shanghai” and points out the constructivist look in several of its scenes, including its famous hall-of-mirrors shootout.
We hear how Welles and his “Citizen Kane” cinematographer Gregg Toland wished for a time when films could be made without bulky cameras, when one could make a movie with the same ease as drawing with a pen or pencil. Cousins wonders what Welles could have accomplished today when, more than ever, “you can draw with a camera....”
I hope that, just as there was a book last year of Stanley Kubrick’s great early work as a still photographer, some enterprising publisher will see fit to grace us with a thick tome of Welles’ entrancing artwork. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)