As biographer and subject, Mark Cousins and Orson Welles are well suited – the intelligent, impishly personable cinephile casting his eye over one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium, and its ultimate showman.
Unsurprisingly, The Eyes of Orson Welles not a conventional path through the familiar biography: the boy wonder who conquered radio, then theatre, then Hollywood, whose Citizen Kane rewrote the book on cinema’s potential, before his career was curtailed by a jealous industry.
All this is implied, but in the margins of a film essay that looks at Welles’s life and work through the prism of an unrecognised aspect of his creativity – his drawings and paintings. The result is as rich and rewarding as it is determinedly original.
Welles started painting when he was nine, studied art in Chicago, fine-tuned his skills during his teenage travels and, as Cousins observes, drew “compulsively” throughout his life – portraits, sketches, costume and set design, storyboards, even innumerable Christmas cards.
Given access to a vast amount of visual material by Welles’ daughter Beatrice, Cousins illustrates the thesis that the director’s theatre and cinema were fundamentally influenced by two things: the way he captured the world through pen and pencil, and by a progressive politics he adopted from his mother. His coming of age as an artist coincided with the rise of fascism. And his fascination with power and its abuse is everywhere – from his Julius Caesar on stage, to Kane, Macbeth, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight.
By addressing his voice-over directly to Welles, Cousins at times comes across as fawning and self-satisfied. The compensation is his insight, which draws connections between Welles’s graphic sensibility, his film space and depictions of power. Welles, seemingly so egotistical, was striving for contact with the world through an art that’s ”jagged and fractured” and which, in the age of Trump, is as relevant as ever.
This review first appeared in The List