Director: Mark Cousins
Words – Christian Abbott
Orson Welles was and is one of the most beloved and well known of Hollywood’s pantheon.
He was an actor, director, radio personality and as Mark Cousins explores here, a painter. Many would question what more could be said about Welles, there are countless books, films, television shows written about him, yet, Cousins offers a new perspective, a much more intimate one. The legend of Welles is so engrained in Hollywood that one can easily forget he was just a man as flawed and as fascinating as the rest of us.
Welles was a product of the 20th-century through and through, he also helped to define it. Cousins is looking back at his life in our new century in a way most don’t realise you can – through Welles’ own eyes. With access to many never before seen paintings and drawings by Welles, they offer a new look into his life, past the showmanship and mystique, into a darker, more personal world.
Cousins decided to frame the film as a letter to Welles, telling him of our strange new self-parody world of Trump and the internet. The narration by Cousins himself is like a cathartic series of musings, a giggle at what Welles would think of America now and the frustration that we will never know.
Broken down into a series of major themes in Welles’ work, the film is as funny as it is poetic. There were a number of crucial themes to his life that seemed to haunt Welles in his drawings. The cinema of Welles was one of grandeur and larger than life characters, his paintings were dark reflections on both himself and how he saw the world.
Yet there was also great joy in what he painted, he loved to travel and fell in love with places like Ireland and Morocco – the escapism for him as his films are to us. Cousins has framed him as a man of strong will and deep love, he poured himself into every aspect of his life.
Much like the life of Welles himself, this is a film that seeks understanding through art and self-refection along with it. For lovers of Welles, this is essential viewing and for those unfamiliar, it is a brilliant introduction.
We spoke to the film’s director Mark Cousins about The Eyes of Orson Welles at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018:
Q: Your career deals with topics of international and independent cinema, what inspired you to talk about one of Hollywood’s biggest icons?
Mark: Yeah usually I don’t do this sort of thing; I deal with Iranian cinema and African cinema because I thought so many people do Hollywood.
Orson Welles has been done so much, there have been so many books and films – and then I saw the drawings. Immediately I felt as though I was seeing a different side of him, getting inside his imagination.
It took me a while to realise what I was actually seeing was his visual thinking, but I knew this was something new. It felt like getting to read someone’s private letters, that sort of intimacy. As soon as you look at the work there were constant themes of alcoholism and despair. There was a fascination with cities in the drawings which wasn’t in the films so much. It was like being in touch with the unconscious mind so to speak.
Q: Did you want to make a film about Welles before or after you discovered these paintings?
Mark: I was not searching to do a film on Orson, I didn’t even have time to do one, I had to squeeze space. Sometimes something just comes at you quite hard – like the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, said: “Inspiration is like a ball kicked in from nowhere.” This film was a ball kicked in from nowhere. I just knew I had to do it.
Q: You framed the film like a letter to Welles himself, what was your thinking behind that?
Mark: I’m pretty resistant to the official version of history, one usually told by white guys like you and me. There is a claimed objectivity about that – he did this, she did that. I prefer stories that are told more subjectively than that because there’s room for doubt, comedy, irony, etc. So I knew that I didn’t want a voice of god version of Welles’ art.
My private thought about the film was I’m making a letter to a dead dad. Orson Welles is of course the father to Beatrice Welles who is in the film but in a more general sense, those of us who love cinema, he is a kind of father figure, so epic and flawed. When my own Father died, I gave the first words at the eulogy and they were “dear Dad” and the first words in the film are “dear Orson Welles”. I thought that would help me get an angle and an intimacy but I thought it could also make it universal – if there are emotions in this it makes it even broader than movie lovers, maybe others will find something in this.
Q: What was the idea behind the moment Welles replies to the letter?
Mark: I wanted to talk about the joker mentality, the satirical aspect to Orson Welles. I then realised I didn’t want my own voice in it the whole time and thought he could be a voice also.
I knew it shouldn’t be him talking about his politics, I thought, why doesn’t he say you’ve missed one of the best bits – the irony, the comedy, the fun, why doesn’t he criticise me? Then I thought how do you write Welles, he talks in a sort of complicated way so I tried to put that in there. He quotes Shakespeare and says things like “to which my line ran”. I would never talk like that so it was quite fun to do.
Q: Orson Welles in many ways has inspired all of modern cinema, how do you think he has inspired your work?
Mark: His shooting style is the opposite of mine, his camera is sweeping and epic, mine is held back and still so in a superficial way we are different. All this other romanticism and idealism are in my work. There is a bigger than life-ness in his work. I often irritate people by bouncing around and being energetic which is very Orson Welles. That euphoria of his work – I see it in mine too.