Orson Welles made films about giants grappling with fantasies. He was an artist lost to time, who believed in the myth of honor and the power of chivalry but was perhaps too romantic to see how a knight-errant who views a windmill as the call to adventure may have already lost their expressed battle for ideology. Welles claimed to value citizens more than cinema. His relatively short-lived Hollywood career backs up this statement; though perhaps, in truth, his two loves were but inevitably irreconcilable tyrants.
The classic Hollywood director is described several times in Mark Cousins’ documentary, “The Eyes of Orson Welles” as omnivorous; a man who adored excessively, obsessed by tortured grandeur, the regal and the grotesque, with princes and kings and other royal titles of old. Orson grew used to feeling ownership over both a blank page and the dressing room. He was perhaps always destined to isolate himself out of the industry’s Garden of Eden.
Cousins’ new doc will undoubtedly be essential viewing for a sea of cinephiles, but it might not easily capture the attention of audiences less familiar with Welles’ legacy. Narrated in the first person by the documentarian/film critic, ‘Eyes’ presents itself as a beyond the grave correspondence with a cinematic voice who left this world with far too many unfinished projects sitting in a dusty drawer. Desiring to understand how his idol lived and loved, Cousins seeks out the expressive works left behind by the colossal ghost of a director – drawings, paintings, and more – while writing a letter, conversing with Welles’ in his imagination.
The film traces sketches of a movie magician’s unconscious, intercutting international footage of contemporary cities and landscapes with Welles’ art, film footage, interviews, etc., aiming to discover what shaped the origins of such passion. Much is chiaroscuro inspired, heavily concerned with shape and shadow. Racial caricature profiles reveal expression’s importance placed above honest depiction.
Despite the blessing of a visual treat that is seeing all this amazing work showcased, the documentary is often its own worst enemy. Viewer’s already familiar with Cousin’s extremely well done, epochal series, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” – an abridged attempt to summarize the history of world cinema in 15 hours – may find the editing extremely limiting. Some criticism regarding his previous effort surrounded it pairing everyday film school wisdom with personal asides and his latest only magnifies that issue.
‘Eyes’ employs the exact same strategy ‘The Story of Film’ utilized, juxtaposing various, modern day, global urban backdrops against archaic exposition. The tactic can’t help but grow tedious; it seems especially strange that such an insightful scholar couldn’t come up with a fresher approach this time around. The mundane method gets tired quick, as does Cousin’s insistence on returning to the same photograph of Orson, time and time again, to accentuate a point about his gargantuan personality (there have to be thousands of other options).
Lazy isn’t quite the right word for the results here, but it sometimes seems like the style is just an excuse to showcase certain compositions (Cousins’ also acted as cinematographer on the documentary). One mesmerizing sequence – reflecting upon thick, colorful brush details of a Don Quixote painting (Welles also left a patched together unfinished cut of his adaptation) finds Cousins describing the story as both the dream within its canvas as well as a tangible creation outside the frame – stands out as highlighted example of how the other montages seem indifferent to paving new paths of discovery.
Towards its end, the doc returns to a question it raised early on: what would Orson have done with the Internet? Welles may have dreamt of a time when the camera would be nothing more than an electric eye, but would he have thrived with all the new possibilities of our everchanging world, or simply been buried by them? Cousins spends part of the culminating stretch twirling equipment around, pondering aloud what Welles could have done with such advanced tech; it’s a valid sentiment, but also a tacked-on hypothetical that comes off as nothing more than a tangent. Much like Welles’ own creativity, ironically, whenever too personal a touch is added, each stroke only seems to pile on extra weight.
Despite Welles’ politically charged perspective, his films were rarely injected with a sense of realism. The mist from “Macbeth” is mirrored in the form of a self-suffocating moat around Charles Foster Kane’s castle. His films recall countless tales, from Shakespeare to Cervantes. They are movies full to the brim with echo imagery; pagans and pillars can easily be painted as fascist searchlights chasing down a frightened citizen. Maybe Welles never was destined to be a storyteller, maybe he was simply a painter of shadows who cared more about people than places, of capturing the expression of ideology in the form of personal reality. Can one decipher a life based on the shapes of light they’ve left behind? Sadly, “The Eyes of Orson Welles” isn’t the best answer. [C+]