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The Outsize Imagination of Orson Welles

Mark Cousins’s documentary captures the ambition of the young director, who learned, among the skyscrapers of Chicago, to look up.

Courtesy of Janus Films

There’s something vaguely mournful, if not altogether sentimental, about Mark Cousins’s new documentary The Eyes of Orson Welles, a two-hour love letter to the legendary director. It starts with the plaintive notes of an organ playing the baroque Adagio in G Minor coupled with a spectacular aerial shot of Lower Manhattan. The camera glides contemplatively across the skyline from above, while Cousins delivers his slow, lilting voice-over commentary—first made famous in his sprawling documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), a 15-hour tour of motion pictures by an uncompromising cinephile. Here he speaks directly to Welles in the second person, explaining to him that something is missing from this landscape. That something is the Twin Towers. “All things come to an end, don’t they?” he asks. “People, buildings, cities. That was one of the big themes in your movies.”

Cousins first encountered Welles’s work as a young boy, watching Touch of Evil (1958) on television in his native Northern Ireland. “I didn’t understand it, but I swooned,” he confesses, some 40 years later. “You threw a rope to me, when I watched it, Orson.” To this day, whenever he’s anxious, Cousins hums the tune played on the pianola in that film (“a sultry lullaby of sorts”) to calm his nerves. Although upon first viewing Cousins didn’t quite recognize the racial and sexual politics of the film, not to mention the apocalyptic and oddly prophetic nature of its story, he loved the film’s “seedy atmosphere, its rooms and twisted choreography.” Welles’s work may ultimately be perceived as “jagged and fractured,” in Cousins’s estimation, but that doesn’t make it any less beguiling.

Divided into five parts, The Eyes of Orson Welles begins with a documentarian’s conceit of sorts: the discovery of a box of drawings and sketches by Welles, who began painting as a nine-year-old. His daughter Beatrice had kept the box in a storage unit. As Cousins goes through it, he looks at Welles’s life and career, refracted through his art—dozens of charcoal drawings, portraits he drew feverishly on an ocean liner to Ireland as a teenager (“Looking at Irish people was training you to look, to draw”), abstract sketches from a subsequent trip to Morocco. Cousins repeatedly returns to an arresting photograph, more candid than posed, of Welles in his twenties. It captures the director, wide-eyed and handsome, looking straight at the camera while leaning on one arm in repose, dressed fashionably all in black. He is full of curiosity and ambition. The image becomes a leitmotif for the film, filling out the frame with haunting frequency. This is not the later Welles, the portly fellow who famously made Paul Masson wine commercials and who by then was something of a former king forced to abdicate the throne, not quite a sell-out but also no longer a wunderkind. No, this is Orson Welles the artist, orator, and magician, whose outsize imagination and intellect proved irresistible.

While still in his teens, Welles was encouraged by his guardian, a physician named Maurice “Dada” Bernstein, to study drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he purportedly finished thousands of sketches in his drawing studio on Rush Street. Cousins shows how Welles’s experience in that city, amid the skyscrapers, taught him to look up. This perhaps offered an aesthetic model for his later film work: craning upward in Citizen Kane (1941) or shooting from an extreme low-tilt in Mr. Arkadin (1955) and The Trial (1962). Cousins also brings the camera inside the Art Institute to show affinities between the main gallery’s translucent ceilings, which allow light to seep in from above, and the ceilings designed for The Trial, shot in the abandoned Gare d’Orsay in Paris, as well as those in Kane. Similarly, the miniature rooms on display at the Institute bear a striking resemblance to the interior sets used on Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

Much of the film serves as an exercise in formal analysis, an occasion to trace lines to exemplary moments in the personal, aesthetic, and political life of the filmmaker. Cousins is particularly keen on returning to places of joy, of preindustrial purity and innocence. We are thus treated to an old postcard of the Sheffield Hotel in Grand Detour, Illinois, which Welles’s father had owned, and which later burned in a fire. Grand Detour was a place that Welles once held dear, perhaps even regarded as a “first love,” calling it “one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of.” Cousins is quick to compare it to the “snowy Eden” of young Charlie Kane, shouting with glee outside Mrs. Kane’s Boarding House, bundled up in his muffler and pulling his Rosebud sled behind him. Then, too, there’s the Christmas card scene in The Magnificent Ambersons, another moment of giddy, romantic frolicking in the snow. But “paradises don’t last,” insists Cousins, as he shows us the squalor that’s taken root on the same street corner where the RKO studio, home of that sound stage on which the winter wonderland was created, once stood.

In each of its five parts, The Eyes of Orson Welles conjures up key episodes, set pieces, and ur-scenes from a life on screen and off. For her influence on his political beliefs, there was no single more important figure to Welles than his mother Beatrice, who co-founded the Women’s Alliance in Chicago to help the city’s underprivileged, was an activist in the Unitarian Church and was the first woman in Welles’s hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin to be elected to public office. Cousins recognizes the imprint of Beatrice, who took her young son to see Nanook of the North (1922) but who died when Orson was just nine, the same year that he began to paint. Later in the documentary, which he admits could really be about Beatrice, Cousins spots a photo portrait tucked away in one of the domestic scenes of Kane, that bears an uncanny resemblance to Beatrice.

Welles’s own activism first took root on the stage, in collaboration with radical artists like Marc Blitzstein on The Cradle Will Rock and in his all-black adaptation of Macbeth in Harlem, as well as in his radio work. Cousins includes an especially poignant sequence from It’s All True, an unfinished film that Welles shot in Brazil in the early 1940s. We see a string of close-ups, almost in the style of the early Soviet masters, of simple folk, old and young, photographed straight on and in profile, solo and in groups, with a level camera and in a low tilt; in the background we hear the disembodied voice of Welles delivering his 1942 “Hello Americans” address on CBS radio. The radio address, no less timely today than it was in wartime America, is a paean to common humanity (“it’s out of those differences that culture grows,” Welles contends). At one point, a small girl is shown crying and an arm from off screen reaches over and consoles her. Cousins wonders whether it might be the arm of the director.

Welles’s views were not terribly fashionable in his day. After giving political speeches on the value of progressive education and social justice during the early McCarthy years, he received bundles of hate mail (Cousins reads excerpts from the letters) and landed a spot on the Security Index kept by J. Edgar Hoover. When an African-American Army veteran named Isaac Woodard, a man who had earned distinction for his service in World War II, was beaten by a police officer and left blind in the process, Welles sketched a portrait of him as his own personal memorial. In a radio speech, he suggested that the nameless and faceless police officer, who inflicted his violence with impunity, had brought “the justice of Dachau and Auschwitz” to America. A few years later, when asked why he changed the ending of Kafka’s source novel, in which the protagonist Josef K. dies like a dog, for his more anarchic cinematic adaptation of The Trial, Welles said he couldn’t bear it after Auschwitz. “I am not Jewish,” he added, “but we are all Jewish since the Holocaust.”

Welles was certainly not without his faults. Cousins spends ample time on his three wives and many lovers, and although Welles may have had a self-described penchant for chivalry and honor, as he told an interviewer in the 1960s, he also had a tendency to stray and to follow his unbridled passions wherever they might lead him. A revealing telegram he once sent to a hurt lover read, simply: “PLEASE FORGIVE ME.--Orson.” Occasionally, Welles comes off, almost like his character Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948), as “a smirker in the limelight.” Cousins includes a clip from the film, in which Lime cynically rattles off the outstanding artistic achievements made in Renaissance Italy under the corrupt and bloody rule of the Borgia family, in harsh contrast to the five hundred years of peace and democracy in Switzerland, which produced nothing more than the cuckoo clock.

But Cousins also gets to smirk a bit when, in the final act of his film, he includes a lengthy segment in which he has an actor (Jack Klaff) do a voice-over impersonation of Welles, responding to Cousins’s letter. He goes over the various artworks himself, commenting as Cousins imagines Welles might about certain shots in his films. “How is Ireland these days?” the fictionalized letter ends, with a wink and a nudge. “Yours, Orson.”

Quite a few viewers, myself included, may be inclined to dismiss this section of The Eyes of Orson Welles as a flight of fancy that could have ended up just as well on the editing room floor or in the trash bin of a laptop or desktop computer. Thankfully, however, it doesn’t undo the strength of Cousins’s approach or his noble, sincere attempt to look at Welles anew. “You thought with lines and shapes,” he explains, describing the “lightbulb moment” he had while completing the project, “Your films are sketchbooks.”

Cousins’s film, which premiered this past year at Cannes and opened in New York last Friday, invites the viewer to wonder what Welles might do today if were he still alive. Cousins observes that the world has only become more Wellesian—by which he means more visual, more open to the kinds of radical innovation pioneered in Welles’s movies and in the meantime amped up by the advent of the internet—but somehow no less vulnerable to the kinds of despots that populated his pictures, quite a few them played by Welles himself. We could all stand to gain from Welles’s unsparing eye that he cast time and again at the specters of totalitarianism, venal money worship, and moral turpitude. In a recent interview with Variety, Cousins was asked what Welles might do with a digital camera like the one he used for his documentary. “I think he would make a film called Citizen Trump.”