In the most personal, complete and beautifully intimate documentary about the filmmaker made to date, Mark Cousin’s new film presents Orson Welles in a fresh context, stripping away the well-trodden anecdotal history of one of cinema’s greatest pioneers, and giving a sense of the man behind the mythology.
Welles has no shortage of biographers. His shadow looms over the history of cinema like a giant colossus, and books, documentaries and creative interpretations of his life and work have been released at a fairly routine pace since his death in 1985. But The Story of Film director Mark Cousins found a fresh angle that mined past both the propaganda and Welles’ own penchant for mistruths, as the film is structured around an enormous wealth of the director’s own personal sketches. “The angle came to me, to be honest,” said Cousins, “I knew there were a few, but had no idea that sketching had been such a thing for him, a release, as it were, from the pressures of the film industry, and from fame. From the start I knew that I didn't want to make something purely biographical. Nor did I want to engage with the myths about Welles - that he started from the top and worked his way down, that he was afraid of finishing films. I didn't believe those things. Instead, I wanted to focus on the drawings and see what they revealed. What I saw in them was some archetypes or themes - everyday people, romanticism, power and humour.”
To each new generation, he might at first seem like part of the establishment, but then his unpredictability, radicalism and disruptive power emerges
The involvement of Welles’ daughter Beatrice, who administers her late father’s estate, was integral in getting the film made, “I met Beatrice, and she told be about the stash of drawings and paintings,” Cousins said, “I spent a lot of time with her, hearing her stories about her father, getting a sense of the man rather than the legend. Plus I wanted her to feel that she saw her father in the finished film. I held my breath when she watched it, but she said that it was one of the best things she's seen about him!”
While the film features Cousins’ signature playfully heartfelt narration, it does represent something of a departure from form, “I don't usually focus on the great men in the American film canon, but Welles was such a rebel - that appealed to me. And the drawings are a kind of memoir by other means - which was irresistible.” Split into chapters, Cousins crafts the film as a letter written by him to Welles in the modern day, with the drawings making up part of a kaleidoscopic collage of Welles’ life, love and creative output, providing a fresh perspective on the director, “I think that there are a lot of clichés about Welles, and anecdotes that are repeated. This makes his life or reputation feel stale, or rather fixed. Welles' work isn't fixed. For example, in the era of Donald Trump, it looks different to how it was previously seen. A man and a body of work with such contradictions - modernist and romantic, for example - will never be fully pinned down.” The Eyes of Orson Welles is clearly an intensely personal project for Cousins, who has the great director’s signature tattooed on his forearm. But one of the film’s greatest strengths comes in never straying into hagiographical, gushing territory.
“Yes, I have his name on my arm and seeing Touch of Evil on TV as a child entranced me. I felt that I'd taken drugs. It, more than any other film, made me fall in love with movies. I love F for Fake. In my own work I've often tried to be playful or add a twist in the form of the film towards the end.”
Richard Linklater once called Welles “the patron saint of independent filmmakers” and in a time when filmmaking is more accessible than ever before it’s interesting to think of Welles, a man of such complex contradictions, making films in 2018 “Welles certainly would have made more movies in the era of miniatured equipment, but I'm glad that he started in the studio system because he, as much as anyone, showed what that system is really capable of. Erich Von Stroheim did the same,” the director said, “he was intersectional before that was even a word. His leftism overlapped with his passion for things outside the WASP world, and yet he had an aristocratic sense of European culture.”
The Eyes of Orson Welles is also comprehensive in its examination of Welles’ lesser seen films, like Mr. Arkadin or his adaptation of Macbeth, and if one thing is certain to Cousins, it’s that Welles’ body of work is as important as ever, “At times when rebelliousness and discrepant imaginations matter - which is most of the time - Welles will be relevant. To each new generation, he might at first seem like part of the establishment, but then his unpredictability, radicalism and disruptive power emerges.”