If you’re reading this you have probably heard of Orson Welles. In the pantheon of film, he’s one of the most respected directors of all time who had a life as fascinating as the ones he put on screen, but I bet you didn’t know he was also a painter. The man who gave birth to Citizen Kane, The Trial, and Touch of Evil was not only an artist in the realm of cinema, but also a proficient doodler and creative on oil and canvas.
The works he created were largely stored away or kept in person collections, until Mark Cousins tracked them down and compiled a sample into the two hour documentary called The Eyes of Orson Welles. Premiering at Cannes last year and only now getting a release at North West Film Forum, this documentary unearths a trove of art work by the late virtuoso in an effort to better understand the personal and creative genius that was Orson Welles. The result is an interesting gallery of images that underpins his filmography, but which is diminished by the speculative nature of the film and the lengthy personal address.
What breathes so much life into this documentary are the unearthed paintings. The selection spans his entire life, and as such, has a great deal of artistic variety to them to reflect different periods in his life. One image may be a sporadic doodle while the next might be a paint-drip Christmas card. Or one an expressionist painting rife with color and the next one a pre-production sketch. The expansive collection that Cousin’s uncovers is remarkable, and even in death, Welles proves his creative abilities as second to none.
The artistry is impressive on its own, but how Cousin’s relates it to his filmography and life is where the collection is elevated in significance. The work is presented as a reflection of Orson Welles’ eyes — that if we can see what he saw in his art work, we can gain some insight into his creative mind as well. To do this, Cousin’s curates the artwork in a speculative address; he narrates the film in the form of a letter to the late director, pondering what he was in life and what he would think about his art, his films, and society today. That being said, it certainly feels presumptuous.
As you may know, Orson Welles is dead, so this second-person address has to pose lines of thinking that may or may not be true. It’s not a documentary in the traditional sense; the information outlined isn’t based on cold hard facts or testimonies, but rather what Cousins thinks these images represent and how they may tie to Welles’ character. It’s very argumentative in its attempts to position abstract art as inspiration for Orson Welles’ creative choices, and while some are reasonable connections, others can be stretches.
And all this speculation makes for a lengthy essay on Welles’ paintings. At two hours, the film is staying its welcome for about thirty minutes too long. Like I said above, there is a variety of work to choose from, and as a result, there are a lot of paths to explore. Whether or not all those patches need to be given their dues is debatable with each viewer, but I think a narrower approach would benefit the overall flow of the film.
The Eyes of Orson Welles has the material for an interesting take on the late-great master of cinema, but the structure doesn’t hold up the lofty ideas it wants to pitch. A monotonous narration that speculates more than it informs upends some truly interesting pieces of art from a very important figure in cinema. The art is invaluable especially for fans of Orson Welles, but unfortunately the package doesn’t do them service. Here’s hoping they are archived and made available through other channels.