“Dear Orson Welles…” — that’s the first thing you hear in Mark Cousins’ essay-cum-tribute to the man who gave us Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, some of the most baroque screen adaptations of the Bard ever made and the template for the modern maligned-maestro filmmaker. There have been more than a few documentaries on Welles, not to mention dozens of bios, hundreds of monographs and deep-dive articles on his movies, endless dissections of specific scenes and shots, and gallons of ink spilled in the name of recounting his rise and fall. Cousins announces his intentions to do something slightly different at the outset. He frames his look back as an open letter to the larger-than-life figure, though it becomes quickly apparent that it’s really a mash note. Such adoration can often be blinding, but not this time. If you can say nothing else about this free-form valentine, it’s genuinely eye-opening.
That’s not exactly an easy task — going back to the Welles for fresh water — when you’re talking about an artist’s life story and a filmography so thoroughly perused and pored over. And it’s why Cousins is really the perfect person to venture once more unto the breach regarding the baritone-voiced visionary. An Irish critic, documentarian, raconteur and harder-than-hardcore cinephile, he’s produced a number of movie-mad portraits of directors, regional new waves, recurring screen subjects and other bits of celluloid-centric flotsam. Personal is his default factory setting; his best-known work, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, is a 15-episode miniseries that elevates previously obscure or overlooked corners of cinema to the top of the canon per his own preference. (Be the film history you want to see in the world.) He’s also mastered the art of the tangent, which was something Welles excelled at as well, and has a gift for making travelogues feel more like cultural tours than tourist slideshows. It’s a surprisingly simpatico mix between the guy working the camera and genius subject at the center of it all.
So while there is the requisite story of Welles’ early interest in magic, his twentysomething-years creative rethinking of theatrical works, Kane, the curse of botched or stillborn projects, the excuses and excesses of the later years et al., Cousins also underlines the connection between Orson’s work and the geography of the places he loved (Ireland, Morocco, Spain, NYC, Chicago, Paris). There’s a major focus on Welles’ sketches and drawings, which the doc uses as a sort of constructed Rosetta Stonehenge for how the man saw the movies and the world. It circles back to visual motifs and unpacks them with insight, focusing on compositions and his love of oddball angles; it isn’t until the doc presents the Chimes at Midnight scene of Welles’ Falstaff being rebuked by Prince Hal, the moment isolated from the rest of the narrative, that you realize it can be interpreted as the older self-loathing version of the filmmaker in conversation with his bright-young-thing self. (For this viewer, at least.) And Cousins keeps coming back to a single close-up of a muttonchopped Welles lying on a bed, hand on his cheek and mouth agape, as a grounding element. The artist is neither the boy wonder nor the fat elder you usually associate him to be. It’s Orson captured in a split-second of permanently curious repose.
All of which may sound like catnip to folks who would happily pore over seven hours of Criterion Collection supplements or the last word in eyeroll-inducing pretension. The Eyes of Orson Welles may not be your jam if you have an allergy to flowery voiceovers (even ones delivered in lovely, gravelly Gallic lilts) or highly subjective docs; abandon all hope, ye who crave just-the-facts-ma’am portraits of your artists. That’s not a judgment call so much as a buyer-beware warning — it’s not what Cousins does best, or really, at all. What you do get out of this, however, is an extraordinary, singular, complex take on a man whose work still inspires rhapsodies and close readings. The last words you hear are Cousins saying, “Thank you.” It’s an appropriate ending. Gratitude is exactly the sentiment you feel as well.