In chasing so many projects — yet finishing so few — over a peripatetic, groundbreaking life of moviemaking, Orson Welles left behind footprints big enough for lots of wandering and wondering among fascinated cineastes. With “The Eyes of Orson Welles,” one such dedicated fan, Irish critic-filmmaker Mark Cousins, has taken the approach of parsing Welles’ celebrated visual style through a heretofore little-appreciated talent of the master’s: his voluminous and arresting graphic artwork.
Considering the amount of such material Welles left behind — sketches, drawings and paintings from his formative childhood travels through decades in movies — it makes for a tantalizing reappraisal sure to appeal to even the most knowledgeable Welles enthusiast. And while Cousins’ archaeological dive operated independently of the restorative labor that last year gave us both a new, completed Welles original (“The Other Side of the Wind”) and a complementary behind-the-scenes documentary about it (Morgan Neville’s “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”), there’s never a sense of Welles fatigue (or stones unturned) when taking in Cousins’ film. On its own, it’s a nimble, eccentric, sometimes questionable but mostly insightful journey into the coursing visual mind of a voracious and revolutionary artist.
Cousins, whose perceptive gifts won many fans after his exhaustive 15-hour epic “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” frames “Eyes” as an inquisitive letter to Welles, one that starts by keenly acknowledging both the technological breakthroughs the director would have embraced (phones as cameras), and political times he’d leap to dramatize (the Charles Foster Kane-like qualities of our president).
From there, thanks to archival boxes at the University of Michigan and the help of Welles’ daughter Beatrice, it’s a nomadic, personal, theme-driven tour of the ways a precocious one-time Chicago Art Institute student with an activist mother memorialized his view of the world — its people, its systems — through ink and paint. It’s also an expansively, entertainingly speculative trip into connections between biography and filmography, politics and staging, and between a controlling temperament and the cinematic dynamism that secured his genius.
Cousins finds emotional throughlines coursing through the literal lines Welles drew. The curves in an Irish peasant’s face or a Moroccan merchant’s robes spoke to a progressive-minded, world-traveling teenager’s humanistic ideals. After fascism’s rise in the 1930s, facelessness characterized many of his sketched figures at the same time his filmic concerns turned toward the perils of identity-crushing authoritarianism, from “Citizen Kane” through “Mr. Arkadin” and his Kafka adaptation “The Trial.” But also, in a way, those empty visages parallel Welles’ need to disappear into his own roles with heavy makeup. Facelessness even defined the way he crafted a scene like Desdemona’s killing in “Othello,” her suffocation with cloth as consuming jealousy wipes out his soul and hers.
When Cousins examines Welles’ love life, he’s on shakier ground, sidestepping the director’s legendary womanizing and expedient friendships for a more pitying view represented by woe-is-me drawings he dashed off during his troubled marriage to Rita Hayworth. The fanciful inclusion of an imagined letter back from Welles, read by Jack Klaff, is Cousins regrettably stretching his conceit to its breaking point.
Cousins is more provocatively observant on his subject’s depictions of kings and jesters, and that movies like “Chimes at Midnight” may have expressed a sympathy with fools, but Welles’ belly-first framing and dominating angles across so many mad tyrant portraits betrayed a truer identification with the allure and pitfalls of kingly appetites.
By the end, taking in a museum’s worth of Welles’ artwork — notebook scribblings, Christmas cards, design concepts, full-on paintings — has primed the viewer to appreciate Cousins’ most persuasive case, that Welles’ notoriously expressionistic, charcoal-colored “Macbeth” is the closest he got to a cinematic scrapbook of his graphic sensibilities. Your views may differ, but that doesn’t mean Cousins’ intoxicating brew hasn’t made the most of its key ingredient: “The Eyes of Orson Welles.”
‘The Eyes of Orson Welles’
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: Starts March 22, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse, Pasadena