Monday 27 August 2018

Apt pupils: "The Eyes of Orson Welles"

I caught up with Mark Cousins' The Eyes of Orson Welles a few days after starting to read Cousins' recent book The Story of Looking. Clearly, the man's scopophilia knows no bounds, and at a time when the male gaze - particularly the male gaze in relation to cinema - has fallen subject to renewed interrogation, there might arguably be something problematic in that. Then again, what would not looking suggest? At best, a certain timidity; at worst, a blinkered closed-mindedness, a lack of curiosity. Cousins' Eyes takes Welles, up there with Stanley Kubrick as among the most studied figures in American cinema, and makes him the subject of the new strain of criticism this writer and filmmaker has been developing over his recent projects, including Looking - not telling but showing us how a creative giant like Welles once observed the world, going back to the places where once Orson stood, and making connections between what can be seen there and what can be seen in the work. An overhead light filmed by Cousins in the Chicago museum Welles haunted as a young scholar is shown to recur amid the backdrops of Citizen Kane and The Trial; the compositional aspects of the paintings housed thereabouts are mirrored in the framings of later, moving pictures. Where most of us bumblers use words to get at and summarise a worldview, Cousins - building on the vast leaps and bounds video essays have taken in recent years - cuts out these descriptive middlemen and returns us to vivid images.

Eyes gazes upon one set of pictures in particular: those Welles himself drew and painted over the course of a lifetime, some created for his BBC show Orson Welles' Sketch Book, which Cousins is first seen liberating from storage in New York. Retracing their lines involves retracing their creator's footsteps around the globe, taking the film to Ireland, Morocco, Paris (Welles' favourite city), L.A. (where he was all too briefly flavour-of-the-month), Spain (where he shot Chimes at Midnight) and Arizona (where Orson's third daughter Beatrice now lives, in a house full of Rosebud-like keepsakes). Along this journey, we will encounter Orson the visionary, making the sketches that would factor into his more expressionist work, Orson the romantic, scratching out Valentines to his nearest and dearest, and even Orson the depressive, reduced to daubing self-portraits in blue as the wait for financing grew longer and longer. Cousins' travels, meanwhile, keep raising their own share of questions about perspective. Everybody knows Welles looms over the cinema, both by reputation, and as a sheer physical presence. What Eyes wants us to consider is what Orson saw (and thought) whenever he sat humbled before those paintings in Chicago, or the sparkling lights of Paris by night. Was he ever humbled? Or did he simply see the world as mere grist for his creative mill, a stage on which to perform and conquer?

These questions are more than a matter of film history. By raising them anew, Cousins is attempting to square Welles the prominent leftie - the man who helped stage New Deal musical The Cradle Will Rock, commemorated in Tim Robbins' 1999 drama - with the actor who played so many despots, fascists and rotters (Kane, Harry Lime in The Third Man, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, Charles Rankin in The Stranger), and perhaps get his head around a world he describes - in a phrase pointedly layered over a shot of Trump Tower - as "ever more Wellesian": bigger, faster, flooded with darker shadows, and more pronounced extremes. Looking through the eyes of another for several hours, or several thousand miles, is here recast as an act of empathy and understanding, an equivalent of walking a while in someone else's shoes. Cousins amply demonstrates that Welles saw far more than most people are allowed to: hence the restless travelling, the radical voodoo Macbeth staged in Harlem with an all-black cast, the deep focus of Kane and co. Yet Cousins himself looks far and wide, too. As in The Story of Film and its pendant-doc A Story of Children and Film, he's always looking out for the little things: those revealing details tucked into the backs and sides of the frame, films that have disappeared or been left to the margins.

As in Story, he's particularly persuasive in the way he folds supplementary material into his arguments, seeking out Welles's radio work (source of its own, infamously vivid images of American society), TV interviews, and even post-film Q&As, where - like a magician who cannot help himself - Orson the Great took great pleasure in revealing how his best tricks were accomplished. Footage of a 1981 screening of The Trial in New York shows Welles responding to one audience question with the bold pronouncement "We are all Jewish, since the Holocaust", a maxim delivered with such force it would surely have sent anybody in the room scrabbling round for a pen with which to sign the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. For Welles, it seems, looking was, among many other things, a deeply political act: a way of seeing what might otherwise be overlooked, concealed, normalised. (He played fascists, the film ventures, to show us what fascism looks like.) For Cousins, however, it's also personal, a simple matter of connection, and knowing exactly where anybody stands in this world. Eyes, with its lingering shots of human faces, is addressed like a love letter written to a teacher by a scholar alert to both the alchemical and emotional properties of the cinema; Cousins' trademark, close-miked narration, refusing the false objectivity of so much criticism, is a voice that whispers into the ear, as if to say - look at this.

That immense authorial empathy actually results in what, for me, felt like one of the film's few missteps: a sequence that offers Orson - voiced on the soundtrack by the actor Jack Klaff - a right to reply to our narrator's thoughts from beyond the grave. His words have been carefully sourced from Welles's own correspondence, but the conceit feels a touch fanciful, and I missed hearing Cousins' voice. Crucially, however, the filmmaker handles the clips with the same delicacy as he does the artwork, presenting them in their original aspect ratios - never a given in docs about movies, sadly - and studiously labelling them, so that captivated newcomers can seek the entire thing out. Suffice to say Eyes makes you want to take another look at these films - scattered, broken, brilliant as they are - with fresh eyes, and see what else might be hiding in there. (It made me wish I could have been more enthusiastic when first seeing Chimes at Midnight - but maybe that's something that comes with Falstaffian age.) This is the kind of film criticism that gets inside your head - setting ideas bouncing round there like pinballs heading towards a high score - but the roaming Cousins, forever on the lookout for a great or telling image, has also hit upon something rarer and more valuable besides: a film criticism that finally gets us all out of the house.

The Eyes of Orson Welles is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

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