Cannes Classics 2018’s opening nighter is Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins’ intimate documentary “The Eyes of Orson Welles,” which was invited to Cannes before Netflix pulled its own two Welles entries, the completed “The Other Side of the Wind” and Morgan Neville’s accompanying Welles documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.”
Cousins (“The Story of Film: An Odyssey”) narrates his charming love letter to the late Welles, which is the first original film backed by the Filmstruck and TCM partnership (as well as the BBC and other funders), and is for sale to Cannes buyers.
“I’m interested in a more personal voice,” he said in a phone interview from Scotland, “in what happens when you look someone in the eye, as it were, and address them directly. It’s a more intimate and emotional language.”
He first adopted letter-writing on “Eisenstein and Lawrence,” his 2016 documentary short about Sergei Eisenstein’s stint in Mexico City. “It’s a way of trying to avoid the historian’s voice, the knowledgeable male voice,” Cousins said. “It’s more personal, more subjective, you’re not trying to say you’re the expert.”
While Cousins admits to being obsessed about Welles, “that doesn’t mean I’m an expert,” he said. “It’s my film letter to a dead dad. We are all in some way in the western world the offspring of Orson Welles. He’s a towering figure.” Cousins collaborated with Beatrice Welles (the daughter of the filmmaker’s third wife, Italian countess Paola Mori), who shared many of Welles’ visual influences via his drawings and paintings.
Cousins listened to Beatrice’s stories as he tried to reach beyond the untouchable mythic figure so “he becomes somebody human.” Cousins won a $180 bid at an eBay auction for Welles’ boots and socks. “They’re massive, the socks were hand-knitted by his third wife Paola,” he said. “The more you read about Orson Welles and watch his films, the more in awe of him you are. I was looking for way to take away that awe, by traveling in his footsteps, staying at the same hotel, wearing his socks. You have to demythologize the person in order to understand them better, as others are blinded by their light.”
While Cousins’ roots in working class Belfast are “a planet and a cosmos away from Orson Welles,” the documentarian said, he decided to “travel in his footsteps, go where he lived, put my tripod where he put his.” Cousins takes his one-man camera crew to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Welles spent many childhood hours, as well as other key locations in Ann Arbor, Ireland, Morocco, and Spain that influenced his art, finding real-life inspirations and locations for his visual palette. That’s the key.
Cousins argues that Welles was less a theatrical or psychological artist than a visual thinker. His sweeping lines run through his many black-and-white films, from the iconic “Citizen Kane” and “Touch of Evil” to his adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Chimes at Midnight” and Kafka’s “The Trial.”
Steven Jaffe/The Welles-Kodar Collection, University of Michigan, Special Collections Library
The filmmaker also explores Welles’ tempestuous romantic life, from his first wife Virginia Nicholson through actresses Dolores Del Rio and Rita Hayworth (star of “The Lady from Shanghai”) to his later loves Mori and Oja Kodar. Welles left behind three children after his 1985 death at age 70 from a heart attack.
“Orson Welles basically was an experimental artist working within the industrial studio system,” said Cousins. “Like a few others, Rouben Mamoulian and Ernst Lubitsch, who were trying to invent and be innovative, he was going to fail and come up against barriers. That’s what I see in Orson Welles’ drawings and paintings. He was being creative by whatever means. If he can’t get to do his crane shot, he wants to go home at night, drink a bottle of Spanish wine and sketch something. I see the furious, discrepant energy of this man.”
The real Welles tragedy, Cousins believes, is that he did not live long enough to deploy the current light-weight DIY technology that makes it possible for anyone to make their own film. As Cousins shoots his hand-held tracking shots with an Oslo Pro that fits in his rucksack, he wishes that technology could have caught up with Welles’ imagination.
In fact, the filmmaker expressed the desire to make more essay films like “F is for Fake.” “If he were alive today, he would be making three or four essay films a year,” said Cousins. “The digital age would have liberated Orson, who had far more things to say than he could say.”
Cousins is among the many cinephiles who regret that Welle’s finally completed “The Other Side of the Wind” isn’t being shown on the big screen in Cannes. “Netflix has enriched storytelling in many ways,” said Cousins. “But Netflix should acknowledge that Orson Welles was a filmmaker of the big screen, his imagination was massive and bigger than life.”
That’s because “cinema is bigger than life,” he continued. “You have to feel out of control and overwhelmed, you have to submit yourself to Agnes Varda or Alfred Hitchcock.”
On the other hand, with Netflix, you are sitting in your house and when the pizza is ready, you are going to pause, he said. “That is the issue. We are all in the same boat. We love cinema, and I’m sure at Netflix they love cinema too. But they need to be with us in this sense. Cinema has to be a singular experience.”
Watch an exclusive clip from “The Eyes of Orson Welles” below.
“The Eyes of Orson Welles” will premiere as the opening night selection of Cannes Classics at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.