doc talk

O for Orson: Welles as documentary subject and maker

Orson Welles is the subject of more than 24 films.
Orson Welles is the subject of more than 24 films.© Jane Bown / TopFoto/file 1951/TopFoto

Anyone who’s seen Mark Cousins’s magisterial yet wayward “The Story of Cinema: An Odyssey” (2011) — all 15 hours of it — knows the rightness of his now making a documentary about the most magisterial yet wayward figure in the story of cinema. “The Eyes of Orson Welles” plays at the Brattle Theatre June 21-27.

Welles’s filmography is magisterial (far too weak a word) and eventually all too wayward. Waywardness is part of the legend, along with the dazzling precocity, the incomparable voice, the immense girth. Waywardness was surely inevitable. Where do you go after your writing-directing-starring debut is “Citizen Kane” (1941)? Downhill, of course — though with downhills like “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947), “Mr. Arkadin” (1955), “Touch of Evil” (1959), and “Chimes at Midnight” (1965), who needs Himalayas?


The waywardness of Welles’s career might be said to have started with one of the two documentaries he made. “It’s All True” (1943) has exciting footage of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and re-creations of a separate story about four Brazilian fishermen who survived a shipwreck. Going to Brazil for filming, Welles effectively abandoned the editing of “Ambersons.” And that’s when the trouble started.

Welles’s appeal for documentary filmmakers is obvious. There have been more than two dozen films about him. The best one about the entire career may be Chuck Workman’s “Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles” (2015). Workman reveres Welles but is hardly reverent. Beside numerous clips from the master’s many masterpieces, Workman includes a Welles appearance on “I Love Lucy” and a Billy Crystal skit that has John Candy imitating him to devastating effect.

The most recent Welles documentary is Morgan Neville’s “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” (2018). The title is a quote from Welles. The documentary focuses on his efforts to make and get financing to complete his fiction film “The Other Side of the Wind.” Netflix funded last year’s posthumous edit of “Wind.” The streaming service commissioned the Neville documentary, which debuted alongside “Wind.” Fittingly then, the documentary has a similar gangbusters editing style to Welles’s feature.


The ultimate instance of Welles as gangbuster editor, prestidigitatory organizer of structure, and irresistible screen presence is the last film he completed before his death. “F for Fake” (1973). Ostensibly about the art forger Elmyr de Hory, it braids in the story of literary hoaxer Clifford Irving and a shaggy-dog story involving Picasso and Welles’s lover Oja Kadar. All of which combine to form a meditation on the nature of creativity and originality, what is real and what is illusory. Welles didn’t intend this to be his last film, but it’s hard to imagine a better epitome of so much majesty, so much waywardness. F for fake is also F for finale.

“F for Fake” and “The Eyes of Orson Welles” play at the Brattle Theatre on June 27, as separate-admission features.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.