You probably know that Orson Welles was a great artist of the cinema. You probably don’t know that he was a prodigiously talented visual artist as well, with a lifetime of incessant painting, drawing, sketching, and doodling that both informed his film and stage work and served as an expressive end in itself.
Early in the documentary “The Eyes of Orson Welles,” a box is taken out of long years of archival storage at the University of Michigan and opened to reveal an entire alternate career: pages upon pages of Welles’s graphic artwork. For this, Mark Cousins’s documentary is necessary viewing. For the glutinous narrative voice-over of Cousins himself, it’s decidedly less so.
Cousins is an Irish film critic and filmmaker whose chief claim to fame is “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (2011), a 15-hour documentary that was shown in this country on Turner Classic Movies. He has also made shorter works in the style of the new film: personal meditations on legendary directors that interweave film clips, fresh footage, and a voice-over soundtrack of strained poetic worship.
“The Eyes of Orson Welles” takes the form of a letter to the great director himself, Cousins assuming the familiarity of a long-term acolyte murmuring insights and intimacies to “Orson” by way of the soundtrack. The film is structured chronologically, more or less, in five parts, and the connective thread is a consideration of Welles’s little-known artwork and the impact it had on the more famous projects.
Cousins gets good and granular when following the young Welles’s travels from his entitled upbringing in Kenosha, Wis., to Chicago art school, Ireland, and Morocco, the drawings growing more confident as the world and its peoples open up to the prodigy. The archival work is smart and deep, with clips from youthful films (“Too Much Johnson,” 1938) and radio plays and connections made between the architecture Welles encountered early on and the set design of films like Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)
If nothing else, “The Eyes of Orson Welles” serves as a reminder of the almost absurd energy and confidence of the young Orson Welles. The “voodoo Macbeth” staged in Harlem, a revolutionary “The Cradle Will Rock” defying its government ban, a Fascist-themed “Julius Caesar” on Broadway — all done before he turned 23!
It’s with the film work and its relationship to the life that “Eyes” begins to resemble an unshaped mash note. Snippets of “Kane,” “Ambersons,” “Mr. Arkadin” (1955), “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947), and other Welles classics are used to illustrate Cousins’s wandering narration, with the tone of hushed adoration turning increasingly moist.
A section on Welles’s romantic life is downright purple. Intones Cousins, “You traveled the world and fell in love everywhere. What and who and how did you love? . . . You believed in the chivalry of love, as if it was a waltz. You were an omnivorous lover and you felt the guilt.” And so on. God save artists from their most ardent admirers.
“I wonder, am I losing you here?” Cousins asks at one point; he’s addressing Welles but it’s the audience that answers. “The Eyes of Orson Welles” rebounds in its final stretches, with bits of an unfinished “Don Quixote” project, a glimpse of a 1947 televised “Lear,” a general contemplation of how great talents can become great wrecks, and the astute observation that the movies were a direct extension of Welles’s ceaseless drawing. “You thought with lines and shapes,” Cousins concludes. “Your films are sketchbooks.” Despite its unearthed treasures, “Eyes” remains a scrapbook by comparison, and a self-indulgent one.
★ ★ ½
THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES
Written and directed by Mark Cousins. Starring Orson Welles. At the Brattle. 115 minutes. Unrated