Film & TV

Orson Welles: Artist and Political Prophet

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (RKO)
New biopic documentary mixes art, history, and politics.

Tension between art and politics marks the new documentary The Eyes of Orson Welles. The strain begins as director Mark Cousins circles around the enormity of his subject — as if interest in genius and Renaissance man Welles needed sociological justification. Beginning far afield with a camera panning Times Square, Cousins muses about Obama, Trump, and the modern age (“What would you have done with the Internet, Orson?”). But this proves unnecessary once Welles’s art — his debut feature film, Citizen Kane — is foregrounded.

Cousins soon gets to the memorable flirtation scene between publishing tycoon Kane (played by Welles) and working-class singer Susan Alexander: “I’m wriggling both ears at the same time. It took me two years in the best boarding school in the world to learn that trick. The boy that taught it to me is now president of Venezuela.” The scene’s suddenly timely coincidence is amusing, but such prophetic irony is proof of Welles’s artistic resonance that transcends politics.

Welles’s interest in the Shakespearean complexity of human personality informs his masterpieces (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake, and so many others). Using a newly discovered cache of personal drawings and paintings by Welles, Cousins makes connections that emphasize the visual intent and virtuosity that stemmed from both Welles’s pictorial training and his innate talent.

As a cultural figure, Welles advanced cinematic expression and modernized ideas about the art form’s potential. Often standing for humanist causes (“I’m rather fond of chivalry and honor. I’m interested in outmoded virtues,” he explained about his Don Quixote project), Welles reflected the noblesse oblige of a wealthy man with classical education. Yet Cousins frequently refers to Welles’s activism — that infernal Millennials canard — when recounting Welles’s progressive WPA theater venture The Cradle Will Rock (1937). Cousins also highlights some startling public statements that combined an impresario’s grandstanding and moral authority spoken with basso profundo theatricality.

During a public Q&A after screening his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, Welles cuts off a question about changing Kafka’s ending to boom, “Because the book was written before the Holocaust!” Welles goes on to declare, “I couldn’t bear the defeat of [protagonist] K in the book after the Holocaust! I’m not Jewish, but since the Holocaust, we are all Jewish. And I couldn’t bear for him to submit to death as he does in Kafka, masochistically submit to death. It stank of the old Prague ghetto to me.”

Welles’s ability to work an audience and manipulate an emotional effect was driven by more than political sympathy. But Cousins alters that fellow-feeling into strident politics.

Arguably the most graphically attuned of all American filmmakers, in his films Welles lays emphasis on vision as part of our human capacity and a key means of our moral understanding. Cousins uses a double meaning for “Eyes” through poignant reference to Welles’s social awareness: A 1955 six-part BBC TV series, Orson Welles Sketchbook, was highlighted by Welles telling the true-life tragedy of black World War II veteran Isaac Woodard. In 1946, Woodard was brutalized by a South Carolina policeman who “had literally beaten out his eyes.” Welles denounced the atrocity as bringing “the justice of Dachau and Auschwitz to America.”

Cousins (and co-producer Michael Moore) insert this disturbing history as another instance to support the idea of Welles’s activism. (Welles’s accusation is a bit of an overstatement, but its terrible linkage illustrates a combination of historical judgment and modern consciousness that is fundamental to our moral thinking.)

Yet, this is also where Cousins abuses his own film scholarship. The Isaac Woodard incident is recalled for its own ugly sake; Cousins doesn’t take enough time to draw parallels with the bulging eyes and abuse of authority in Touch of Evil (1958). That film is actually the opposite of self-promoting showbiz activism — such as Oprah Winfrey exploiting the Recy Taylor story at the Golden Globes to justify her own “truth.” Welles’s U.S. border film goes far beyond indicting police misconduct by examining everything around it with deep moral vision. In Sketchbook, he told the BBC, “It’s the essence of our society that a policeman’s job should be hard. . . . We should be grateful, too, for the laws which protect us against the policeman.” That statement may sound like “activism,” but Touch of Evil (like Morrissey’s recent Venezuela song “Who Will Protect Us from the Police?”) is most powerful as art.

The tension between art and politics is central to the current dilemma of documentary as a new media vogue. (British film scholar Cousins previously made the 2011 The Story of Film: An Odyssey, an exhaustive and at times fatuous overview, in the manner of egoistic TV presenters such as Ken Burns and Bill Moyers.) This commodification of biased “truth” (with emphasis on “activism” and “justice”) threatens to ruin popular culture. Cousins gives little time to Welles’s innovation of the form in F for Fake (about art forger Elmyr de Hory), which might show us how documentary technique can be best used. Despite stretching irrelevant similarities between Welles’s sketchbooks and his great films (comparisons that are fun to watch rather than enlightening), Cousins’s political focus misses the moral core of Welles’s art.

Throughout The Eyes of Orson Welles, Cousins repeats a color photograph of Welles wearing a blue jacket with a green sweater poking out of the sleeve, lying across a bed and looking toward the camera. Welles, captured in his prime, is casually intense and impenetrable. At least credit Cousins for finding a perfect portrait of the artist outside of the artist’s own works.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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