A Letter to Orson

Board Member and unrivaled cinephile Mark Cousins shares this personal letter to Orson Welles. Celebrate Orson Welles and the State Centennial with us at our screening of “Citizen Kane” featuring Orson Welles’ daughter Beatrice Welles on Wednesday, July 27 at 3 pm. 

The Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore was named the most beautiful place in American by ABC News. (John L. Russell/Special to the Detroit News)Dear Orson Welles,

Can we go around the world together? You’re dead, of course, but that doesn’t stop me imagining us as a gruesome twosome, on the road. Maybe you will accept my offer because you were a mendicant friar. When Hollywood didn’t know what to do with you, you set off and out to Spain and France, Yugoslavia and Morocco, to ply your trade, to set up your baroque stall in souks and courts and on stages, between rages.
From where I’m sitting – about which, more in a moment – it looks like you couldn’t stop making films, Orson, from Citizen Kane onwards. You had a will to cinema, a longing for it, or maybe not quite a longing because that implies that it was outside you, far away, something to be reached for when, in fact, it’s better to say that it was inside you. You embodied movies. It’s hard to write to you and not use the word embody, Orson. Your body was like an echo-chamber, like the belly of Ahab’s whale; it produced that voice of yours that rumbled, and all those kings you played.

Orson-Welles-1945So can we go on this travelogue, Orson? We could see it, also, as an epilogue. An epilogue to your life, which was so baroque that it is begging for one. I wish this letter could be a dialogue, Orson. For me it is a kind of dialogue. Shall we make it a decalogue? Shall we visit ten places around the world, with cinema on our mind the way Diego Rivera had Frida on his mind, in that great picture he did of himself? To mention Frida and Diego is to think of Mexico, of course. Can we travel the world together without going to Mexico? Without thinking of Sergei Eisenstein’s time there? Without nodding our caps now to the fact that part of the reason for travelling, the compulsion to travel, the propulsion of travel, is what Eisenstein called “exstasis”: the desire to get out of yourself, the rapture of self-loss, the hope that, if we are fleet of foot, we might be able to outwit ourselves, leave them behind, reverse the polarity of self and other?

Indulge me, Orson. Let’s strike out together on this travelogue, epilogue, dialogue, Decalogue. Let’s travel the world and, as we do, ask a simple question. What are the movies? Years ago, when I was in my twenties (and as close to handsome as I was ever going to get), I went to Naples to film a grand lady in her 60s, Flora Pinto d’Albavilla mariata Capaldo. As her name suggests, she was from aristocratic stock. Just as the years of Garibaldi were long gone, so was her money but, somehow, she managed to ignore this fact and live in a small apartment gussied up with chandeliers and French furniture. One evening, after filming, she told me that she’d like to take me to “la plus belle balcon du monde.” We drove for an hour in her fancy car, arrived in Ravello, from where she took me to a balcony overlooking the bay of Naples, the Costa Amalfitana. The moon was full and twinned with its reflection in the sea. As we stood on the balcony, Flora told me that Greta Garbo took Leopold Stokowski there. It was indeed, for me, a working class Belfast boy, the most beautiful balcony in the world. As we stood there, so said to me: “Travel the world with me. I have not long to go, but we could visit the great art galleries together. I would pay for everything. All I’d ask for in return is your company and, occasionally, for you to wear swimming trunks”. Did Tennessee Williams write her lines that night? Did he write this scene, Orson? Did you? I mention it here, of course, because her invitation – “travel the world with me” – seemed to me then, and still does, one of the most risky and beautiful things that one person can say to another. And so I say it to you, Orson.


Can we start our journey here, where I am now? I’m in Cannes, France. I’m sitting in a cheap restaurant called La Frigate. It’s lunchtime. The sky is grey – the Magritte colours are only here in the sunshine, as you well know – and, just to further dispel the glamour, I can tell you that I smell of sweat (I’ve been schlepping around town today) and vin blanc provencal. I’m away from the numbers, as someone called Paul Weller once wrote, beyond the Cannes film festival bubble; it’s where I want to be. There’s a quietude in this small restaurant. Nobody’s talking about the film business.

I don’t need to describe Cannes to you, of course, because you were here often. In 1948, you lived in the exclusive Eden Roc hotel at the Cap d’Antibes, near hear, didn’t you? And in that year Rita Hayworth visited you at the Cap, to try to reconcile your relationship. Two years later, you took a taxi from Italy to the hotel, at a cost of $500, to try to convince producer Darryl Zanuck to fund your film of Shakespeare’s Othello. You dropped to your knees and begged him. The place went silent. Perhaps to bring the moment to an end, and out of embarrassment, he offered you $100,000 to play a part in Prince of Foxes. You accepted. The money helped fund your film. You charged him for the taxi. Two years later, in 1952, Othello won the Palme d’or here. And, then, in 1966, you were given a prize here for your contribution to world cinema. Jean Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais made the announcement. Raquel Welsh, whose beauty then brought tears to our eyes, took you to the stage. Behind you stood Mademoiselle Presidente du Jury, Sophia Loren, who was from Naples and who, therefore, had probably stood on la plus belle balcon du monde. So I don’t need to tell you about this place. Unlike me, you’ve seen its inner sanctum, its upper echelons, its holiest of holies, its tracking shots, its foleys.

But what does Cannes tell us about the movies, Orson? As I sit in this restaurant, ten metres from the sea, with scooters buzzing by like wasps, I notice what I’ve always noticed about this place. There’s no smell of the sea. I’ve heard, several times – can this be true? – that before the Cannes film festival starts, they comb the sea to remove the seaweed. If they do do this, why? To make the water look cleaner, clearer? Seaweed gives the sea its smell so, removing it, makes the water more like an ideal but, also, more distant, because it isn’t confirmed by smell. Is it the wine that makes me see, in this, a metaphor for the movies? What we see in a film is there and not there, isn’t it Orson? Just like you’re here and not here now. Movies are over-available to some senses and completely unavailable to others.


To think of the lack of smell here, and then the lack in film, is to start with the bad news. So let’s get it out of the way, Orson. Let’s fly to Karakow in Poland, then take a train to Oswiecim, a place the world knows better as Auschwitz. Let’s go there in autumn, when the trees are copper. Those trees make Oswiecim a lovable place, or would do so if it wasn’t so hateful. Did you go there, Orson? I know your film The Stranger is about a Nazi and you said that Kafka’s The Trial is “pre-Auschwitz” – which is why you changed its ending in your film of the book. Auschwitz is the mother of all elisions, isn’t it? A place where people were so de-imagined that an unimaginable factory system was perfectly imaginable.

So why go here, why make this the second of our decalogue, after Cannes? To acknowledge what movies are crap at, that’s why, and to cede initial ground to the cinephobes. The homicidal gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau were the worst thing we made in the 20th Century, Orson. And yet we didn’t film them. There’s no footage of them. We stand here in front of where they once were and look at the place where film cameras of the time did not look. Of course the Nazis didn’t want their unholiest of unholies, these crematoria, to be filmed, so it’s perhaps not cinema’s fault that it didn’t do so. But it has to accept joint responsibility, I think, because, in the mid 40s, cameras were too big to smuggle in here to record this as evidence of the attempted extermination of the Jews and, of course, cinema was still too redolent of entertainment in those years to look into such a heart of darkness. It was morally serious sometimes, in some places, but such times and places were the exceptions Orson, weren’t they? Did you know this when you were making Citizen Kane, before the gas chambers here started murdering people? When did it dawn on you that movies were a bit trivial? Or did it? Or are they? Or aren’t they? Claude Lanzmann released a film, Shoah, in the year that you died, Orson. I wonder did you manage to see it? Its nine and a half hours are Lanzmann’s attempt to make something big enough and serious enough and detailed enough and evidential enough to begin to undo cinema’s solecism in not filming these gas chambers, whose foundations lie before us.


So that’s the worst bit done, Orson. In our road movie to find out what movies are, or why they matter, we’ve started with their fatal flaw. Can we go now to our third place, Yugoslavia, where you met your beloved Oja Kadar? Let’s go by train and, as we do, can I tell you that Yugoslavia is no more? It broke apart in the mid 90s, a decade after you died. The Soviet Union collapsed and, so, its satellites did too. The break-up of Yugoslavia was the worst European war since the time of Auschwitz. The town of Sarajevo was besieged, and 11,000 people died, Orson. I mention this because I was in Sarajevo during that siege and, whilst I was there, discovered why cinema matters. I was invited, by Obala arts center, to bring films to show underground, to local people, in defiance of the siege. I did so and was amazed that, during a war and at great risk to themselves, those people came out at night, during the shelling, to see films. Why? Because, I realised, cinema and art aren’t the icing on the cake, they are the cake. Movies make us feel alive, connected. Cinema makes moments seem more than they were, as big as the sphinx, as available for inspection, as gnomic, as here and not here as life, as sensuous and intoxicating.

Do you agree Orson? I think you do. You spent so much time in Hollywood, in a world where cinema was thought of as the icing, and yet you ended your film of Kafka’s The Trial with the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb, and The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane are about hubris. You seem certain in your work that the movies aren’t Loin de Vietnam.


Can we pack our bags now and fly again, to the place where I live, Edinburgh in Scotland. You came here in 1953, Orson. You went to the Cameo cinema, where we are now, and made a state of cinema speech. Do you remember? I wish I had been there. Here are the newspaper reports about it. Look at the headline, it says that you “Limp into the Festival with a ‘Moan’”. You’d sprained your ankle. On the stage of the cameo – let’s climb up onto it now and stand in front of its champagne curtain – you said “The new artist goes out to Hollywood or Rome or London…and, until they catch on to him, he does something coming out of himself, something original…” Then, you argued, the industry diverts the filmmaker from such personal filmmaking to something more mainstream and formulaic because “films take too long to make, they cost too much and go out to too large an audience.” You said that by having to appeal to an audience of 60,000,000, rather than, say, 3,000,000, the art gets blunt and bland. The result of this is that cinema is “dead, dead, dead.”

Guess what, Orson? Are you ready for a surprise, a good surprise, a surprise which opened up the movies? Four decades after you said these words, on this stage, in this spotlight, the medium of film started to be digitised; equipment miniaturised, processes speeded up, budgets dropped and, so a new artistic-business model emerged in which films with strong aesthetics could be seen by far smaller audiences and not be called failures. Your dream came true. Film stopped becoming an autocratic art, an art that needed a patron the way Italian fresco painters needed the Vatican. It became like oil painting on canvas – intimate, for self-starters. Here in the Cameo, you recommended “a world congress to discuss the economics of the film industry.” That didn’t quite happen but technical change did and, as Le Corbusier said, the technology created the poetics.

I wish, wish, wish that we could see the films you would make with such poetics and your will to form. There’s a film called Festen, Orson, made in Denmark by Thomas Vinterberg, and it was shot by tiny cameras planted all over the set. The imagery was rough and almost fell apart, like the paintings of Seurat, but films like it removed the inertia from the movies, its lumbering, slothfulness. What your friend Gene Kelly could have done with such techniques! If you had made your film of Cervantes’ Don Quixote with such cameras, you could have finished it in a few months.


Talking of Festen makes me want to take you to our fifth place, Orson: Copenhagen. Let’s go to its outskirts, to a production company called Zentropa, housed on an old army barracks, with a tank at its entrance, an outdoor, unheated swimming pool in which to swim naked at lunchtime, and garden gnomes on which to piss. The people at Zentropa – Vinterberg, a director called Lars Von Trier and others – would have applauded your speech in the Cameo and, also, probably heckled you. In the mid 90s, like latter-day surrealists, they published a manifesto called Dogme, which was a vow of chastity and simplicity which repudiated the complexity of filmmaking, its aesthetic gloss and Hollywood lustre. They would look for a new directness in film. Their ideas energised the movies.

So, whilst we’re here in Copenhagen, shall we come up with our own manifesto, Orson, our own ten commandments for cinema today, based on your Cameo ideas, and the chutzpah of Dogme? Lets. To get our blood going, let’s swim naked in Lars’ chilly pool. No? You don’t like the swim bit? Ok, I’ll be back in a moment. Here goes…

The Edinburgh Movie Manifesto


“Try to show that which, without you, might never have been seen”
– Robert Bresson


“Make films about what you don’t know”


Always remember Garbo’s face


Watch films like a child


Never make a film whose end is foreseeable from its beginning


Movie stardom should be like presidential terms – no longer than four years


No clichés, reverse angles, three point lighting or well-made scripts


No advertising in cinemas – there’s none in churches


Death to the Oscars


Shoot sex scenes with as much energy as car chases


More sound design, shooting silent, pauses.


Put on screen lives that have never been there before


Film fights the way Ozu shoots kettles


Understand the full tenderness, tragedy and rapture of the movies


Remember the z axis


A movie is a love letter. Poetry, not prose.

That was fun, wasn’t it Orson? Let’s print it up on a poster. Let’s hang it on walls, and paste it on multiplexes. Let’s spray paint it on the Hollywood sign. Let’s write it in the sky, let’s get it tattooed – I’m game if you are.


Our trip’s starting to feel like a manifesto, a pub crawl. Shall we drink something? Brandy’s your thing, I think. Let’s drink some at the sixth stop on our world tour of the movies, the Hollywood sign itself. From the hill behind it, let’s climb down to it at dusk. There are rattlesnakes here. The sign bangs as it cools, like there’s someone trapped inside it, trying to get out. Buster Keaton, maybe? Or your ex-wife Rita Hayworth? People whom Hollywood destroyed. Those crushed by the wheels of industry. How did Hollywood destroy people, Orson? How and why did it try to destroy you? By commodifying them? By sating every material need imaginable and, at the same time, starving their existential needs? By glorifying beauty and youth – beauty and youth came out of its test tubes – and then gagging when people get old? By being repelled by the very egos that were its vast, unburyable waste product? By feeding stars and directors on the desire to be desired so that they slaver for it like pavlov’s dogs and, then, standing back and watching the adulation wane, the heat go out of the day, the selfhoods begin to bang as they cooled, just like this sign?


As we think these things, shall we go to and leave a gardenia on Marilyn’s grave in Westwood Memorial Park? Our seventh of the Decalogue in this travelogue? Let’s. Look at it. You told Peter Bogdanovich that you met her at a party when she was a starlet. A man pulled down the front of her dress to reveal her breasts. And she just laughed. Is that right?

The marble on her grave here’s pearly smooth with all those years of touching, like it is in the grotto of Lourdes. Every time I come here I’m stopped in my thoughts by the realisation that she was 36 when she died. I was only getting going when I was 36, but she was already gone with the wind, a lesson unlearnt, nuclear waste. Just as Auschwitz-Birkenau was unfilmed, Marilyn Monroe was over-filmed, over-filmable, the definition of photogenie. The camera loved her, as it loved India but, in both cases, it failed to show us that the tragedy should not be passed over. We bought our movie ticket to see Marilyn, and became tourists in her beauty and sadness, visitors for a day who, then, upped and left, leaving her to face the mess that was mostly not of her making.

Let’s leave this memorial garden, Orson. There’s Joseph Von Sternberg’s wall crypt to our left, tiny, at ground level. You and he shared Marlene Dietrich didn’t you? You each loved her; you each filmed her smoking, and saw eros in that smoking.


Let’s jump on a plane and fly 11,500 km from this place, which many think of as the centre of the movie world, to our eighth place, which in some ways is the centre – a centre – of the film world. Let’s fly east to find out something else about the movies. Let’s go to the city of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
Not the first place that comes to mind when you think of the centre of the movie world, I know. But walk with me in this heat, Orson, across this red soil, to the centre of the city and look ahead of us. That big sculpture in the middle of the road there, that tiered thing stacked with discs, is a monument to… filmmakers. In no other city in the world is the central space, the ground zero, dedicated to film. Why is it here? Firstly, because in 1969, when Africa was trying to organise its movie industry, the Ouagadougou film festival FESPACO was established here as a pan-african, bi-annual colloque and congress. But there are film festivals all around the world; what makes Ouagadougou different? Its opening night is the biggest film event I’ve ever been to. It takes place in the national Stade du 4-Aout, and feels like an Olympic event. The reason it’s so big explains why film is so central to Burkinabe life. Literacy levels in this country’s 15-24 year olds are 33% now and were 6.6% when FESPACO was founded. Burkina Faso is, therefore, a visual and oral culture rather than a literate one like Scotland (which, because of Protestantism, had amongst the highest literacy levels in the world in the 1800s). As you know, countries that value the word highly often see imagery as redolent of surface, fashion, unreason or even decadence. Hence the iconoclasm of protestant and Islamic fundamentalism at the time of the Reformation and the destruction, in 2001, of the buddhas of Bamiyam in Afghanistan, which had been carved in the 6th Century CE.

Film, then, was a key part of how Burkinabe people were entertained and socialised. It helped this, and other Francophone West African countries like Senegal, find their place in the world, share ideas and do moral and aesthetic thinking. This reminds us, I think, of the fact that cinema is as close to a universal language as we can get. It clearly transcends linguistic barriers. It also works inter-culturally as well as intra-culturally. I can learn a lot about Bengali life from the movies of Satyajit Ray, and of Japanese life from the movies of Yasujro Ozu and his onetime assistant Shohei Imamura. Cinema acts like an empathy machine.


We’re getting towards the end of our trip, Orson. I’ve been thinking about our manifesto and your talk in the Cameo in which you envisaged that a new smallness of scale in filmmaking would, paradoxically, open it up and make it creatively bigger. At the time I thought of Manila in the Philippines, and wanted to bring you there, but I wasn’t sure that you would be game. Now I can see your wanderlust, I think we should go there. I’ve never been. Shall we go together?

Here we are. It’s as humid as I expected. More tragic, sordid, external. Have you ever been somewhere where you can see everything in the streets, in the fields? In golden days the glimpse of stocking was thought of as something shocking…You never needed to be optimistic about people did you? Or did you? The New Deal shaped you, which was progressive, which knew that people would grow if they were fertilised. That’s what we are seeing here.

But in filmmaking terms, why are we here? Because the filmmakers are leading the way. They don’t have a fancy film school, or film magazine, or great films on TV or large budgets but, nonetheless, directors like Kavn de la Cruz and Lav Diaz are rethinking the movies. De la Cruz makes manic montage mash-up movies, at least one a year, and sometimes one a week – like your old hero John Ford did in America in the early days. He – de la Cruz – shoots on video, mocks religion and gender, uses kitsch, pop, porn, camp, punk, melodrama, news, violence, graphics and elegy to create shanty town cinema that feels poor, vibrant, desperate and compelling. As his movies cost little, and grab our attention, they make money. This way of working is what you hoped for.

Lav Diaz’s films are as slow as de la Cruz’s are fast. Some shots last 10 minutes. The movies run many hours. They are numinous, modernist, symphonic, mysterious frescoes of great sadness and stillness. They could fill a cathedral.

When I say the word cathedral, I always think of the last shot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. Did you ever see it? It was made 2 years before you died. The shot starts on a man and a dog, who are outside a small country cottage that we have seen several times in the film. Then it pulls back to reveal that the whole landscape is inside a cathedral. It’s as if the whole world is sacred. And then it starts to snow in the cathedral.


It’s been quite a trip Orson. We’ve been kings of the road, the Don and Sancho Panza maybe. Where should our last place, be? There’s a col in the west of Scotland, called the Rest and be Thankful; At first I thought we could stop there, but then I realised that it’s good to end on a grace note, isn’t it? A small thing. I have a tattoo on my arm which says “the oar and winnowing fan”. You probably know the story. It comes from Homer. Ulysses has been travelling by boat (the kingdom of the oar) then walks away from the sea, carrying the oar, until he comes to an agricultural place where they no longer recognise the oar as an oar, and think, instead, that it is a winnowing fan for cutting down crops.

I love this parable of misrecognition. It celebrates in between places, nowhere places, exactly the kind of places where talent comes from, and begins to apprehend the world. Such places, with their lack of expectation or hubris, have perfect sight lines. On a clear day you can see forever from them. Shall we end our Decalogue-epilogue-travelogue to try to see what cinema is today, three decades after one of cinema’s greatest thinkers – you – died, in such an in-between place?

I spin the globe, as it spins at the start of RKO movies, which distributed Citizen Kane, and then stop it at Traverse City, Michigan, 292 miles from where you were born. They’re showing Chimes at Midnight and Citizen Kane at their film festival.

Orson, you gave me the movies, and they took me in their arms.

Thank you.

Mark Cousins