Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Me and Orson Welles - Richard Linklater - 2009

- All posts may contain spoilers -


I have to start by declaring that I know very little of Orson Welles. Yes I have heard War of the Worlds, seen Citizen Kane and The Third Man, but I know very little about much else he has been involved in his – what I have been told is a – great career. In all honesty, when growing up, I was only aware of him as voicing the character of Unicron in Transformers: The Movie from 1986. Obviously, although I know very little about him this does not mean I do not recognise that his name carries a great deal of weight; just his name seems to demand attention. I feel that this sense of presence and of the importance of charisma is captured perfectly throughout Me and Orson Welles.

Director: Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly and School of Rock)
Cast: Zak Efron (High School Musicals), Claire Danes (Romeo and Juliet and My So Called Life). Christian McKay, who I have not seen in anything before. As I explained above I do not know much about Welles, so I cannot say he was portrayed ‘accurately’, but I was certainly convinced that the man on screen was Orson Welles. These along with many other brilliant performances.


The film oozes ‘greatness’, not only in its captivating performances, slick direction and high production value, but in its themes and its characterisation of the film’s big personalities. There is no gritty realism here, no awkward silences; everything about this film is fabricated and based on spectacle, but I mean this in the most complimentary and positive way. It is about the importance of showmanship, of passion, of art, of commanding attention and then delivering something excellent – just as Welles does in the radio-drama scene. The film shows how this can only be executed if you believe in yourself and what you are doing; it is a truly artistic gift. This level of ‘greatness’ invariably surrounds Welles and Richard in both characters and the actors that play them. Due to the emphasis on ‘the show’ of the whole film it is easy to see that the actors playing these characters are so important to its meaning. McKay has huge boots to fill due to the mythology that comes along with playing Welles and it really is testament to his acting that he conveyed both his own greatness, along with Welles’ dramatic and imposing aura. Obviously there is credit due here to both the scripting and the direction and therefore I believe that Richard Linklater has (consciously or not) put himself in the category he is showing us onscreen: those who strive to be great at what they do. Or maybe they don’t have to strive for this at all, maybe it is just the way they are. This brings us nicely to Richard, who is very rarely seen to be practising, rehearsing or doing anything to prepare himself. He is, as Welles calls him: “A God created actor”. Although there is an element of doubt around whether Welles really meant this as he was saying it, I believe that he did, and I will come to that a little later. Richard as a character isn’t the only level at work here as it is pivotally important that he is played by the meteoric rising star that is Zak Efron. Again I know very little about this individual - I haven’t seen the High School Musicals et al - but I am conscious of the myth being created around him.

Passing the mantle and a disregard for recognised tradition.

It is this ‘Zak Efron Factor’ that embodies the point that the film was making. It is ironic that a film largely based around an individual with such an epic myth built around him shows absolutely no regard for tradition or conformity. This – as far as I understand – seems to be a lot about the way Welles was: rebelling against the Hollywood system in his own way. Well this message is hammered home in this film through Welles’ absolute disregard for Shakespeare’s original text or the established theatre productions that he is in competition with. In a similar way to how Welles may have carried this view in his life, it is again testament to McKay’s acting that the Welles of this film passes this message to the young Richard (and by extension to the Efron’s of the new century). Welles sees himself in Richard, this much is clear and although it is implied that Richard was dismissed because Welles cannot be questioned, contested or upstaged in any way, I believe that Welles was freeing Richard; he knows that Richard must find his own path in order to truly be great, just as he did. He cannot rise to fame under the wing of the great Orson Welles, as this will then be all he will ever be: Welles’ understudy. The film shows a number of characters that can contest Welles, namely his manager who constantly argues with him (played by Eddie Marsan, who I am mainly familiar with from him playing a brilliant, but tragic driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky). These characters are not dismissed the way Richard is. I guess a talking point must be whether Welles keeps these around because he know their arguments ere rhetoric whereas Richard’s passion was real and did this threaten Welles’ dominance of the centre ground. Or alternatively as I hypothesise did Welles not see the same potential in the others and therefore does not see it fit to set them free. The freedom of Richard and his generation is displayed at the end with the bird flying free; this is accompanied by Greta (his generational peer and fellow artist) declaring that “it is all ours”, when referring to the world. This continues the rhetoric of the importance of youth freeing itself; that you don’t follow the path set out by those before you, you create your own, albeit based loosely on their direction. Take their influence then make something new, i.e. Welles' interpretation of Caesar. Richard almost falls too far into this trap; idolising Welles, dressing like him, or even literally dressing in his robe and staying in his bed. This is until he realises that he has the self belief and presence of mind to make and follow his own path, he subsequently loses the Welles inspired suit attire in favour of his own trainers and colourful-coat look. The film openly displays ‘that to be great you must attain it for yourself’ is Welles’ belief. A key example would be when he tells Richard (and us) that he lost his mother and father at a young age. In balance then by then end of the film, Richard has taken the positive influence from Welles yet found himself as well.

In Summary

Fanboy, elitist knowledge of Welles is not important for the enjoyment of this film. It embodies what I have been led to believe is something that Welles stood for: that you create your own greatness by believing in it and in yourself. You do not blindly follow the dictation from previous generations, you seize the light yourself and in doing so you can make your impact on the world. This message is passed to the future generations through the character of Richard and is further articulated through the inspired casting of Zak Efron who embodies youth in popular culture as we enter the second decade of the 21st Century. You must define your own path but you cannot make that path unless you absolutely demand, with all the self belief you can muster that it be laid out in front of you.

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