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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 3, 2010

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Orson Welles Up in the Air

While it's still in theaters, I hope you'll take the chance to see Me and Orson Welles. Or if it's already gone by the time you read this, get the DVD the moment it comes out!

I'm no fan of Orson Welles myself -- in fact, his name in the title made me extremely reluctant to see the movie. I think Citizen Kane is ludicrously overrated. It might have been important in the development of film, but the dialogue is so heavy-handed and obvious, and Welles's acting is so superficial, and the sled is such an undergraduate English student symbol, that I find it almost unbearable to watch.

I think its time has passed. We live in the world it helped create. Watching Kane is like reading Uncle Tom's Cabin -- it can be admired for what it accomplished, but do we really have to see the whole thing again?

And then there's the older Orson Welles -- the heavy man who slowed down every scene he was in, but who nevertheless was a charming raconteur on talk shows, with an absolutely gorgeous speaking voice. (Remember "We will sell no wine before its time," his memorable Paul Masson wine commercials? )

Then there was the legendary War of the Worlds radio play that, despite frequent statements that it was a work of fiction, caused panic among the gullible back in 1938. Whatever your opinion of his talent, his place in the history of radio and film as an original, a mover and shaker, is secure.

I expected Me and Orson Welles to be a tribute. It is not. Nor, really, is it an attack on him. Instead, it is the best view of both the glories and the agonies of theatre that I've ever seen on film.

Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, Holly Gent Palmo's screenplay is nothing short of brilliant in its ability to show us rehearsal after rehearsal of the same play, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as cut down, conceived, and staged by Welles, without its ever seeming repetitive.

In fact, the triumph of this film is that we experience the thrilling moments of this production with the same emotional response that the audience of the time must have had. Even though we've seen the big payoff moments planned and set up, when near the end we see them in the opening night performance, it gives us chills. We see the genius of the play. This was absolutely crucial to the success of the movie, and the writer gave them a script that accomplished it.

We experience all of this through the character of Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high school senior from a town near Manhattan who takes the train into the city and happens to be in front of the Mercury Theater at exactly the right moment to make a good impression on Orson Welles and land the small but important part of Lucius, the young soldier who sings a lullaby to Brutus (the part played by Welles himself) the night before the battle in which Brutus dies.

Zac Efron proves himself to be an actor of subtlety and range, along with the good looks and exuberance that made his name in the first place. His personal story revolves around two women and a man.

The first woman, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan) is a young writer-to-be who shares his love of the cultural scene of the day -- the music of Gershwin, Kerns, Rodgers, Porter, and others; the vibrant radio world; New York theatre, then still living instead of gasping along on half a lung as it does today; the literary world led by The New Yorker; the distant siren call of Hollywood. Kazan strikes the perfect mix of talent, honesty, enthusiasm, and despair.

The second woman, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes, in the best performance of her careeer) is the absolutely gorgeous "ice queen" who is assistant producer and Richard's mentor, helping him through the snakepit of theatrical society. Danes is not abstractly a beautiful woman, but she plays beautiful so perfectly that you instantly and constantly believe in her beauty, and that it is more than skin deep, though in fact her character is also quite cynical about what it takes to thrive in the world she has chosen.

The man is Orson Welles, played by Christian McKay, a young actor (36) whose performance is nothing short of breathtaking. I have read reviews that criticized him for trying too hard to imitate Welles -- or not trying hard enough. They miss the point. While to me he seems absolutely convincing as Welles -- complete with the compelling breeziness of Welles's acting style -- what he brings off is the absolutely sincere lying snake of a hypocritical exploiter of other people's talent who really means it when he says he loves them, even when he's already got their replacement waiting in the wings.

For this film is, at core, a study in genius and what people put up with from their geniuses. Welles was, like many so-called geniuses, incredibly strong-willed and needy at the same time. He had the force to make things happen, and the sheer terror and inner emptiness (which the film makes explicit) that make it impossible for him to let others get their full credit.

The result is that he makes other people miserable even as he brings out the best in them. As the film explains, the actors and crew put up with his miserable treatment of them because they know that by staying close to him, by sacrificing their own pride and honor to bear his impositions on them, their own careers will advance, and they will be part of great art.

This much we have seen before, but the film goes further. It makes us see that while it is wonderful to be part of a great production, in the end what you give up by subjecting yourself to a man like Welles is nothing short of your soul. We feel the sadness of young Richard as a woman he loves and fought for walks out of his life -- but it is even sadder to watch that woman leave, because we know that she has sold herself and it will not be worth the price she paid.

The film is full of tragic figures, but young Richard is not one of them, despite his losses. In a great scene in his high school English class, Zac Efron carries off an absolutely perfect rendition of a speech from the play he has just performed in, playing to an unwilling audience and completely winning them over. We want to applaud with them, because of the restraint, the lack of gush, the pure intelligence of the rendition of Shakespeare's lines.

But this effect would have been impossible had we not experienced McKay's Welles. I cannot say enough about the brilliance of McKay's performance: He had to make us believe in Welles's genius as an actor, which means his performance in Julius Caesar had to be of star quality; in his genius as a director, which means he had to direct the other actors while acting, which he brings off with complete believability; in his selfishness as an individual person, the nakedness of his ego and his fear -- and this, too, he gives us impeccably. And, yes, I think he did as good a job as could have been done in imitating the known mannerisms of Orson Welles.

In fact, I don't know that I have ever seen an actor disappear so completely into a historical figure since seeing Ben Kingsley disappear into Ghandi -- and those two are the only biographical performances of that caliber that I have ever seen, period.

I also appreciate the fact that this film adhered, more or less, to the mores of the time -- sex is implied but takes place offscreen; there is profanity- and blasphemy-laced language, but nothing that would have earned the film an R. There is still faith in honor and morality -- and not just on the part of young, naive Richard.

Director Richard Linklater has not really shown his talent for a long time, till this film. He directed the remake of Bad News Bears -- a movie that did not need remaking, but of course he did not turn down the gig. Since his first appearance as the hot young writer-director of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise, he got trapped in a downward spiral of money-losing or tiny-budget movies (The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Before Sunset), and he directed the embarrassing but not money-losing Jack Black vehicle School of Rock.

It's not as if Me and Orson Welles is making huge money at the box office. It's not that kind of movie. It first opened at a film festival. It was done on a small budget and depended on assistance from association with, of all places, the Isle of Man. In fact, it's the kind of financing arrangement and the size of film that a director makes when he once had a career but can't get the time of day from the studios anymore.

Well, folks, Linklater has made something brilliant and fine here. The story and the script are perfect; he worked with a cast of extraordinary talent and skill; and I cannot imagine better cinematography. Please do not be deceived by the smallness of the publicity budget. This is a funny and moving story, full of likable and fascinating characters. It is beautiful. It is memorable. It will change your view of other films.


And now, a personal note, building on the experience of watching Me and Orson Welles.

I'm also in the business of telling stories for audiences, and I've had the opportunity to see various directors and producers at work.

I've sat patiently in a room while an incompetent, needy, ego-starved producer half my age and with none of my experience or artistic success chewed me out for an hour for not following his idiotic instructions on how to adapt my own story for the screen.

I have watched as a world-famous director of hit movies savagely ridiculed a talented, dedicated assistant for an error, in front of a room full of creative staff, all of whom knew that the mistake had been the director's own. Yet the director remained oblivious to the fact that his nastiness made him despicable, poisoning the whole atmosphere of the film, and not one person there liked him or agreed with him.

His behavior did not make the film better in any way. Nobody was going to work harder or do a better job because he abused the people who were under his power. (He never acts this way toward megastars who help the box-office of his films, so you know that it's behavior he can switch on or off at will. He chooses to be a complete jerk.)

In both cases -- when the untalented and the talented threw tantrums -- the fact remained that genius excuses nothing. Let me say that again for the benefit of all young talented people who think such behavior must be OK because the rich and powerful are allowed to get away with it: Genius excuses nothing.

You can be a world-famous director, but if you molest a child, you're a child-molester; if you abuse the people working under you, then you're a bully; if you deprive people of the credit for their work and take it for yourself, then you're a lying snake of a poseur; if you plagiarize then you're a thief. No amount of accomplishment erases your vile behavior; and no amount of vile behavior erases your accomplishment, though your victims may have less enthusiasm about praising it than those who have not experienced cruelties at your hand.

Artists (like successful athletes, businessmen, and politicians) have the same obligation as everyone else to be civilized and decent and maybe even kind to others. And for every jerk who hides behind his fame and accomplishments in order to get away with nastiness and appalling selfishness, there are others, with just as much talent and accomplishment, who live by the rules of civilized behavior and make everyone who works with them happier for having the experience.

You can be kind and honorable and accomplish great things. And I firmly believe that in no case is it necessary or even helpful to be dishonorable or unkind in order to accomplish anything.

No one who works with you will ever do their best work because you cause them to feel fear, anger, humiliation, resentment, hatred, or contempt.

The opposite is the case: good people will do better when they feel their leaders respect them, give them credit, listen to them, and can be trusted not to damage their reputation or their career.

Of course, you can be perfectly nice to everybody and still be a complete incompetent. But you solve that by learning how to do your job better -- not by abusing the people around you. In fact, the best way to improve your own work is by learning from the people around and, yes, under you.


Because we're at the end of the year, and a lot of Oscar-bait movies have come out during the holidays, it's going to take me a while to watch the ones that have any hope of being worth watching.

(No, I'm not going to go to any Quentin Tarantino movie, ever, especially not Inglourious Basterds; the last thing I want to see is a bloody, violent movie in which Tarantino apparently lectures Jews on how they should have behaved when under the power of the Nazis.)

One of the movies I was hearing good things about was Up in the Air, a George Clooney vehicle directed and co-written by Jason Reitman. (The other writer was Sheldon Turner, whose only credits were the unnecessary remake of The Longest Yard and a prequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) I happily avoided Jason Reitman's two previous feature films, Juno and Thank You for Smoking.

In a way, Up in the Air can be seen as "edginess starting to grow up." George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is traveling the country in order to fire people. His company is in the business of coming in as termination experts, firing people in such a way as to minimize fuss and bother, while allowing the bosses of the people being let go to go about their business without living through any of the unpleasant scenes.

But Ryan has another side to him: He thrives on solitude. He delivers seminars and lectures on how to cut everything and everybody out of your life. First he tells people to eliminate all their physical roots -- house, car, any possessions that tie them down and slow them down.

Then he suggests that most of their human connections do the same thing -- old friends you never see or want to see, family members you don't like who make unreasonable demands on you, and so on.

And the writing is good enough that you can see why an audience might, for a few moments at least, buy into this drivel.

Those who know even the tiniest amount about psychology or anthropology will know that humans evolved as social beings and in the absence of connection we become depressed and, ultimately, self-destructive or at least self-neglectful. But it be sound attractive to have someone on a podium give us permission to jettison the people we don't actually like any more.

Of course, we are not shown the part of the lecture where Mr. Termination Expert tells you how to deal with people who think they have the right to call you or write to you and make requests that you have an obligation to fulfil.

In fact he is terrible at it himself. He has not connected permanently with a woman, or started a family, and he certainly has no visible friends -- but he has not jettisoned his family completely, and during the film he goes to some trouble, including falling into a body of water, in order to do a meaningless favor for a sister he doesn't even like.

If the part were not played by George Clooney, there would be nothing to like about this character, and I probably would have walked out of the theater. But Clooney is compulsively likable -- in part because of his permanent smirk, which makes him seem a little friendly and kind of fun.

Unfortunately, that smirk makes the firing-people part of his role completely unbelievable. He delivers all his "we're letting you go" speeches with that slight smile on his face, and it is absolutely unbelievable that at least three-fourths of the people he's firing don't say to him, "Are you enjoying this? What's with the smile? You think this is fun? Get out of my face."

The plot involves two women. One, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is a wunderkind who wants to computerize the whole process -- doing the firing interviews in front of a computer monitor over the internet. This is such an obviously bad idea that if it weren't for the fact that we've all seen management try even stupider things in the real world, it would wreck the believability of the movie right there. But we do know that idiots are always seduced by misapplied technology, and so we buy the premise that she is going around with him to learn how to fire people from the master.

The other woman is a flirtation-turned-lover named Alex Goran (the luminous Vera Farmiga) who captures his heart, until he has to chuck his whole philosophy for good in order to try to make that human connection. And even though the ending is, in obedience to the genre rules of literary fiction, disappointing and irresolute, we do see that he has been permanently changed, for the better and the happier.

Both actresses do a very good job of stealing this movie out from under him. Anna Kendrick only gradually shows her character's vulnerability, but we do move from disliking her to pitying her and then wishing her well; and Vera Farmiga makes us adore the woman who meets Clooney in airport cities all over America, and then comes with him when he reconnects, however reluctantly, with his family. The sequence in Clooney's old high school is quite lovely.

But the best scene in the movie is when Clooney is forced to sit down with his sister's fiancé and talk him out of his cold feet about the wedding. Clooney's character is the last person to be talking someone into marriage -- his interview skills are all about terminating relationships, after all. But of course (and again we don't mind the cliche) he talks himself along with the young man into making the human connection.

Along the way, it's fun to see the star cameos of people being fired; and one of the emotional roots of the film is the honesty with which it shows the reactions of people who have just been told they've lost their jobs. And since it took me half the film to figure out where I'd seen the sister-getting-married actress, I'll spare you the trouble: It's Melanie Lynskey, who played the stalker-neighbor in the early seasons of Two and a Half Men.

Up in the Air earns its R rating with nudity and foul language. At the same time, it is not pornographic or deliberately offensive; it's doing the slice-of-life thing. Ryan's relationships are all either professional or sexual at the start of the film, and it's part of his progress as a human being to see him get out of the bed and into his life. You have to decide for yourself whether it's something you want to see.

Because, by the end, despite the li-fi genre's requirement for a "sad" ending, this is an optimistic film about growth and connection, and I left the theater feeling buoyed up, filled with the bittersweetness of real life.


By the way, for those who care: You will often hear people pronounce the word "buoy" as if it were spelled "BOO-wee." This is wrong. "Buoy" and "boy" are pronounced almost identically, as a single syllable. If you want to put in a bit of the u, then it should result in the single-syllable word "bwoy," and never in a two-syllable word.

But since I can't get waiters to pronounce the Italian word "bruschetta" correctly (sch as in "school," not as in "Schuman"), why should I expect to have any better luck with English, which is not as phonetic as Italian?

When people pronounce the first c in "arctic" or the first r in "February" or the first d in "Wednesday" I resist the temptation to ask, "Are you going to start pronouncing the b in 'debt' and the k in 'know'? Haven't you heard of silent letters?"

Ah well, language changes, and it's useless for one sad old man to try to stem the tide. But I'll tell you, I rejoice when I encounter people who do pronounce words correctly, and I revel in hearing them talk. It's like finding a fellow speaker of your native tongue after spending too long in a foreign land.

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