Ebertfest 2011: Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles and Karaoke!

I have to make a screening so this has to be a short one. Insert acknowledgement of the double entendre.

Me and Orson Welles

I have to make a screening so this has to be a short one. Insert acknowledgement of the double entendre. Insert acknowledgement of the double entendre. Meta!

Ebertfest is going splendidly. As always, the social aspect of the festival overshadows the films, even though the selection is great. Two nights ago—or was it last night—(the amalgamation of time is a direct result of sleep deprivation and a Klingon plot to destroy the Federation) a large group, including yours truly (you can’t have a wedding without the bride), went karaoke-ing. And when I say a large group, I believe there must have been fifty of us. The following day, Matt Singer of IFC and Ebert Presents At the Movies, remarked to me and Kevin Lee, of Fandor, that karaoke has become an intrinsic part of the NY film festival experience, and that it was fun to see it adopted by people from all over the country, and, in fact, the world. Matt, by the way, delivered a searing rendition of a Michael McDonald tune, as the ladies of Champaign flocked to his feet, Pied Piper of Hamlin-like was his hold on them. Everyone sang. Including Chaz Ebert, who knows all the words, and the moves, to Superfreak. She’s a very sexy girl, that Chaz. The one you don’t take home to your mother, etc.

Still, I will be remiss if I failed to mention at least one film, and that is Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, for which Linklater was in attendance. I did a Q&A with Linklater and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky after the screening, which you can watch here Linklater brought custom-made posters and soundtrack cd’s for the film with him, and gave them out to audience members who could answer his trivia questions correctly. Fun guy.

Taken as a whole, it’s a coming of age story, yes, but it’s also a paean to genius. Whether God-given or man-made. This is the most interesting aspect of the film for me, since, especially in the past few years, and especially with the rise of Internet criticism and the Gen X and Gen Y critics, we seem to beatify mediocrity. There’s a lot of posturing when it comes to dull talent, and people defend their tastes by trying to find some sort of equivalence between empirically great works of art and lowbrow entertainment. I know it’s rather unfashionable to say that there is a distinction between lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow, and that might be true when it comes to subject matter (I think Top Secret! is a highbrow film even though it’s inherently silly), but it isn’t when it comes to execution. Art is not a democracy. An optimist can argue that it is a meritocracy, but the realist, such as yours truly, knows that it’s an autocracy, and we are all at the mercy of unmitigated genius.

The film reminded me of Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, where W.S. Gilbert, played by Jim Broadbent, says “There’s something inherently disappointing about success…” Of course, by the time the Mercury Theatre had opened, Welles was a major celebrity. His first professional production was Macbeth when he was 21, and it was a huge hit. He met John Houseman soon after, who was then the head of the Negro Theater Unit, of the Federal Theater project, which was all under the umbrella of Roosevelt’s great dalliance with socialism that was the Works Progress Administration, which incidentally sorted out the economy. Well, that and that little skirmish in Europe. Just imagine: Shakespeare in Harlem with Asadata Dafora’s African drums banging: it’s magical. After the Italian Straw Hat debacle (Tim Robbins’s The Cradle Will Rock), Houseman and Welles formed their own company, and performed this trimmed-down version of Julius Ceasar. Of course, Shakespeare in a modern setting has turned into a bit of a gimmick, from Ian McKellen’s Richard III to Branagh’s Hamlet. Both are, admittedly, great. But imagine, at the time, this was something else. This is not in the film, per se, but Welles adopted the lighting from Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light” (Linklater said during the Q&A that the crew called the floor lights “The Nurembergs”). Also, at one point, the cast pointed machine guns at the audience and shot blanks at them. For Welles, then, this was a triumph and he followed it up with his infamous War of the Worlds shenanigans, and a little film called, Citizen Something, I don’t know. But then there is that fall from grace. There is something bizarrely autobiographical about Kane, but this film seems to suggest its roots, too. He plays Brutus, but he is unquestionably Ceasar. He is afraid of the future. He is equal times boisterous and wistful (see his wonderful speech about The Magnificent Ambersons). At times, he is friendly, other times like a wild animal. There seems to be a suggestion, albeit subtle, that his fate was sealed by his genius. He was so great, that even he could not keep up with himself.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Ali Arikan

Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and a regular contributor to RogerEbert.com. Ali’s work has appeared in IndieWire, Fandor, Chicago Sun-Times, Vogue, Vulture, Sabah of Istanbul, and The Times of London.

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