It's Not Me, It's You

In Discovering Orson Welles, Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent collection of Welles-related essays, Rosenbaum devotes a number of chapters to critiques of Welles biographies. He roughly divides the texts between those sympathetic to Welles and those more harshly critical, as well as making the distinction between biographers who knew Welles personally and ones who did not. What emerges is a dizzying variety of Welleses, including, in the essential This Is Orson Welles (interviews conducted by Peter Bogdanovich), the Man Himself, whose reflective and relatively easy-going manner later in life doesn't in itself debunk any legends of the enfant terrible of War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane.

Thankfully, Richard Linklater's thoroughly invigorating Me and Orson Welles isn't a sprawling Welles biopic. In fact, Welles is technically, purposefully something of a supporting character in this story of a high school student with acting ambitions who lands himself a small part in Welles' famous, fascism-skewing 1937 Julius Caesar production. Purposefully, because Welles is (no pun intended, I swear) simply too big for one film or one book--or even two or three books, as evidenced by Simon Callow's admirable yet flawed multi-volume project--to encompass. While both as an artist and as a man Welles seems to somehow grow more fascinating with each passing year, The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight--not to mention the numerous partially completed Welles projects lingering in limbo--remain vastly more edifying than any biography or biopic could ever hope to be.

All that said, Christian McKay's performance is downright eerie. Miles from passable takes like Liev Schreiber's broody Welles in RKO 281 or Vincent D'Onfrio's cameo Welles in Ed Wood, McKay is, at once, both Welles-as-Charles-Foster-Kane (with a few years' age and experience convincingly subtracted) and Welles as you can't help but imagine him while reading those above-mentioned biographies: tremendously ambitious, roguishly charming, and hyper-aware of his own singular brilliance; think: Kanye West before Kanye West, including a political outspokenness that Linklater avoids a little too neatly. So dead-on is McKay's turn that at a couple different points in the film, I actually had to remind myself that I was watching an actor playing Welles and not some miraculously unearthed archival footage of the real O.W. directing Caesar.

McKay owns every scene he's in. He doesn't, however, own the movie. This is very much a quintessential Linklater film--talky, sweet-not-sugary, bursting with growing pains not unlike those of Jesse, Celine, or the cast of Dazed and Confused. If the period detail and magnetism of McKay's Welles inevitably dilute the romantic urgency here, signature Linklater themes--chance encounters and brief stretches of the extraordinary dramatically shaping and coloring the course of a life, the liberating potential of artistic expression, etc.--nevertheless shine through.

And while McKay steals the show, Zach Efron (following good work in the better-than-you'd-assume 17 Again) proves a more than capable young talent; Claire Danes has, perhaps, never been than better than as a Welles assistant with ambitions of her own. When Efron's Richard reacts heartbrokenly that his "girlfriend" is shacking up with the married Welles, Danes' Sonja reminds him that they've only known one another for a week. "This week has changed my life," he shoots back, dropping the cool-kid demeanor he's carefully cultivated and sounding a heck of a lot like Ethan Hawke's Jesse a decade and a half ago--or character-wise, almost sixty years later. When a closer-in-age other-Efron-love-interest recites "Ode on a Grecian Urn," it sounds rather like a working mantra for a filmmaker as indefatigably romantic as romance itself is indefatigable.


Artists of the Year

Adam Lambert and Lady Gaga aren't just the artists of the year. They each represent the culmination of a decade's worth of pop-in-theory (as opposed to literally popular) finally burst through ready-or-not into the mainstream. Which is to say, they're consciously subversive, smart about their own image and fame, clearly fascinated by pop history, sexually outré, wickedly talented--and they're selling lots of records to consumers who don't operate music blogs and/or write for alt-weekly papers.

This must be some kind of golden age. Even Madonna didn't arrive this canny or this provocative, or at least she didn't let on about it until a few years into her career, establishing her chart-topping credentials then making the "Like a Prayer" video and the Sex book. Prince might be the closest point of comparison, and when you have to evoke the Purple One as an exception proofing the rule, you know we're talking about two special entertainers. Plus, Prince sang about fucking women in his little red Corvette (and, okay, getting head from his older sister), which is challenging in its prurience rather than its actual subject, which, with different wording, could've inspired a Don Henley song. Adam Lambert is simulating fellatio and laying a juicy one on his (male) bandmember on a nationally television awards show; the openly bisexual Lady Gaga's new album includes a song about masturbating to a chick she's crushing on, while in an interview, she answers with an entirely straight-face that the only virtue she looks for in a guy is a big dick.

Post-Madonna, the formula has gone provocateur on record and stage/down-to-earth small-town girl (or boy) when the press comes knocking, even when said performer's public activities suggest otherwise (see: Britney, Miley, Rihanna, et. al). But Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert are not from Kentwood, Louisiana, Nashville, or Barbados; they're from New York City and San Diego, respectively, which may or may not have something to do with their divergent approaches to image maintenance.

At any rate, they're both uncommonly open in admitting their individual yearnings for fame. For Gaga, fame is itself an integral part of her persona. If she were merely a critics' pet or performance-art circuit darling (and either, five or ten years ago, would've been a probable career end-point), the sheer larger-than-lifeness of the character she's carefully cultivated would register as, at best, tongue-in-cheek self-parody (see: Peaches, for example). Instead, as she releases killer single after killer single and headlines multi-night gigs at large venues in major world cities, her single-minded ambition feels impressively prophetic.

Adam Lambert, meanwhile, was plenty busy before knocking everybody's socks off on American Idol, performing in theatre productions from Broadway to L.A. to Europe. On A.I., Lambert seemed to re-invent himself week after week, whether offering up a glammed-out "Ring of Fire" or achingly beautiful renditions of "Mad World" and "The Tracks of My Years." With all due respect to Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, he's the most remarkable, and most fully-formed, artist the show has yet produced, and, frankly, this truth was perfectly evident before the season was even half over. That he finished as a runner-up is a footnote that speaks more of American prejudices than the talents of the obscurity-bound Kris Allen.

For Your Entertainment lives up to the promise of his Idol performances, which is saying a lot. It's a consistently surprising (and surprisingly consistent), nicely varied showcase for Lambert as the pop star of the future. On a number of occasions, Lambert has cited the 23 year-old (!) Gaga as an influence, and there are moments on his debut that recall the fashion-forward, pleasure-first headiness she's fast made her signature. But there's also liberal doses of Queen, Bowie, Donna Summer, Justin & Timbaland, MJ, and Prince--the sound is in tune enough with the pop-rock past to stand out from the sameiness of today's top 40 while current enough to avoid retro novelty territory--and yet Lambert, like Gaga, emerges as a distinct voice in the mix. With any luck, their voices will remain distinct, and relevant, through the new decade that's about to begin.


Lives Less Ordinary: Films 1-2

02. Ghost World and 01. Before Sunset So, yeah, if only one film could represent the 2000's in a time-capsule for future generations to discover, it should absolutely be Redacted. But back to what I said above...rewatchability? Great acting? Those (usually) matter, too, and they especially matter when the films you're repeatedly rewatching somehow continue to yield new pleasures and nuances on the tenth or twentieth view. Which is to say, these two aren't my favorite films of the decade because I know every syllable of every line by heart. Rather, I know every syllable of every line by heart because they've both proved so endlessly rewarding to revisit.

That's Ghost World and Before Sunset, for you. Admittedly, neither's going to change the world or the medium of cinema, though both offer fresh takes on seemingly familiar territory. Terry Zwigoff puts a world-weary, quasi-existentialist spin on the coming-of-age movie, while also marrying film style to comic book form more ingeniously than any of the recent comic-based blockbusters. Richard Linklater, meanwhile, pulls off the finest sequel ever made by reducing film romance to its most essential ingredients: two fascinating human beings, time, and the city (in this case, a seldom more gorgeous Paris). The real-time structure of Before Sunset, with Jesse and Celine nervously stalling against the former's scheduled flight home, is an exercise in tension build-up more effective than any Bond or Bourne flick, which naturally makes the release of the classic final scene that much sweeter.

Enid leaves town on the bus, Jesse misses that plane--and both Zwigoff and Linklater are wise enough to know that the future remains uncertain.


Tomorrow Never Knows: Films 3-5

05. A.I. A.I. certainly retains elements of Kubrick's conception and development of the project, but to consider it as an equal-parts hybrid is to shortchange Spielberg for the greatest film of his career. Icy yet tender, epic and intimate, A.I. is a film like no other--and the much-argued over ending is cinematic storytelling at its most profoundly human.

04. Three Times Three stories--set sequentially in 1966, 1911, and 2005 and starring the same pair of performers, Shu Qi and Chang Chen--centering on relationships and the circumstances that shape them. Only the first vignette, in which Hou Hsiao-hsien borrows fruitfully from the Wong Kar-wai playbook, suggests the possibility of a happy outcome. In the second segment, class and politics stand in the way of romance, while in the third, it's the distractions and fragmentation of modern life. As a sort of Hou greatest hits collection, Three Times is fascinating and particularly rewarding for the longtime Hou faithful, but it also represents a formal step forward for one of the world's foremost narrative filmmakers.

03. Redacted Brian De Palma's incendiary mixed-media assault on the Iraq War machine and the media complicit in its misdeeds is a work of such furious indignation (the YouTube girl delivering an anti-war tirade feels like something of a director surrogate) and unflinching power that, yes, it's more than a little difficult to sit through. So, if inviting rewatchability is your barometer of greatness, look elsewhere; likewise, if traditionally proficient acting is a prerequisite in your grading book (De Palma's no-name cast delivers purposefully heightened, one-dimensional performances). But if thoughtful contributions to an essential social dialogue, a prescient understanding of today's fractured information systems, and a brutal honesty in the face of censorship are virtues to be lauded--and they damn well should be--Redacted may well be the most significant statement put to film this decade.


Impossible Beauty: Films 6-10

10. Tropical Malady, 09. The New World and 08. In the Mood for Love This trio of unconventional romances each rank among the most jaw-droppingly beautiful films ever made. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's strongest outing to date is a gay love story told in two complimentary parts: the first half is a relatively traditional, exceptionally (and almost suspiciously) sunny boy-meets-boy narrative (lots of smiling and spooning), the second finds the pair in the jungle, with one a soldier on the hunt and the other reincarnated as a mysterious tiger-like beast. Terrence Malick's ravishing re-telling of the Pocahontas/John Smith encounter is an exploration of how we communicate--with each other, across barriers of culture and language, and especially with the wilds around us--that finds the master shooting four-for-four in the masterpiece count. Like the ill-fated relationship of Smith and Pocahontas, the never-quite lovers in Wong Kar-wai's greatest film connect deeply, but due to unfortunate circumstances--their closeness develops after learning that their respective spouses are carrying on an affair together and they refuse, despite their emotions, to follow suit--are unable to allow their affections to blossom; they're in the mood for love but in neither the time nor place for it.

07. Still Life and 06. Russian Ark Here, Jia Zhang-ke and Alexander Sokurov attempt to, respectively, take the current temperature and better understand the history of two of the most ancient (and most complex) nations on Earth, while successfully experimenting with the latest in filmmaking technology. Jia and his DP extraordinaire, Nelson Yu Lik-wai, utilize amazing high-definition digital video in exposing the galvanizing effects of the Three Gorges Dam project on Chinese society (see also, Yung Chang's excellent documentary Up the Yangtze). Alexander Sokurov steers one, daringly unbroken 96-minute tracking shot through St. Petersberg's Hermitage museum (formerly, the Winter Palace) and through centuries of contentious Russian history. Both films will take your breath away.