Me And Orson Welles

“I lied like a maniac.” That’s Orson Welles’ own self-appraisal, in his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, explaining how he got his first work in professional theatre — after, by his own account if no-one else’s, having briefly been a matador in Spain. Welles is one of history’s great fabulists, cheerfully lying both off-screen and on, culminating in my favourite of his movies, the brilliant, barking F For Fake. In this extraordinary movie Welles presents himself as a magician, charlatan and prankster, gleefully deconstructing both his own myth and the wider world, and reinventing cinema along the way. Here’s the introduction to the movie, which sets out his agenda for the film — and establishes the task that any actor playing Welles must face:

That dangerous, dazzling charm, that self-awareness, that baroque fluidity of self-expression is a daunting challenge for an actor, even when, as in this film, he is playing Welles at 22. Welles, after all, at 22, had already mastered theatre and radio, and was well on his way towards directing the most influential movie ever made. Fortunately, in Christian McKay, director Richard Linklater has found his perfect Welles: bombastic, seductive and deadly, with that permanent air of half-amusement, one eyebrow cocked in irony as the voice rumbles stealthily beneath.

The story is straightforward, archetypal: a young actor (Zac Efron) gets a job at Welles’ Mercury Theatre in the last week of rehearsals for Caesar: Death of a Dictator, Orson’s ground-breaking version of Shakespeare. He watches the master at work, falls in love with his assistant (Claire Danes) and learns the simple lesson: never meet your idols, for fear of discovering the truth. But the real pleasure of the movie is not the plot, but the performances, and Linklater’s brilliant choreography of a theatre company at work. It was shot, very rapidly (Linklater calls it “a movie made on its feet”) in the Isle of Man, in the real Gaiety Theatre, and the authenticity both of its location and its company of actors shines through every moment of the film. Zac Efron is terrific, neatly undercutting his star power with a real lightness of touch, and a self-deprecating humour that hints at Cary Grant, while Claire Danes shines as a young woman who knows just what she has to surrender in order to follow her dreams: there’s a steel beneath this story that cuts through the sugar on the top. There are also a raft of great supporting performances, including Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris and a brilliant James Tupper as Joe Cotten, all crinkly hair and roguish charm.

This isn’t an “important” film, or a ground-breaking film, or an essential film. It won’t change your life, and it’s certainly not, as the posters proclaim, “the feel good film of the year”. And I’m an Orson Welles obsessive, so I’m not sure you should take my word for any of it. But it’s a kind of film that is important, and a kind of film that’s increasingly rare: a beautifully-written drama with complex, fascinating characters, every one of whom is chasing their own particular dream. In a world that’s short of heroes, there are few more enticing than Welles, if only because he’s such a bewitching, bewildering villain.

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Why dream sequences don’t work

Film has often been compared to dreaming. After all, we watch them in darkness; they’re not bound by the conventions of time, space and period; they take us to new, invented worlds but feature people who feel familiar to us; and very often they don’t make any sense. Orson Welles said that film was “like a ribbon of dreams”. So why are dreams in films so unconvincing and, despite their often vivid visuals, dull?

Sometimes the reason is narrative laziness. Screenwriters use dreams as exposition, conveniently filling the character’s backstory, or as a cheap shock in a bad thriller. But there’s a deeper problem than bad screenwriting: the difference between watching and feeling. What you see when you’re dreaming may be surreal, with its leaps of time, place and character, but it feels, at the time, completely logical. It’s only when you piece it together afterwards that you become aware of the leaps. In a movie, conversely, you can film what the character sees, but too often, as a result, you end up with something that feels inauthentic and forced, like the Dali-designed dream sequences in Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Spellbound, in fact, is perhaps the least dreamlike of Hitchcock’s films; few other directors make films that feel so close, in their “real” world, to dreams. His fetishistic close-ups, sudden violence and rich, sweet atmosphere of paranoia all have the authentic feel of dreams, as do his plots: ordinary people caught up in thrilling, illogical adventures. Intruding on this atmosphere with something that’s supposed to be a dream, paradoxically, does exactly the opposite of its intention. And that’s the real problem with dreams in movies: intended to enchant us, they more often break the spell.