"Who is the new Orson Welles?" someone asked me after a recent screening of Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles (64 screens). Certainly Christian McKay does a superb Welles in that movie, and if anyone wanted to have an Orson Welles-style narrator on a documentary, or a Moby Dick-style cameo in a feature film, McKay's your man. But what about Welles the director? Those are much bigger shoes to fill. Linklater is arguably one of the best American directors working today, but he's very much the opposite of Welles in style; laid-back and loose as compared to Welles' more stylized compositions.
The Coen Brothers (A Serious Man, 152 screens) are as visually formal as Welles, but they lack Welles' showmanship. They prefer to remain mysterious and nerdy and behind the scenes. Werner Herzog (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, 96 screens) has a very vivid onscreen/offscreen personality like Welles, but is far more reckless and exploratory in his subject matter. John Woo (Red Cliff, 42 screens) has skill, but is a much more humble, gentle soul in life and much more violent onscreen. Lars von Trier (Antichrist, 13 screens) is equally canny at promoting his own legend, but it's arguable as to whether or not the films actually hold up. Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!, 18 screens) has the gift of being able to control his career, but that's not something Welles ever had, and Soderbergh lacks Welles' consistent visual style. Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story, 35 screens) is equal in physical size to the late-period Welles and enjoys being in front of that camera, but that's about where the comparison ends. Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum, 4 screens) has the style, but her work can sometimes be very obscure; she lacks Welles' showmanship.
Welles and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds, 61 screens) are both quite brilliant and are both master promoters and showmen. Their movies are very personal and crackle with energy and enthusiasm, a love for the medium. However, the difference is that Welles was a student of the world, traveling everywhere and absorbing theater, art, literature, music and movies, while Tarantino's education focused almost entirely on Los Angeles and movies. Tarantino also seems to shift gears more quickly, becoming all-absorbed by his current project, while Welles could concentrate on many things and return to older projects.
No, the filmmaker that comes closest to being a kindred spirit to Welles is Terry Gilliam, whose The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens next week. Gilliam seems to have suffered the same kind of problems with financiers and distribution. Both directors have had their films cut by others, both attempted and could not finish adaptations of Don Quixote, and both made films upon which one of the lead actors died during production. Like Welles, Gilliam is something of a misunderstood genius, and always seems a bit ahead of his time; his films are rarely appreciated when new. The major difference is that Gilliam seems focused on issues of fantasy and juvenilia, while Welles was interested in aging and death.
Finally, there's Paul Thomas Anderson. He has enjoyed a much luckier career than Gilliam or Welles, but as critic David Thomson has pointed out, his There Will Be Blood is much closer in spirit to Citizen Kane than any other American film since The Godfather. (I was not so sure about it when I first saw it, but it has continued to fascinate me.) It's focused on a single, extraordinary, ambitious figure, who occupies a rich, stylistic landscape. The movie also moves beyond the world of cinema junkies, and seems interested in politics, literature and history. Unlike Citizen Kane, however, the movie turned a profit and made everyone happy, including the financiers, the critics, audiences and the Academy. If Anderson can learn to upset people from time to time, he may have a great future ahead of him.