Posted by David Kalat on December 3, 2011
It’s been a little over a year since I debuted here, and in that time I’ve stirred up a handful of firestorms–but weirdly, not the ones I expected. I posted a clip of Buster Keaton as a sympathetic Nazi general, and nobody chirped a word of protest. I ran a whole blog about blackface comedians, and the comments thread it initiated was reasoned, intelligent and low-key. I facetioustly pretended that The Thing was a Christmas movie, defended Popeye, and praised Charlie Chaplin imitators.
But the one time I provoked serious anger and acrimony was the time I suggested that William Haines–William Haines!–wasn’t all that funny (I got called “hateful” for that one!)
When I wrote last week’s post about the Muppets, I figured I was running a risk. Critics say nice things about heavily hyped contemporary movies at their own peril. But my positive thoughts on the new Muppets wasn’t what kicked up dust–heavens, no. The vitriol came out in my offhanded reference to Orson Welles having appeared in the 1979 Muppet Movie! Somehow, this prompted the comments thread to start to tear into F for Fake. (how?)
To be fair, it was just one lone voice, wailing into the ether about how much he hated the Muppets, and F for Fake. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a put-on, somebody simply trying to bait me. But I’m not above being baited. I won’t stand by and let anybody talk smack about F for Fake, one of my 10 favorite movies of all time. Consider the battle joined.
Before we get started on F for Fake, we need to dig into its subject matter–the question of artistic provenance, and the difficulty in correctly attributing authorship. Because this sits at the bedrock of any discussion of art forgers–Elmyr de Hory and his ilk didn’t go around ginning up duplicates of the Mona Lisa. They made “new” artworks in the style of established masters and passed them off as having been created by someone else.
This is possible because there’s no easy way to make certain who painted what. Let me give you an example–a friend of mine used to be a neighbor of Pablo Picasso’s. Neighbor, friend, lover, it’s hard to pin things like that down with a single word. Let’s go with “neighbor.”
Her apartment is filled with Picasso artworks–things you’ve never seen before. These are Picasso paintings that don’t appear in any exhibition catalog or coffee table artbook, because they’ve been in her house all this time!
Now, I suppose she could be lying, and these things are fakes. That’s possible. I tend to doubt it, because she was his neighbor (this is well documented) and she’s never tried to make money off these, so as frauds go it’s kind of weird. But the point of this anecdote was to show how incomplete the “official” catalogs of even the best known, most exhaustively studied artists can be. There are Picassos out there you don’t know about–and that very fact creates the opportunity for fraudsters to invent phonies to pass off as Picassos (or others) you don’t know about.
Time for another anecdote: when I was a film student at the University of Michigan, the program was administered by William Paul, who presided over a rather unfortunate bifurcation of the student body. One group–which had Paul’s favor and loving support–was committed to the academic approach to film theory and critical study of cinema. The other group–misfits and outsiders who Paul once openly mocked at a public event–wanted to study the actual making of film, the technical and practical aspects of filmmaking.
No prizes for guessing I was in the second camp.
The head of the technical department, and a man I am honored to have known and studied under, was Jonnie Doebele, who came from Germany with his wife Hannelore to establish and run the technical classes. I came to be friends with them, and spent some time at their home enjoying fondue and watching obscure German films.
I took a class on Theater of the Absurd, which focused on the work of Samuel Beckett. More specifically, it focused on the forays Beckett made into non-theater media forms like radio and television–which meant I got to take a class where I got to watch Buster Keaton in Film and get a grade on it! Score!
But I digress–the theory proffered in this class was that Beckett’s work as a stage dramatist took a substantial leap into greater abstraction after he experimented in these alternate media forms. To that end, the professor wanted us to pay close attention to Beckett’s obscurata and marginalia as a way of understanding his later plays.
Thus did we watch QUADRAT 1 & 2. Words don’t do it justice. Here’s a link to a clip on You Tube:
As the closing credits rolled, I noticed that Hannelore was listed among the production team. The next time I was at their house, I asked her about it–and she let loose with a fabulous rant about how Beckett was drunk and/or asleep through the whole thing. Apparently, Beckett didn’t understand that the B&W monitors in the studio showed B&W even when the camera recorded color images, so he blew up at the production team and demanded it be shot again, “in color.” Which in turn resulted in the actual finished film–which runs twice through, once in color and once in B&W–an idea that derived from Becket”s misunderstanding of the technology. Hannelore says that Beckett wasn’t even present during some of the production and deferred a lot of the creative decision making to his assistant.
All of which tends to mitigate against any argument that the content of this show can be used to interpret Beckett’s creative mind.
I tell this story here to point out how tricky the whole business of attributing authorship is–whether you can extraopolate a meaningful statement about Beckett’s larger body of work from QUADRAT has a lot to do with whether Beckett had a meaningful role in the making of QUADRAT. The one depends on the other. But the official statement of authorship on which my professor’s thesis relied was potentially skewed–Hannelore had an alternate theory of authorship about the show, and she was there.
These two anecdotes are presented to establish a single idea: that the official histories of any given artist may leave stuff out, and the official histories of any given artist may inaccurately include stuff in. In other words, for any artist there are fat margins around them–and those fat margins are tempting places for forgeries or debates to prosper.
These same issues ripple through any discussion of Orson Welles’ legacy as a filmmaker–he put himself forward as a visionary artist whose self-expression was compromised by the interference of others. This is the typical view of the auteur hero–not just Welles, but any director lionized by critics. But even the most auteurist of these figures were working in a fundamentally collaborationist medium, and benfitted or suffered from the contributions of their writers, actors, composers, cinematographers, production designers, etc. No director truly works alone–no film is solely the vision of a single artist.
It is merely a cultural fiction in which we collectively engage that any film can be attributed to the artistry of a single visionary–if a director receives advice and assistance from his collaborators that he accepts, that can be conveniently recharacterized as “his” vision, and when he disagrees their deviant suggestions can be blamed for any missteps.
The comments thread last week mentioned Welles’ unfinished Don Quxiote, which I’ve blogged about here before. That film was never finished not because Welles was stopped by mean studio ogres, but because as an independent producer he couldn’t stay organized. He was a terrible producer, to put it bluntly. He needed someone to serve that role on his behalf–even if he would be tempted to villify them and battle them for doing their job. Without the producer to keep things together, his unruly creative vision went off the rails.
F for Fake understands this problematic side of Welles–it is as autobiographical as a film gets. Having acquired the raw footage of an unfinished documentary on art forger Elmyr de Hory, Welles realized that the question of art forgery circled uncomfortably through questions of artistic provenance and attribution that touched on his and any other filmmaker’s life. How much of Citizen Kane is truly Welles? 100% or something less? And if less, who can claim ownership of that remaining fraction–and why aren’t they famous? How do you reconcile the creator of the perfect Citizen Kane with the creator of something ramshackle and rambunctious like Mr. Arkadin–or something unfinished like Don Quixote?
More than most, Welles saw himself as akin with fraudsters–he was a magician after all, and the architect of the War of the Worlds hoax, both of which he directly references as he draws his own life story into the stuff of de Hory. And I haven’t even touched on the Clifford Irving connection.
Irving appears in the documentary footage as an associate of de Hory, which allows Welles to go off on a tangent about Irving’s hoax biography of Howard Hughes–mindful at all times that he, Welles, became famous for making a fake biography of Howard Hughes, too.
It’s a labyrinthine movie, a thriller written by MC Escher, that mixes fact and fiction with no particular regard for which is which. It is the forerunner to Penn & Teller Tell a Lie, which also finds magician entertainers mixing real science with fake, and using the techniques of documentary production (read: reality TV) to cover the patches.
I am astonished that I would need to come to the defense of a movie this richly imagined and meticulously composed–it is that rare creation that manages to be at once influential while also remaining unique. And while it may not seem at first glance to be of a piece stylistically with Citizen Kane–well, none of Welles’ work fits like that. Once he spun out of the studio environment, he spent most of his life crafting unruly, handmade, rambunctious stuff more like F for Fake than like Kane.
To disrespect this film is to slag off the bulk of Welles’ life–and if that’s how you feel, so be it, but how can you be a Welles fan and not like most of his life’s work? Or do you seriously think you can blame everything that went awry in his life and career on everyone else and everything that went well in his life and career on him?
I’m a realist–and my best friends and family are messy people full of flaws and cracks. I love them for that, and I celebrate the flaws and cracks in everything. I think Welles was a tough man to get along with, who had terrible business sense, and was his own worst enemy. And those problematic character traits made him what he was–they led to his greatest heights as well as his lows. And seriously, F for Fake is one of those greatest highs.
Better than Citizen Kane, if you ask me.
(And for those who are curious about my comment regarding my top 10: Fantasia, The General, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, F for Fake, Once Upon a Time in the West, Playtime, Detour, Godzilla, Rear Window, Trouble in Paradise, Diabolique. So there.)
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