not in our stars, but in ourselves
Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.
– Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
Ask enough people which movie is the greatest of all time, by reputation at the very least, and you’ll likely hear Citizen Kane again and again. It tops all sorts of polls by critics and film societies; it changed the cinematic game when it was released; and it’s still regarded as one of the greats (even if there’s a bit more dissent as to whether or not it’s the greatest). Its then-enfant terrible director, Orson Welles, had all kinds of other big ideas for other films, and he managed to make a few more masterpieces, hustling money wherever and however he could; but if you ask the same sample size if they’ve seen any of the rest, you’ll probably get more and more nos. Possibly the least seen, least appreciated, least understood of all is his last completed film, F for Fake – but I’d recommend you all hop on Hulu right now and watch it.
It’s sort of a documentary about Elmyr de Hory, a notorious (and fun, and funny, and prodigiously talented) art forger. It’s also sort of a documentary about Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer, and a dizzying fake in his own right: he was famous, or infamous, at the time for having written and published Howard Hughes’s diary – needless to say, without Hughes’ authorization or consent or knowledge. It’s sort of a documentary about Welles’s own dazzling debut on the world stage, with his fake-news bulletin formatted War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. And it’s sort of a documentary about Oja Kodar, Welles’s sexy young mistress, and how she caught the eye of Pablo Picasso, who painted twenty or so pictures of her; gave them to her; was outraged to hear that they were on exhibition in a gallery; and then further outraged when he found that they, too, were fakes. But if we accept documentaries as straight fact, then F for Fake is a failure; indeed, the last little story about Oja is a complete fabrication, one likely devised by Oja herself. F for Fake is, more than anything, a meditation on artifice – and its immeasurable value to a lifelong trickster, charlatan, magician, and conjurer like Orson Welles.
You’ll note the Nabokov quote above. Welles doesn’t include Nabokov anywhere in his film, and I don’t know what they thought of each other, but I do know this: F for Fake is the most intoxicatingly Nabokovian film I’ve ever seen in my life. Another passage, this from Strong Opinions, could just as well be F for Fake‘s mission statement:
To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase “sincere and simple” — “Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere” — under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: “Art is simple, art is sincere.” Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.
Nabokov was an entomologist, specifically a lepidopterist. He devoted his non-literary life to studying insects, and how they changed themselves over hundreds of generations to adapt precisely to their chosen habitats. This often includes mimicry – trickery, forgery – but of course there’s no conscious effort to deceive in the insect world. His study of little arthropod art forgers, however, reappears constantly in his fiction. He doesn’t assign value judgments to his various frauds and doubles and mirror images; they’re part of the natural world, and they’re part of the human world as well. Welles notes in F for Fake that the real question is never whether something is real or not – but whether it’s a good fake or a bad fake.
Not to get too broad or philosophical, but cinema itself is one of the grandest fakes in the world. Art is and always has been a question of replicating human emotion, etc., in other media: painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature. It’s all exaggerated and abstracted, but it’s not (usually) a purely theoretical exercise. Cinema has taken this tendency to soaring new heights. With the “reality” promised by photography, film makers have manipulated audiences since about 1895. Georges Méliès himself was a magician before he started experimenting with motion pictures, and he took to them like a fish to water: he created dazzling optical illusions to serve his wildly inventive tales of space travel, haunted castles, fever dreams, and more. As cinema matured, it used these magic tricks in ever more sophisticated fashion: from Méliès’s conjuring tricks, where a dancing devil might spring up in a puff of smoke all of a sudden, to Welles’s mirrors-on-mirrors-on-mirrors finale of The Lady from Shanghai. Films were proudly artificial throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age, summoning real emotion from their audience members with a witches’ brew of light and shadow, seamless editing, perfectly beautiful performers, made-to-order music…you get the idea. It’s always been fake. And yet – it’s always been one of the most genuinely immersive, accessible arts. Even the Soviets, those no-fun-niks, understood its immense power. The Nazis, too. If you want to control a population, cast a few spells at the movie theatre every week.
I think Orson Welles understood this pretty well. He was a smart guy, as you may have heard. But in any event, don’t let any of this dissuade you, or prejudice you against the film. See it. It’s unlike anything else. In Jonathan Rosenbaum’s words: “As Welles remarks about Chartres, the most important thing is that it exists.”