Thursday, March 03, 2005

You Can Always Do Something With a Crook 

It's little-seen and generally considered a tremendous mess, but Criterion will soon be releasing F for Fake. It is, for my money (which I will be blowing on this once it hits stores), Orson Welles' third greatest film (sorry, Magnificent Tenenbaums Ambersons fans -- show me an unearthed Director's Cut and we'll talk). It's ostensibly a documentary about an art forger named Elmyr de Hory, though it's really the story of an frustrated genius who has decided to, in lieu of the resources necessary to film his elaborate inventions, take up editing. Welles stiches together pieces of five or six aborted projects and ties it up with the catch-all theme of forgery. By this point (the mid-'70s) Welles had reached the apotheosis of self-mythology; he presents himself as Harry Lime incarnate, holding court at fancy restaurants telling tales of his young rascalry while surrounded by beautiful people. He grasps the fundamental appeal of the work of famously oversized personalities -- the illusion of intimacy with someone so clearly, confidently brilliant. The viewer begins to get the mistaken idea that he or she knows Orson personally, and yes, in person he's just as sparkling and quick-witted. This style of self-aggrandizement-as-art works only if you are actually sparkling and quick-witted, of course. Welles couldn't get away with this until he'd made Touch of Evil, much as Hunter Thompson couldn't have gotten away with most of his post-1974 output without the pre-1974 material.

The movie isn't just a big one-person circle jerk, of course. As I said, it's a study in the art of editing. The '70s might have been the golden age of films made brilliant in the editing room -- Annie Hall was, by some accounts, a light-comedic murder mystery in its raw form. Apocalypse Now was miles and miles of Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando out-crazying each other (with helocopters, napalm, and Harrison Ford making appearances) until a crack team of three editors and Michael Herr made it into an actual movie. And F for Fake, as I mentioned, was all useless artifacts of unmakable films and a little BBC documentary footage until Welles decided to invent some new form of fiction-straddling narrative "documentary," all very post-modern if you want to bring Roland Barthes or Walter Benjamin to the table (which Welles does, even if he, unlike I, doesn't need to namecheck them).

It's playful and intentionally shallow, but, like all Welles movies, it's a Great Man Brought Down story (gee, I hate to bring him up again, but who's been doing a lot of that lately?). The Great Man is, in this case, the director -- it plays almost like an excuse for being unable to "equal" his former lofty heights by explaining that, when you get down to it, said heights were the charlatanry of a gifted magician. For this performance, he demonstrates the trick again and then shows how it worked.

Every true artist must, in his own way, be a magician, a charlatan. Picasso once said he could paint fake Picassos as well as anybody, and someone like Picasso could say something like that and get away with it.
All of these are expressions of man's creativity, proof that man has not yet been destroyed by technology. But are we making things for the people of our epoch or repeating what has been done before? And finally, is the question itself important? We must ask ourselves that. The most important thing is always to doubt the importance of the question.
-Orson Welles

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