F for Fake
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Black Garment Dyed Unstructured + Distressed Hat
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I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.
— Orson Welles, quoted in Collier’s, 29 January 1938
F for Fake / Fake!
‘For my next experiment, ladies and gentlemen, I would appreciate a loan of any small personal object from your pocket—a key or a box of matches…’ Dressed in a magician’s black cape and top hat, Orson Welles performs magic tricks for a group of children and a small camera crew assembled beneath the iron arches of a Parisian train station. A boy retrieves a pocketed key; deposited in Welles’ nimble hands, it becomes a coin. It is the early 1970s and audiences have learned to anticipate this sort of ‘legerdemain, hanky-panky, and side-arm snookery’ from the aging showman. As though channeling their familiarity, a woman leans from a passenger-car window and chides him smilingly: ‘Up to your old tricks, I see.’
‘Why not?’ He replies, ‘I’m a charlatan.’
So begins F for Fake (1973). The last major work that Welles will complete, it initiates a new direction in the experimental films that will occupy his final years. Three decades earlier, Citizen Kane’s ‘pan-focus’ innovations revolutionized American cinema’s visual language, but Welles’ late work, awash in personal reflection and mesmerized by contingency, introduces something ‘far more radical.’ ‘When I finished F for Fake’, he would later reflect, ‘I thought I had discovered a new kind of movie…it’s a form, in other words, the essay, the personal essay, as opposed to the documentary.’ Although it would quickly grow into a wild ‘anti-genre,’ Welles’ ‘essay film’ had modest beginnings as a simple television biographical documentary about another charlatan: Elmyr de Hory.
One of the 20th century’s most celebrated art forgers, Elmyr’s fakes hung in several of the world’s most prestigious art collections. Or so it was claimed in Fake! the biography by Clifford Irving. An unsuccessful fiction writer and the forger’s neighbor on the island of Ibiza, Irving seemed to Welles to be an ideal ‘expert commentator’ for his television documentary. But ‘just as Orson was embarking on the project, an amazing thing happened that would ultimately change the shape of the film: Irving was exposed as a faker himself.’ Having forged an ‘as-told-to’ autobiography of the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes, Irving sold the manuscript to publisher McGraw-Hill for $7,500,000. Following the story from the editing rooms at Antégor, a Parisian post-production studio, it dawned upon Welles that Irving, “the author of Fake!, a book about a faker, was himself a faker and the author of a fake-to-end-all-fakes that he must have been cooking up when we were filming him.” Rather than capsizing the project, the Irving revelations offered layers of coincidence that complicated his role as biographer-commentator and drew Welles’ own biography into the film’s orbit.
Filmmakers employ the technical apparatuses of cinema (Welles’ beloved Moviola, for example) to replace production contingencies with ‘series’ of aesthetic objects (a scene, a sequence, a film). Such techniques become central characters in F for Fake, where the art of forgery engages in a visual dance with Welles’ technical knowledge at the editing table. Techniques in forgery can be conditioned not only by the aesthetic tendencies of the forger, such as telltale stylistic habits that become legible across multiple forged works, but by the material limits of a chosen media. Offered as testaments to what he calls the ‘divine accidents of moviemaking,’ they affirm contingency, chance events, and even catastrophe as the central components of cinematic production.
Disasters become, in Welles’s hands, the constituent stuff of aesthetic production. If this continues to raise important questions about geography and biography, it does so by revitalizing discourses on the accident in cinema. One of cinema’s great schlemazels, Welles raises contingency–or ‘tychism,’ to borrow Peirce’s term–to the level of ontology. Ultimately, his anti-techniques engage contingencies as key components in the cinematic production of speculative geographies. These spaces offer precepts that force thought open to dynamic sites rather than enclosing it within creative geography’s ‘worlds.’
Elmyr de Hory
“If my work hangs in a museum long enough, it becomes real.”
The life of Elmyr de Hory is itself a work of art—everything about him was a grand gesture of artifice. Moving to the United States after World War II, de Hory portrayed himself as a dispossessed Hungarian aristocrat selling off artworks from his collection. Befriending the rich and famous, de Hory was both enigmatic and charming. Yet, behind his façade, de Hory was a frustrated artist struggling to maintain a standard of living he craved but could not afford. His post-impressionist style of painting appeared passé compared to new styles like abstract expressionism. After several failed attempts to ignite his own career, de Hory focused on his talent as a forger.
Toward the end of his career, de Hory lived the life of a “bon vivant” on the Spanish island of Ibiza. At some point, he told his "life story" to American author Clifford Irving, whose 1969 biography Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time became an international bestseller. For Irving, de Hory painted a picture of an unfortunate but talented Hungarian artist, more often exploited than exploiter, who accidentally ended up in a murky world of art crime.
De Hory’s skill at deception did not make him immune to treachery, most notably during his partnership with Fernand Legros, who sold a steady supply of de Hory’s forgeries on five continents over a period of nine years. Their profitable and prolific collaboration came to a tumultuous end in 1967 when Legros sold over 40 of de Hory’s bogus masterpieces to Texas oil millionaire Algur Meadows. After discovering the fraud, the ensuing scandal unmasked de Hory as the artist behind the works. With Legros’ aid, de Hory likely inserted more than 1,000 forgeries into the art market during his 30-year career. Many of these works have not been exposed and continue to reside in museums and private collections today.
Part of Welles’ refrain in F for Fake is that the expert’s ‘eye,’ just like the forger’s, is not a transcendent faculty of a gifted subject, but rather a gradually learned anticipation of certain tendencies from work to work. Like the viewer, the ‘expert’ is ‘drawn into’ the world of this relation; synthesizing it, making it real. For the vain or unsuspecting expert–or, as Welles, Elmyr, or Irving might argue, due to the very nature of expertise–this serial immanence offers ample space for forgeries to ‘pass’ into authentic collections. Here, a series of forgeries constitute the space of authenticity, building a continuum that grows step by step in the eye of the expert who authenticates them. These continuities take on lives of their own –Elmyr will say ‘they become real’–where they gain the power to supplant ‘authentic’ series of works.
Cinema II & Powers of the False
Deleuze contends, Welles ‘imposes one single character–the forger. But the forger exists only in a series of forgers who are his metamorphoses, because the power itself exists only in the form of a series of powers that are its exponents.’ Deleuze’s treatment moves against the current of popular critical responses, which tended to make emphatic biographical connections between Welles and his characters. ‘Because Welles has a strong personality,’ Deleuze responds, ‘we forget that his constant theme, precisely as a function of this personality, is to be a person no longer.’ This serialized faker–who is not merely a fake artist, but a fake subject!–‘culminates with F for Fake,’ the film that Deleuze claims serves as a ‘manifesto for Welles’ entire body of work.’
If Deleuze correctly observes that F for Fake abolishes personhood (or, ‘the subject’), this is but one of many magical feats in a complicated, speculative cinematic process.
Ah yes, the powers of the false. Really it is just a simple matter of exposing and undermining those who exist to manufacture certainty. The travesty of so-called “experts.” I, on the other hand, want to focus on the relationship between the virtual and the actual. And so I introduce the powers of the false. These powers dissolve the grounds for judgment and open up a space for the new, arising out of fragmented perception. They dissolve our experience of chronological time and we can no longer discern the real or the true.
Go on singing
F for Fake is Welles channeling his pain and anger over the way his films have been received by creating a film of denial. He must have had in mind Pauline Kael's appalling attempt to take down Citizen Kane in her 1971 New Yorker essays and subsequent book, which claimed that authorship of the film belonged to its cowriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. If Welles faked Kane, then perhaps cinema and Welles himself are fakes. And if so, he is in the company of those two forgers, de Hory and Irving. In making this film, he implies that authenticity lies only in the desire of the beholder. We see what we want to see and what the filmmaker wants us to see, and the filmmaker cannot be trusted. No one can be trusted. Everyone has their reasons. Welles fooled us with his War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 and by implication has been fooling us, or himself, ever since. I am a magician, he assures us from the very opening of the film, and the job of magicians is to create illusions. He performs some sleight of hand for a few children and then a levitation—corny gags from the amateur magician's simple bag of tricks—and then launches into eighty-eight minutes of sophisticated editing as if to prove that we will see what we want if the filmmaker wants us to.
Only once does Welles assume a tone of somber seriousness, the character of a serious artist contemplating a serious work of art. Over beautifully photographed images of Chartres cathedral, covered in mist (was it covered in mist or was the film fogged in postproduction? Were the images of Welles apparently gazing at the cathedral real, or are they images of him gazing at something, somewhere else and then cut in with the images of Chartres?), Welles talks about the beauty of anonymous craftsmanship made for the celebration of "God's glory and the dignity of Man." He’s standing before one of Europe’s oldest stone cathedrals from the 12th Century in Chartres, France. There he offers a monologue about the legacy of mortal man. Time has forgotten the name of that cathedral’s architect. Today, he says, everything is made only for man alone—he paraphrases Falstaff from Henry IV, Part 2: the "naked, poor, forked radish." In the midst of his lyrical elegy for the authenticity of anonymity, he takes a Beckettian turn.
“Ah, this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we’ve been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.
Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”
This is an unexpected burst of lyricism coming from Welles, whose persona in F for Fake is the playful realist, poking holes in the illusionist's game. It is unusual in comparison with the entire run of Wellesian characters, even the Shakespearian ones, all of whom are given to bluster, aggression, or a certain self-pity. Perhaps only Welles's own voice-over at the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons matches the depth of feeling of the Chartres sequence of F for Fake. But there it was the voice of nostalgia; here it is the voice of the artist's longing for a voice to be remembered, a work, even a movie that will be evoked, that will not be a fake and fraud. Welles's movies are that, though perhaps he would not admit it, preferring to go on singing.
The roots of the placebo problem can be traced to a lie told by an Army nurse during World War II as Allied forces stormed the beaches of southern Italy. The nurse was assisting an anesthetist named Henry Beecher, who was tending to US troops under heavy German bombardment. When the morphine supply ran low, the nurse assured a wounded soldier that he was getting a shot of potent painkiller, though her syringe contained only salt water. Amazingly, the bogus injection relieved the soldier's agony and prevented the onset of shock.
Returning to his post at Harvard after the war, Beecher became one of the nation's leading medical reformers. Inspired by the nurse's healing act of deception, he launched a crusade to promote a method of testing new medicines to find out whether they were truly effective. At the time, the process for vetting drugs was sloppy at best: Pharmaceutical companies would simply dose volunteers with an experimental agent until the side effects swamped the presumed benefits. Beecher proposed that if test subjects could be compared to a group that received a placebo, health officials would finally have an impartial way to determine whether a medicine was actually responsible for making a patient better.
In a 1955 paper titled "The Powerful Placebo," published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Beecher described how the placebo effect had undermined the results of more than a dozen trials by causing improvement that was mistakenly attributed to the drugs being tested. He demonstrated that trial volunteers who got real medication were also subject to placebo effects; the act of taking a pill was itself somehow therapeutic, boosting the curative power of the medicine. Only by subtracting the improvement in a placebo control group could the actual value of the drug be calculated.
The article caused a sensation. By 1962, reeling from news of birth defects caused by a drug called thalidomide, Congress amended the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, requiring trials to include enhanced safety testing and placebo control groups. Volunteers would be assigned randomly to receive either medicine or a sugar pill, and neither doctor nor patient would know the difference until the trial was over. Beecher's double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial—or RCT—was enshrined as the gold standard of the emerging pharmaceutical industry. Today, to win FDA approval, a new medication must beat placebo in at least two authenticated trials.
Beecher's prescription helped cure the medical establishment of outright quackery, but it had an insidious side effect. By casting placebo as the villain in RCTs, he ended up stigmatizing one of his most important discoveries. The fact that even dummy capsules can kick-start the body's recovery engine became a problem for drug developers to overcome, rather than a phenomenon that could guide doctors toward a better understanding of the healing process and how to drive it most effectively.