Over at Arts and Faith I had the privilege of writing a blurb for F for Fake, which ranked tenth in the "Spiritually Significant Documentaries" list. It's a good list, and one I'm happy to have voted on. I'm also reasonably happy with the blurb, with one caveat: my actual write-up was significantly longer, and what I eventually submitted was a radical cut-down of the two thousand or so words I wrote. That's not a problem; a blurb is a blurb and a rambling ten-part essay is a rambling ten-part essay. But I figured it would be a shame not to put the whole thing up somewhere. So I'm putting it here, along with a very bad photoshop job that I threw together in about twenty minutes using Gimp. Enjoy.
The first card in the Major Arcana of the Tarot Deck--not counting the zeroth card, the Fool--is The Magician. In some mystical readings of the deck he signifies control over the Four Elements, represented by the images of the four suits arranged on the table in front of him. However, as Rachel Pollack observes in her book Tarot Wisdom, earlier versions of the card show quite a different figure: not the powerful magician (or Magus, as Crowley would have it) but a common street performer, before him a set of cups for the common game of cup-and-ball. For Pollack, this historical genealogy is significant, since it points to the two-sided nature of the magician: he is a worker of wonders and he is also a trickster. To put it another way, he is both an artist and a fraud.
It might seem odd to begin this rumination on Orson Welles' F for Fake with a digression on the tarot, but the connection is less strained than one would expect. After all, the first sequence in this movie is Welles--immense, clad in broad-brimmed hat and a cape--performing magic tricks for a small boy. He is here the magus as trickster. And yet who can deny the wonder--the magic, perhaps--seen on the boy's face as Welles transforms a key to a coin and then back into a key, back into a coin--into a handful of coins pouring from the boy's nose into a waiting hand. Is it fakery? Of course. Both onscreen and in the editing room Welles is ultimately a showman. But it is also magic.
F for Fake is ostensibly a film about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger who produced paintings so seemingly authentic that they fooled the best art critics in the West. His paintings, we are told, are still featured in unnamed museums. The film also follows de Hory's biographer, Clifford Irving, who perpetrates a fraud of his own: a biography of the famously reclusive, famously daft Howard Hughes. And the film is also in its own way a fraud; in the last twenty minutes, Welles commits a slight of hand so audacious that even now, after several viewings, it still takes my breath away.
So this is a movie about fraud, about deceit. And yet, it is also about authenticity. de Hory is an authentic fraud; so, too, is Clifford Irving. So, too, in his own way, is Orson Welles, as he admits when he narrates fragments of his own biography, including the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast (an account that has been embellished to the point that it itself may be considered a kind of fraud). In contrast to and competition with these magnificent hucksters--each self-created in his own way, like all great artists are--Welles ranges the unseen ranks of critics, people who hold themselves up as experts on what is truly authentic and who discover, time and again, that they have been hoodwinked. In a telling observation, both Welles and Irving assert that the existence of the critic and the art market are what call into being the fraudster; the latter simply would not exist without the former.
The critic, in his self-appointed authority, offers the illusion of absolute certainty. J.K. Van Dover, a scholar of the detective story, titled one of his studies We Must Have Certainty. Since his study covers the history of the genre--and therefore much of the nineteenth century as well as all of the twentieth--we might take that title as the overarching theme of the past 120 years. The demand for certainty is, I fear, one that few of us escape. It is not enough to suspect a thing; we must know it, with unutterable conviction. The world of modernity (a wonderful, beautiful, horrible, and terrible world) demands solidity, not to say stolidity; if everything solid melts into air, we cling all the more to the evanescencing mist in the hope that something, anything, can hold.
And into that gap steps the critic. Well-spoken, articulate, meticulous. Some of us who call ourselves critics speak from a place of knowledge, to be sure; others speak from ignorance, and therefore with more conviction. There is nothing a trickster loves more than an expert. Take a dozen sommeliers, range them in a line with blindfolds across their care-worn faces, and the trickster will substitute for their fine vintages a bottle he picked up on sale at the local grocery store. The sommelier sniffs, sips, swishes, spits, and declares that this bottle of Yellowtale Muscat is the finest French vintage he has ever encountered. His wisdom is faulty; his senses deceive him. In this film, Clifford Irving tells a similar story of fooling museum directors. When you set yourself up as an authority, you simply beg to be fooled.
Partway through F for Fake, Welles pauses to quote a verse from Kipling:
When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it Art?"
The poem is "The Conundrum of the Workshops." Kipling, that old imperialist sinner, knew at least enough to suggest a striking idea about original sin: that the fall of humanity (a fall seen, perhaps, in the zeroth card, the Fool) arose, not from true knowledge--a knowledge, that is, of truth and beauty--but from false judgment: it's pretty, but is it art? We might ask the same of de Hory's paintings: are these forgeries, as accomplished as they are, really communicating anything? Does a Picasso that is not by Picasso still effect us the same way (and what, we might ask, of the false Picassos painted by the actual man Picasso, referred to in the film--what occult admixture transforms a painting by the man Picasso into what we call a Picasso?) What of the film itself? Does Welles say anything in F for Fake? Does the movie have a point? It is undeniably accomplished--Welles' editing, his screen presence, his deft slight-of-hand in the final twenty minutes, are unmatched and perhaps unmatchable. It's pretty. But is it (we might ask) art? And does it matter?
One of the darker observations of the novel Nightmare Alley and its film adaptations is this: that people, ultimately, want to be taken in. The genius of the mentalist, of the con-man, of the fraud--of Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving and, yes, Orson Welles--is recognizing this fact and playing on it. We desperately want new Picassos, new Matisses, new works of art. We want the fabulous, preposterous story of Oja Kodar and her grandfather and Picasso to be true and so we will it to be true, at least for those glorious minutes before Welles, with a twinkle in his eye, reveals his deceit. What Welles seems to ask is whether it isn't better that we believe, at least for a moment, that the glamorous lie is true.
Or, at least, pretend to believe. One of Slavoj Zizek's favorite stories concerns Niels Bohr who, while he was living in Copenhagen, received a visitor. While they walked around the place he was living, the guest noticed a horseshoe above a door.
"What is that?" they asked. "Oh that," said Bohr. "The locals tell me this will bring good luck."
The visitor was taken aback. "Why, Bohr," they said, "You are a man of science! How can you believe such rubbish?"
Bohr smiled. "I don't," he said. "But they tell me it will work anyway."
Bohr enjoys a particular pleasure available only to the connoisseur of fakery: he both believes and disbelieves, and so he gains the benefits of both. Ultimately, Welles leaves the question unresolved, as all questions of faith must remain unresolved. The trickster de Hory suggests that the world is made better by his trickery: that the real frauds are those who set themselves up as authorities over matters of art. And this is something that Welles seems at least mildly to condone. Because, you see, the trickster is not the darker side of the magician: he is the magician, creating through his trickery a world of possibilities undreamed of by the stolid critic.
Late in F for Fake, Welles takes his camera to Chartres cathedral, which he calls "a celebration to God's glory and to the dignity of man." The cathedral, by Welles' account, is an unsigned masterpiece. We do not know the names of the countless craftsmen who worked on its intricate facade; we only know the work itself, destined, if Welles is correct, to stand long after the other endeavors of humanity have crumbled into dust. Welles imagines the craftsmen of Cartres murmuring "our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing."
If Paul Tillich is correct when he says that faith is the state of being grasped by Ultimate Questions--grasped, note, by the questions rather than by the comforting assurances of the critics' answers--then the whispered words of the craftsmen of Chartres are an affirmation of faith.
"I must believe," says a dying man in Welles' film, "that art itself is real. If it is not...."
In ancient religion, trickery was indistinguishable from piety. The oracles at Delphi plied their trade with the aid of hemp; the Elusinian mysteries depended upon a meticulous set of practices designed to induce in their initiates a sense of wonder. Allegedly--this is according to Royston Lambert in his book Beloved and God--the priests of Antinous, Hadrian's deified lover, would speak from a hollow place in the back of an immense statue of the beautiful ephebe. Trickery, all. Fraud, all. Deception--all. The modern mind rightly turns from such crass flummery. And yet who can deny the attraction of being taken in? If one could stand, momentarily, before the Delphic oracle and breath in those fumes and hear the voice of Apollo thundering forth--even if all reason cried out against the manipulation--who would not quake and know that they stood on holy ground? For faith, ultimately, is the suspension--if only temporarily--of the harshest critic of all: the one within.
In truth, the mystical experience or the religious experience are not limited to the baser sorts of trickery. Here is William James in The Varieties of Religious Experiences speaking of mysticism:
Single words, and conjunctions of words, effects of light on land and sea, odors and musical sounds, all bring it when the mind is tuned aright. Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility.
At its fundamental level, religion is a kind of art, and therefore a kind of artifice. It seeks to produce a sensation, a sense of oceanic wonder, a connection to divinity. The magician who opens the door to that divinity is also a trickster. Perhaps, we might suggest, the divinity is itself a trickster as well.
By sheer coincidence, I was reminded as I sat to write these words of a quote from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter": "Not altogether a fool," said G., "but then he's a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool." Poe--himself a poet, himself a trickster--touches upon a fundamental truth here: that foolishness is the gateway to wisdom. The zeroth card--the fool card, only one step before the magician (that is, the poet)--takes a step forward, his eyes lifted to the sky, not seeing the cliff before him. He is about to fall. And when he does, he will progress through the Major Arcana until he finally finds himself complete again with card 21, the World card. And back again, since in some decks the zeroth card is the end, rather than the beginning, of the Major Arcana.
It is a terrifying thing, this willingness to be fooled. But it is the central demand of art, of poetry--of religion. And, as F for Fake shows us, even knowing the trick (knowing, for instance, that the moment Welles starts insisting that a story is true we can be certain that it is a lie) does not rob it of its power.
"And what," I hear my longsuffering reader ask, "Has any of this to do with faith?"
Perhaps, depending on your faith, nothing. Or perhaps everything. Art is faith made manifest: Faulkner's one puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. We sing on in uncertainty; we sing on, perhaps, because of uncertainty. If you are feeling at this point a tormenting uncertainty, it's one that I feel as well (and one that I suspect Welles both expects and delights in): isn't this a demand to give up reason (and Reason), to surrender critical thinking, to plunge into the dark superstitious miasma that characterizes crystal readers, palmisters, cartologists, astrologists, Q-Anoners, and faith healers?
"Ah ha," says Welles. "But don't you see that's the point? The mistake the card-readers and the Q-Anoners make is that they mistake their faith for reason. Faith, in the end, must be a kind of play." The very act of enjoying art is an act of faith. Indeed, artistic appreciation is indistinguishable from it.
A final quote. This is William Shakespeare's ineffable flim-flam man Prospero:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell,
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.
Long ago, critics took this to be Shakespeare's own farewell to the stage. Whether that is the case or not, it is a suggestive note on which to end.