Wednesday, April 4, 2012

To Thine Own Self Be Truthy: On Facts and Fakes

This issue of truth keeps coming up. I haven’t read John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book The Lifespan of a Fact, a contentious back-and-forth between journalist D’Agata and fact-checker Fingal over the many liberties the former supposedly took with certain details in an article about the suicide of a Las Vegas teen. Nor have I seen Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which apparently made up some facts in its zealous activism over Apple’s use and abuse of Chinese labor. So I can’t say too much about either of these works, but they have both inspired a lot of diverse, thoughtful pieces about our often complex relationship with the facts (although one did so inadvertently) and for that we should be grateful.

Among the pieces: In Slate, my former editor Dan Kois rather elegantly laid out the ongoing debate between “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and found himself caught in the middle. Over at Salon, Laura Miller astutely stuck up for fact-checkers. Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Colin Dickey defended D’Agata’s chosen genre, the essay form, even though he didn’t quite defend D’Agata himself (who appears to be a somewhat flawed advocate for the role of essayist-artist). Others have chimed in with more personal contributions: the critic Glenn Kenny recalled the time he had to work with David Foster Wallace on a piece about the AVN awards for Premiere; elsewhere, my friend and colleague Alizah Salario recalled trying to teach Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, along with its truthy complications, to high schoolers.

In an odd flourish at the very end of his piece, Dan Kois fesses to a series of untruths in his own article; among them, creating the impression that he had interviewed D’Agata and Fingal in person when in fact he’d just “massaged quotes from other sources.” (This is meant to reflect back on D’Agata’s point that he’s working in a lyric essay form and has the right, perhaps even the obligation, to futz with the truth if it makes for better art.) Dan’s late-game twist brought to my mind something else: Orson Welles’s F for Fake, made in 1974, which is perhaps cinema’s greatest statement on the role of fact, authenticity, and truth in art.

Much of Fake wasn’t even shot by Welles. Instead, he commandeered footage shot by Francois Reichenbach for an abandoned documentary about a famous art forger named Elmyr de Hory. Now, de Hory was no ordinary forger. He could, with a few deft strokes, create a new Picasso or Matisse out of thin air (he didn’t recreate existing paintings, he created new works) and legend had it that the museums of the world were filled with his fakes. One of the key interview subjects in Reichenbach’s footage was a man named Clifford Irving, an expert on de Hory; Irving himself then became notorious for his faking of the autobiography of Howard Hughes (a story dramatized in the Richard Gere film Hoax, for those keeping score at home). This confluence was too much for Welles to resist, and he spun out of it a delirious and very personal journey through the world of forgeries, fakes, lies, and beauty.

Welles of course was a big fan of discarding the facts: He had famously made up elements of his own biography, and often confessed to rarely telling the truth in interviews.* (Let’s also not forget that whole War of the Worlds thing.) He seems to acknowledge his own complicity in blurring the line between fiction and fact at the very beginning of Fake: The film opens with Welles performing a magic trick for some kids in a train station. Then, however, the director/star makes us, the viewer, this promise:
Ladies and gentlemen, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies. Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie. But not this time. This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.
You may be forgiven for forgetting his words as soon as he’s spoken them, for Welles’s mind wanders all over the place in F for Fake. It’s one of the beauties of the freewheeling documentary-essay form he’s creating before our very eyes. But he keeps coming back to this notion: If an original forgery – that is to say, a new painting created in the style of an artist and convincingly passed off as said artist’s work, as de Hory had done – is good enough, shouldn’t it too be considered art as well? In the end, do we judge works by their intrinsic value (as we claim to) or simply their authorship (as we usually do)? Shouldn't it only matter that the work be beautiful?

To that end, in what may be the film’s most notable (and certainly most bone-chilling) moment, Welles backs off from his typical bemused tone and launches into a deadly earnest riff on the Cathedral at Chartres:
Now 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…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 have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish…Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

Then, however, soon after this moment, Welles takes Fake in one new, final direction. He goes off on an extended riff about Pablo Picasso and the artist’s supposed obsession with Oja Kodar, Welles’s collaborator on the film (and his muse and partner in his later years). The story winds and winds until Welles stops and looks at us, reminding us of the earlier vow he had made: “I did promise that for one hour, I'd tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I've been lying my head off.” Thus does a movie about art that began with magic end with a lie, and Welles seems to suggest that the three concepts – art, magic, lies – are inextricably intertwined.

I admit, I’ve always been a little bothered by Welles’s final jump into the realm of deception here. Not that it doesn’t make sense – after exposing Elymr de Hory’s and Clifford Irving’s falsehoods, Welles has to create a falsehood himself in order for the hall-of-mirrors effect to work – he himself must complete the trinity of liars. Still, I can’t help but feel like nodding in agreement when Phillip Lopate, in his dismissal of the film, suggests that Welles “is so taken up with a glib defense of artifice that he forgets to convey his own sincerity, something an essayist must do. He would rather have our tepid agreement that all art is a kind of lie than move us.” I’m not as down on F for Fake as Lopate is – in fact, I think it’s a masterpiece – but this final movement never quite seemed to fit in with the point Welles was making about forgery, art, and truth, instead dulling it a bit. I suppose we could ask ourselves how we might feel about those final 17 minutes and that extended Picasso anecdote if Welles had not admitted to us that it had all been a lie. But therein lies the point, perhaps. Welles is making a film about the fact that he has to reveal the lie to us, which in its own way is the greatest honesty there is.

And make no mistake about it, Fake is a very confessional film. Woven throughout de Hory’s and Irving’s stories is Welles’s own. At one point he even acknowledges that great truism about his own journey from making Citizen Kane at age 25 to his problematic later years: “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” And ultimately, who is that monologue about Chartres addressing other than the Great Auteur Himself -- the same Orson Welles who helped create the 20th Century ideal of the artist-as-celebrity? F for Fake might be acerbic and quick, but there’s an honesty, a nakedness to it that is undeniable.

What in God’s name does any of this have to do with John D’Agata and Mike Daisey? Let me backtrack a bit. In reading about The Lifespan of a Fact, I came across a touching little passage in Laura Miller’s defense of fact-checkers:
[F]act-checking – not just the experience of being fact-checked but often the mere expectation of it – makes you pay more attention to the world around you. It compels you to stop insisting on what you want things to be and to come to terms with what they are. It is, above all, a humbling experience, a perpetual process of correction that, far from instilling a sense of certainty, makes you ever more alert to the myriad ways you can screw things up by falling in love with your own ideas or accepting a conventional truth at face value.
You would think that Miller’s eloquent defense of coming to terms with things as they are flies in the face of Welles’s meditation on art as a big lie. But I’m not sure I agree. To illustrate, let me bring in yet another film – this time, it’s The Immortal Story, adapted by Welles in 1969 from the Isak Dinesen story. Made in the same twilight burst of creativity as F for Fake, the film may be Fake’s total opposite stylistically – somber, austere, reflective, as opposed to frenzied, sarcastic, boisterous. But the two films do share this obsession with the attempt to turn fiction into fact. In the final act of Fake Welles allows a lie to live in our heads as a truth, if only for a few minutes; in the earlier film, he trains his lens on a man who is intent upon turning a lie into truth, and is quietly destroyed by it.

In The Immortal Story, a wealthy, aging merchant living in Macao, Mr. Clay (played by Welles himself), hears a common tall tale told among sailors – that of a mariner who was enlisted by an old, wealthy man to impregnate his young, beautiful wife – and decides to make it true, to bring it in from the wilderness of fiction into the cold, hard house of fact. Being unmarried, however, Clay needs to enlist not just a sailor but also a wife, so he hires the daughter of a former partner he wronged many years ago. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned: The sailor and the “wife” fall for each other, and when Clay’s clerk goes to tell the old man that the deed has been done, he finds the merchant dead. In Welles’s design, we have to ask ourselves if the "immortal story" of the title is that of the man who tries to forge a new reality out of myths and dreams and is instead consumed by them.**

Jeanne Moreau in The Immortal Story
Which brings us back to The Lifespan of a Fact. There is a certain irony in D’Agata’s project: He started off with an essay for The Believer (actually, it was first an article for Harper’s, but they rejected it) in which he tried to shape the world, and wound up with a book about the inherent shapelessness of the world. That he and Fingal published this book means that he is at least aware of this irony, but from what I gather (like I said, I haven’t read the book), D’Agata still continues to come off as a bit cocksure about the nobility of his purpose. Maybe he needs some of Welles’s humility. (And yes, the idea of using “Orson Welles” and “humility” in the same sentence did give me pause, but, well, there you go.)

Welles may believe that art is one big lie, true, but he also doesn’t shy away from telling us this, and exposing himself as a liar, often a base one. Indeed, we could argue that his entire filmography is an attempt to explore the essential unknowability at the heart of every tale (think “Rosebud,” duh), the fact that the truth is forever slipping out of reach of the great storyteller. F for Fake is not trying to pass itself off as fact (it’s called F for Fake, after all). Welles and Dinesen are not claiming to access any greater truths by fudging the details. They are instead asserting a very real fact that has torn them apart for decades -- the monstrous futility of creation.

*There are people who live their lives as artful lies: A friend whom I worked with in Russia once told me that the director Sergei Paradjanov, a family friend of his (and oh how I wish I too lived in a reality where I could claim Sergei Fucking Paradjanov as a family friend) had a fondness for antique furniture, and artfully concocted, clearly untrue fictions to tell about every piece he owned.

**It should be noted that Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen herself clearly identified to some degree with Mr. Clay. “The Immortal Story” was written at a time when she had taken under her wing a young, married Danish poet named Thorkild Bjornvig. Much older and consumed by syphilis, Blixen could never act on what was clearly her desire for Bjornvig; instead, they engaged in lengthy conversations and she, in turn, took to meddling with his life, trying to find lovers for him and making arrangements, only to find herself then racked with jealousy and anger. At one point, she “confessed” to Bjornvig about the time she learned she had syphilis: “When that happened to me and there was no help to be had from God, and you should be able to understand how terrible it is for a young woman to be denied the right to love, I promised the Devil my soul and he promised me in return that everything I experienced thereafter would become a story. As you can see, he has kept his promise.” If Mr. Clay is consumed by his attempt to turn a story into life, Dinesen was consumed by her attempts to turn life into stories.

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