F On Essay

Commissioned and published for the Voyager laserdisc of F for Fake in 1995.  My thanks to Marcio Sattin in São Paulo for giving me a printout of this untitled “lost” essay in Spring 2015, which I’ve slightly re-edited.-– J.R.

Orson Welles’ two major documentary forays stand roughly at opposite ends of his film career: It’s All True (1942) and F for Fake (1973), and together the two projects’ very titles express a dialectical relationship to the documentary. Both belong to a form of documentary known as the essay film that interested Welles throughout his career. Notwithstanding some Wellesian hyperbole, it seems safe to say that both titles accurately convey the overall essence of their respectiive projects: Most of the never-completed It’s All True, as Welles conceived and shot it, was true; most of F for Fake is fake -– a fake documentary about fakery, with particular attention devoted to art forger Elmyr de Hory, to author Clifford Irving, and to Welles himself. As Welles put it in a 1983 interview, “In F for Fake I said I was a charlatan and didn’t mean it . . . because I didn’t want to sound superior to Elmyr, so I emphasized that I was a magician and called it a charlatan, which isn’t the same thing. And so I was faking even then. Everything was a lie. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t.”

F for Fake remains one of Welles’ most controversial works. For many spectators, it’s not really a “Welles film” at all. By refusing to include “typical Wellesian” shots –- a  deliberate ploy, one learns from a 1982 interview – some viewers may feel they’ve been sold a bill of good. For many people, the Welles legend has much more potency than the reality; F for Fake seems to be both inspired by this paradox and structured around it.

One of the first “tricks” in F for Fake occurs during the opening credits a few minutes into the film, when the word “practioners” appears on the screen. No such word exists in the English language, yet because of the speed  with which we read it -– the film frame is quicker than the eye – most of us assume that the word is probably “practitioners”. Appearing only four shots after a passing allusion to Welles’ War of the Worlds radio hoax, the first of his major pseudo-documentaries, this glancing piece of legerdemain is one of the earliest signs that our own gullibility  — a form of imagination – is the film’s principal subject (the audience’s imagination remains the essential tool in Welles’ bag of tricks throughout his career). What we think is what we get, and what we think is not so much what we see as what we think we see. Welles spent almost a year editing this film in Paris, working secen days a week in three adjacent editing rooms. Even repeated viewings won’t exhaust its bountiful arsenal of editing pranks, some much less obvious than others.

Like many things in Welles’ career, the film began more as a spontaneous improvisation than as a carefully worked-out project. In the early 70s, Welles was interviewed by French filmmaker François Reichenbach for a documentary about art fakery through the ages; also interviewed was Clifford Irving, known at that time as the author of Fake. After Irving’s own fraud involving the Howard Hughes autobiography was uncovered, Welles became fascinated by the paradox of Irving being interviewed about fakery while he was hatching a major hoax himself. This wasn’t long after Pauline Kael’s notorious essay “Raising Kane” first appeared, arguing  — erroneously, as it later turned out – that the sole author of the Citizen Kane script was Herman J. Mankiewicz. The protracted debate about authorship clearly related to de Hory, Irving, and certain issues of Welles’ own career.

Purchasing Reichenbach’s outtakes, Welles set out to create an essay film that dealt with all of these questions, and it’s small wonder that the resulting work raises questions of its own. F for Fake is every bit as much a “Welles film” as Citizen Kane; it’s also equally, in terms of script and title, a coauthored one: Just as the title of Kane came from the film’s producer, George Schaefer, and much of its script was by Mankiewicz, the final title of F for Fake was supplied by its lead actress, Oja Kodar –- Welles’ companion and major artistic collaborator for the last quarter-century of his life –- who also wrote a story that supplied the basis for the film’s “Picasso episode”.

Indeed, the first time that I saw F for Fake -– at a private screening in Paris in 1973 – the cryptic press materials at the time identified the film as ?, listed Welles and Reichenbach as co-directors, and assigned the script to  Olga Palinkas (Kodar’s given name). The previous year, when I had been fortunate enough to have interviewed Welles while he was still editing the film, he told me that the title was Hoax and that the film was “not a documentary” but “a new kind of film”. The irrelevance of labels and assigned credits to most works of art is, after all, largely what F for Fake is about.  -– Jonathan Rosenbaum

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The following is an excerpt from the essay “The Crack-Up,” reprinted from The Crack-Up, a compilation of articles written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in one book by New Directions Publishing. These articles were written during Fitzgerald’s later years, between 1931 and 1937, when he was ill, drunk, in debt, and unable to write commercially. They first appeared in Esquire magazine in the 1930s.

This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing.

The Crack-Up
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
February 1936

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick – the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.

Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both. It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man – you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived – you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied-but I, for one, would not have chosen any other.

As the twenties passed, with my own twenties marching a little ahead of them, my two juvenile regrets – at not being big enough (or good enough) to play football in college, and at not getting overseas during the war – resolved themselves into childish waking dreams of imaginary heroism that were good enough to go to sleep on in restless nights. The big problems of life seemed to solve themselves, and if the business of fixing them was difficult, it made one too tired to think of more general problems.

Life, 10 years ago, was largely a personal matter. I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to “succeed” – and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future. If I could do this through the common ills – domestic, professional and personal – then the ego would continue as an arrow shot from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity would bring it to earth at last.

For seventeen years, with a year of deliberate loafing and resting out in the center – things went on like that, with a new chore only a nice prospect for the next day. I was living hard, too, but: “Up to forty-nine it’ll be all right,” I said. “I can count on that. For a man who’s lived as I have, that’s all you could ask.”

And then, ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized that I had prematurely cracked.

I Now a man can crack in many ways – can crack in the head – in which case the power of decision is taken from you by others! or in the body, when one can but submit to the white hospital world; or in the nerves. William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became public charge. What led to his alcoholism or was bound up with it, was a collapse of his nervous system. Though the present writer was not so entangled – having at the time not tasted so much as a glass of beer for six months – it was his nervous reflexes that were giving way – too much anger and too many tears.

Moreover, to go back to my thesis that life has a varying offensive, the realization of having cracked was not simultaneous with a blow, but with a reprieve.

Not long before, I had sat in the office of a great doctor and listened to a grave sentence. With what, in retrospect, seems some equanimity, I had gone on about my affairs in the city where I was living, not caring much, not thinking how much had been left undone, or what would become of this and that responsibility, like people do in books; I was well insured and anyhow I had been only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in my hands, even of my talent.

But I had a strong sudden instinct that I must be alone. I didn’t want to see any people at all. I had seen so many people all my life – I was an average mixer, but more than average in a tendency to identify myself, my ideas, my destiny, with those of all classes that I came in contact with. I was always saving or being saved – in a single morning I would go through the emotions ascribable to Wellington at Waterloo. I lived in a world of inscrutable hostiles and inalienable friends and supporters.

But now I wanted to be absolutely alone and so arranged as certain insulation from ordinary cares.

It was not an unhappy time. I went away and there were fewer people. I found I was good-and-tired. I could lie around and was glad to, sleeping or dozing sometimes twenty hours a day and in the intervals trying resolutely not to think – instead I made lists – made lists and tore them up, hundreds of lists: of cavalry leaders and football players and cities, and popular tunes and pitchers, and happy times, and hobbies and houses lived in a how many suits since I left the army and how many pairs of shoes (I didn’t count the suit I bought in Sorrento that shrunk, nor the pumps and dress shirt and collar that I carried around for years and never wore, because the pumps got damp and grainy and the shirt and collar got yellow and starch-rotted). And lists of women I’d liked, and of the times I had let myself be snubbed by people who had not been my betters in character or ability.

– And then suddenly, surprisingly, I got better.

– And cracked like an old plate as soon as I heard the news.

That is the real end of the story. What was to be done about it will have to rest in what used to be called the “womb of time.” Suffice it to say that after about an hour of solitary pillow-hugging, I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt. What was the small gift of life given back in comparison to that? – when there had once been a pride of direction and a confidence in enduring independence.

I realized that in those two years, in order to preserve something – an inner hush maybe, maybe not-I had weaned myself from all the things I used to love – that every act of life from the morning tooth-brush to the friend at dinner had become an effort. I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking, I saw that even my love for those closest to me was become only an attempt to love, that my casual relations – with an editor, a tobacco seller, the child of a friend, were only what I remembered I should do, from other days. All in the same month I became bitter about such things as the sound of the radio, the advertisements in the magazines, the screech tracks, the dead silence of the country – contemptuous at human softness, immediately (if secretively) quarrelsome toward hardness – hating the night when I couldn’t sleep and hating the day because it went toward night. I slept on the heart side now because I knew that the sooner I could tire that out, even a little, the sooner would come that blessed hour of nightmare which, like a catharsis, would enable me to better meet the new day.

There were certain spots, certain faces I could look at. Like most Middle Westerners, I have never had any but the vaguest race prejudices – I had always had a secret yen for the lovely Scandinavian blondes who sat on porches in St. Paul but hadn’t emerged enough economically to be part of what was then society. They were too nice to be “chickens” and too quickly off the farmlands to seize a place in the sun, but I remember going round blocks to catch a single glimpse of shining hair – the bright shock of a girl I’d never know. This is urban, unpopular talk. It strays afield from the fact that in these latter days I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers (I avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can) – and all the classes as classes and most of them as members of their class…

Trying to cling to something, I liked doctors and girl children up to the age of about thirteen and well-brought-up boy children from about eight years old on. I could have peace and happiness with these few categories of people. I forgot to add that I liked old men – men over 70, sometimes over 60 if their faces looked seasoned. I liked Katherine Hepburn’s face on the screen, no matter what was said about her pretentiousness, and Miriam Hopkins’ face, and old friends if I only saw them once a year and could remember their ghosts.

All rather inhuman and undernourished, isn’t it? Well, that, children, is the true sign of cracking up.

It is not a pretty picture. Inevitably it was carted here and there within its frame and exposed to various critics. One of them can only be described as a person whose life makes other people’s lives seem like death – even this time when she was cast in the usually unappealing role of Job’s comforter. In spite of the fact that this story is over let me append our conversation as a sort of postscript:

“Instead of being so sorry for yourself, listen -” she said. (She always says “Listen,” because she thinks while she talks – really thinks.) So she said: Listen. Suppose this wasn’t a crack in you – suppose it was a crack in the Grand Canyon.”

“The crack’s in me,” I said heroically.

“Listen! The world only exists in your eyes – your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to. And you’re trying to be a little puny individual. By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked – it’s the Grand Canyon.”

“Baby et up all her Spinoza?”

“I don’t know anything about Spinoza. I know – ” She spoke, then, of old woes of her own, that seemed, in the telling, to have been more dolorous than mine, and how she had met them, over-ridden them, beaten them.

I felt a certain reaction to what she said, but I am a slow-thinking man, and it occurred to me simultaneously that of all natural forces, vitality is the incommunicable one. In days when juice came into one as an article without duty, one tried to distribute it – but always without success; to further mix metaphors, vitality never “takes.” You have it or you haven’t it, like health or brown eyes or honor or a baritone voice. I might have asked some of it from her, neatly wrapped and ready for home cooking and digestion, but I could never have got it – not if I’d waited around for a thousand hours with the tin cup of self-pity. I could walk from her door, holding myself carefully like cracked crockery, and go away into the world of bitterness, where I was making a home with such materials as are found there – and quote to myself after I left her door:

“Ye are the salt of the earth. But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” Matthew 5-13.

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