Sunday, September 11, 2011

O, for a Muse of Fire
In "F for Fake" illusionist, and part-time filmmaker, Orson Welles creates what he descried as a film essay on creativity, deceit, misdirection and storytelling.

Built primarily from unused footage shot for a documentary on art forger Elmyr de Hory, the film features Clifford Irving who was, at the time he was being photographed, in the middle of perpetrating a forgery of his own, the "autobiography" of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

In asides shot in the editing bay--arguably as he was putting the film together--Welles appears almost giddy to have "stumbled" across this mirrors upon mirrors scenario.  To their stories he adds his own experience as a faker when he convinced the nation that it was under attack by Martians.

And it is against this backdrop of deception that Welles makes the startling vow right to the camera that, even though the film is about deception and features decievers, he will, for the next hour, tell only the absolute truth.

Despite this seeming like a paradox that Captain Kirk would use to overcome the logic of one of the menacing Star Trek computers,

the audience is lulled into trusting an admittedly untrustworthy guide.

This is the contract that magicians make with their audiences at every performance:  pay close attention and I will convince you that everything you know about your world is no longer true.  Regardless of the premise of a particular effect, this is the meta trick and it relies less on technique or technology than on the performer.

There is an often-told tale about Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin in which he is dispatched to north Africa to help put down a rebellion using his magic.  His mission was to demonstrate to the Marabout tribesmen that French magic was stronger than theirs.  They were unimpressed with parlor tricks, but he gradually upped the stakes to a point where he was able to convince them that he could actually drain the strength from the body of their strongest warrior.

When this story is told--and there are a number of different versions out there--it is often seen through a western cultural bias:  how stupid those tribesmen were to be fooled by such a simple principle.  That the trick is still being sold suggests that it continues to fool a variety of audiences.

The more important point, it seems to me, is that the effect was presented in a broader context of a whole performance. I don't know anything about Marabout culture, but I am pretty confident that if you picked out the strongest person in the room and then humiliated them with a trick like this, without first contextualizing it as part of a whole series of demonstrations of your power as a magician, that audience member would probably look for an opportunity to demonstrate his strength on you.

By sequencing his material, Robert-Houdin was establishing his character as a powerful wizard.  Beginning with simple coin tricks and ending with the bullet catch and the "Light and Heavy Chest," the audience was presented with a portraint of the performer as wizard.  It's no surprise then that he would define a magician as an actor playing the part of a magician.

This is another of those Kirk-worthy paradoxes:  magic, an art form that is predicated on deceit and trickery, is also dependent upon a measure of "truthiness."  The ability of the audience to trust, or believe that they can trust, the performer even as he misrepresents and misdirects is critical to the success of the tricks.  This is one of the reasons that the performer's choice of material must align with their on-stage persona, or character.  One would not, for example, believe that a performer like The Amazing Johnathan...

would ever be able to present a trick like "Walking through the Great Wall of China."

Copperfield's choice of material supports, and is supported by, his onstage character.

This brings me back to Welles and "F for Fake."

The film is a master class in these ideas. The authority of the performer is established, the premise of the effect is laid out, the audience is artfully and entertainingly misled, the trick is revealed and then the performer disappears in a puff of smoke. And all of this is done despite a context that would tend to promote an heightened atmosphere of mistrust and skepticism.

How is he able to get away with such an audacious trick?  He preys on the imagination of the audience.  He provides enough of a glimpse behind the curtain to get the audience rationalizing forgery.  Elmyr asks how he can be a criminal if so many museums buy his pictures and declare them "authentic."  Clifford Irving makes claims to have met with the world's most famous recluse, believing that he will not appear in public to refute the claims.  We watch Elmyr draw a few simple lines in the style of Modigliani and think that on our worst day, we could do as much.  Slowly, but surely, we are on the side of the forgers, the fakers.  A powerful combination of empathy, greed, imagination and trust is established.  The audience, much like the "all-knowing" art curators, is a co-conspirator in the fakery.

Shakespeare, another great faker, uses a similar portfolio of techniques to engage the audience and get them to ignore the confines of a primitive performance space in order to tell the too-big story of Henry V. 

In yet another paradox, I will leave you with my favorite reading of this most theatrical of monologues that comes to us from a film version of the play.

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