F for Fake (1973) was Orson Welles’ unique last film project. Drawing on his recurrent interests in dramatic art and psychological illusion, he used his filmmaking talent and cinematic charm to construct a tale of three charlatans: art forger Elmyr do Hory, biographer Clifford Irving, and himself as the familiar blustering, self-made director. As the film cleverly oscillates between storytelling and documentary it uses both archival and constructed footage. Along the way, F for Fake provides a masterclass on the meaning of fakery, with Welles reprizing his favourite role as the portly imposter, the ranconteur whose charisma is just real enough to string us along, even though, ultimately, we all know for sure that he is a fake.
Welles’s discussion put me in mind of the constant debate in popular music over authenticity. Whether the discussion is about the verissimilitude of tribute artists or the bogus talent of ‘manufactured’ bands, enhanced vocals or X-Factor celebrities, biographers twisting the truth or “setting the record straight”, studio gangsters or street credientials, white negroes or disco faking the funk, it seems that at every moment someone wants to separate “real” music from the marketplace’s capacity to conjure up shoddy phantoms of the muse. Take Paul Morley, for instance, who, in a recent piece for the Guardian discussing boy bands, earnestly argued, as only he could, that, “They should not, though, be talked about as though they are anything to do with music, or music alone.” Is Morley telling us that these singers are charlatans? That as an audience we need to be more discerning and accumulate more expertise, lest we be taken in by them and their fake music?
This clarion call to defend music as an object of purity seems obsolete in a culture of where the real is an unstable category and where ‘faking’ (of various sorts) has become not so much a criminal practice as an industrial norm. Against Morley – though not necessarily in defence of boy bands – I wish to recount some of the philosophical musings of F for Fake as I think they might help us advance the discussion on popular music authenticity. As Orson melts into the shadows from where he came, apply these questions like tools to your own particular project and see what insights they can help to deliver:
– If a faker leaves the authorship of their piece unclaimed, have the actually make a fake? If a faker admits faking, are they really a faker? Is a false promise really false if everyone knows it is false? A faker who admits what they are doing moves from criminality to honesty. If I draw attention to showing I am constructing something, am I really faking? Some fakers just want to be seen as top criminals. Can’t unmasking one act of fakery simply serve to hide another?
– Can or should we admire a fake? Is a good fake better than a bad fake, or a bad original? Isn’t a great faker themselves something of an original? Or have they forgotten their own identity – are they simply a parasite who is condemed to feel frustrated because they are unble to express any creativity independently? Does all their identity come from copying the work of another? Fakes could be seen to exploit originals, but don’t originals also exploit fakes to cement their status? Sometimes a faker can (symbolically) destroy (the notion of) the original. Aren’t original creators also in the habit of faking their own work? The original is really a function of our own needs.
– How do fakes (and fakers) manage to hide in plain sight? Faking is premised on rarity. Fakers are simply supplying (market) demand. As an audience we dismiss fakers but also collaborate with them. Good fakers are appreciated and have their own fame. Do we really care about facts when we are fascinated with mystery? Don’t we also love to be shocked (by fakes)?
– If there were no experts would there actually be any fakers? In a sense fakers are jesters who unmask the stupidity of the experts who fail to discriminate the forgeries – so who are the real fakers? When fakes succeed are we dealing with great fakes or poor experts?