M for Fake — Welles, Moore and Other Tricksters

06.30.2005 | Edward Driscoll | Cultural Affairs | 2 Comments
F For Fake, released in 1974, was Orson Welles’ last film to play in theaters during his lifetime. It was nominally a documentary on art forger Elmyr de Hory and Howard Hughes autobiography hoaxer Clifford Irving. The documentary footage of both de Hory and Irving was actually shot by others and purchased by Welles, who, in a masterwork of editing and narration, used the footage to launch into a long raconteur-like reflection on trickery and deception.

The movie has just been released onto DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which has been assembling archival-quality versions of films both offbeat and important since the mid-1980s.

While Welles intended F For Fake to be a warning against the growing popularity of hucksters, I doubt that even he could have foreseen what a surprisingly bright future they would soon have. Since the film’s initial theatrical run in the mid-‘70s, the public has shown an increasing appetite for Hollywood fakers and charlatans who have launched careers with a serious bit of reality manipulation and then parlayed those early efforts into the big leagues of power and stardom.

In a way, that’s what Welles himself did. His 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast was an attempt to create an authentically realistic news radio broadcast to build verisimilitude before he set the Martians loose on New Jersey. The next day, his mouth seemingly melting butter, Welles “apologized” for his broadcast and the ensuing panic, in what must surely have been his best bit of acting ever. (There’s a clip of Welles’ apology on the DVD version of Citizen Kane.)

Welles’ stunt led directly to an offer to direct movies from RKO studios, the first of which was Citizen Kane. And it’s no coincidence that in Kane’s “News on the March” montage, Welles’ first line of dialogue was an emphatic “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio!”

Al Sharpton: From Big Lie To Kingmaker

But it wasn’t until the second half of the 1980s that the Big Lie seemed to dominate American politics. Bill Clinton rose to power in 1992 by promising everything to everyone, and was rarely if ever called on it by the press. Like Forrest Gump, Al Gore claimed to be virtually everywhere: The inspiration for Erich Segal’s Love Story and at the center of seemingly every major moment in politics, from Love Canal to the birth of the Internet. And he too was rarely called on his hyperbole by the press.

But Clinton and Gore’s excesses pale in comparison to those of fellow Democratic Reverend Al Sharpton.

In the late 1980s, Sharpton leveraged his invention of Tawana Brawley’s rape by racist cops who’d smeared her with feces and sprawled the word KKK on her chest into a career as a Manhattan king-maker and career-killer. His actual elective efforts were rather poor, including abortive runs for the US Senate in 1992, ’94, and for the mayor of New York in 1997. As UPI political analyst Jim Chapin noted, Sharpton’s vote remained the same while he shrunk the party around him. But by 2000, Sharpton’s role in New York Democratic politics was taken as a given. Both Al Gore and Bill Bradley felt obliged to pay him a visit during their respective White House runs, as did Hillary Clinton that same year when she first dipped her toe into New York politics.

Sharpton, of course, would himself run for the White House, competing in the last Democratic primary. He knew he had no real chance of winning, but just as Jesse Jackson’s failed presidential bid in 1988 helped to cement his case as a spokesman for African-Americans, Sharpton sought similar results from his run — which probably won’t be his last. As he put it to New Partisan’s Harry Siegel in a 2002 interview: “People complain I run for something I can’t win… How do they know what I’m trying to win?”

When asked in 1999 about the fake that launched his career, Sharpton merely replied, “If I had to do it again, I’d do it in the same way.”

From Roger & Me To Jimmy & Me

While Michael Moore’s career has involved figurative rather than actual brickbats, its path is remarkably similar to Sharpton’s: a few discerning critics condemned the fakery at the heart of his first movie, 1989’s Roger & Me, including, most famously, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker. Kael was one of the first critics to spot and describe to her readers Moore’s deceptive editing and lapses in his film’s timeline. Soon after, Britain’s Sight & Sound magazine would also point out that Moore wore a cartoon “Press Pass” on his shirt in Roger & Me when attempting to get into General Motors, because he wanted to be rebuffed by GM’s security. They wrote that if Moore had actually wanted one, he probably could have arranged an interview with GM’s Roger Smith relatively easily — but then there would have been no movie. Well, there would have been a documentary, but not the type of postmodern Michael Moore fakery we’ve come to know.

But Moore was able to use that first big deception to launch his career as author, TV host and polemicist. His name and reputation for leftwing politics now firmly established, Bowling For Columbine and (especially) Fahrenheit 9/11, drew seldom a discouraging word from mainstream newspaper critics — just the opposite in fact. Much as Sharpton became the self-appointed kingmaker in New York, with nary a complaint from the most of the Democrats in the country, the film’s release was welcomed by them with open arms. The Senate practically had to close on the day of its release, since so many of its Democratic members were in attendance at the opening (and met with Moore personally afterwards), and Moore sat next to former President Jimmy Carter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. And like Sharpton, he’s shown little remorse about how his career took off.

“The Press Isn’t Going To Report It”

One reason why the press gives a pass to men like Sharpton and Moore is the symbiotic relationship the media shares with such superstar manipulators. Sharpton is a great story, and a charismatic character straight out of a Chester Hines novel. He’s too much fun to write off.

Ward Churchill is just beginning to leverage his past lies into media ascension, so some members of the mainstream media are still quite critical of him. But note that when Matt Labash covered Churchill’s recent Bay Area speaking events to form the core of his excellent Weekly Standard profile, he was allowed surprisingly up-close access, even though Churchill knew him to be an unfriendly reporter.

But then, this is nothing new. Tom Wolfe once described what happened when a couple of New York Post reporters discovered the beauty salon patronized by Sharpton whenever his famous James Brown-like pompadour needed a 3000-mile tune-up. The Post’s journalists waited until his head was under a dryer to make themselves known. Rather than angrily cursing the reporters and cameramen out of the salon, Sharpton brilliantly waved them all in, and said, according to Wolfe, “Come on in boys, and bring your cameras! I want to show you how… a real man… gets his hair done!” The result? “Just like that!”, Wolfe wrote (in his 1989 essay, “Stalking the Billion Footed Beast”, included as an addendum to later editions of Bonfire of the Vanities), “Another Sharpton media triumph, under the heading of ‘Masculinity to Burn’”.

Ironically, because men like Sharpton, Moore and Churchill are guaranteed to produce great quotes (and often great photos), reporters seem less likely to call them on their lies, especially as their biggest deceptions fade into history.

Between Moore and the media, maybe if Welles was making F For Fake today, he’d title it M For Fake. (Or maybe M For Meshugah.) Or, more than likely, he’d consider Michael Moore as a fellow leftwing impresario who doesn’t allow such bourgeois conceits as the truth to get in the way of his filmmaking.


The question is: What's wrong with propaganda and fakery? Are you telling me people on the right don't have their hair done, or aren't aware of their images? Or is it that they would never resort to falsehood for the greater good? Sure Sharpton's a fraud, Churchill's a fool and Moore's a hack. None of that, though, makes sense of the war in Iraq. You best start finding yourselves new strawmen and scarecrows, since it sure doesn't look like we're going to be finding the WMDs anytime soon.
07.1.2005 | Unregistered CommenterPretty Tony
Is the right wing's fascination with leftist artists from the first part of our century risible or pathetic? Is it just the natural extension of Regan's claim that both JFK and FDR would both be Republicans if they were alive today?

I do find it interesting to have to look to Wells, a vocal Social Democrat and civil rights activist, to attack Moore and Sharpton, interesting. Perhaps Wells would be really into invading Iraq?

Could not the author find a reference to an important artist on the right? I mean the right has been so culturally prolific, just look at there contribution to our zeitgeist. Why not an article on Britanny Spears, Bruce Willis or potential Supreme Court nominee, Jimmy JJ Walker? John Ashcroft sings, why not use him to attack dangerous Democrats?

Right-wingers, don't feel inferior, there are many important cultural figures of similar minds. At least as many as there are War Heroes in the Bush Whitehouse.
07.3.2005 | Unregistered CommenterChester Careworth

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