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Hello again and welcome back to half-baked essay land. This is a long one (sorry!) but hopefully it’s of some interest.
I’ve been working on a SwiftUI version of Sherry’s EmomTimer, which (struggles with Core Data beside) has been making some non-trivial progress. I also finally have a solid cover-to-cover, beat-by-beat outline and a solid 10,000 first-draft words of the book I’ve been working on, on and off, for more than a year now—so prepare to hear more about that soon 😉
Orson Welles telling reporters he had no idea War of the Worlds would cause a panic
This sentence is false
On February 14, 2019, OpenAI announced GPT-2, a language model that could produce almost-human text. At the time, they controversially refused to release the model for fear of the implications; would it supercharge the “fake news” that’s been in the news so much recently? It was a surprisingly thoughtful choice, but a cynic would point out that there’s plenty of fakery on the Internet anyway.
Even the latest episode of Decoder Ring, a podcast dedicated to “cracking cultural mysteries”, ends on a somber note when it comes to fake news. It chronicles the travails of the Oxford English Dictionary in trying to find the earliest reference to a “mullet” by that name, as the current record (spoilers) is a Beastie Boys song from the early 1990s. Someone on Reddit claims an earlier reference in an Australian magazine from 1992, which the OED fails to confirm. The producers of Decoder Ring, clicking through the user’s posts on Imgur, find, completely by accident, an apology from that user; they were part of a contrarian club that started arguments using fake evidence, just for fun, and the user felt it had gotten out of control.
But lies and charlatanism is almost as old as recorded history. Even Darius the Great, perhaps the greatest ruler of the ancient Achaemenid Persian empire, based his rule on a lie (probably); he overthrew the legitimate heir of Cyrus the Great, Bardiya, by claiming he was really an imposter named Gaumata, in an extremely complicated plot I won’t go into here. (If you’re interested, I recommend Episode 20 of the History of Persia Podcast, a fantastic series that manages to be academic while still thoroughly enjoyable.)
Perhaps we should look a bit closer. Let’s consider Orson Welles’1 1975 F for Fake. The film opens with Welles performing a magic trick for a young child, referencing a famous magician’s saying that magicians are really just actors—with the unstated implication that actors are really just magicians. After a choppy opening, the film settles into a documentary about Ibiza-resident art forger extraordinaire Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who was himself convicted of fraud after producing a fraudulent biography of notorious recluse (and, uh, Extremely Interesting Person™️) Howard Hughes2. Elmyr repeatedly claims he’s such a proficient forger that his forgeries have made it into galleries as the real thing, and both he and Irving deride the experts of the art market and even the very concept of expertise. Welles never quite buys into their take, but F for Fake does end in a clever way; Welles promises early on that “the next hour is completely factual”, but of course the movie is an hour and a half long. It ends on a convoluted story of Pablo Picasso having an affair with an actress, only to discover her grandfather is a master forger. Welles clarifies at the end that that story is entirely fictional, the point being to illustrate Picasso’s own saying that art is a lie that lets us see the truth.
I think a better example of the “fakery” inherent in filmmaking is Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 Close-Up. In 1989, one Mr. Sabzian convinced a middle-class family that he was director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, but was eventually found out and arrested. Kiarostami then heard about the story and convinced the judge to allow him to film the trial (which makes up the majority of the film), as well as convincing the participants to star in dramatic reenactments of the fraud. The film ends with Sabzian pardoned by the judge with the support of the defrauded family, who then apologies to the family, with the help of his hero Makhmalbaf. Or, at least, that’s how the film presents itself, but if we read the accompanying Criterion Collection essay, we learn just how staged the film is; the family was initially enraged and wanted Sabzian to be convicted, only to be pressured into accepting a pardon by Kiarostami, and most of Sabzian’s speeches during the trial were actually scripted (albeit based on things he had actually said earlier). Even on a smaller level, we learn that the “audio problems” that plague the final scene… were added in post! And yet the film argues that such fakery is a reasonable sop to artistic intent; after all, Sabzian claims he is driven by his love of films as an art, believing Makhmalbaf’s films both accurately portray his suffering and also take him out of his humdrum life for a while. Again: all stories are lies, but some are noble lies.
(Unfortunately, to be completely honest, I think the backstory is much more interesting than the film itself, which has its moments of movie magic heightened by the unorthodox staging of most of the reenactments, but more and more starts to drag as we watch the trial unfold; it doesn’t help that Mr. Sabzian doesn’t come across nearly as sympathetically as the director seems to think.)
Interestingly, this resonates with the concept of upaya or “expedient means” as presented in the Lotus Sutra of Buddhism. (Of course, Buddhism claims to have noble truths, but as with all religions, that requires some faith.) As an early chapter explains in a famous parable, the Buddha is like a father who, seeing that his house is on fire with his children playing inside, unaware, tells the children that he has gifts for them, causing the children to come out. (By my understanding, admittedly, the point is that the “expedient means” are also true, just not the greater truth the Mahayana Lotus Sutra would very much like to promote. But if anybody out there is a scholar of Buddhism please do hit up the reply box 🙂)
But this “fakery for the greater good” can of course end poorly as well, as this episode of the Sects Ed podcast argues in relation to the parody(ish) Discordian religion, which to a certain extent is the great-grandparent of the conspiratorial mindset that pervades the world today; the belief in the Illuminati as a shadowy, world-spanning conspiracy can be fairly directly linked to the (completely fictional) Discordian-adjacent Illuminatus! trilogy.
But let’s consider one more example of the unexplained and, potentially, fake. Here is a rather lengthy Stereogum article on Andrew W.K. that I will now summarize—though, if you have a half hour, you should definitely give it a read, because it’s a trip. Andrew W.K. is a musician that came to prominence in the early 2000s for hard-partying singles like, well, “Party Hard”. But if you pay attention, the lyrics to his songs are… somewhat disturbing? “You Will Remember Tonight” says you will always remember tonight, because your face will change (shades of “Seen and Not Seen”?). Then a rumor started that a doppelgänger (Gaumata? 😛) was standing in for him at performances, and then his website started posting truly bizarre messages, culminating in an accusation that Andrew W.K. was stealing the livelihood of somehow named “Steev Mike”—who Andrew W.K. would later claim in interviews was his shadowy, former business partner. Then there’s an album that was (supposedly due to legal troubles with Steev Mike) only released in Japan for over a year, then there’s the random album of light piano tunes, and then there was a talk where he straight up claimed he was not the same person that had appeared on the first album, and then there’s this frankly kind of amusing Larry King interview where Andrew W.K. honestly seems more confused than all of us. The article author’s take is that all of it—including the many, many fan forums speculating on who Andrew W.K. “really” is—is an elaborate act put on by Andrew W.K. himself, whether as part of a long-running philosophical ambition to confuse people or just as part of the character.
The question, then, is who is this hurting, exactly? Assuming the entire thing is made up by Andrew W.K., it seems like a harmless (if rather extreme) bit of showmanship. There are no Pizzagate- or QAnon-style defenders out there, trying to save Andrew W.K. from his nemesis. What’s the difference?
I think the answer might be the skepticism. F for Fake openly encourages skepticism, and Close-Up does not exactly attempt to conceal its nature either. Another example might be found in this RadioWest interview with Colin Dickey, who has a new book out exploring our obsession with the unexplained. He mentions a saying, “If you start in certainty, you’ll end in doubt. If you start in doubt, you’ll end in certainty.” His point is that doubts about science or our understanding of the universe are often exploited by the Erich von Danikens of the world, who fill it with bonkers explanations of their own. A much healthier approach, he suggests, is provided by Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned, which recorded many then-unexplained phenomena and did not attempt to provide explanations of its own.
So I think where I land is that fakery is natural and has its uses, but we must be careful to always be skeptical, and yet not replace that skepticism with too-solid beliefs.
Obviously, I’ve been watching a lot of movies recently 🙂 I wanted to catch up on Taika Waititi’s oeuvre—both Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor Ragnarok are favorites of mine, so I watched his 2010 coming-of-age comedy/drama Boy, which follows an 11-year-old Maori boy (called, appropriately enough, Boy) in the mid-‘80s, who idolizes his absent father, only to face the reality that his father is just a petty criminal. It is, just like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a masterpiece! I do suspect it’s a little deeper than most (American?) critics seemed to think, with a rather incisive lens on cycles of abuse, as Boy starts to take on the negative traits of his ne’er-do-well father, and relations between Maori and whites—my favorite scene in that regard is an early scene where Boy’s (white) schoolteacher laments that Boy’s father was “just like him,” since he had “potential”; when Boy innocently asks what “potential” means, the teacher bluntly informs him he’s off the clock and leaves, leaving Boy to look up a (very confusing) dictionary entry for the word. Anyway, I really can’t recommend it enough, especially it’s just so enjoyable to watch.
I also just watched Jia Zhangke’s 2002 Unknown Pleasures, which follows a trio of Disaffected Youths™️ in rapidly-industrializing early-2000s China. A contemporary review noted that “the world doesn’t need another picture on disaffected youth”, which feels pretty savage, but then continues that “Unknown Pleasures is about more than alienation”, which about sums up my thoughts too. The film feels subtly critical of Daoism; it namedrops Zhuangzi a few times, with one character summing him up as saying “we should do what feels good”, wandering free and unfettered, and yet the film ends with the main character literally in chains—his refusal to accept any constraints has ironically left him constrained, unlike his ambitious, hardworking girlfriend, who briefly stops dating him to focus on the gaokao, and as a result makes it into Beida to study international trade (itself a background theme, as the film takes place against the backdrop of China’s 2001 admittance to the WTO). And that’s only half the movie, with the other half focusing on his best friend, who’s obsessed with a local power player’s mistress, and there’s probably even more to be written about that! But… it’s also a slow film, with a plot almost as aimless as its characters, and more than a few shots that simply wear out their welcome, so I do find it a little hard to recommend unless you’re willing to do some work.
I finished up David Ferry’s translation of The Aeneid, which I thought I would have more to talk about.3 Instead, all I really have to say is that Dido is a bipolar icon.
Finally, I read Helen, an ancient Greek tragedy (?) by Euripides, where it turns out that Trojan-War-causing-Helen was actually a hologram (??) and the real Helen was in Egypt fending off the amorous attentions of the pharaoh’s son (???), where her very confused (and very himbo) husband Menelaus shipwrecks in the aftermath of the Trojan War. The newly-reunited husband and wife then escape by staging a fake funeral for Menelaus. It’s a… weird play, which feels like a very distant ancestor of The Tempest, but in any case the Emily Wilson translation in The Greek Plays collection is a delight.