Saturday, August 27, 2005

F for Fake, P for Punk'd, E for Esquivalience

If you like everything cut and dried, skip this post.
The other day I watched the (until recently hard-to-come-by) Orson Welles film F for Fake, which was one of his last. Mr. Welles, IMHO, was among the greatest artists of the 20th Century. His range of interests and talents (movies were only one part) and his ability to put on a show impress me to no end; thus my small tribute to him with the name of my blog.

A number of things I have read about Fake refer to it as a film "essay" or "meditation." It is certainly not linear, and it might take a few viewings to catch everything. It's both a documentary and not.

To summarize: Welles, who spent much of his later life in Europe, wanted to do a fairly standard film on a guy named Elmyr de Hory, who was known in the 60s-70s Euro-jet set as the guy who could whip up a "lost masterpiece" before lunch. He was a supremely skilled (con)artist who created an untold number of forgeries, and enjoyed the good life on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza. (There is a more linear telling of his story in another documentary, "Masterpiece or Forgery?." I saw this a few years ago but now I want to see it again.) (Update: 12:24 PM 8/28/05: I got "Masterpiece or Forgery?" out of the library yesterday, and I now realize that it is the exact same documentary as is on disc two of the Criterion Collection "F for Fake" DVD with the title "Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery." End of update.) Among the interviewees was a semi-successful author who was writing a biography of Elmyr named Clifford Irving. In the midst of the project, it came to light that another project of Irving's -- the memoirs of Howard Hughes -- was totally faked. And furthermore, this fakery was connected to the so-called lost will of Howard Hughes, also faked. Welles wraps up with a little-known story about Picasso, related to the rest of what was shown, that puts the cherry on the sundae.

Of course Welles describes these complicated connections (and more -- including his own personal acquaintance with Hughes, the possibility that C.F. Kane might have been based on Hughes rather than William Randolph Hearst, Welles's fakery with the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, etc.) in a manner that suggested he enjoyed forcing the interested to pay attention if they wanted to keep up with him. The inattentive don't deserve the payoffs offered. Lots of philosophy here. Welles asks why the art forgeries are such a problem, and why the originals are important in the first place. The originals, he points out, have value based on how the experts appraise them. But Elmyr would create stuff that could totally bamboozle an experienced art expert, and then groupthink would set in to give the forgery a round of applause from the art appraisal community. So, Welles asks, who really is the expert? And who is the fake?

Flash forward to 2005. On the front page of yesterday's Chicago Tribune, above the fold, readers were greeted with a picture of an all-American looking father and his young daughter. Kind of. And, the following text:

Did Sgt. Dan Kennings die in Iraq? Not really.
Did Sgt. Dan Kennings even exist? Well, no.
So who was that little girl writing the letters?

(Not) Sgt. (not) Dan Kennings with his (not) daughter (not) Kodee. Note the conveniently obscured license plate.

The story, which will likely unfold further (here's today's follow-up), is about the staff of the Southern Illinois University student paper, the Daily Egyptian, getting punk'd by one or more SIU students into believing (over the course of years) that a cute little girl named Kodee Kennings was writing letters about how she missed her daddy who was serving in Iraq. Ostensibly, he was all she had left, and when he was "killed," she was left an orphan. The hoax even extended so far as to have the students and others meet "Kodee" and "Dan" in real life. The hoaxer(s) convinced people whom they knew who fit the roles that they were putting together a documentary on a real-life soldier in Iraq, and they needed people to act in re-creations (with hidden cameras!). Excerpts:

In southern Illinois, the tale began in 2003, when student reporter Michael Brenner said he was handed a letter from a little girl saying she saw an anti-war protest on the Southern Illinois University campus and that it bothered her because her dad was a soldier. Brenner e-mailed the little girl and, as he learned more about her situation, decided to tell her story.The story appeared in the Daily Egyptian on May 6, 2003, detailing an 8-year-old's struggles saying goodbye to her father, who was shipping off to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. According to the story, Kodee had lost her mother years earlier, so Kennings was her only blood relative."I don't have a mom," Kodee was quoted saying in the newspaper story. "If he died, I don't have anywhere to go."

On Saturday morning, cars began pulling into the gravel parking lot of a one-story American Legion hall in Orient, Ill., about 30 miles northeast of Carbondale, for a memorial service. Hastings and Kodee got out of a red Pontiac Grand Am, the little girl wearing an Army uniform shirt that hung down to her knees.People inside the memorial service said both Hastings and Kodee were in tears. A video showed Kennings in his fatigues speaking with a group of children at a church, and there was a scrapbook filled with pictures of Kennings straddling a tank cannon or huddling with other soldiers.Tribune reporters continued asking questions, and some students and a faculty member were growing increasingly hostile because of suggestions that Kennings did not exist.

Reynolds acknowledged the little girl is the daughter of friends and said she persuaded the parents to let her bring the child to Carbondale regularly by saying she was filming a documentary about a soldier killed in Iraq."We told her it was for a movie," Reynolds said.

On Thursday, 10-year-old Caitlin Hadley sat between her parents on a couch in her mom's office, retelling the two-year odyssey that began with her belief that she was going to be the star of a documentary film about a little girl named Kodee."It was sort of weird, but I had a lot of fun," Caitie said.Her father, Richard Hadley, is a pastor at a Nazarene church in Montpelier, Ind., and her mother works for the church's regional office. Both said they felt they'd been scammed by Reynolds."I just realized that I didn't know this girl," Tawnya Hadley said. "In the profession that my husband is in, we move and meet new people all the time. What if she'd never brought Caitie back? We feel like we're idiots."

Observations? When the emotions are engaged without the balance of skepticism, things like this flourish. Some people go shopping for sad (or happy, or inspiring, or whatever) things to believe.

I'd like to see what Welles would have done with this incident. How would he have incorporated his philosophical inquiry about fakery, illusion, deception, reality, etc. into the larger question of the war? Welles was mostly apolitical, but a Wellesian examination of the Kennings fakery would almost certainly have led to questions about the original arguments made in favor of the war, Saddam's use of doubles, the questionable motives of Dr. Chalabi, G.W.'s Sixteen Words, the Pentagon's and the media's enhancements of Jessica Lynch's capture and rescue, Colin Powell's tribute to Adlai Stevenson at the U.N., and the overall Madison Avenue mentality associated with the lead-up to military action. Not to say that all these things were deliberately lied about or that they are all true, just that they all have at least some aspects of truth and falsehood to them.

Update, 7:32 PM, 8/27/05: It's pretty apparent that (unless new information emerges) the young journalists and others at SIU were not engaged in esquivalience -- that is, the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities. But wait - did I just engage in a piece of fakery myself? Similar to when Welles asked what art was, and wanted to know why the experts weren't fakers and the forger wasn't the expert, am I helping perpetuate another hoax by discussing the esquivalience or lack of esquivalience of the SIU journalism students? Now the guy in the picture either was or was not in Iraq and the little girl either was or was not his daughter (and "was not" is the answer to both). However, (if we agree that language is constantly evolving), now that I have made the suggestion that the SIU newspaper staff is largely esquivalience-free, have I helped make "esquivalience" slightly more legitimate (especially if others do likewise) in the same way that some of Elmyr's fakes are now valued as art? Last thing: If you are screwing around reading this at work when you should be doing something else, you are being e-squivalient.

Esquivalience

3 Comments:

Blogger getalife said...

I too recalled Jessica Lynch and wondered just how deep this hoax goes...

11:20 PM  
Blogger Rachel said...

I updated my post with a link to yours.

12:58 PM  
Blogger KaneCitizen said...

Cool! Thanks!

1:20 PM  

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