LAYERS OF PARADOX IN F FOR FAKE (Benjamin Sampson)

Curator's Note

Layers of Paradox in F for Fake: United States 2009. Benjamin Sampson. Originally published in Mediascape in Fall 2009. 

 

Throughout the past year, I have been asked repeatedly to define what - exactly - a visual essay is. As I noted in a brief essay entitled “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing” for MediaCommons, the visual essay is often a hybrid of documentary filmmaking and academic scholarship. Aside from describing a spectrum of visual essay approaches defined by two poles (the persuasive and the poetic), I have been reluctant to define the medium more concretely out of fear that it would ultimately stifle what it is capable of. To draw an analogy to cinema history, I feel like being asked to define what the visual essay is in 2014 is like asking Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and George Méliès to define cinema in 1896. It is a medium defined by formal diversity that owes as much as to the individual visual essay artist as it does to the perceived conventions of the form. 

That said, I’m willing to substantiate my personal definition by briefly placing it in dialogue with three texts: Bill Nichols’s seminal text Representing Reality, Orson Welles’s F for Fake, and Benjamin Sampson’s “Layers of Paradox in F for Fake.” I’ve selected Sampson’s piece for this debut issue for two reasons. First, the subject of his visual essay is a prototype of the visual essay (along with the work of Dziga Vertov, Chris Marker, and Marlon Riggs): Welles’s semi-faux documentary. Secondly, because Sampson’s text finds an admirable middle ground between a poetic form inspired by Welles’s “original” visual essay and the systematic argumentation we expect from academic scholarship.

If we begin to tease out the concept that visual essays are a hybrid of documentary and academic scholarship, what modes of documentary might F for Fake and Sampson’s visual essay occupy? Bill Nichols describes four modes of representation: the expository, the observational, the interactive, and the reflexive. Welles’s film - which incorporates and re-edits footage shot by another filmmaker - is a mixture of reflexive and expository. For Nichols, the reflexive involves seeing and/or hearing the filmmaker engaging in a metacommentary that is “about the process of representation itself” (56). Welles continuously does this throughout F for Fake, telling us at the outset that “this is a film about trickery, fraud…about lies” and that everything we are shown by Orson for the next hour - as he sits at his editing table - will be “true and based on solid fact.” Yet, Welles counter-balances the reflexive mode with the expository mode which “addresses the viewer directly, with…an argument about the historical world” (34). F for Fake engages in this mode by serving as Welles’s argument that authorship, the art market, and objective truth are all constructed by “experts” whose expertise should be questioned. Yet, Welles’s final “trick” - the paradox of “truthfulness” that the reflexive mode blinds the viewer of - also undercuts the expository mode. After all, how is Welles’s “expert” different from the critics (the film as an implicit response to Pauline Kael), fakers (Elmyr de Hory), and frauds (Clifford Irving) that he presents us with? He is forthright about it. As Welles slyly tells the viewer at the end, “I did promise that for one hour, I’d tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I’ve been lying my head off.” 

While Welles’s visual essay represents a hybrid of Nichols’s reflexive and expository modes, Sampson’s visual essay shares its hybridity but places its emphasis on the latter. Admittedly, Sampson’s first title card tells us that “The poetic montage of F for Fake inspired the editing style of this essay” and his continuous deconstruction of a deconstruction has a reflexive edge, begging the question as to if any visual essay can be classified as not being inherently reflexive. However, Sampson - unlike Welles - is not repurposing footage to interrogate the notion of objective truth. In fact, he is making a specific argument - based on the mobilization of expert evidence (Joseph McBride, Jonathan Rosenbaum) - that the “first person singular” of Welles’s visual essay is a veiled defense of the legacy of Citizen Kane: “the art is much more important than the artist and the artist is much more important than the art. That both are most important.” Essentially, while Welles’s visual essay is skeptical of objective truth and “experts,” Sampson’s visual essay is the converse in theme and format. However, lest this be interpreted as a short-coming of the essay, Sampson’s piece is an admirable example of the capabilities of the visual essay format because his reflexive formal approach - inspired by Welles’s own poetic license - is counter-balanced by the researched intellectual rigor that meets the demands of academia. After all, Welles is making art about art; Sampson is making an argument about art. 

Works cited

  • Keathley, Christian. 2011. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” In The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, 176-191. London: Routledge
  • McBride, Joseph. 1996. Orson Welles. Boston: Da Capo Press. 
  • Morton, Drew. 2013. “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing.” MediaCommons. Online at: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/what-are-new-insights-digital-publishing/response/visual-essay-digital-publishing
  • Naremore, James. 1989. The Magical World of Orson Welles. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.  
  • Nichols, Bill. 1991. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Comments

Chiara Grizzaffi's picture

On documentary theory and visual essays

I found this curatorial note really useful for my research. Thank you. At the moment, I am writing about the formal strategies of audiovisual essays. I am focusing on voiceover, in particular, and this topic raised the issue of the relationship between documentary and visual essays. As you write, visual essays are a hybrid form: their influences include documentary, as well as art installation. Therefore I wasn’t sure, at first, especially thinking about voiceover, if the modes used by Nichols could also be a good starting point to investigate video essays. Especially if we consider the critiques directed at his modes by Stella Bruzzi, among others. In my opinion, the idea of the spectrum has something in common both with Nichols’ modes – in particular if we consider the second edition of INTRODUCTION TO DOCUMENTARY, in which he describes six modes, including a poetic one – and with Plantinga’s idea of the formal, the open and the poetic voices. However, the spectrum has the indisputable advantage of being more flexible and less monolithic, which is a great value if we consider that digital video essays are still in their developmental phase. But the way you are applying Nichols’ modes is really interesting. You are using them to add further layers to the analysis and interpretation of video essays. More and more often, while scholars and critics are experimenting with videographic film studies, it is possible to encounter visual works that reflect upon the form itself, that try to answer to some existing questions about films while posing new ones at the same time. But there are also some amazing examples of interactive and performative visual essays, too. Audiovisual essays are showing how categories or modes can be more and more mixed, intertwined with each other. They can even challenge some of the preconceived ideas about some formal aspects (let’s think about how both this video and the kogonada one are using voiceover, in a way that is not too didactic or predictable). Sampson’s audiovisual work itself is a brilliant example of a creative use of image and voiceover that goes beyond the idea of an expository documentary in which images are merely illustrating the author’s argumentation. He creates a sort of dialogue between himself and Welles, he treats F FOR FAKE both as an historical document that is the object of an accurate and precise analysis and as something that is still vibrant, alive, that has a voice of its own. So, despite your concerns about defining what video essays are now, you show that it could be fruitful to let them enter into dialogue with more established forms with more established scholarly traditions. One of the things that I was wondering, though, is whether or not the scholarly visual essay should always be partly – or mostly – expository/explanatory? Some extremely playful or poetic audiovisual essays could be part of a research process. Or they could be almost completely reflexive rather than expository. They could just pose questions rather than giving answers… but is this not something that scholars should want, especially in cases in which the audiovisual work is part of a broader research process, or when it has the aim to challenge some pre-existing, well-established theories? Also, if we consider that visual essays are not supposed to be exclusively a substitute for written analysis, but rather to implement them, or to show something that the written text could not state with the same effectiveness, it might not be always necessary for them to be strictly explanatory – the written words could serve that function. Furthermore, the expository form might not fit into those visual essays that try to convey, along with a knowledge of the subject that could be just implied, a strongly subjective experience. I would love to know your opinion about this, especially since I’m researching this emerging topic and because, to me, it seems really hard (possibly even counterproductive) to draw lines around, or boundaries between, works that can straightforwardly be considered scholarly and works that might not be.
Drew Morton's picture

Responding to Chiara's Questions

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Chiara. I’ll try to answer some of those questions you posed, which have been often been voiced by Katie and Chris in our meetings together. 1. “One of the things that I was wondering, though, is whether or not the scholarly visual essay should always be partly – or mostly – expository/explanatory? Some extremely playful or poetic audiovisual essays could be part of a research process. Or they could be almost completely reflexive rather than expository.” You’re right. If I’m drawn towards the expository/explanatory, it is because that is the mode I was “brought up” into by Janet Bergstrom and the UCLA approach. It has taken me a long time to become comfortable with the poetic mode because of both habit and software literacy (it took me a long time to get to know Final Cut and Adobe Premiere again and to try to think more creatively about the expressive qualities of the sound and image tracks). Along those lines, my piece on THE SHINING and the two compilations I’ve done have really been liberating from a creative standpoint and, as I would assume would be the case, have helped me rethink my approach to the expository mode. In short, I think there is room for both modes and if I lean towards the expository in theory and practice, it is simply because it the mode I’m more familiar with at this early moment in time. 2. “They could just pose questions rather than giving answers… but is this not something that scholars should want, especially in cases in which the audiovisual work is part of a broader research process, or when it has the aim to challenge some pre-existing, well-established theories?” Again, you’re right. One venue at [in]Transition that I would like to try and grow is a “dictionary” of film terms that would embody this idea. I’m thinking of the audiovisual equivalent to Susan Hayward’s CINEMA STUDIES: THE KEY CONCEPTS book and it could have very simple format rules like: No longer than five minutes. The first minute must introduce a concept/technique, the remaining time should be spent on a poetic illustration of the range that is embedded by that concept/technique. Think about the compilation someone could piece together on “staging in depth” and how that could be used in the classroom? Similarly, I find one of the most difficult formal attributes of film to discuss in class is the jumpcut. A supercut/compilation with the imagery of what a jumpcut actually looks like on the production table would be extremely helpful. 3. “Also, if we consider that visual essays are not supposed to be exclusively a substitute for written analysis, but rather to implement them, or to show something that the written text could not state with the same effectiveness, it might not be always necessary for them to be strictly explanatory – the written words could serve that function. Furthermore, the expository form might not fit into those visual essays that try to convey, along with a knowledge of the subject that could be just implied, a strongly subjective experience.” I’m somewhat cautious of the illustrative VE concept, simply because I worry that it will purely become the moving equivalent to frame grabs. Specifically, many of the conversations I’ve had with scholars in other disciplines about VEs tend to go down the path of “Well, why can’t you write an essay and then just make a visual essay that puts together all the clips you want to analyze?” Judging from the context of your comment, I know this isn’t what you mean. However, I’m extremely protective of the visual essay as being something MORE than an illustration (there is more rigor and thoughtfulness to it). This also leads us back to your first question and the spectrum of modes, but another reason I favor the expository is because I view the VE as a potent tool for making Film Studies accessible to the public in ways that an academic print publication or classes cannot be due to a range of factors (geographical, socioeconomic). In my mind, the VE helps democratize the conversation.