The charming, sly, and irrepressible movie sorcerer Orson Welles cast his last spell with the little seen and arguably less understood F for Fake (1973). It’s one of those strange and enchanting movies that still feel ahead of their time — a fiendishly clever pseudo-documentary that is like the hall-of-mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai extended to 90 minutes. Ostensibly the movie is about an art forger, Elmyr de Hory (seen in the film signing a painting “Orson Welles”), and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who turns out be a fraud himself. Down the rabbit hole we go, meeting Howard Hughes and Pablo Picasso along the way.
Towards the end of the film there’s a (seemingly — since nothing is quite as it seems in this movie) heartfelt paean to Chartres cathedral as the premiere human achievement (made, Welles notes, by anonymous craftsmen not celebrity artists) that is worth the price of admission alone. Welles’ lyrical language in this passage owes something I think to John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic.
The discourse of craftsmanship deals heavily in questions of authenticity versus artificiality, honesty versus deception, natural versus synthetic. F for Fake is Welles’ own meditation (if that’s the right word for a movie so dizzying and rapid-fire) on Picasso’s old adage that art is a “lie to tell the truth.” As his own star dimmed, Welles showed young upstarts like Jean Luc Godard how the cinematic essay should be done — intoxicating, intelligent, breezy, adventurous and fun.
Mr. Turner is a handsome film with a complex and charismatic performance by Timothy Spall as the irascible British Romantic painter, JMW Turner. Not since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire has an actor used inarticulate grunts and mumbles so effectively and expressively. While the portrayal of Turner is sympathetic without being sycophantic, the quality of the film is marred, in my view, by a bizarre characterization of art and social critic, John Ruskin (played by Joshua McGuire, who is certainly having fun), as a lisping, foppish nitwit. An otherwise powerful and affecting film does itself a disservice by treating one of the towering intellects of the nineteenth century—not to mention Turner’s most articulate and ardent admirer—with such contempt. There is no doubt that Ruskin could be a strange and pathetic figure, but to portray him as a simpering nincompoop is just historically wrong. (To give just one clue to Ruskin’s influence, George Bernard Shaw once said that Ruskin’s Unto This Last converted more of the English working class to socialism than Karl Marx.) In trying to contrast Turner’s earthy potency to Ruskin’s critical grandstanding, the filmmakers have to overlook the fact that Ruskin (in addition to being one of the Victorian era’s great prose stylists) was a brilliant draftsman and watercolorist in his own right.
I sat down to pen a lengthy defense of Ruskin in light of this character assassination but discovered to my relief that a writer over at The Guardian had already done the work:
On behalf of John Ruskin, I would like to sue Mike Leigh for defamation of character. In Mr Turner, Leigh’s astonishing and sweepingly beautiful new film, the painter’s greatest champion has been traduced. Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop.
I almost felt physically sick when I saw him onscreen…This posthumous portrait is unconscionable.