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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A Young Cinephile's Diary - Shaun Heenan discovers F for Fake, Carnival of Sinners and remembers blogger Chip Lary

Just a quick update this week, as I only got around to watching two from the latest set of Criterion films streaming on Fandor. This week’s offerings were all about painters, in one way or another. I’d already seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent three-and-a-half-hour film Andrei Rublev (1966), but I found myself drawn to two of the remaining features in particular.

The more famous of the two films by far is F for Fake (Orson Welles, France/Iran/West Germany, 1974), a quasi-documentary which examines the importance and history of forgery and fakery in art, in part by flat-out lying. The film tells the story of Elmyr de Hory, who made a career of creating fake artworks inspired by and copied from great masters of the form. Ironically, since Elmyr’s death, other forgers have created and sold paintings purporting to be original Elmyr fakes. The film also explores the life of Elmyr’s biographer Clifford Irving, who served time in prison for writing a fake autobiography of director Howard Hughes, who by that time had become a recluse.
These stories are somewhat interesting by themselves, but the film’s real masterstroke is a third story, about a man who forged a number of Picasso paintings, which is told and then immediately revealed to be false. Welles here sets out to prove his own thesis: that fake art can be just as important and entertaining as real art, and that it is often either impossible or pointless to tell the difference. This is a film I enjoy as a concept on paper, but in practice its approach is curiously scattershot, lacking the clarity and continuity of Welles’ feature films. I found it frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.

The other film I watched from the selection is one I’ve never seen on any of the many lists I watch from, apart from the Criterion Collection itself, but its premise seemed too juicy to pass up. Carnival of Sinners (aka La Maine du Diable/The Devil’s Hand, Maurice Tourneur, France, 1943) is the Faustian story of a middling artist who purchases a talisman shaped like a hand. He is immediately imbued with great creativity and finds artistic success, but learns that he has made a literal deal with the Devil, who will claim his soul if he can’t rid himself of the hand before death.
This wasn’t an original concept, even back in 1943, but the performances and writing are better than this brand of horror usually requires. The film’s best scene borrows from German Expressionism, using twisted buildings and unnatural angles as a backdrop for the history of the talisman. We hear from each owner in order, recounting their tales of success and then woe. This is not a particularly substantial film, but it does well by its premise, and entertains us along the way.

Before I go, I’d like to say a few words about the passing of fellow film blogger Chip Lary, who ran the site Tips from Chip (Chip Lary). Chip watched films the way I do, obsessively focusing on specific lists of great films. I know him to have seen all of the films from the 1001 Movies book, as well as everything on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s top 1000. On top of this, he aimed to encourage others in their viewing, and to help them access the more obscure films on the lists. He was a frequent commenter on other film blogs, actively seeking them out. He even discovered and commented on my own lists on Letterboxd, offering his help and recommendations, for which I was glad. I enjoyed our brief interactions, and will miss them. I was shocked this morning to hear of his death, and especially surprised to hear he died more than a month ago. Such is the nature of internet anonymity.

Chip was taken by a heart attack at the cruelly-young age of 51.

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