Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch (Orson Welles’ ranch)
The last film Orson Welles ever made was F for Fake in 1974, and it is today celebrated by film students, critics and my annoyingly smart friends for how a good film should be structured, but I’m not sure I get it. Actually, I didn’t really get it until today. That’s where this blog comes in.
This was the last film Orson Welles ever made, and upon release, many critics said that it was creative and somewhat abstract. To me, that meant it made no sense, which is pretty apparent upon viewing. However, I do agree with it being tightly structured and highly entertaining, which probably contradicts my first point, but oh well. The fact is, this “film” uses six different stories to explain how rising action really works.
In the Empire Strikes Back, remember the part after the Empire attacked the rebel base on that frozen lump? That’s right, Han and Leia escape and hide in some asteroids. Just when it’s getting good, it cuts away to show what’s going on with Luke, who trains with Yoda for a while. Then it cuts away again. MEANWHILE, Han and crew go to the cloud city. The art of “meanwhile, back at the ranch” was perfected by old westerns and the TV show Dallas. The Empire Strikes Back does it even better. This is what F for Fake does, but with six different stories. Six. The pictures tells each story until it gets good, then another steps in, until they all intertwine and the whole thing culminates in one big climax.
As the “film” begins, Orson Welles explains why the structure of “meanwhile, back at the ranch” is so good. It is somewhat like magic, with the actor playing the role of the magician. Of course, to cut away just when the story is getting good has a certain amount of trickery to it, as if the movie is playing a little game with the audience. Orson Welles plays a little game too. He puts some magic tricks into his movie and parades around as a magician himself, when the real tricks are in the structure of his movie. The allegory hides his opinion about movies and art.
In one story, the allegory becomes about how fake paintings are just as good as the real thing, which essentially supports Orson’s point about an actor’s performance. The better the fake painting, the more it is worth. So too, the better the performance (the lying and the faking), the more praise the actor gets. It’s a perfect parallel. Who cares if the actor is lying. All movies are lies, right?
In fact, most of the stories in F for Fake are allegories about how movies trick us. There’s a story about a woman and a film crew who trick people into girlwatching. There’s a story about a painter named Elmyr who turns to faking famous paintings to make end’s meat. The life story of Elmyr goes on for a while, until it reaches an appropriate climax, just like the Empire Strikes Back. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there’s a story about Howard Hughes. Then there’s another story. Until finally, the movie comes back to the “greatest faker alive”, and the narrative intertwines all the stories, just like Luke and his pals.
Overall, this movie is awesome if you have attention-deficit disorder. It is so fake that it becomes Orson’s swansong to the movie business. They’re all fake, this movie screams. Movies are fake. Elmyr paints pictures that are fake. He is fake. His business is fake. His reputation is built on fakes, just like an actor, but there’s something deeper about it which goes beyond simple deception. Orson’s allegory also comes to an “appropriate” climax, as he claims that art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.