UNESCO World Heritage site Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres

Orson Welles on Chartres (from F For Fake)


Orson Welles’s 1973 documentary/essay-film/free-wheeling meditation on art/forgery/authenticity F For Fake was the last film that the master actor/filmmaker and self-proclaimed charlatan completed before his death.  The 2-and-a-half minute segment posted above, in which Welles contemplates one of the most famous and beautiful architectural marvels of the world is, unsurprisingly, one of the most dense moments of the film.  However, the encouragement that Welles gives – by way of “the dead artists out of the living past” – to all of us who wonder about such questions as regards our creative pursuits is certainly one worth remembering: BE OF GOOD HEART…our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing.

A profoundly confusing film by an artist about the nature of artistry/forgery/authenticity was just as unappealing to mainstream audiences in the 1970s as you would imagine it being today, even with a name like Orson Welles so prominently connected to it: funding for distribution for F For Fake was very hard to come by and, as a result, it was shown in only limited engagements in the United States upon its completion.  Long forgotten and roundly under-appreciated, the Criterion Collection did their part to remedy this in 2005 when they released a 2-disc DVD set of the film with a number of great bonus features. Welles pontificates on the purpose of art in the following clip, and is probably the most straightforward scene in the film.

“Ah, this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

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