Monday, March 9, 2015

Pretty Prevarications

Last night I spun a DVD of Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1974), a look at deception that focusses on author Clifford Irving (of the Howard Hughes biography hoax) and Elmyr de Hory, the noted art forger. Orson of course achieved fame through a hoax of his own. Fans of Orson Welles will find it interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a general audience. The film is leisurely and talky. Were it anyone but Orson talking it would be dull. Nonetheless it brought to mind some thoughts on deception.

An old adage says never to trust anyone who makes a point of telling you how honest he is. The risk is high that he is setting you up for a fleecing. At best he is demanding a free pass for rudeness, which is not the same thing as honesty. You know the fellow: just to be provocative, he says something completely out of bounds and then deflects criticism with the line, “Hey, I just say it like I see it.” The line itself is seldom true. The truth is often rude, but rudeness is not often the truth. The overlap is far from complete.

There clearly are situations in which we properly demand honesty. For good reason we outlaw fraud in financial transactions and perjury in the witness stand, but as everyday social lubricants lies are all but inescapable. After all, we all know (or should know) how to answer, “Does this make me look fat?”

From Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man:

BLUNTSCHLI. …You said you’d told only two lies in your whole life. Dear young lady: isn’t that rather a short allowance? I’m quite a straightforward man myself but it wouldn’t last me a whole morning.
RAINA (staring haughtily at him). Do you know, sir, that you are insulting me?
BLUNTSCHLI. I can’t help it. When you get into that noble attitude and speak in that thrilling voice, I admire you; but I find it impossible to believe a word you say.

Odds are, two lies wouldn’t last either Bluntschli or Raina ten minutes, never mind a morning. Nor would it be an adequate allowance for the rest of us. An article in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology describes an experiment in which roomfuls of people were allowed to interact socially without interference. Cameras unobtrusively recorded them. Each person then reviewed the tapes and was asked to identify the lies he or she told. The average was 2.92 lies every 10 minutes. Men and women lied about the same amount, but there was a difference in style, with men opting a bit more often for braggadocio and women lying more often for social convenience. No one was looking to defraud anybody in the usual sense of that term; they were just being social. 2.92 probably was an undercount since the researchers relied on participants to report honestly, and people notoriously posture even for social scientists; a few people (not very credibly) claimed not to have lied at all.

90 years before this experiment, HL Mencken understood the impulse perfectly. In The Art Eternal he wrote, “We ourselves are flawed and limited, and those of us not fortunate enough to be megalomaniacs are aware of it. Most of the time we feel outnumbered, outclassed, and (literally and figuratively) outgunned, and with good reason. It is not surprising that we are often are tempted to shorten the odds with dishonesty and to soothe ourselves with hypocrisy."

So, tell the truth on the stand, and don’t sell me an Elmyr by saying it is a Vermeer. But you look skinny in those jeans. Honestly.

Tell me sweet little lies


  1. It makes me wonder how many people lie when on the stand. Sure, I expect murderers and those that haven't confessed to the crime to do so, but I know that even some of the witnesses and probably prosecutors do as well having watched the documentary, The Thin Blue Line.

    And it also seems to be the way of the shill, and the late night husksters who promise everything from wealth to weight loss to better sex. It's odd when you hear someone say they never lie or have I ever lied to you, which is itself a lie or are they aware of the full implications or are they deceiving themselves? It's hard to discern. Some people make allowances or rationalizations for the white lie I think--so not to hurt people's feelings. Perhaps it's like George Costanza said to Jerry, you know it's not a lie unless you think it's a lie.

    1. All lawyers know that witnesses commonly lie. Sometimes they lie in order to affect the outcome of the trial, but far more often they lie in ways not even pertinent to the case; they do it simply in order to put themselves in a better light, just as they do off the stand. Lawyers always hope to catch a hostile witness in a fib (thereby discrediting all his or her testimony) while at the same time they hope friendly witnesses get away with it.

      Some folks really do believe their own propaganda about themselves, it seems – dismissing any deviations as unimportant in the bigger picture.

  2. I watched "F is for Fake" a couple months back. Interesting flick, kinda fun and kinda slow, but certainly unique. Obviously Welles found the two fakers fascinating, and they were. But I'm not sure he had quite enough material to sustain the whole film. if anything it was playful and entertaining, but yeah, not for everyone.

    1. Orson always was struggling for financing, and the shoestring budget shows. Maybe if he had more resources and more fakers for subject matter it would have worked better. Oja Kodar seems tossed in just so there can be an attractive woman in the trailer.