Friday, April 22, 2005

F for Fake

Okay, having just watched this movie for the second time (and the first time in its entirety), I can say it's my second-favorite all time Orson Welles movie.

The #1 slot has to go, of course, to Citizen Kane, which is not just the finest film of Welles' career but kind of a high-water mark for the first half-century of American filmmaking. There's a reason Kane hits the top of nearly any list of the greatest films ever made, and if you're one of those people that fades movies greatly esteemed by critics, might I remind you that it's best to hate the game and not the player.

But, after the remarkably moving, powerful and ingenious Kane, F for Fake is pretty much the greatest thing Welles ever made. And he had a tremendous career in both radio and film, so that's saying something. I mean, I'm ranking Fake above some pretty amazing films, like his unfairly-hacked-up-but-still-mesmerizing Magnificent Andersons, and the taut thriller The Stranger, not to mention the Anthony Perkins Kafka adaptation The Trial, and the Rita Hayworth noir Lady from Shanghai, in which he improbably carries off an Irish accent.

First, you'll need some background. Going to this movie without knowing some context can be rather dizzying. The first time I saw it was late at night on IFC with my friend Tim, who really should be reading this blog if he isn't because he appears in about 1/3 of my old college nostalgia stories. Anyway, we had no idea what was going on - just that it was a pseudo-documentary by Orson Welles on cable.

And it was terrific. But I'll admit to spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get my bearings. I'll spare you the same obstacle.

By the mid 1970's, Welles had no real momentum left in Hollywood. Project after project of his had fallen through, he was unable to get funding, and though a young generation of artists and filmmakers revered him for his incredible contributions to cinema, studio executives wanted nothing to do with his complicated, profitless ventures.

A friend of Welles named Francois Reichenbach at this time was making a documentary in Europe about an infamous art forger named Elmyr de Hory. De Hory was living in obscurity on the island of Ibiza while Reichenbach filmed his day to day life. One of the participants in Reichenbach's documentary was a man named Clifford Irving, who had written a biography on De Hory called "Fake."

During the course of filming this de Hory documentary, Clifford Irving announced to the press that he had been contacted by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, and that Mr. Hughes was going to give Irving the exclusive rights to publish his autobiography. A worldwide media frenzy ensued, as Irving provided documents signed by Hughes as proof of their meeting.

To make a long story slightly less long, it was eventually revealed that Irving's entire story had been a massive hoax. Hughes, who never spoke to the press and didn't leave the Desert Inn Hotel he had purchased, reluctantly called reporters to denounce Irving's story and deny ever having met the man.

So, this was kind of an odd coincidence. The man Reichenbach had used as an expert on a well-known fraud was himself the perpetrator of a well-publicized fraud. And, after all, Hughes himself was something of a fraud - a man who carefully crafted a public image before retreating from it almost immediately, a man who sold the world on a massive wooden plane that never flew.

Welles became fascinated with this story. So he gathered up all of Reichenbach's footage from the now-failed De Hory documentary, filmed footage of his own, narrated by and starring himself, and added an entire chapter to the story concerning forged Picasso artwork to create the film F for Fake. It was the last completed film he'd ever direct, save for an educational piece for West German TV entitled Filming Othello.

That being said, it's not really a documentary. In his introduction to the film in the new Criterion 2-disc DVD set, Peter Bogdonovich refers to it as a "film essay." It's an apt description, but it makes the film sound very dry. It's almost like a filmed diary on a single subject - the subject of fakery and charlatanism. Welles has a theme in mind, and then just throws idea after idea at you, insight after insight, in a lively and entertaining way. He would have been an excellent blogger.

It also predates the work of contemporary documentarians like Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield. Welles isn't just making a movie about a famous Hungarian art forger. He's telling a personal story - it's his take on the notion of true authorship, on the validity of referring to certain types of art as "fake" and other types "authentic." And he relates these opinions with the full force of his filmmaking ability and warm, eccentric personality.

All of the best sequences in F for Fake tell as much about Welles as they do the subject of forgery. Sure, there's dozens of fascinating insights into the world of fraud, especially the observation that the use of "authentication experts" serves only to confirm the reputation of fraudulent works. If the film is to be believed, art experts are utterly clueless to tell a well-done forgery from an authentic work, and that only the forger (and possibly the artist) will ever know for certain.

But, for me, the film's most interesting segments find Welles exploring various ideas associated with forgery. One stunning scene finds Welles considering the cathedral at Chartres, a hauntingly beautiful piece of architecture by an unknown designer. The cathedral has stood for so long, has endured so many centuries, that it no longer matters who designed it and who gets credit for its construction. It simply exists as a monument to the greatness that mankind can achieve.

In that same way, if a Modigliani survives for hundreds of years, and it turns out it is not really a painting done by Modigliani but a perfect copy by De Hory, would that even matter? The name Modigliani wouldn't concern anyone in thousands of years, but the painting would still have the power to stir the emotions.

So, the be arguing a case like that, it's clear that Welles has an affection for tricksters. During one of the most charming sequences in F for Fake, he briefly relates his own history as a charlatan, starting with his famous radio broadcast "War of the Worlds," that convinced many a simpleton New York was being invaded by Martians. The film even opens with him performing magic tricks for children in a "fake" train station, one of many inauthentic sets Welles uses throughout the film.

In this way, the style continually draws your attention to its artifice. He's reminding you that you're watching a movie, even going so far as to show you cameras turning on and off, switches being turned, and film unspooling on reels and feeding into projectors. It's the old confidence game - Welles convinces you that what you're watching is real by showing you how phony it is, by confiding in you his artificiality up front. You know you're getting an honest portrayal of how fraud is undertaken because he's so upfront about lying to you - would a dishonest filmmaker possibly be so forthright?

Welles was so playful in this film, was having so much fun with filmmaking conceptually, it's absolutely criminal he was never funded to complete any more work. In the history of cinema, has there ever been an artist so shamefully underutilized? The man who crafted this wholly original and innovative film, a movie which was made 20 years ago and which still defies any genre or category of film in existance, remained at the top of his game.

And by this point in his life, Welles had started to come to terms with his disappointing filmography. He had some hope that F for Fake or his never-completed South American trilogy would resurrect his career, but there's a melancholy that hangs over the entire proceeding. At one point, a shot of Welles, clad in a black cloak, walking slowly away into the foggy distance, while we hear an audio clip of Howard Hughes. Hughes says:

"It makes me sad that I don't direct pictures any more..."


Anonymous said...


Yes indeed, I have been reading this website, thought only fairly recently. It looks like you caught the same revival of "F" For Fake that I did. I'm glad you finally managed to see the last five minutes of the film. Perhaps it's better left unsaid, but I'd like to add to your review one of the most genuinely surprised and delightly "twist" endings that I've ever seen. Most twist endings elicit a reaction from me along the lines of "Oh," and on rare occasion, "Huhn!" The ending of this film is like an injection of nitris oxide: everything in the film seen prior is expanded with a rush that leaves the viewer totally bewildered and yet superlatively giddy.

Another point that I'd like to make as to why I agree with your pairing "F" For Fake along with Citizen Kane as Orson's best films is that both revel so much in the delight of filmmaking. I think this is a side of Welles that is unfairly overshadowed by his (self-perpetuated) image as the genuis auteur. Too many people see him as reaching a height in Citizen Kane that he was never to acheive again, giving rise to the current evaluation that he was the sum of his collaborators, i.e. Toland, Mink, the Mercury Players, Herrmann. I don't mean to denigrate them; Kane is one of the greatest collections of talent ever to work in the Hollywood system. Yet Welles' own contribute is certainly just as remarkable. Just look at the piles upon piles of crap produced by our current A list "studio" directors like Brett Ratner and Jay Roach. Working with the best support system Hollywood has to offer in terms of crew, actors and money, they consistently produce films that barely manage to achieve the level of mediocre. Compare this to Welles' years overseas when he could barely scrape together enough money to complete a picture. At this point he had come to be known as a man who had squandered his talent, and yet he still managed to produce Othello, Chimes at Midnight, The Trial and "F" For Fake. Some of these movies are still extremely difficult to find, and yet I think each of them is a masterpiece in its own way. So my point, the one I began to make several hundred words ago, is that this was a man who deeply loved filmmaking, not for any of the pretentious reasons he liked to throw out, but because he got a kick out of it.

It's telling that one of the early scenes in "F" For Fake has him watching footage on a Moviola in an editing room. He mentions in one of his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich that he had come to love the editing process, being essentially forced to rely upon it to cover the inadequacies of his budget. Another form of fakery. He also claims that by this point, he began doing all the cutting himself. I am inclined to believe this, though he did have a penchant for bolstering his resume by taking additional credits in his films. Assuming he is telling the truth, I can't think of another director of similar stature to take on this role. The image of the smooth racounteur, gentihomme du monde, bent over a splicing table in a dark, cramped room is incongruous, but I think it shows how much love he put into his work.

In some ways, "F" For Fake is even more a direct testament to that love than Kane. Kane took the best of the theater and brought it to film; Fake's effects are purely cinematic. Okay, this has gone on way too long, and I apologize. Let me just finish by saying that one of the things that makes this movie so appealing is that it's made out of the simplest stuff imaginable, nothing more than found footage and home movies, and yet Welles, relying only on wit and the tricks revealed only to those who truly devote themselves to the medium, created one of the most, maybe not profound, but definitely engaging looks at the joy and art of storytelling. And that's the truth.

(Also I would like to note that the score was done by the great Michel LeGrand. It's a little dated, but fits the movie's tone perfectly. It's interesting that he also contributed a great deal of music to Godard's early works, who defined, probably more than anyone else, the modern film "essay." [note to editor- I had to work Godard into this, didn't I?])


Jonathan said...

"F for Fake" is indeed a phenomenal movie, and might even make it's way onto my top ten all time list if I am nerdy enough to make one. I plan to get that new Criterion as soon as I can afford it. Buying Criterion DVD's these days is like taking out a loan for a boat.