|F for Fake was one of Orson Welles’s last completed features. On the one hand, it is a grim reminder of what happened to one of the cinema’s great geniuses, as his previous feature, Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff; 1965), was made more than a decade earlier, and he lived for another decade and only completed one other feature film, 1978’s Filming Othello (although he continued working on numerous projects until his final days). The last 30 years of his life were littered with fragments and uncompleted films, the remnants of a great artist whose unconventional ideas and methods alienated him from those with the resources he needed to realize his visions. On the other hand, F for Fake is a wonderfully fitting conclusion to Welles’s long career, a playful exploration of the mysteries of art, magic, and fraud, all themes that were central to his best films. Remember that Citizen Kane (1941), for all its revelations, was ultimately about a person’s unknowability, both in and out of the spotlight.|
A true auteur in every sense of the word, Welles was always first and foremost a deeply personal filmmaker, which is why it was so difficult for him to capitulate to anyone’s vision other than his own. He was himself a master of cinematic trickery, as his masterpiece Citizen Kane so readily attests. It is impossible to discuss Welles without also discussing his contributions to the magic of cinematic illusion, which is why it is somewhat ironic that French theorist André Bazin was so taken with the sense of realism in Welles’s films.
F for Fake is not quite a documentary; it is more like an essay that dives headfirst into its subject, pulling it apart it from the inside (in this sense, one can see its influence on the structure of recent political documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11). On the surface, the film is about fraud in all its many manifestations, but it is really about Welles himself. Cloaked in a black hat and flowing magician’s cape, Welles is constantly front and center as the film’s narrator and guide, and his own fascinations with fraud—in terms of both harmless, entertaining magic tricks and the self-motivated deception of others for gain—dovetails with the film’s subjects. In the opening scene, Welles is performing a magic trick for a young child, and a woman (cowriter Oja Kodar) leans out the window and notes that he’s “up to his old tricks” again. “Of course,” Welles happily replies. “I’m a charlatan.” Immediately we sense that Welles is in his element.
All of the subjects in F for Fake are charlatans, and part of the film’s trickery is the way it embeds forgery within forgery. One of the main subjects is an art forger named Elmyr de Hory, who is able to mimic with stunning ease the work of virtually any master painter, yet was never able to develop a vision of his own. Elmyr’s life story is being chronicled by a writer named Clifford Irving, who had just turned the world on its ear by convincing a major publishing house to pay an enormous advance for his supposed autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, which turned out to be a complete hoax. Thus, we have Welles the master director and “charlatan” making a film about a forger writing a book about another forger. Clearly, to ask where “Truth” with a capital T lies is not only an exercise in futility, but one that is fundamentally absurd.
F for Fake is also about the process of filmmaking itself and how it can so easily deceive, particularly with the power of editing. The film frequently shows Welles sitting at his editing table, piecing together bits of film to create his story—a clear exercise in fabrication. The foundation of Welles’s project is an earlier documentary on Elmyr by François Reichenbach, which he purchased and completely re-edited to suit his purposes. When Reichenbach made his film, Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes hoax had not been unmasked. Thus, Welles’s appropriation of the footage, which he admits in the film itself, becomes a form of reinterpretation that lays bare how Reichenbach’s film played into Irving’s hoax in its original form.
Welles’s film is uniquely formless, in that it has its own rhythm, but you’re never sure in what direction it will head next. It is filled with diversions, tangents, and meandering ideas culled from years of Welles’s work, all of which are loosely bound together by the theme of fakery. F for Fake was clearly inspired by the European new waves of the 1960s, both visually with its use of zooms and freeze frames and discontinuity editing, and also in its narrative looseness and sly self-referencing. Welles may have been a difficult filmmaker to work with, but he never allowed himself to become staid and outdated. The question of what he could have done had he been given the resources throughout his career—what major illusions he could have foisted on us—will forever haunt those who feel passionately about his work.
Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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