This month we look at a film that is a lot more fun: Orson Welles’ audacious F For Fake, which sees the great man having the time of his life with a cinematic format that can often prove to be a piece of work: the essay film.
Before you watch F For Fake, there are a few things that it might be worth reading up on, such as: Howard Hughes, if you don’t know, was a billionaire tycoon and famous recluse and allegedly deeply mysophobic; Clifford Irving wrote a fake autobiography of Hughes that fooled America; Orson Welles did an infamous radio version of “The War of the Worlds” that also fooled America; Pauline Kael, a highly influential film critic in the 1970s, wrote an article that claimed that Orson Welles took credit for the greatness of other people’s work in Citizen Kane – which deeply offended Welles; Oja Kodar was Welles’ mistress at the time of filming.
F For Fake begins as an apparent documentary on fakery and charlatans and much of the film’s running time focuses, though this is hardly the word, on Elmyr de Hory, a brilliant forger of paintings, and his biographer and subsequent rival Clifford Irving. However, the film is far from a straight biographical sketch as Welles freely moves where his myriad interests take him. The film is often incredibly fast-paced and it is easy for the inattentive viewer to get lost, with the cutting and the voiceover creating the impression of an improvisation in which Welles changes the subject, apologizes for not making much sense, calls it “mumbo-jumbo” and starts again for a different perspective. We often see Welles sitting at a dysfunctional editing table, trying to hammer the film into shape. This gives the impression of a film making itself right there in front of you, allowing the film to feel incredibly new and unique.
However, there is more, much more, to F For Fake than the ramblings of an eloquent master filmmaker, even if half the fun of the film comes from the fact that Welles is an infectiously bubbly and good-natured host. The film begins with a few magic tricks and this is what sets the film’s tone best – F For Fake is a film in love with trickery and it is all about what cinema can do to trick, such as when Welles’ clever editing creates a dialogue between two people who are not in the same room that results in the suggestion of a major revelation. Earlier in the film, he shows the effect that Kodar has on a series of men as she walks down a busy street, the film gleefully cutting and freezing while Welles claims that the actors were real people and gave their reactions at unawares and for free. Welles will promise, “During the next hour everything you will hear from us [Welles and his collaborators] is really true and based on solid fact.” Later, he will even repeat it in writing, yet we are never sure that we can trust him, especially because he is so excited by the subject of fakery. Ultimately, F For Fake keeps the viewer at unawares almost throughout, preferring that they question everything they see.
F For Fake is a film of many subjects, one of which is a questioning of art. Elmyr de Hory is frequently heard saying that if a painting hangs on a wall for so many years, then surely it is art. Elmyr de Hory’s fake paintings have apparently always fooled the experts. These so-called experts are one of the targets of the film – people who dictate the taste of their culture by their own opinions, and yet these opinions are rarely based on fact and can often be contradicted. Remember that Welles had a grudge against Pauline Kael at the time. Welles asks who the real fakers are; people who can paint like Picasso or the experts who arrogantly claim that their work is Picasso. But Welles goes further than this, stating that if the artist himself cannot tell a genuine work from a fake then what does it matter whose signature is on the painting. And, similarly, why should Picasso have all the acclaim and all the riches when other, impoverished artists are just as capable. Welles suggests a difference between genuine art and art for commerce and sees the experts as complicit with the market, turning art into golden investment opportunities via the cult of personality. For Welles, art is less to do with who and more to do with truth. And this is what leads us to the film’s best scene, a beautiful and profound sequence in which Welles visits the cathedral at Chartres, “the premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world and it is without a signature.” Welles muses aloud on this cathedral, his words moving from praise to ruminations on art in general and on to man and life and death. Art, Welles’ own personal conception of the term, is movingly reaffirmed while its critics are questioned.
Welles presents a version of his own autobiography, in which he emphasises his own falsehoods: the lies that allowed him to act in the Gate Theatre in Dublin despite being an inexperienced sixteen year old and the infamous broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” The effect of this broadcast is made clear: “I didn’t go to jail – I went to Hollywood.” He identifies strongly with Elmyr de Hory, whose own fakery was a result of his destitution after “experts” disregarded his own original paintings. Clifford Irving’s representation of Howard Hughes equally mirrors the original conception of Citizen Kane, which was to have been a fictionalised biopic of Hughes. In a few telling sequences, Welles goes to Las Vegas and points his camera at a hotel penthouse window, presumably where Hughes was eking out an existence. He looks at a series of Hughes myths, developing the idea that the truth will never be discovered from behind the series of myths and lies propagated by Hughes and others. Ultimately, a lot of F For Fake is unclear and a lot of the joy of the film is down to Welles’ own embracing of the fluidity of fiction and fact. At once, he presents a shot of himself reciting poetry about man and truth while distorted through a curved glass (suggesting “Through the Looking Glass”, The Lady From Shanghai and distorted truths) and yet cocks his gaze at the camera and mumbles ‘pretentious.’ As anyone can see, the running time of F For Fake is 85 minutes and even Welles himself delights in “lying [his] head off.”
As is probably obvious from the above, F For Fake is a fast-paced ideas-packed essay. It is a film that rewards multiple viewings and yet is always a lot of fun. Orson Welles delights in simply being a spinner of tales, the more convoluted and confusing the better. We often see him sitting down at a restaurant regaling assorted people with his stories and at times, the film suggests what it would have been like to have had dinner with Welles, his chatter moving seamlessly, and sometimes not so, through a wide range of topics, all interesting and all told with verve and humour. Indeed, a lot of the value of F For Fake is simply how enjoyable it is. Thematically complex and somewhat dark, F For Fake is probably the most fun you will have with an essay film. Exuberant, playful cinema at its finest.
So give it a go and tell us what you think.
Next month: La Chinoise