There’s a certain charm in seeing one of the cinema’s great “mythological” figures produce one of the defining works in the medium on the subject of truth. F For Fake, Orson Welles’ 1973 movie is a thesis on reality, perception and appearances.
The project itself stems from appropriately confused beginnings. Initially conceived as a separate film, by a different filmmaker, in that it was one concerned solely with the tale of master art-forger Elmyr de Hory, and was initially produced under the tutelage of François Reichenbach, a French director. Welles, somewhat ironically given the American filmmaker’s own relationship with such things, took over proceedings someway in to production, as the events surrounding Reichenbach’s production swelled in to the archetypical real-life tale that would probably have been described as being “stranger than fiction”. The resulting work is a master class in the examination of what cinema is, with a technical arm as impressive as it’s content.
Through his exploration of the nature of truthfulness Welles’ film acts as an accomplished and playful deconstruction of the medium. One cannot help but recall Jean Renoir’s Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir in the sense that it distills the things that one might consider to be that filmmakers particular strengths and presents them in a wholly focused manner, with the nature of the pieces giving each a sense of the definitive (it’s apt that both were the final completed projects of each of the film-makers).
The power of the edit, by now Welles’ most formidable weapon is at the fore with F For Fake. So often a filmmaker denied the final cut of his own work, Welles here cuts as one might expect: with a passion and an urgency not seen since 1941 and Citizen Kane. As with that film Welles uses the iconography of the moving picture screen to subvert his audience’s response. He once again refers to the newsreel when presenting an idea, the newsreel of course being one of the great sources of information for an America in the first half of the 20th century, just as he did so in the opening reel of Citizen Kane. In the same way that he manipulated that medium to present one fabricated life as real, here he uses it to present an openly fictional account of a real life. Early on in the picture Welles cuts what might be the most romantic montage in all of the cinema, and further muddies the line between truth and fiction as he displays his love interest at the time, Oja Kodar to the world for all to see. In a sequence referred to as “Girl Watching”, Welles cuts the faces of the men staring at Kodar, as she walks down a continental passage. Their gazes averted by the beautiful woman, Welles takes this moment of necessary male longing and turns it in to high drama.
With attention turned to Welles and his lack of a final cut for over 30 years, one ought also evaluate the manner in which Welles also uses the F For Fake platform as one from which for the director to address one of the reasons behind why this was the case. The film is ultimate a meditation on expertise, with Welles never getting over the critical adversity that greeted him in many areas, it’s easy to read F For Fake as his response to the criticism that plighted his career. As Peter Bogdanovich explains in his introduction to This Is Orson Welles, the written volume on which the pair collaborated and the closest thing to an autobiography ever produced by Welles the elder filmmaker was incredibly susceptible to criticism, and especially the ill-thought out, vindictive and poorly researched haute-scandal ramblings of the likes of Pauline Kael and Charles Higham. One might view F For Fake as a companion piece to This Is Orson Welles, with the director using the cinema medium to present his own criticisms in the more abstract form.
The whole thing rests on Welles’ ability to tell a story, a talent for which he had nary an equal. He makes the overt or ridiculous incredibly moving (see his artists lament, “Cry the dead artists out of the living past” declares Welles), with the manner in which the aforementioned “stranger than fiction” nature of the film can be presented with out the aid of a raised eyebrow a testament to the talent of the man behind the cut.
It’s perhaps this films post script that is the most interestingout of all of those in Welles oeuvre (no mean feat, I’m sure you will agree), with Elmyr de Hory going as far as to kill himself for his art, rather than face jail. In a neat twist of fate, within days of the mans death reports of forgeries of his own work, which were by this point deemed seriously valuable pieces of art in their own right thanks the forger’s celebrity, made their way on to the market….