One might easily accuse Orson Welles, who said that F for Fake represented "a new kind of movie," of egoism, but only on the condition that said person has not actually seen the film. Anyone who has knows that Welles, magnanimous or not, hit the nail on the head: not fiction, documentary nor essay, F for Fake infuses its thematic concern, that of charlatans and trickery, into its aesthetic makeup, thus deliberately slipping of out reach just as you think you've wrapped a few fingers around it. If nothing else, F for Fake stands as a monument to editing, that most innately and purely cinematic of production values, and therefore it may well be an essay, the thesis of which is the film itself. Oh, just buckle up now.
Welles opens with a burst of editing that sets the tone for what is to come. Dressed as a magician, Welles performs a trick for a young boy. The cutting matches the technique a magician uses to perform, constantly distracting and shifting focus as Welles takes a key and "transforms" it into a coin. The child is beside himself and, though for entirely different reasons, so are we at this point. The edits have jumped so far and so fast around Welles, his girlfriend Oja Kodar, the film crew filming this action and the train station where this scene occurs that the only identifiable constant is that we're clearly not in traditional Welles territory anymore. Welles' lines, spoken both on-set and in narration, careen at the same speed, bewildering us until the announcement that he's "turned" the coin back into a key is as necessary to understanding what just happened as the accompanying image of the completed trick. Welles is already off on another topic, but he returns to the preceding events in the opening's coda: "As for the key," he flippantly tells us, "it was not symbolic of anything."
That is absolute nonsense, of course, as the key is a blatant symbol, though what it symbolizes is that there is, in fact, no symbol. Rosebud this is not. Welles spent minutes stressing the key, distracting attention from it and at last presenting it again, at which point its importance has been built up so much that it's shocking to realize that the key is just an object. It's a fitting deconstruction to serve as the setup for what Welles terms "a film about trickery, fraud, about lies." Welles then assures us that everything he will say for the next hour will be the complete truth, which very quickly proves to be the film's first lie.
F for Fake operates under the pretense, for a time, of a documentary about infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian emigré who came to notoriety for selling forgeries of Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Modigliani. Interestingly, though, Elmyr was not exposed until the twilight of his, shall we say, career, when he began to slip with age. Had he quit at the right time, many collectors, even art galleries, would still contain his impeccable recreations among the genuine articles.
The outlandish fraud, bankrupted by conniving dealers who knowingly peddled his wares yet still living like an aristocrat, could easily have provided enough material on his own to fill the film's 88 minutes, and likely a great deal more. This may have been Welles' original intention, but clearly he saw something of himself in this ostentatious, hobnobbing bon vivant -- maybe he just sympathized with a man drained dry by those meant to bring money to him. At any rate, if Welles had ever set out to make a more straight-laced film, that all changed when Clifford Irving, Elmyr's biographer and the intended intermediary between the Hungarian's confidence man embellishments and some semblance of fact, was himself exposed as a fake when he attempted to peddle a biography of Howard Hughes packed with fake interviews.
His role now obviously expanded, Irving sends the film in a different direction (if it could be said to have had one previously) as Welles delves into this twist not to play up the irony of a fraud's biographer being himself exposed but to question the meaning and even definition of art. Irving, who enjoyed critical and commercial success as a writer before and after the Hughes debacle, and de Hory, who could so meticulously recreate the work of some of the most lauded artists of the modern era, were clearly talented individuals. But can they be called artists?
(Incidentally, this question bears a deeper significance, whether Welles intended or even recognized it, considering the artistic atmosphere during the film's release. F for Fake came out in 1974, just as many of the New Hollywood directors were leaving film school and/or solidly establishing themselves as filmmakers. These directors -- the Scorseses, De Palmas, Lucases, even the Spielbergs -- brought with them a memory bank of beloved and scrutinized favorite films that they often referenced openly in their work. Thus, Fake unconsciously sets up a contrast between the next generation and people like Elmyr and poses a question: is it worse to recreate something exactly and claim it as your own, or to make a counterfeit and at least attribute it to the person being ripped off, as de Hory did when he forged the artists' signatures?)
Irving offers up some withering opinions on the subject that he formed while following de Hory around to study the man. Intrigued by the tricks that Elmyr described to him, tricks the would later use to assert the validity of his hoax biography, Irving ran a control experiment with the curators of art galleries. He would show pictures of Elmyr's forgeries to different curators, forthrightly telling some that they were fakes and announcing to others that these paintings were the real deal. In the case of the former, these curators could instantly spot the discrepancies, breaking apart the subtle mistakes in de Hory's craft that differed from the original artists; in the case of the latter, however, everyone "recognized" it as a genuine article. As a consequence of the experiment, he tells Welles, "I lost my faith in the concept of expertise."
If the supposed experts, be they critics or collectors, cannot tell the real from the fake, can anyone be said to truly be an expert in any artistic medium. Moreover, who can call themselves artists? Welles displays a newspaper clipping of a French newspaper headline that accused Elmyr of selling his soul to the devil; over that clipping, he plays a piece by Paganini, the violinist who endured the same criticism in his life. Unwittingly, these outraged art lovers tie a fake to an artist who received the same insult precisely because he was too artistic for some to believe. Welles notes that art forgery itself used to be considered a valid form of art, mentioning the great Michelangelo as someone who got his start recreating before branching into his own designs. Welles, the long-suffering master who made whatever film he could with the money from whomever he could sufficiently schmooze, ponders de Hory's failure to, despite his talent, enjoy any success as an artist with his own creations. Welles crystallizes this predicament, and his own status as a sincere, layered artist eventually regarded more for his charlatan appearances on talk shows than his art: "Does it say something about our time that he could only make it as a faker?"
In that sense, F for Fake can be most easily classified as an essay film. Yet that would place the film in the same nebulous realm as the work of Godard and Marker, where it does not truly belong (though the recurring image of Welles at his editing desk prefigures the clips I've seen of some of Godard's post-Weekend work). A "typical" -- if you can use the word -- essay film takes social, political and artistic matters weighing on the artist and funnels them through the prism of the personal (thus bypassing the dangers of oversimplification by expanding these concerns for more mainstream, narrative films). Fake appears to work in the opposite way: Welles projects his own ideas and witty extrapolations of his endless partying and gabbing with Elmyr and his circle of high society friends onto a larger canvas. Only someone like Welles, massive in physicality and personality, could pull it off.
Thus, the film may be little more than Welles' grand, self-deprecating joke at the expense of his career. F for Fake certainly implicates its maker, after all; Welles modestly downplays his beginnings as a play director and reminds us that his true breakthrough was his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which sparked a panicked reaction that was itself overstated and stretched for the sake of notoriety. When he touches upon Irving's fraudulent treatment of Hughes, Welles, who had known the reclusive billionaire for a brief time, blurs any lines, mashing up Hughes' true biography, Welles' anecdotes of interacting with Hughes, Irving's fanciful inventions and Welles' career. The director presents the verifiable aspects of Hughes life in a News on the March segment ripped right out of Citizen Kane, and Welles even wrangles Joseph Cotton for an odd segment in which he insists, falsely of course, that Kane originally concerned not William Randolph Hearst but Howard Hughes -- amusingly, they say that the subject changed because Hughes was simply too odd to be believable in a work of fiction. That wit bleeds into Welles' anecdotes, already so overflowing -- such as an interlude in a seafood restaurant in Paris in which Welles discusses his time eating there with such artists pals as Jean Cocteau -- when he describes a rambling but suspenseful story about Hughes' eccentric nature. With the mystery of Hughes still grabbing the imaginations of many, Welles uses his authoritative, booming baritone to add gravity to a story about Hughes making strange demands back when Welles knew him, specifically a package Hughes demanded to be placed in a tree outside his house at a precise angle. Hughes never even passed by that tree, much less opened the package, but he still demanded it be placed there whenever he left for a walk. What was inside it? According to Welles, who sells the anti-punchline with verve, "A ham...sandwich."
I almost felt like this moment was as telling as the anti-symbolism of the key, an almost Coen-esque shaggy dog distraction for the filmmaker's amusement. How much egoism does it take, exactly, for a director to devote the opening credits sequence to prodigious shots of his girlfriend's ass with whip-smash edits of seemingly all the men in France snapping vertebrae as they turn and stare with unbridled amazement and lust? Godard, who set the jump-cut loose upon the world, once said that every cut was a lie. What does that say about a movie that scarcely allows any shot to last more than a second? Indeed, the most striking aspect of F for Fake may be that, for all its abstraction and heady questions, its clearest influence is seen upon the modern style of action editing, the well-timed frenzy of orchestrated narration and juxtaposition now used by the Michael Bays of the world to disorient and force a reaction out of material so bland and poorly shot that it would inspire fitful laughing and catcalls if anyone could follow its ludicrous construction.
But there is something in Welles' editing -- and certainly in his intellectual pursuits -- that separates the film from its unlikely disciples. Armed with a team of editors who worked 'round the clock for a whole year, Welles crafts F for Fake into a showcase for the power of editing, that key divide between the stage and the screen, both of which Welles had already mastered. It's a fitting focus in a film about art, as editing is what allows film to take its place as the seventh unique art: if Godard is right, and edits are visual and narrative lies, then editing may be not only emblematic of the cinema but of all forms of art. Whether the director believes it or not, he certainly posits that all art is inherently a lie, an interpretation of life that can, at its best, only approach truth. "Almost any story is certainly some kind of lie," he tells us at the film's start.
That sounds more cynical in print than it does as seen through Welles' eyes, and one could hardly argue the sentimental side of his rumination when faced with the beauty of the Chartres passage, in which Welles shoots the exterior of the gorgeous French cathedral from nearly every angle. That theatrical pomp that makes Welles' voice so distinct disappears, replaced by a humbled whisper as he contemplates every work of art when faced with, to him, its ultimate triumph. Paintings will fade, books will fall apart, and even this magnificent cathedral, painstakingly carved from stone as a tribute to God (and to man), will one day collapse into rubble and dust. All of this Welles accepts, then casts aside. "A fact of life: we're going to die. 'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past. 'Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.' Maybe a man's name doesn't matter that much." Perhaps art exists for its own sake. But it also proves our worth as a species, our capacity for greatness. Welles manages to tie this meaningful, celebratory revelation into the cheeky free-for-all that preceded it with a 17-minute finale involving the grandest shaggy dog story of them yet, a protracted affair over Picasso's supposed infatuation with Kodar, his subsequent painting of her and her grandfather's forgery of those paintings. Kodar and Welles even act out the angry confrontation between artist and forger. After this re-staging ceases, Welles turns to the camera and reminds us that he only promised to tell the "truth" for an hour, and that "for the past 17 minutes, I've been lying my head off." If you've been paying attention to this point and truly considered what's being said in the mad jumble of the editing, the only response to this revelation can be, in the most accepting and joyous manner possible, "So?"