Z To A: F For Fake (1972)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Trickery. Deceit. Magic. In Orson Welles’s free-form documentary F For Fake, the legendary filmmaker (and self-described charlatan) gleefully engages the central preoccupation of his career- the famous line between truth and illusion, art and lies. Beginning with portraits of world-renowned art forger Elmyr de Hory and his equally devious biographer, Clifford Irving, Welles embarks on a dizzying cinematic journey that simultaneously exposes and revels in fakery and fakers of all stripes- not the leat of whom is Welles himself.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

F For Fake is a marvelous little puzzle of a film. Time hasn’t diminished its complexity and mischievousness, but perhaps the most startling change is how its structure doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Welles’ editing style was considered too frenetic and jumbled to be taken seriously when it was released. Of course, his creative choices were ahead of its time. Fake may be easier for this generation to digest, but its themes are impossible to disregard.

When we’re absorbed in whatever a film is offering us, we are allowing ourselves to be engaged and fooled. In a film that is meta before meta was deemed “hip,” Welles plays with that notion on several levels, explaining and contradicting his intentions.

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Over the course of 88 minutes, Fake touches on several subjects. It’s about the nature of art, questioning the power of expertise, suspension of disbelief and the inexorable pull of storytelling. There are asides on artistic struggle, anonymity and a poignant rumination about death, which brings to mind a line in my previous entry for The Fall (“All things must die”), or more famously a catchphrase from Game Of Thrones (“All men must die”).

Still, one of the most important moments is when Welles makes a promise to his audience before rushing us along, a mini-prologue before leading us into a labyrinth of facts and deceit.

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To begin, he profiles two monumental acts of fakery: the career of art forger Elmyr de Hory and the Howard Hughes hoax perpetuated by Clifford Irving. Can I describe how he does it? Not really. It’s dizzyingly visual and expertly made. What’s more, the film often cuts to Welles in the editing room, trying to piece these narratives together- adding another layer of acknowledged manipulation.

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The process of creating Fake took a year of editing, with Welles working seven days a week. A sequence in which he pits footage of Irving and de Hory against each other is always mentioned as the work of a virtuoso, but all I see is his playfulness. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone noted that while Citizen Kane is masterful, Fake is an artist experimenting like it’s his first time. It interesting to think of a 57-year-old making something new and ambitious, something more reminiscent of a 25-year-old fresh out of film school.

That does make sense when you think of Fake‘s editing style. It seems second nature now- not all that different from an ambitious Super Bowl ad, the genesis and rise of MTV or Baz Luhrmann’s oeuvre. But when it came out people dismissed it as incomprehensible garbage. After an early screening critic Lotte Eisner sniffed, “It isn’t even a film.”

To say the least I disagree. Out of everything Welles did, this is my favorite, and it’s worth noting it was a collaboration with his long-time partner- artist, writer and feminist Oja Kodar. In the audio commentary for the film, she noted it retained the most of his personality, revealing more of who he was while obscuring it with so much play. “I’m a charlatan,” he tells her at the beginning of the film, and perhaps that’s why he is so relaxed and happy in Fake. He is most unguarded when he is juggling so many tricks.

In the end I think of Fake as an entertaining anecdote in which you invest yourself into listening to someone at length, only to realize it has become something else. Is Orson Welles fucking with you?

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Absolutely. And it’s delightful.


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