Magic, painting, literature, filmmaking and so on, it’s all a big fake. A good fake is the crucial and decisive ingredient if an artist is to pull the wool over the viewer/reader’s eyes and achieve the illusion of an alternate experience. We revel in fakery, and celebrate the makers of fakery, whether they be magicians or filmmakers. In F for Fake, Orson Welles — the ultimate master of the fake (his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds could be among the 20th century’s greatest fakes) an artist who used inventive devices in radio, theater, and cinema to seduce audiences into deeper realms of the imagination and illusion — contemplates the whole idea of Fakery. The notorious master art forger Elmyr de Hory and the equally notorious writer Clifford Irving, whose faux biography of Howard Hughes turned him into a tabloid sensation, are the subjects around which Welles pivots his wryly funny and personable essay on the testy relationship between illusion and authenticity, and between art and commerce.
Where do we draw the line between art and forgery? Does the fraudulent nature of what de Hory and Irving do so well automatically invalidate and diminish the value of their works, though as observers we marvel at the impeccable perfection of their forgeries? Welles’ essay isn’t striving for conclusions, but it entertains the notion of art as illusion with humor and self-reflection. That discursive quality in the film is also, to some extent anyway, its undoing, as Welles’s narration turns over and over on itself, one idea overlapping another, replacing or muddling the last, threatening to obfuscate the filmmaker’s entire enterprise. Sometimes we don’t know where to look or which of his observations to retain and take with us through the rest of this otherwise compelling journey.
Welles structures F for Fake as an extended monologue, a point-counterpoint speculation on how and why de Hory and Irving pulled off their respective fakes, so much so that they built success and fame out of their practice. The tone is clever and light, the editing at once whimsical and complex as Welles cross-cuts between his original footage and archival documentary footage of de Hory and Irving. That interplay makes F for Fake a surprisingly dynamic, constantly engaging experimental documentary, a personal essay that gives the viewer the feeling that he’s in Welles’s expansive company around a dinner table while he considers and pontificates on a pet topic. That in itself is a privilege, and reason enough to check out F for Fake, the filmmaker’s last and among his most cherished personal projects.
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Joseph Cotton, Francois Reichenbach, Richard Wilson, Paul Stewarak