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Orson Welles in F for Fake

F for Fake

1975. Directed and Written by Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Oja Kodar, Francois Reichenbach

Orson Welles's final film lives up to its reputation for fun and mischief. "Ladies and gentlemen," Welles intones near the start, "this is a film about trickery and fraud." And a shameless display of trickery and fraud as well. Ostensibly a documentary about the Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory and the literary hoaxer Clifford Irving, it broadens its examination of great deceivers to include Howard Hughes, Picasso, Rembrandt, and the biggest charlatan of all: "your obedient servant," Orson Welles.

In F for Fake, Welles examines the nature of cinematic truth, starting with simple magic tricks and ending with an elaborate 30-minute hoax. Can we believe our eyes, he asks? We watch Elmyr de Hory create genuine-looking "Picassos" and "Matisses" and we cringe when he casually sets them on fire. We find ourselves charmed and convinced by Clifford Irving, a man we know from the outset is a complete liar. We fall for an absurd tale about Howard Hughes and a ham sandwich, primarily because we "see" the sandwich in footage reconstructed years after the event.

In fact, the whole movie is a sort of sleight-of-hand. Welles has assembled all sorts of "found," staged, and documentary footage into a mystery story. He introduces drama where there really is none. He constructs conversations among people who probably never met. He intercuts "reaction" shots that were clearly shot on completely separate occasions, turning a random blink of the eyes into an admission of guilt, a quick turn of the head into skeptical response. There's some telephoto footage of Howard Hughes's Las Vegas headquarters; Welles apparently wants us to think that he went there in person, for, in an effect worthy of Plan 9 From Outer Space, he intercuts a shot of himself peering out from behind some shrubbery in a clearly Mediterranean location. Quite often we see an image small and flickering on a Movieola screen, then big and actual, filling our own frame--lest we forget that we're watching pieces of film being manipulated by the master editor himself, Orson Welles, who also shows up on the Movieola screen, a piece of film himself. "You keep right on through the looking glass," as Welles observes about the de Hory-Irving fraud cycle.

Welles appears as both narrator and character. In his narrator mode, he presides over the occasion with his patented combination of omnisciece and self-deprecation. He examines footage on a movieola, looks up from a newspaper, displays pieces of "evidence," poses ominous rhetorical questions, drops portentious hints, and leads us backwards and forwards in time by using an ironic, aware-of-the-future tense that there may not even be a name for in English. (I think Welles was a wonderful writer, at least of the spoken word). This narrator sometimes mutates into the character of Orson Welles, international gourmand and tax refugee. He shows himself holding court at a Paris restaurant. He regales the crew with tales of his career. He directs his real-life lover Oja Kodar in a story-within-the story. He pretends to be using his own experiences to help us better understand the questions raised by the careers of de Hory, Irving and Hughes, but it's really the other way around.

Welles is unapologetically his own subject here. F for Fake sums up where he found himself and his industry in the mid 1970s. Even the haphazard look of the film, its bedraggled jet-set cast of characters, the awful Michel Legrand music, and the sleazy sensationalism of the topic seem, if not planned, at least put to good use. According to the film, Picasso once repudiated a painting even though he had been observed painting it, saying "I can paint fake Picassos as well as anybody." Orson Welles may have felt that he had produced a number of "fake Welleses" in his career, but F for Fake seems like the genuine article.

F for Fake raises interesting questions about the genuine and the false, about evidence and authenticity, gullibility and greed and, in a moving sequence about Chartres Cathedral, the vanity of human endeavor and the glory of God. I think this is a sincere bit of reflection from an old man, but perhaps it too is one of Welles's "effects."



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein