By Jason A. Hill
F for Fake, France / Iran / West Germany, 1973
Directed by Orson Welles
With the recent new release of Michael Moore’s latest effort, Capitalism: A Love Story, I thought it would be a good time to talk about a seldom understood yet truly great documentary film, F for Fake.
F for Fake, a film documentary about truth and authorship in art by Orson Welles released in 1973, is almost as much a narrative film as it is a documentary. It covers two “fakes”: famed art forger Elmyr de Hory, and pretend Howard Hughes biographer Clifford Irving. The film – narrated by Welles in different scenes set variously in train stations, a studio soundstage, and in the actual editing room – follows several stories, all dealing with the same concept: truth in art. First we follow the story of Elmyr de Hory, who we come to learn has forged possibly hundreds of art masterpieces over a period of twenty years. De Hory states that the reason for his career’s success is that the “so called experts” are in fact no experts at all, and his body of work is the proof. It’s not clear which of de Hory’s claims are really true, but the film’s evidence of de Hory’s guilt alone is enough to validate at least the idea that he would be guilty of nothing if forging a masterpiece was not possible.
Later, the film discusses Clifford Irving, who is present in many of the scenes with Elmyr and who gives his own account of de Hory’s adventures in a book he recently wrote. Irving’s hoax with Howard Hughes actually unfolds in the middle of the making of F for Fake and makes for a pretty intriguing plot twist. Welles explains that until Irving actually confesses, there was still doubt as to Irving’s guilt, and this is difficult to prove either way due to the mysterious nature of Hughes himself.
But these two men are not quite on trial. What seems to be more interesting to Welles in this film isn’t whether or not what these men did was right or wrong, but whether or not the truth in art is even a real concept to begin with. Welles seems to question just about everything relating to the truth in the film, including the film itself, which says something about the truthfulness of all documentaries. Not only does Welles question the “tropes of veracity” in documentary filmmaking, he completely reinvents it as a new form of storytelling.
Film movements in the past have used forms from reality to help make narrative fiction films, from the films of the Italian neo-realists’ use of ordinary people and real-time events, to John Cassavetes’s films made spontaneously in the streets of New York. But Welles has introduced something new here, as he employs the use of fiction elements to enhance his cinema verite. It could be argued that no documentary has ever simply been made without some alteration or tampering of the facts, but never has it been put to use in such a deliberate effect of style and purpose. Welles also wastes no film tool or under-utilizes any technique, from photo stills and stock footage, to shots in front of and behind the camera showing his filmmaking process. This is also fitting because the film is widely recognized as a masterpiece in film editing.
Welles, a film icon who rarely got involved with a project in a halfhearted way, spares no less the effort in this film as the subject of truthfulness expands to include Welles himself. In 1938, Welles perpetrated one of the greatest hoaxes in the 20th century by reporting the invasion of the planet Earth by Martians. So many people believed Welles’s broadcast that it became a media frenzy itself and launched Welles into fame (or infamy). Knowing this makes it no surprise when, during the film, Welles mentions this to present himself as a “charlatan.” There is also a segment of the film where Welles states that “for the next hour, everything you are about to see is absolutely true,” as he begins to tell the story of Clifford Irving’s Hoax biography of Howard Hughes. Shortly after this, we are told the story of Oja Kodar’s encounter with Pablo Picasso, which in fact is a fabrication, and we only understand this after Welles himself confesses by stating that “for the last 17minutes, I’ve been lying my head off.”
This segment proved to be extremely personal for Welles. Kodar not only worked with him in writing F for Fake, but was also personal inspiration for the final segment of the film. As one of my film professors, Joseph McBride, explains in his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles, “What could be called Welles’s ‘Oja period’ lasted until his death in 1985, and it marked profound changes in his filmmaking style. Under Kodar’s influence, Welles’s work underwent a Picasso-like late flowering of sexual themes and imagery. The Immortal Story contains an actual lovemaking scene; although filmed obliquely, it is arguably more erotic for its concentration on suggestive details.”
The connection between Welles and the older Picasso is drawn explicitly in F for Fake, with Welles ingeniously “directing” the artist by interacting still photographs of him seemingly ogling Oja as she strolls past his window in skimpy outfits. As “Picasso” paints nude pictures of Oja, Welles intercuts ravishing shots of her body in sensuous poses and rhapsodizes about the artist’s reaction to her lush figure: “Was he … tempted? Perhaps inspired … [T]he results of this encounter were, to say the least of it, extremely fruitful. Figs sweetened on the trees, grapes burst into ripeness on the vines, and twenty-two – twenty-two! – large portraits of Miss Kodar were born under that fertile brush.”
It has often been explained that truth is an abstract concept that has many meanings, and depending on the person and their point of view, the truth can change from one to another. I believe Welles’s final point in F for Fake is that truth is an abstract idea, but honesty is the faithful expression of one’s own feelings. There can be no truth in art, only honesty. Honesty is the courage to be bold. And in that sense there has never been a more honest documentary than F for Fake.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.