F for Fake

“I started at the top”, Orson Welles quips in F for Fake, “and have been working my way down ever since”. After the great man’s death in 1985 Welles’s gag became something worryingly close to consensus. Obituary after obituary tutted about what a shame it was that he never lived up to the promise of Citizen Kane. My own cynical suspicion is that a lot of those obituary writers hadn’t seen most of the films he made after Kane. Many of Welles’s later films were the product of international co-financing arrangements so hard to unpick it kept them out of circulation until this century. His last completed film, The Other Side of the Wind, is scheduled to debut on Netflix later this year, thirty years after it finished filming.

When people actually get a chance to see late Welles, they generally enjoy it. F for Fake was reissued in America by Criterion in 2005, and that package turned its reputation around from curio to cult classic. Now an expanded version of that disc is available on Region 2. Not only is this Blu-Ray an improvement over the last UK release from Eureka Masters of Cinema, it’s an improvement over the version many British Wellesians will have imported from the States, with new extras including a chat show appearance by Welles from 1975, and the full audio recording of the bizarre Howard Hughes press conference featured in the film.

If, like me, you’re already on board the F for Fake train, this is well worth the upgrade. If you’re not, now is an excellent time to see what the fuss is about. It is hard to describe F for Fake – it is, even more than any of Welles’s other films, an experience – but explaining how the film came to be should give a sense of its delicious mysteries. Welles had appeared in a documentary by François Reichenbach about the art forger Elmyr de Hory. De Hory was perhaps the least covert criminal to exist outside of DC Comics, holding high society parties at his Ibiza villa, bragging about how many art galleries are filled with his work, dashing off a quick Modigliani or a Matisse in fifteen minutes before tossing it on the fire.

He was the kind of character truly great documentaries are based on, and a satisfying ‘straight’ film about his life and crimes (Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery) is included in the extras here. For whatever reason, though, Reichenbach found it impossible to complete the film, and turned the footage over to Welles to see if he could make something out of it. Boy, could he. As Welles began his work a new scandal broke involving de Hory’s biographer, Clifford Irving, who had released a bombshell biography of the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. The only problem was, it wasn’t true – and this is where that press conference comes in, with (real? Welles-directed?) images of the world’s press gathered around a telephone, listening to the bizarre billionaire denounce Irving.

How did they know it was Hughes and not another impostor? Presumably they’d checked it with an expert – but then, experts had checked over Irving’s book and de Hory’s paintings and found nothing suspicious, so why should they be trusted regarding a man whose life was deliberately kept as secret as possible? Reviewing F for Fake in 2018, with its bristling contempt for expertise and celebration of hoaxers and con-artists, there is a temptation to recruit it into contemporary debates about fake news and political manipulation. But Welles isn’t celebrating lying or misleading, he’s celebrating art, ending by quoting Picasso’s definition of it as “the lie that tells the truth”. Remember that the first novelists, like Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, presented their fictions as “true histories” – is that really more respectable than what Irving did? Likewise, if de Hory can draw something that looks like a Picasso, and is as good as a Picasso, does it really matter if Picasso never did it?

Well, perhaps. Throughout F for Fake Welles presents himself as a “flim-flam man”, a former street magician who never grew out of the need to trick people. When he reminisces about “my old Martian hoax on the radio”, you see his point. But Citizen Kane is not a con. Nowadays any Hollywood film can surpass Touch of Evil‘s famous three-minute tracking shot by digitally stitching together takes, but Welles did it for real – and he did it first. One can criticise Picasso by saying de Hory is just as good, if not better, at painting – but we must then acknowledge that without Picasso, de Hory would have nothing to paint. Welles wonders if it’s an indictment of our age that a man like Irving can only find fame by pretending to be someone else, but there’s no reason to suspect Irving or de Hory would be superstars in another era. A Renaissance de Hory would probably be one of the many anonymous workshop hands turning out copies of the latest Bruegel or Michelangelo.

The reason why all this is on Welles’s mind is revealed towards the end of the film, with a beautiful, twilit glide around Chartres Cathedral, and Welles musing that this magnificent piece of art bears no signature. “Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much”, he concludes. It has been widely suggested that F for Fake is a response to Pauline Kael’s essay “Raising Kane“, which aimed to strip Welles of credit for the groundbreaking innovations of his debut, and it’s easy to read a wounded pride into Welles’s jabs at critics here. I think Welles’s riposte to Kael goes even further. If Kael was going to allege that the fake newsreel in Citizen Kane wasn’t his idea, he would make a film that took that sequence’s central paradox – faking the truth – and expanded it into an astonishing labyrinth of truth and lies, a cinematic Rubik’s Cube where every time you solve one side your attention is drawn to even more perplexing patterns and puzzles elsewhere.

F for Fake is many things – a documentary, a comedy, a true crime film, an autobiography, an extended piece of art criticism, or perhaps criticism of art criticism. The most common designation is ‘essay film’, a notoriously ill-defined genre. Broadly, if ordinary films want to tell you a story, an essay film wants to tell you what it means. Some essay films can be dry, or obscure, or pretentious, but Welles has a secret weapon – himself. Even in this late stage he was still a sought-after guest on chat shows – hence the extras – and his delightful turn in F for Fake is the ultimate expression Welles as raconteur. Even when he’s rambling, or hinting (probably falsely) at some greater story the lawyers won’t let him tell, he’s irresistible company.

F for Fake‘s nimble editing, lightning pace and playful humour make it work both as a piece of pure entertainment and a provocative film of ideas. Far from the spent force he was caricatured as – by himself as well as others – F for Fake shows Welles’s adventurousness and energy reaching new summits right at the end of his career. On the commentary his cinematographer Gary Graver and creative and romantic partner Oja Kodar talk of how consumed by work he still was – a little bit of Quixote there, a little bit of The Other Side of the Wind here – and the editing for F for Fake involved Welles occupying three editing suites for close to a year, still shooting and re-shooting all the time, as he found the movie’s prismatic structure. The other extras include a 2000 interview with Irving, an introduction by his friend Peter Bogdanovich, the legendarily strange trailer (which includes very little footage from the film) and a really fascinating documentary co-directed by Kodar which offers a glimpse at some of the other, unrealised, projects he was working on at the same time as this.

F FOR FAKE IS OUT NOW FROM THE CRITERION COLLECTION (UK)

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