Orson Welles' free-form documentary about fakery focusses on the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and Elmyr's biographer, Clifford Irving, who also wrote the celebrated fraudulent Howard Hughes autobiography, then touches on the reclusive Hughes and Welles' own career (which started with a faked resume and a phony Martian invasion). On the way, Welles plays a few tricks of his own on the audience.
Orson Welles ... Himself
Oja Kodar ... The Girl
Joseph Cotten ... Special Participant
François Reichenbach ... Special Participant
Richard Wilson ... Special Participant
Paul Stewart ... Special Participant
Alexander Welles ... Special Participant (as Sasa Devcic)
Gary Graver ... Special Participant
Andrés Vicente Gómez ... Special Participant (as Andres Vincente Gomez)
Julio Palinkas ... Special Participant
Christian Odasso ... Special Participant
Françoise Widhoff ... Special Participant (as Françoise Widoff)
Peter Bogdanovich ... Special Participant (voice)
William Alland ... Special Participant (voice)
Writer/Director Orson Welles' F for Fake is a fast-paced, complex, surrealistic and philosophically thought-provoking documentary about fraud, fakery, and fictions. Even though its style is still novel when seen now, 30 years after F for Fake's first, quiet release in Europe, it was even more unusual in the context of the 1970s, and it presaged "MTV-style editing" by almost 10 years (considering that the style wasn't even the norm on MTV when that cable channel first appeared).
Even trying to tell someone what the film is literally about is quite complex (fitting for something that gives its title on screen as "?: About Fakery"), but we could say that it circles around six primary personalities, if we include Welles himself, who is frequently present on screen as a narrator/tour guide/resident magician. The core focus may be famed art forger Elmyr de Hory, who is supposedly responsible for a large number of fake Matisses, Modiglianis, Picassos, and so on that are hanging in museums around the world. Next up we have Clifford Irving, who wrote a biography of Elmyr de Hory, but who is perhaps more famous for writing a fake "authorized" biography of Howard Hughes. Next, we have Howard Hughes himself. Then there's Picasso. And finally, as a bookend to the film, we meet co-writer and long-time Welles confidant/partner Oja Kodar, who has many functions with respect to Welles in the film--assistant, surrogate, object of desire, and so on, and who had many more, perhaps questionable, functions with respect to Welles outside of the film.
Welles moves from topic to topic in a quick, stream of consciousness fashion, which is fascinating to think about in the context of the film, since stream of consciousness is by its nature spontaneous and unplanned, whereas the kind of meticulous editing that Welles does here takes months to plan, experiment with and finalize. So the apparent stream of consciousness is itself fakery, as suits a film that explores such ideas on countless levels.
Welles also weaves fact and fiction in F for Fake seamlessly, often without comment. The story of Oja Kodar and Picasso is fabricated, but much of the other material is more documentary in nature than one might think. It just happens to be documentary about creating fictions, whether impostors, as in de Hory's paintings (and amusingly, Welles himself--who had formal visual art skills--does a cartoonish portrait of Howard Hughes and signs it "Elmyr"); deceptive statements covering fictions, as in Irving's fake biography of Howard Hughes; manipulating public perceptions, as in the case of Hughes' and Picasso's public relations; creating artificial situations, as in Kodar's "piece" involving recording the reactions of men to her stroll through traffic; or combinations of all of these tactics, as in Welles' own work as an artist/entertainer, including the War of the Worlds radio broadcast (1938), which is portrayed here with clips from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) without identifying the conflation, Citizen Kane (1941), which was a thinly veiled portrayal of William Randolph Hearst but which Welles claims here was initially intended to be about Hughes, and of course, F for Fake itself. There are many other ways in which "fakery" is broached (even including subtle references to simulacra with items such as maps). The above are just the most conspicuous threads in the film. There is also a lot of criticism of "expertise"--Welles even conveys a kind of thoroughgoing skepticism as to its verisimilitude.
There are many ideas to be gleaned from F for Fake, but one of the most important, and certainly one intended by Welles, is that perhaps we're a bit too harsh when it comes to the conventional wisdom on frauds and fakery. Welles invokes the more accepted forms of fraud/fakery such as fictions and magic, and suggests that perhaps what is most important isn't the status of a work in terms of whether it is derivative or has precursors, or an artist's intent when it comes to originality and such, but merely the aesthetic quality of the work in question. If we believe a painting to be good, aesthetically, is it any less good aesthetically when we later learn that it is "merely" a copy of a Matisse, or a fake Picasso? The work itself didn't change--only our background knowledge has changed. Is our background knowledge part of the art object that we're judging? These are not easy questions to answer. A lot of ink has been spilled in the philosophical field of aesthetics over such issues. Even if we have an answer we're comfortable with--and mine happens to agree with Welles'--we have to admit that it's not a very clear-cut issue. At least not as clear-cut as the popular attitude towards frauds/fakery has it.
But even if you were to watch F for Fake without cognizing the ideational content, it would still be a fascinating and rewarding experience. The cinematography is as varied as a typical Oliver Stone film, and it's frequently beautiful (just look at the marvelous shots of Welles sitting on the bench in a park at "different times of the year"). The cuts from one shot to the next are captivating, with Welles even using edits to construct sentences. Welles will say a few words, he'll immediately cut to Irving, then to de Hory, and maybe back to himself, with all the words flowing together as a single line of "dialogue". There are also stark contrasts with this style, as in the latter section of the film, which has longer periods of Welles and Kodar simply standing in a large empty space, talking to each other, verbally relaying the story of Kodar, Picasso and Kodar's grandfather.
While F for Fake isn't exactly "light viewing", and anyone not acclimated to documentaries might have difficulty appreciating it, it is a masterpiece that any cineaste should be familiar with.
There is so much zest, wit, fun, cheek, energy in this supremely entertaining film, that it's a crime that Orson Welles never directed another one. It's packed with as many ideas and potential future directions as CITIZEN KANE, but bizarrely hasn't received an nth of that classic's acclaim. Indeed only Godard's later documentaries seem to be at all influenced by this delightful fancy.
The film dazzles on so many levels. As a story about five interesting characters - two art forgers, a charlatan biographer, Howard Hughes (famous recluse, and disseminator of misleading information and doubles), and the great Orsino himself, myth-maker and magician. Their stories, fascinating in themselves, mingle, juxtapose and clash, to provide a complex essay on the nature of art, the links between illusion, life, forgery and artifice.
Elmyr is a master forger whose 'works' appear in many galleries. His story makes us ask: what is art? What is it about art that moves us - the thing itself, or its perceived value? In an age of mechanical reproduction, can authenticity survive, is it a viable (or even desirable) option? Does any of this actually matter? Maybe because everything in a post-modern culture is reproduced, the aura of the original work of art (pace Benjamin) becomes even more powerful. Or maybe a proliferation of fakes, doubles, illusions asks us to profoundly question received truths, official versions, 'authorities', who would make us believe in repressive wholes and canons, stories that tell one experience, and deny many others. Art itself is a forgery, of nature or the imagination - the forger is little different from an interpreter (e.g. Welles and Shakespeare): he cannot help stamping his own personality on the work.
These questions are very complex, and cannot be grasped in one viewing. The film's form is bewildering and exhilirating. Welles promises us, in this tale of fakery, truth for an hour, but this is a truth we must make out for ourselves. Breathless narration; visual puns; the weaving of documentary footage, stills, reconstructions, other films; tireless, confusing editing; rapid subject changes; all manage to disrupt and complicate an essentially straightforward story.
Welles the narrator is an absolute delight, a jovial trickster, with his gorgeous hearty laugh, games, aphorisms, comments, allusions; and yet behind it all is an extraordinarily depressing account of his own career, the perception of failure and broken promises, and the onset of mortality.
The last 20 minutes is an extraordinary coup de cinema, as well as a masterpiece of storytelling. The Legrand music is playful and energetic, before finally slowing down for a very melancholy climax. This film is a remarkable one-off: frustrating, irritating, stimulating, astonishing, hilarious. It always pulls the rug from under your feet, and you gleefully await your next tumble. Only Bunuel began and ended his career with the same passion and genius, the same desire to demand the most from his audiences, refusing to rest on his considerable laurels. Absolutely wonderful.
"F for fake" stands for the last movie Orson Welles really directed and, as for many artistic legacies it's the final demonstration of the genius of the artist, becoming some kind of briefing of his entire career.
It's hard to explain this movie and why I really enjoyed because, as many other Welles's movies, it's full of surprises and twists.
Filmed as a Documentary, this film introduces us the personae of Elmyr, a painter who lives out of painting copies of famous pictures of Van Gogh, Picasso, Vlaminck and many others and making them look like they're the original one. Welles also introduces to us two more people; an actress and a biographer.
With many resemblances to Welles's own life, the director of such wonderful pieces as "Citizen Kane" and "Touch of Evil" plays with the audience some sort of magical trickery. What is real and what is not? If Elmyr is able to paint a perfect copy of a famous picture and fool the world greatest experts, is he as good artist as the originals he's copying?
Working as a perfect metaphore of Welles own experiences in art (he's not only been movie director but radio speaker and even painter) "F for Fake" remains as a perfect legacy of the ideas of one of the greatest and most gifted cinema artists. Don't miss it!
F for Fake is perhaps Orson Welles' least famous film. It's easily eclipsed by such masterpieces as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil. Also, the lesser-known masterpieces The Trial and Chimes at Midnight, which are as good as the previous three. Still, F is quite brilliant in itself, even if it's little more than an exercise in stylized editing. In fact, there's a little more to it than that. F is ostensibly a semi-documentary about forgery and fakery. Its main subjects are Elmyr, a pre-eminent art forger, Clifford Irving, who faked the Howard Hughes biography, Orson Welles himself briefly (chiefly the War of the Worlds broadcast), and Elmyr's precursor, another Hungarian forger who is supposedly the best forger who ever lived. There is a lot of play in the film about what is real and what is not. A lot of the documentary footage appears to be real, and some is open to question.
All in all, the film's subjects are enormously interesting, especially Elmyr. It's simply amazing watching him effortlessly, and I MEAN EFFORTLESSLY, reproducing the paintings of Picasso and Matisse. Elmyr gloats how no expert on Earth could tell his fakes apart from the real thing.
Clifford Irving's segments are somewhat less fascinating, but still worthwhile. His first major success was the biography of Elmyr (which was honestly produced), so Welles intermingles his story, more or less, into Elmyr's. After that, Welles talks a lot about Howard Hughes.
The final segment, about a woman who seduced Picasso into producing portraits of her which she then seduced away from him, is mostly re-enacted. Since it is not made up of documentary footage, but re-enacted, it proves very interesting. Welles himself participates in the segment, where he role plays the part of the dying old forger, with the girl, the real-life Picasso seductress, playing Picasso, who came to Paris to root out the master art forger who produced some original "Picassos." Once again, Welles puts on yet another performance of a lifetime. What was it at this point, his one thousandth? He also has a great scene at the beginning of the film putting on a magic show for a little boy.
I deliberately skipped the part of the film, quite short, where Welles talks about himself. He speaks about War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane, a forgery of William Randolph Hearst's (and Marion Davies') life. He claims that one of his original ideas was to do a pseudo-biopic of Howard Hughes. I've never heard of it. Is he making this up, too?
There is also, though, this sad undertone of the film about Welles' own life. He seems to be wondering whether it was all worth it. He talks about forging a career as a Broadway star in order to get work in Ireland. But wasn't he? He was a director, at least, but wasn't he also a stage actor? If not, he was always a famous and successful film actor, even in movies that he didn't direct himself. He speaks of his War of the Worlds radio production in very demeaning terms, joking that, if it were produced for a medium other than radio, he would have been laughed at (he shows clips of, I believe, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or one such 1950s UFO movie, where UFOs are wasting Washington D.C., clips which he also runs under the closing credits).
As for the film's style, it has very complex but sometimes annoying editing, very rapid. I would suspect that even people raised on MTV might get a little dizzy watching it. There is also a lot of repetition of bits of interviews, clips, and the like. It's all in fun, but it also can't help but seem a bit silly. What it really ends up doing is subtracting the illusion of abundant substance. Oh well. Like I said, it's enormously entertaining. I think all of Welles' films were, really. People tend to forget that this master crafstman, rightfully thought of as one of the pre-eminent artists of the medium, was, first and foremost, an entertainer. That's not something you can say about the majority of cinematic auteurs. 8/10.