Now that I’ve written about Orson Welles’ most celebrated film, it seemed appropriate that I should turn my attention to what is actually his most influential work. You might be inclined to scoff at that claim, listing other movies like The Magnificent Ambersons (how good could that even be when Welles doesn’t even star in it?) or Touch of Evil (how much of that movie to you really remember aside from the oner at the beginning?) or The Trial (which I’ll inevitably pick the first Criterion Month it’s eligible) or even Chimes at Midnight (which I forgot to mention last time has an all-time great poster because the movie stars Welles in a fat suit). The movie I’m referring to is F for Fake, a 1973 docudrama about forgery, hoaxes, and good ol’ fashioned lies. And the reason it means so much to me is that it popularized the format that would eventually become known as the “film essay.”
F for Fake begins with a begloved Welles performing magic tricks for children in a train station. He compares being a magician to being an actor, and starts to question the ideas of truth and authenticity. He unpacks those themes over the rest of the movie by focusing on the stories of three individuals. First is Elmyr de Hory (at least, that’s the name he’s going by at this time) a Hungarian painter who became a prodigious art forger. De Hory, who found little to no success painting in his own style, had the unique talent of creating works of art that looked uncannily like those of notable painters. Over the years, de Hory sold more than a thousand forgeries to private collectors and reputable art galleries all over the world. Again and again and again, despite the obviously suspicious circumstances de Hory would give for his having the art in his possession, expert authenticators would conclude that his works were actually those of Matisse, Modigliani, Renoir, Picasso, or whoever else he thought the buyers were interested in. Which begs the question why then should we ever trust the opinions of authority figures and critics? Doesn’t this mean dealers and appraisers are fakes too?
The next subject is Clifford Irving, who has written a biography of de Hory entitled Fake! Irving is there in part to point out inconsistencies in de Hory’s own story — notably, at one part, de Hory claims he never signed his forgeries which Welles undercuts with Irving taking a long pause and then saying “obviously he signed them.” But Irving’s time with de Hory seemed to have a corrupting (or perhaps enlightening) influence, as his next work was a shocking “authorized biography” of Howard Hughes. By the early Seventies Hughes had become a famous eccentric so Irving’s book quickly made him a lot of money. But, as fans of the 2007 Richard Gere comedy-drama The Hoax already know, the whole thing was made up. Welles is eager to point out the hypocrisy of Irving agreeing to appear in this documentary and comment on de Hory while he must have secretly been simultaneously working on his own scam.
The third subject is Oja Kodar, an actor and writer who was Welles’ partner during the later years of his life. For her story, the film shifts from interviews to reenactment, and allows Welles to take over as the narrator. It is revealed that Kodar used to holiday in the same village as Pablo Pacasso, who observed and became obsessed with her. Eventually she agrees to model for him, but on the condition she is allowed to keep the paintings. In total, Picasso paints 22 pieces of Kodar. Later, Picasso learns of a new exhibit featuring 22 new paints of his, greatly upsetting the master. He travels to the exhibition, only to find that all 22 pieces are forgeries. Kodar takes Picasso to visit her grandfather, the forger, who proudly claims he has invented a new Picasso period. Picasso demands the original 22 paintings be returned to him, but the grandfather admits he’s burned them.
Intermingled with these three stories are Welles’ reflections on his own career and status as a “fake.” He relates to de Hory, as he too tried to make it as a painter and failed. Like de Hory, he escaped his failure with a hoax: his Halloween 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which, while not intended to be fake news, nonetheless caused widespread panic and gave Welles his reputation as an innovative storyteller. He also sympathizes with Irving as Citizen Kane was originally going to be about a fictionalized version of Howard Hughes and only changed later in development because Hughes’ story was so fantastic no one would believe it when attached to a new character. Of course, whether any of these stories are true at all is entirely up to the audience to decide. Welles could have filled the movie with his own lies, and he even admits that, since Irving was himself a faker, his story about de Hory could be fake too. A fake faker.
The only thing that’s not up for debate is that Orson Welles knows how to entertain. F for Fake is full of funny moments, playful asides, and, as I’ve said before, innovative editing. There’s a great special feature on The Criterion Channel where Rian Johnson admits:
The editing is bonkers! It’s so far beyond what I can even wrap my head around. It’s not like I can watch it and say “oh yeah, I’ll have to try that.” He just blows your mind with every single sequence. And it’s all coming so fast and yet it all feels cohesive in a way that I wouldn’t want to try and learn anything from it because I just enjoy the experience of it too much. It’s layers upon layers upon layers all put together in this way that’s so fun to watch.
It’s true, I’ve never seen anything like F for Fake, and neither had audiences at the time. Welles rejected the label “documentary” and said he had created “a new kind of film” …so of course people didn’t get it. I love how he cuts his War of the Worlds story with footage from 1956’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, but audiences back then must have been really confused. Only now do people understand what he’s going for, thanks to the widespread proliferation of the film essay format and similar films like Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. F for Fake was even screen at Cannes last year. I guess that means Orson Welles was only 50 years ahead of his time, no big deal.