F for Fake posits Orson Welles not just as a legend, but as a drug to be mainlined, or, perhaps, as a state of mind—the ultimate embodiment of cinema’s riches of trickery and potentials for emotional, imaginative affirmation. The film is an exhilarating tapestry of meaninglessness that masks authentic, existential frustration and longing—probably arising, out of sheer force of will, because a dozen other Welles projects had fallen through due to money problems. In fact, several abandoned films are referred to in F for Fake’s visionary, kaleidoscopic opening, which tosses us head first into the stories of art forger Elmyr de Hory, “hoax-biographer” Clifford Irving, Howard Hughes, and of Welles himself, all of whom intersect and overlap in increasingly convoluted fashions that will zigzag back and forth from France, Italy, Spain, and the United States. Mixed up in all this is the filmmaker’s lover, Oja Kodar, a gorgeous woman in a suggestively tailored dress who walks the streets while cameras catch various men ogling her. From a distance, Welles waxes philosophic on this footage as an act of larceny: The men have no idea they’re being a filmed (itself a dubious claim), their reactions but a sprinkle of seasoning to an increasingly complex stew of euphoria, cynicism, eroticism, paranoia, and almost determinedly playful irreverence.
The first 15 or 20 minutes are intimidating; you have to acclimate yourself to the film’s many players and to the fact that anything goes. Welles refuses to prepare you for the sensory overload of the film’s astonishing editing techniques, which fluidly bridge dozens of sources of footage to convey a rapidly evolving stream of consciousness that renders a notion of “fact” moot (critic Jonathan Rosenbaum astutely likened the film to Finnegans Wake). The deliberate, expressive deep-focus formalism of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and even The Trial is pointedly gone here, with the exception of a few prismatic train sequences and a long, heartbreakingly beautiful series of superimpositions at the Chartres Cathedral. Welles, with all of his notorious globe-trotting failures, all of his projects that would never come to fruition, had to evolve as an artist so as to get anything made, and F for Fake shows the fractured, jump-cut-heavy aesthetic of something like Falstaff reaching its highest evolution.
A typical sequence in the film will cut from a close-up of de Hory to a close-up of Irving, so as to suggest that, while they’re in the same room at the same time, the men could have just as easily been stitched together into the film from two separate sources, or even two separate dimensions (of their own self-encased egos). Occasionally, the editing will foster the opposite illusion, allowing one to assume, via the procession of jump cuts, that the men are in the same room, when they’ve actually been shot by two entirely different sets of filmmakers at differing times. Complicating matters further, the footage will segue into sequences in which Welles watches what we just watched on a playback monitor, casting yet another light of meta fragility on everything we’re seeing.
Fragility is the word that haunts F for Fake: fragility of creation, of art, of truth—all of which are so subjective as to risk rendering themselves, or anything else, nonexistent. De Hory is often shown contemptuously burning his many forgeries, which, to eyes both trained and untrained alike, look exactly like the work of Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, or any other master that he chose to replicate in the morning before lunch. Welles, in his free-floating fashion, intends to show that truth is a scam, that human existence is governed by the ego necessary to imposing an arbitrary definition that serves to insidiously stifle creativity. Beauty is beauty, which can be anything, which is to say that life’s beautiful, and de Hory’s forgeries are true art; regardless of their origin, they’re born of talent and from an engagement with masterpieces. Explicating the film’s thematic drive is Welles’s poignantly, commandingly hammy recitation of a Kipling passage:
“When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: ’It’s pretty, but is it Art?’”
Welles personalizes de Hory and Irving (who wrote of de Hory’s hoaxes before perpetrating one of his own with a fabricated biography of Hughes) as fellow stifled artists who couldn’t get a foot into the door of the art worlds of their respective choices. Rebuffed, they traded on the fame of those already “in” the comfy, pretentious worlds of critics and experts who take it upon themselves to assume the roles of the world’s tastemakers. In Welles’s purview, these men are just like him: rebels who have the insight to see “the rules” as being fraudulent, and the fortitude to devise their own so as to even the playing field. If nothing’s real, if everything’s subjective, then, conversely, anything can be real, and F for Fake oscillates between taking great despair and joy in these interrelated assertions. As documentary theses go, it’s willfully, irresistibly naïve and sentimental, but this isn’t any kind of traditional documentary: We’re in Wellesland, the land of icons, broken dreamers, glorious adventurers, and great, poetic ironies.
“Truth” resides in the deliberately ironically deceitful editing, which calls attention to the film’s struggle to exist. One is constantly aware of the director, who also serves as master of ceremonies, dressed in a hat and cloak that suggest the Shadow, as he exerts to paste things together from other sources, and the resulting film exudes the same sense of restless, unreleased talent as de Hory’s studiously offhand acts of tossing his sketches into flaming fireplaces. Welles could’ve been doing Don Quixote or The Big Brass Ring, or another Shakespeare adaptation with the right budget, but instead he’s chasing stories on a fly-by-night scale, pulling flatulence and profundity, in roughly equal measure, seemingly out of thin air. The emotional effect of the entire endeavor is appropriately ambiguous, twinned: It’s absurd, enraging, that Welles had to go to these extremes to make any kind of film, and it’s glorious that he could make something this personal and this casually brilliant anyway. F for Fake, in its love of storytelling and of mystery, in its virtuosic fake/real stunt-pulling as the ultimate embodiment of the bravery, and the hubris, required of all creation, suggests a missing link between Godard’s moral media inquiries and the 24/7 corporate “news” saturation of the 21st century. It’s a vital and impassioned work of art-redefining empathy.
The image is unavoidably variable, given the variety of film stocks incorporated into the production, though the central material, shot expressly for F for Fake, is surprisingly clean and the colors impressively vibrant. (Color vibrancy is a consistency, in fact, particularly the blues, which really sing.) Grain varies, but even the grainiest sequences are generally attractive and readable without the loss of detail or texture that often characterizes images artificially "cleaned up" for older or lower-budget films. In fairness, much of this could be said about the prior Criterion DVD, though this Blu-ray greatly improves the sound mix, which has been scrubbed of a lot of additional white noise to achieve a superior sense of nuance and subtlety. This refurbishing is particularly evident in the vivid diegetic effects, which are pivotal to achieving this film’s hypnotic mood.
All the goodies have been ported over from Criterion’s 2005 DVD, most impressively the films Orson Welles: One-Man Band (co-directed by Oja Kodar) and Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery. The former mirrors the "essay" style of the Welles film while investigating a variety of projects that never reached fruition, while the latter offers a "straight" telling of the de Hory story that suggests the alternative, conventional film that Welles might have once made. The 2005 introduction by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich succinctly outlines F for Fake’s convoluted origin story, which is expanded on by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s characteristically erudite essay. The disappointingly sparse audio commentary with Kodar and cinematographer Gary Graver has also been carried over, as well as the 10-minute Welles-edited trailer that features material entirely absent from the proper film. There’s also an episode of the talk show Tomorrow featuring Welles, a 60 Minutes interview from 2000 with Clifford Irving about his Howard Hughes autobiography hoax, and, fascinatingly, the audio recording of Hughes’s 1972 press conference exposing Irving’s hoax. This is a good package, though it’s one that’s in sore need of a new commentary, ideally with Bogdanovich or a media critic capable of elucidating on the film’s prescient notion of the documentary as a springboard for the kind of eccentric personal portraiture that’s now culturally common (or, perhaps, more common).
The extras could use a spruce-up, but this is still a sturdy and attractive packaging of a profound and ever-relevantly self-reflexive Orson Welles masterpiece.