The most enjoyable thing about F for Fake is that Orson Welles seems to be having such fun with it. It’s rare to see a filmmaker displaying, though his actual presence and through the tools of his trade, such an unadulterated delight in expression. In fiction films, this sort of exuberance has to be limited, or at least contained to the degree of being still in the service of the narrative. Documentary films usually have their agenda or message, so there shouldn’t be too much to distract from these larger aims. Experimental films revel in the technique of filmmaking like Welles does here, but they are commonly done with such strained seriousness that they don’t necessarily feel, for lack of a better word, fun. Perhaps the reason F for Fake defies these general tendencies is that it doesn’t fit into any of these three categories. The film truly is a singular cinematic achievement. It is surely unlike anything Welles ever did, and to the best of my knowledge, save for perhaps something like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, no one else has really blended the true and the false so seamlessly and amusingly together in a film that is itself equal parts fiction and documentary.
“Up to your old tricks I see,” says the enigmatic Oja Kodar, Welles’ girlfriend at the time, here as The Girl. “Why not,” retorts Welles. “I’m a charlatan?” And so Welles begins F for Fake with a rapid-fire scattershot opening crammed with so much audio/visual information that one is bound to suspect some deception somewhere. After all, this is a film, as Welles notes, “about trickery, fraud, about lies.” It is a film about contradictions, sly, knowing glances, fakers both good and bad, and the uncertainty of reality and truth. The film takes time to examine the “fine outdoor sport of girl watching” while also debating the artistic and monetary value of a work depending on whose signature accompanies it. It calls into question notions of authorship and concludes with an amusing confession from Welles himself. So, what exactly is Orson Welles up to here?
At its most basic, F for Fake is about Elmyr de Hory, a legendary and quite gifted art forger. It is also about Clifford Irving who, following his writing of a book about de Hory, set about on his own fraud, a fabricated “authorized” biography about Howard Hughes. In the mix is Welles himself, not so much a faker like these two (though cinema is one of the great illusions and his “War of Worlds” hoax, which is recreated here, definitely duped more than a few people), Welles showcases some magic tricks but mostly holds court as our narrator and storyteller, in person and in voice over. And if there was ever anyone who could do a voice over it was Orson Welles. When shown on screen, Welles, who was by this point quite large in physical body and larger than life in personality, bursts with bombast and good humor. F for Fake isn’t really about Orson Welles, but as much as anything that it is actually about, one comes away from the film marveling at how charismatic the man was.
Part of that charisma seems to derive from a genuine, if complex, admiration for these con men. There is a sort of bond that develops between the charlatans, a camaraderie built on professional respect. Are they criminals? Maybe. I guess. Certainly, de Hory has fooled more than a few art critics and museum directors, revealing their own false expertise, and Irving had everyone going with his fraud. But any sort of condemnatory verdict is beside the point. What matters is this: is it a “good fake or a bad fake”?
While the world of imposters and counterfeiters may be the ostensible subject of this essay film, F for Fake is also a thrilling new form of cinema. Packed into 85 minutes is a condensed meta work that puts on whirlwind display the techniques of filmmaking, specifically the process of assembling and arranging footage. This might be Welles’ finest editing achievement (with due credit also going to Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer). The amalgam of freeze frames, varied film stocks, previously shot footage, and an assortment of insertions are spliced together with great inventiveness and enthusiasm. The result is an engaging and almost giddy tour-de-force of motion picture construction.
Adding insight into the array of stories presented in F for Fake, including details of how the film itself came to be, are impressive bonus features as part of the recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Kodar and director of photography Gary Graver provide a commentary and Peter Bogdanovich, one of the foremost Welles historians, introduces the film; Jonathan Rosenbaum, the second go-to guy for Welles material, pens an essay. There is an episode from the talk show Tomorrow featuring Welles, and there is a documentary, Orson Welles: One-Man Band, about Welles’s unfinished projects. Focusing on the primary individuals of F for Fake are Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a documentary about de Hory, a 60 Minutes interview with Irving, and an audio recording of Hughes’s 1972 press conference in which he denied all involvement and knowledge of Irving’s text. Finally, there is the film’s original nine-minute trailer, itself and odd little creation, which was rejected by the picture’s American distributor.