Canon Entry - F for Fake (1973)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Perhaps one of the mistakes that any person who watches film, critic or otherwise, is to ascribe meaning to every little thing the film does. For a layperson, this usually takes the form of “what was the plot” or “what was the point.” The only difference between a layperson and a critic or scholar of film may be that a critic is possibly better at disguising that he or she is basically asking those same questions.
Orson Welles knows this, which is why he humors us with long anecdotes about his characters - mostly Hoyt and Irving. F for Fake is supposedly an exploration of the notion of fakeness conducted mainly through Welles’ dialogue with the audience. However, these stories are tangential to Orson Welles’ purpose. Like any magician, his real artwork is the interaction he has with the audience while the characters (and I do mean characters) of Elmyr Hoyt, Clifford Irving and Oja Kodar are the media that he uses to spin his convoluted rumination. Just like a good magician, he shows his tricks constantly (occasionally even doing some actual stage magic) while steadily bamboozling the audience throughout the picture.
Perhaps his greatest trick is that this film is supposed to be a grand statement about art. Yet I am not entirely convinced that he actually has something grand to say. That fake is a matter of perception? Even reducing a labyrinthine, multifaceted film like this to a platitude like that seems like a great disservice.
Instead, I think of another artistic figure when I think of Welles - Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde scorned morality, logic and the social value of art and advocated for art for art itself. He stayed mostly true to his philosophy with the arch dialogue and blatant falsehoods of The Importance of Being Earnest or the heightened nature of his plays like Salome. For Wilde, it was about how well he could execute his techniques and how much they basked in their archness and artificiality. Welles, with his flashy editing techniques and circular storytelling, is showing off all his greatest tricks for no real purpose except to entertain us, or rather, himself.
Even though people tend to think of Welles as one of the primary auteurs of cinema, he shows an intensely collaborative bent in this film. He uses pre-existing footage from a movie that Francois Reichenbach was shooting about Elmyr Hoyt. Clifford Irving is like Welles’ partner in crime in trying to get to the bottom of Hoyt’s forgeries. Most interesting of all is the dynamic between Welles and Oja Kodar, who is not just the subject of Welles’ wildest tale, but an equal creator as well, as the story emerges from a dialogue between the two. Apparently, the opening sequence where Kodar walks down a street and seemingly countless men ogle her was Kodar’s idea and Welles seemed to have no issue taking notes from her.
Welles also had no problem stealing from his younger contemporaries. The French New Wave is smeared all over this picture with its fast editing and dynamic shots. Godard is ever present but we also see Truffaut and even Agnes Varda when she did her documentaries. We see the idea of addressing a figure and those dialectics as a subject of the film in Letter to Jane and Tout Va Bien, both Godard. Of course, these artists were all influenced by Welles in one way or another so the cycle is complete with F for Fake. Welles shows that he acknowledges and, frankly, one ups all of them by making this film with their techniques yet also expanding the form as well by covering something that most people would have considered impossible to convey - fakeness.
Another quality that this film has that similar works from that time period did not have was - Orson Welles. Few directors from Welles’ most active and fruitful period (the 40’s and 50’s) have the reputation of Welles (only John Huston or Alfred Hitchcock come close). In an age when the word auteur was just barely gracing the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, Welles was the outsized exception, with his booming voice, his endlessly clever and expansive wit and commanding presence. F for Fake is essentially a long conversation with this fascinating figure, and even if you don’t like this movie, it’s hard to deny Welles’ screen presence. As great as Godard or Truffaut were, they didn’t have an ounce of that charisma the relatively few times that they were on the screen. Welles knew he could get away with a lot just by holding the audience’s attention. Sometimes I caught myself not pondering Welles’ ideas but rather listening to the sound of his voice. I believe Welles loved the sound of his voice, but I think the audience liked that he did.
F for Fake might seem like an unlikely film coming from Welles, but the main thing that has defined his career is his unpredictability rather than any set aesthetic. From the immersive nature of his infamous War of the Worlds radio show to the mishmash of the coolest cinematic techniques that is essentially Citizen Kane, Welles was a giant sponge (not a dig at his occasional size) who absorbed all influences and made something new of them. Much of his work is great and some really is not, but they are all interesting and none of them show an iota of timidity. F for Fake is no different as it casually pushes boundaries and creates the best version of an art form that would come to populate the Internet: the film essay.