#47 - F for Fake (Orson Welles)

The Original

Orson Welles is an enigma, even though everyone knows his story. He is the wunderkind that started at the very top and worked his way down to bottom - to paraphrase the great director himself. And that statement rings very true since his last movie job was the feature length animated film “Transformers: The Movie”, in which he lends his voice to a planet-shaped planet devouring robot. I am sure the irony was very apparent to Welles himself who was quite obese at the time, and maybe it is one of the reasons why he took the part in the first place. The man did have a splendid sense of humor after all, even about his work and himself and this is very apparent in “F for Fake”. This is probably also the only factoid to come out from this film, as all other information it provides could be rightfully questioned.

And while no one will dispute the claim that “Citizen Kane” is his best and most important film, “F for Fake” proves to be a perfect bookend to his directing career and a wonderful counterpart to Citizen Kane as it is just as influential (many trace the origin of the MTV editing style to this film) and obviously just as personal for Welles.

Welles himself claimed that with “F for Fake” he set out to make “a new kind of film”, and he certainly achieved that. It is not really a documentary, nor is it live action and it does not have a linear narrative. Actually the film is rather joyfully schizophrenic in its intent as it borrows elements from all those disciplines at its heart’s content. It defies simple classification which prompted some to call it an essay film. But even that doesn’t seem to quite capture “F for Fake” that well because in many ways this film is almost like a window in to Welles’ head and his views on art itself, with Welles himself as our guide and narrator.

As the title suggests the film deals with fakes. Its central two figures are the infamous hoaxer Clifford Irwing, who gained considerable fame for his fake biography of Howard Hughes, and a certain Hungarian gentleman called Elmyr de Hory. De Hory himself is somewhat notorious as well since he is known as the greatest art forger of the 20th century.

Modigliani, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso – De Hory painted them all and with considerable success as many art experts bought and confirmed his paintings as real, in fact many great museums carry de Hory’s fakes and proudly present them as originals. And who could say that they’re not since some of his fakes even fooled painters that he copied. Or at least so de Hory states.

Here Welles arrives at one of his major points when he asks, what makes these experts such experts? With a single nod of their head these experts can make an Elmyr in to a Monet, and with that absurdly raising the painting’s value. Elmyr even states some gallery curators even asked for Monets from him, if he should come across any of them that is. And of course he did.

It is an intriguing point the film brings up as it questions the markets for art and the people who operate in them as well as the ramifications these markets have on said art. It questions the very concept of art itself. It’s pretty but is it art? And who is to say that it isn’t? And these questions are surrounded by an amazing cast of real life characters who are tricksters, fakers, forgers, liars, hermits and girl watchers. Artists. And Welles smack in the middle of it all, and he fits right in and goes to prove that cinema and his very film are nothing but an elaborate magic act. A lie. But what is art but a lie that makes us realize the truth - to paraphrase another great artist, Pablo Picasso, who is also an integral part to the puzzle that is “F for Fake”.

These questions that “F for Fake” poses make it surprisingly relevant in the world of today, where rampant copyright laws are a cause for many bizarre lawsuits and often get in the way of art itself. And beyond just being relevant the film is entertaining and a masterful exercise of directorial intent and editing prowess. It is a joy to watch and Welles is a magnetic host, proving that he was just as vibrant late in his life as he was when he was on top, both as a man and an artist. A true original, just like his film.


Orson Welles
Clifford Irwing
Elmyr de Hory
Oja Kodar
Joseph Cotten
Fran├žois Reichenbach

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