The title of Orson Welles’ playful and raffish essay film, F for Fake (1976)–released this week on DVD by the Criterion Collection–suggests one possible word following the sixth letter of the English alphabet, and indeed, the film’s focus on the story of art forger Elmyr de Hory justifies it. But the film could also have been called “F for Fame,” as one of the film’s preoccupations is the way notoriety and personality can overwhelm art, imposing notions of “authenticity” and “fakery,” “expertise” and “value,” in ways that are less certain than one might assume.
The essay film is a genre that is notoriously difficult to define itself, although Welles’ film contains many points of affinity between the essayist examples of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker–a loose conglomeration of topics thematically related, informal in structure, seemingly spontaneous and stream-of-conscious, and narrated in the first person. It has been reported that Welles spent a solid year edited the film in three separate rooms seven days a week, and its complexity of rhythm and ideological ruminations will likely stun the uninitiated. Cutting quickly from interviews to reaction shots culled from other interviews, snippets of dialogue, footage of Welles in his editing suite speaking to the camera and continuing his narration from various locations around the world, F for Fake is an almost impossibly lively pastiche of images and ideas that never tires.
Welles visits with de Hory and recounts the painter’s long career of forgery that is said to have duped the world’s most prestigious art collectors. He compares and contrasts de Hory with the forger’s biographer, Clifford Irving, a struggling novelist who later shocked the publishing world with his fake biography of Howard Hughes, the famous recluse who confronted the media via telephone…or did he? And throughout the film, Welles casts himself as a charlatan, performing magic tricks and recounting his famed hoax, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast that terrorized the nation and launched his Hollywood career. Finally, Welles introduces Oja Kodar, his partner for the subsequent and final twenty years of his life, by alluding to her own brush with fame and duplicitous past that is much too entertaining to reveal here.
Aside from its tour de force editing, what makes the film especially enjoyable is Welles’ sense of irony. Cataloging a flurry of de Horay fakes (“you name them, he paints them”), Welles films de Horay hard at work on a piece before the painter proudly burns it, then Welles pauses to recite “a bit of verse” with dramatic flair, and ends with de Horay applying the finishing touches to another work: “This isn’t a forgery this time, this is a portrait by Elmyr of another famous art forger–Michelangelo,” Welles says. “I must say I’m honored. My signature forged by Elmyr on a real Elmyr is really something.” (Later, Welles returns the favor by rendering a fine chalk caricature but signing Elmyr’s name on it.)
As cheerfully subversive as Welles’ film is (he constantly refers to elisions at the request of his lawyers), it’s not a glib statement for the sake of irony itself, but a personal meditation on the nature of art and art’s audience, and the capricious nature of fame and fortune. For a filmmaker who struggled throughout his career to find an enthusiastic audience for his visionary projects, the film’s cynical yet well-humored embrace of the artistic commercial establishment is impressive. (“I began at the top and I’ve been working my way down ever since,” Welles remarks wryly.)
That combination of irony and respect builds to a beautiful ritardando reflection on Chartres Cathedral; “the premiere work of man, perhaps, in the Western world,” Welles says, “and it’s without a signature.” Coming from one of America’s most lauded and marginalized filmmakers, it’s a moving testament to the limitations of fame and the calling to create regardless.
Turner Classic Movies has chosen Orson Welles as May’s feature director of the month, and will broadcast many of his films, including F for Fake over the next few weeks.