"F for Fake" (1974)

This is Orson Welles performing a filmic improvisation on the theme of "documentary":

He has received a heap of footage from art dealer and director François Reichenbach, who has been interviewing the world's most famous art forger (Elmyr de Hory) for a television special. They, along with Elmyr's biographer, the charismatic Clifford Irving, are all frequenters of the decadent resort community on Ibiza, and are all in some way implicated in artistic fraud.

For a time it appears that Clifford Irving - who does most of his interviews while a tiny monkey obsessively grooms his sideburns - may be the only honest man (or shall we, following one of the strands of the film's meditations on creativity, call this a "non-artist") among them, but then, as they are editing F for Fake, it is revealed that Irving's famous, exclusive biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes has, in fact, been a giant hoax. Experts are unable to detect that his letters from Hughes are in fact forgeries, representatives of Hughes' corporate empire are so baffled by their boss's inaccessibility and penchant for using doubles that they can't authenticate or invalidate the book, and when the tycoon himself arranges for a telephone interview with reporters to denounce Irving and assert that the two had never met, Irving (in a masterstroke of fakery) asserts that the interview was the work of an imposter.

Meanwhile, Welles reflects on the authenticity of Elmyr's art (which is indistinguishable from the "real thing," and is said to populate all the world's major galleries), the nature of value in the world of creativity, and his own hoaxy past (famously, in a fake news broadcast based on H.G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, on the day before Halloween, 1938, he convinced a significant portion of the radio audience that their nation had been invaded by Martians). What I am telling you is absolutely true, he keeps assuring us - you MUST believe this. And with every passing assurance we squirm a little more, soothed by the most beautiful of all film voices, but ever unsure that he is, in fact, trustworthy.

This was, I must admit, by far the best film I have seen in some time; the only film I have watched in several months that has generated enough excitement in me that it produced the instant need to see it several more times. The film opens with a spellbinding (ha!) sequence of magician's patter from Welles, which is so closely tied to metafilmic shots of preparations for shooting and seam-revealing editing that my very first thought was "Would that the makers of The Illusionist had paid more attention to this film before producing their own reflection of illusion and cinema."

The philosophical, aesthetic and ontological concerns of the film are thrilling enough, but the editing (combining Reichenbach's footage with later interviews and narration done by Welles) is stunning, prescient, and breath-takingly influential. It has a dizzy, associative ingenuity that hearkens back to experimental Soviet cinema and Bunuel and looks forward to the imagistic frenzy that has, perhaps, gotten a bad rap in music videos (which provide, it seems to me, one of the most reliable systems for funding experimental cinema in our culture).

But perhaps its greatest sphere of influence in the present moment and the mainstream is on the fake news philosophy and aesthetic of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show:" where Welles, untroubled by the documentarian ethics of non-hoaxers, cuts images and statements together from disparate times and places, putting them in conversation with one another as if they shared the same space outside of cinema, Stewart uses this strategy in the service (one might say - and I will) of hoax-revelation, to unmask hypocrisy. In the face of our government's increasing feeling that anything said firmly and often enough is true (this is Stephen Colbert's famous concept of "truthiness"), Stewart uses this technique of verbal collage to juxtapose what, say, Dick Cheney - or a Democratic senator, for that matter - said two years ago, with what he tells us today he has always said. The emerging lies, hypocrisies, and squirming inconsistencies are more revealing and forthright than any other coverage we get of our leaders. They also yield a scathing satire on the state of American journalism: aren't the same journalists who claim that this sort of contextless juxtaposition is only ethically possible in comedic "fake news" the representatives of a media that routinely gives us uncontextualized quotations and actions from celebrities and politicians, all in the service of more entertaining (thus more profitable) news?

As Welles says, 'Art is a lie to make us realize the truth.' In F for Fake, hoaxes are infectious; they beget an endless stream of other hoaxes, and produce a labyrinth of (in)authenticity that demands reflection on why it is that we value the real over the (equally beautiful, equally skilled, equally entertaining) false. Is to be an artist, the film asks, essentially to be in actor (split in two between the role-playing of creativity and the shadow of your "real life"), and is to acting, fundamentally, the perpetration of a hoax? (My answer would be that it depends entirely on what the audience believes.) After all, Welles tells us, amidst the scandal of the War of the Worlds broadcast, he could have (like many other hoaxers) gone to jail; instead, he went to Hollywood.

F for Fake (1974)
dir. Orson Welles

  • You can find F for Fake at Amazon (F for Fake - Criterion Collection) or any store that rents or sells Criterion DVDs.
  • Wikipedia has very interesting articles on both F for Fake and Orson Welles. I am suddenly eager to watch and rewatch all the Welles films I can, and to read Simon Cowell's multi-volume biography of the man.
  • IMDB has information about the cast and crew of the film (and a knotty issue this is, too, tied up in the film's own arguments about the nature of art authorship and intellectual ownership), listed under F for Fake's French title, Verités et Mensonges.
  • Vincent Canby's original review in The New York Times is perhaps not entirely representative of the tepid reaction the film received on its first release.
  • In his very interesting and shockingly nasty review of the film (he has some choice words for James Joyce, among others) Dan Schneider rakes the author of the Criterion essay, Jonathan Rosenbaum, over the coals.