Review Of F For Fake
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/19/06
One of the greatest pieces of charlatanry in Orson Welles’ brilliant pseudo-documentary F For Fake, released in 1974, is the idea that Welles’ lover and one time sculptress, Oja Kodar (née Olga Palinkas), had any real hand in crafting the film; specifically in writing it alongside Welles. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against the woman nor the claim, for the claim is in keeping with the whole tenor of the film, and when she was young, well, the lovely Ms. Kodar looked positively ferocious in a bikini. But if her film commentary is to be a standard for judging her intellect and artistic merit, well, bravo Ms. Kodar for pushing the film’s use of deceit even further. After all, Welles has been dead for well over two decades, so he can no more debunk your insipid claims than, say, journeyman filmmaker Carol Reed can deny the manifest: that it was Welles, not himself- as a mere beard for the blacklisted Welles, who directed Welles’ brilliant film, The Third Man, back in 1949.
Of course, I have erred in even calling F For Fake a ‘pseudo-documentary’. In a sense, its closest cousin was the kitschy old 1970s television ‘documentary’ series In Search Of….With Leonard Nimoy, wherein Star Trek’s once and future Mr. Spock would explore the ‘scientific verities’ of such things as the Bermuda Triangle, ghosts, and Judge Crater’s disappearance. Welles’ last finished and distributed film is really a filmic treatise on art and truth, and, given Welles’ voluminous intellect and dazzling talent, it’s a near-masterpiece, and very close to being the ‘new kind of film’ that Welles claimed it was. Of course, its closest antecedent would not be in film but in the supposed ‘nonfiction’ literary works of Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Marcel Proust (Remembrance Of Things Past).
Almost everything in this film, even the repeated use of Welles’ voiceover, works incredibly well. Its only stumble (other than Welles’ bizarre pronunciation of the word ‘biography’ as ‘beeography’) comes in the last twenty minutes, when the film takes on a manifestly fictive bent, for, an hour earlier in the film, Welles promises his viewers that he will tell the truth, for an hour- thus giving away the supposed ‘twist’ of the ending being fraudulent. Before that it’s a dazzling exploration of the appeal of notorious art forger Elmyr De Hory, who lived in trammeled opulence on the island of Ibiza, who claims of his paintings, ‘If they hang long enough they become real.’ The film is also about his equally infamous biographer, Clifford Irving, who, during filming, was exposed as faking a supposed ‘authorized’ biography of Howard Hughes, after penning De Hory’s own biography, Fake. After much brilliance, the film goes off on an ill-advised lark about Ms. Kodar being a lover to, and model for, Pablo Picasso. Supposedly, she posed for twenty-two portraits, got them all, on the condition that she never sell them, but she did, causing Picasso to go into a rage. Her grandfather was, also supposedly an even better and more famed forger than De Hory.
The reason this trope fails is twofold. First, again, while Ms. Kodar looks simply gorgeous in a bikini and less, she cannot even convincingly act mysterious in her few spoken scenes with Welles. Secondly, while both Irving and De Hory were well known for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they have long since dropped off the cultural map, due to a succession of other, more daring and recent, frauds and scandals. Picasso, on the other hand, has had every single aspect of his life examined thoroughly. There is no way any person who would be watching this film could buy into the silly claims at the end, especially since, in the film’s lone cinematic solecism, the film merely juxtaposes photos of Picasso with the nude Kodar, often with window blinds meant to somehow simulate the fact that Picasso was ogling Kodar’s body. Not exactly convincing, despite the dangerously seductive curves of Kodar, which reappear time and again in the film- usually to shots of tongue-wagging men lusting for her, and cars screeching to a halt, as she struts through European streets.
The rest of the film- the last two or three minutes after the Kodar digression, and the hour or so before the Kodar scenes, is unadulterated greatness. Welles shifts in and out of reality, mixing archival newsreels, his own snippets filmed all over Europe, and scenes from 1950s UFO films (mostly 1956’s Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers)- playing off his infamous 1938 War Of The Worlds radio broadcast, to toy with his viewers’ minds. The editing in the film is magnificent, as words counterpoint with a succession of images which only show that Welles was the first MTV director, a decade before that abomination of modern culture’s lowest common denominator declension appeared. His cuts sheerly dazzle: from shots of Welles sitting in a park as the seasons change, to haunting images of the cathedral at Chartres, contrasted with Welles’ own sterling prose:
Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced - but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.
Even simple sentences taking on depth merely by the images cut in, word to word. There are even brilliant scenes of silence, of Irving and de Hory in contrapuntal stances as to whether de Hory signed his fakes, despite the shots manifestly being taken out of context as Welles declaims, but it all works. It is the superb editing- one of the best in film history, that makes this a truly organic film, for the edits are one of the major reasons the film exists and works so well. Too often that term is used wrongly, when critics want to merely impress readers that they have knowledge of Politically Correct terminology.
But, editing is only part of this film’s success. Flat-out lying is a major force. As example, Welles suggests Howard Hughes, not William Randolph Hearst, was the initial subject that the film which became Citizen Kane was to be about, and claims to have known Hughes on a personal level, and throws a few more Hughes legends into the fire- such as the fact that a ham sandwich was always left in a tree where Hughes once lived. These claims are nonsensical, but delightful, just as similar claims that Welles was a sixteen year old vagabond painter in Ireland who took up acting only when he failed and was penniless, then coaxing some Irish theater owners into believing he was a Broadway star. Yet, the lies serve a purpose, as setups so that Welles can tear at the now bizarrely in vogue notion that ‘art is truth’. As Welles correctly says within, ‘Art is a lie to make us realize the truth.’ Art is not truth itself. Welles also uses a filmed session of what was supposedly Howard Hughes’ voice debunking Irving’s biography, even though none of the reporters on hand had ever seen nor heard the real Hughes’ voice for over a quarter century. What this says for the ability of the media to discern reality from fakery is all too obvious, as well disconcerting.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is in a two disk package. Disk One has the film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and a commentary by the older, but still attractive, Kodar and the film’s cinematographer Gary Graver. The comments, recorded at different times, are interspersed, and while Kodar says a few interesting things about Welles, most of her comments are vapid, show she knows little of art, and is clearly faking her way through the claim of her writing this film. I was reminded of Werner Herzog’s participation in the pseudo documentary Incident At Loch Ness, and its pseudo-commentary, where Herzog and a succession of other people walk out of the commentary session, still angry at the film’s ‘producer’. Kodar, unfortunately, is just an aging airhead. If you ever imagined what that goddess you lusted for in high school or college ended up as, she is the type of woman who answers that question.
Graver, meanwhile, says some interesting things about the actual making of the film. There is also the original, and unseen, nine minute trailer for the film, as well as a pointless introduction to the film by former filmmaker and professional gossip Peter Bogdanovich. His wisdom consists of forgettable bon mots as: ‘If you get on the film’s wavelength it’s riveting. If you fight it and expect it to be a linear thing, then you’re not going to enjoy it.’ But, Disk Two really makes this a DVD to have, even if the film itself were not so brilliant. On it is the audio from Howard Hughes’ telephone only debunking of the Irving affair, a small 60 Minutes tv piece on Irving, from 2000, and two superb documentaries. There is a 52 minute film called The Noble Art Of Forgery, about De Hory, which is what F For Fake would have been had it been played ‘straight’. The best moment in that film comes near the end when fake ‘fake De Horys’ are revealed in a Japanese collection of De Horys to be exhibited. De Hory’s gay ‘boy toy’ lover even amusingly wonders where such a thing as a ‘fake fake’ ranks on the scale of sin. There is also a great 88 minute film, produced by Kodar, on Welles and his series of unfinished films (The Merchant Of Venice, Moby-Dick, The Deep and The Other Side Of The Wind, starring actor/director John Huston), called Orson Welles: One Man Band. In it, Welles is seen in what seem to be Monty Pythonian skits which nonetheless show he was a truly great actor.
The insert has an essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that, yet again, shows how little critics (Rosenbaum particularly- a notoriously dense and blatantly manifest critic) get of great works of art, which neatly, if unwittingly, recapitulates the very thesis of the film he writes so inertly of. As example, Rosenbaum compares this film to James Joyce’s disastrously bad, and syphilis-affected, Finnegans Wake; one of ‘real’ literature’s greatest frauds and failures, and is another example of Rosenbaum’s critical and intellectual stolidity. F For Fake, however, is simply nonpareil, and well above Joyce’s lame last book, for it is a film that literally is based upon the nihility of its viewers’ cultural and intellectual awareness, even if it falls a whisker shy of unadulterated greatness. Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, depends totally upon its readerships’ intellectual and cultural fetishism for minutia- the polar opposite of F For Fake’s raison d’être. In a sense, the whole film is a series of mirrored reflections on art that blurs reality, not unlike the famed funhouse scene from Welles’ earlier film The Lady From Shanghai.
That said, F For Fake is certainly not a Postmodern film, as many critics have wrongly claimed it, for Welles amply demonstrates this with the very metaphor of the magician as charlatan, as such illusionists and tricksters go back to the dawn of civilization. That modern art’s commerce, which like capitalism knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, spawned the art forger is simply an extension of this reality, not something new and daring, as a Postmodernist would claim. Postmodernism, in fact, is merely another hoax upon the intellectually effete, which depends solely on the effete’s obliviousness to their cluelessness, and is something that Welles would have scoffed at as being every bit as pretentious as the venal art dealers he and the film revile. Yet, in this age where politicians from JFK to Reagan to Clinton to Bush have warped reality into being mere image, where online blogs are read as ‘citadels of truth’ by people who trust the dimwitted Rush Limbaughs and vapid Bill Moyerses of the world to tell them what reality is, where Katie Couric, Brit Hume, and Tucker Carlson are passed off as journalists, where the airheaded Oprah Winfrey is viewed as a cultural guru, and where talentless hacks in the arts- think Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and current American Poet Laureate Donald Hall- are seen as possessing talent, this film stands ever the taller for being a clarion alarum to the last few decades’ descent into cultural irrelevance.
And while America’s culture, McMart World, may not be as instantly deadly as the Neandertal urges of radical and retrogressive Islamic and Christian Fundamentalism, future cultural historians will not look back on this as a Golden Age for the arts. Of course, such ‘experts’ are beaten to a pulp in this film, and bad critics like Rosenbaum again merely recapitulate this in their own stolidity by displaying their very ignorance of what this work is about. As the film suggests, and correctly, it is they- not the bad artists they promote and defend, nor outright frauds like Irving and De Hory, who are the truest fakes, for their idea of what quality entails usually has to do with not the work in front of them, but irrelevant things, such as its provenance, their own personal emotional likes as opposed to objective intellectual standards, or what political stance it supposedly takes, not the very art of the thing. They debase all art for they care for the message alone and the ownership it conveys and has, as well as its lowest common denominator commercial appeal, not how it is conveyed, nor its wisdom nor beauty.
Thus, De Hory, who was obviously a great painter- one simply has to be awed at the skill, precision, and speed with which he can out-paint many of the great painters he faked (and it should be noted he never copied extant paintings, merely painted fakes in the style of known painters, to pass them off as newly discovered works), will likely never get his true critical due, for works that were considered great only when deemed as genuine Picassos or Braques will surely be consigned the status of ‘imitations’, even though only De Hory’s confessions stand as the delineating factor that these silly ‘experts’ rely upon. I have long championed the necessary value of both hoaxers and bad artists in exposing the even worse arbiters of art- be they sickening art dealers, bad critics, or clueless literary agents, for these dilettantes and poseurs are the real threats to great art and culture, not the De Horys nor Irvings. Welles again nails the issue in the film, stating that, in this day and age, ‘Value depends on opinion. Opinion depends on experts. Elmyr makes fools of the experts. So, who’s the expert? Who’s the faker?’
F For Fake, though, is the genuine article- a terrific work of cinema by a master of the art form. It makes fools of the benighted critics who damned it when it opened, merely using it as a grindstone for their anti-Welles axes, and shows that Orson Welles was not a ‘failed’ Hollywood director, but a brilliantly inventive and successful independent director, one whose final completed and edited work showed how the reality of the unreal was a growing force in modern life, and left it up to the viewer how to deal with that fact. The real surprise would have been had it been hailed as the herald it is, both as a work of cultural criticism and a work of art so far ahead of its day that even now, nearly four decades after it was conceived and begun, it still may be more aptly called a work of prophecy than documentary. Thus, it is one of the few films, or works of art, that I can recommend not only for its art, but for its cultural and sociological import. See it, think about it, and let it soak in. But don’t be embarrassed if you find that you’ve soiled yourself in the morning dreaming of Ms. Kodar. After all, there is a very good reason Welles has her beauteous form in the film, and you know that you’re only lying to yourself if you deny it. See what a mere work of art can really do?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the New York Review website.]
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