Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: F for Fake

Year of Release  1973
Country  France/Iran
Length  88 min.
Director  Orson Welles
Screenwriter  Orson Welles
Editors  Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer
Cinematographer  Francois Reichenbach
Score  Michel Legrand
Cast  Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Francois Reichenbach

Perhaps the most unfair and inaccurate piece of received wisdom in all of film history is the idea that Orson Welles spent the majority of his career attempting (and failing) to live up to his cinematic debut Citizen Kane (1941).  Aside from ignoring the fact that Welles spent much of his creative life as a major innovator in radio and live theater, as well as a highly charismatic and versatile performer in other directors’ films, this idea incorrectly suggests that Welles was interested in (or should have been interested in) replicating the look and feel of Kane rather than in constantly staking out new territory.  While Citizen Kane is undoubtedly on the shortlist of works that can even come close to living up to the burden of being the consensus “greatest film of all time,” there are a number of other Welles-directed films that one could argue are even more bold, ambitious, and distinctive than his outstanding debut.  Serious Welles scholars have made reasonable arguments for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958), or Chimes at Midnight (1966) as the director’s most impressive achievement, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who actually takes the time to watch less-acclaimed efforts such as Macbeth (1948), Mr. Arkadin (1955), and The Trial (1963) thinking that they are anything less than interesting.

My personal favorite Welles film is his final theatrically released feature (assuming that the mostly complete The Other Side of the Wind never makes it to the big screen), the wildly goofy and seemingly uncharacteristic F for Fake (1973).  I stress the playful charm of F for Fake because the economic circumstances surrounding the trajectory of Welles' filmmaking career (starting with a movie made with virtually unlimited studio resources and ending with a series of projects cobbled together with scraps of foreign and personal financing) have created a false conception of him as a “tortured artist.”  While Welles was as skilled a tragedian as anyone, he also had a highly irreverent sense of humor and was undeniably an inveterate ham.  Huge swaths of perverse humor are present throughout all of Welles’ films, even in tragedies like The Magnificent Ambersons and Othello – and, for its first hour or so, Citizen Kane is essentially a comedy – but F for Fake is animated almost completely by Welles’ enthusiastically jolly spirit.

F for Fake is somehow simultaneously the least characteristic and most personal of all of Welles’ film projects.  In place of the obvious hallmarks of Welles’ recognizable visual aesthetic – chiaroscuro lighting, slanted camera angles, rich black and white cinemtagoraphy – F for Fake features extremely rapid editing and frequent unpredictable shifts between documentary footage and various types of scripted material, mostly filmed in color.  Where Welles’ other released films all qualify, to greater or lesser degrees, as narratives, F for Fake is an “essay film,” which means that it is loosely related to other freewheeling documentary/fiction hybrids such as W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (1971), Sans soleil (1982), and A Tale of the Wind (1988).  But the aforementioned films are as different from each other as they are similar.  The unpredictable, stream-of-consciousness structures of essay films make their content inextricable from their creators’ personalities, meaning that each film belonging to this quasi-genre is utterly distinctive.

Welles’ film may appear at first glance to be a random jumble of sequences vaguely linked by a thematic interest in the slippery nature of the truth, and Welles certainly goes out of his way to keep the viewer from taking F for Fake too seriously.  An early scene involving the director treating a group of children to some magic tricks, including “finding” a key behind one of their ears, ends with Welles announcing “as for the key…it wasn’t a symbol for anything.  This isn’t that kind of movie.”  But despite F for Fake’s radical structure and lighthearted tone, the film actually presents a very intelligent and serious argument about the relationship of man to art and the indiscernible nature of the truth.  It would be too difficult to reduce the film’s arguments to words; the points that Welles makes here are too varied and too personal to be separated from F for Fake’s wildly discursive style. 

Suffice to say that F for Fake is primarily concerned with mocking “experts” of all stripes, from art critics to overly credulous members of the public.  Much of the running time is devoted to footage of professional art forger Elmyr de Hory, who successfully conned many of the world’s top museum curators into buying his convincing copies of famous paintings.  A key figure in many of these scenes is Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer who later wound up pulling his own hoax when he sold a news story about a fake meeting with super-recluse Howard Hughes to many major newspapers.  Cheerfully pronouncing himself a fellow “charlatan,” Welles spends many of his onscreen appearances performing magic tricks, telling outrageous (and quite possibly fictitious) stories about his own encounters with Hughes’ handlers, and enumerating a series of important hoaxes from his own career, from his lie-assisted entry into theatrical acting (in Scotland, a young Welles joined a theater troupe by pretending to be a famous actor from New York) to the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. 

Despite F for Fake’s plotlessness and lack of an obvious throughline, its 88 minutes are packed with incident.  According to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s liner notes for the Criterion DVD, F for Fake took a year to edit, with Welles and credited editors Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer working five days a week to achieve the film’s uniquely spastic editing style.  The footage comes fast and furious, with periodic dynamic freeze frames that usually catch the people involved at moments where they have ridiculous facial expressions.  But the film’s joyous creativity isn’t found only in its unique structure and editing style.  The way that Welles stages the scripted material is often tremendously playful and original.  One lengthy sequence involves a supposed relationship between Welles’ mistress Oja Kodar (who reportedly had a large though uncredited role in shaping F for Fake’s script, as well as coming up with its title) and Pablo Picasso.  Welles continuously cuts back between footage of Kodar walking down a street in various stages of undress and reverse shots of photographs of Picasso gazing at her from behind a window shade.  As Picasso’s obsession grows, his photographed facial expressions become more extreme, until his photos are eventually replaced by funky Picasso-style paintings (still behind the window shade) showing a melting, disheveled face whose only recognizable facial features are enormous eyes.

The film’s rapid pace slows down and Welles’ tone becomes serious toward the end of the film when Welles visits Chartres, a massive unsigned work of art that was conceived as a union of God and Man.  As Welles melodramatically muses that there seems to only be room for Man in most modern discussions of art, a series of beautiful nighttime shots of the huge cathedral splash across the screen.  This mournful argument against authorship ironically recalls the opening images of Xanadu in Citizen Kane, bringing Welles’ filmic oeuvre full circle in the least likely way possible.  It’s just another paradox in a film that manages to be simultaneously frivolous and deep, documentary and fiction, difficult and entertaining, uncharacteristic and intensely personal.  Taking rare advantage of the full complex possibilities of cinema, F for Fake is a genuinely unique experience, a triumph as both an Orson Welles film and as a standalone piece of art.

F for Fake passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  From the jolly, rapidly paced F for Fake to Bela Tarr’s somber, austere epic The Turin Horse

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