Hey everyone, welcome to the latest edition of Criterion Cuts, where I dig deep into everyone’s favorite prestige film label on Hulu Plus and look for something worth talking about. Today’s entry comes to you from the fevered mind of a writer suffering from a pretty serious fever, so hopefully you’ll forgive both its belated nature and any weird errors that might lie within. I’ll fix them when I’m well and sane.
As always, if you want to suggest something for me to cover, feel free. I try to watch a few of these a week but honestly sometimes it’s hard to know what direction to go in. Willing to take any recommendations into consideration. Now let’s get to it.
F For Fake (1974)
Ladies and gentleman, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies. Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie. But not this time. This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.
2010 was a big year for documentaries people weren’t sure of the truth of. There was, of course, the crowd favorite Exit Through The Gift Shop, and pop culture punching bag I’m Still Here, and even obscure critical divider Catfish. All these movies traded in what was, on the presentation layer, a documentary. Everyone spent a lot of words and effort wondering whether the films were true depictions of their subject matter or not, to wildly differing results.
Sadly that was a lot of misplaced energy. Because all three of those movies were about what we perceive to be true over what actually is true. Playing inside baseball on the production of a film is only peeking behind the magician’s cloth, it does nothing for you but spoil the magic. But F For Fake already knew this, and told us so in wiser language than anyone else decades before those moves were even an idea.
We open on Orson Welles, our writer and director and narrator, bearded and jovial, dressed in a cape and doing magic tricks before us. Welles as a stage magician, but the truth of magic-on-film is that anything could happen between the rapid cuts F For Fake will use throughout. Is it sleight of hand, movie trickery, or both? It’s hard to say, and Welles is coy to the point of taunting the viewer, promising a series of stories that will be a hundred percent true.
We’re then whisked off to a wild, seemingly improvised, story of Elmyr de Hory, a famous art forger at the end of his career. While that’s what the movie is centrally about, it also dances around the concepts of what truth is, who owns and creates art, and numerous other related side plots, such as Clifford Irving, a man who wrote a hoax biography about Howard Hughes, and Welles himself, and his War of the Worlds hoax-broadcast earlier in his life.
What is amazing about the movie is just how nimble it is with all of this, it’s fast and light, touching on subjects but rarely commenting upon them unless it’s in a way to openly nudge the audience in a direction. I’ve seen the film compared to MTV-style editing, and the soundtrack would lend one to think of free jazz, but what I kept coming back to is the patter of a magician. During the trick, you have to keep talking, to misdirect and entertain, to build up the momentum for the eventual reveal and bring the audience into the world where any truth is possible if done deftly enough.
Further examination reveals another easy comparison–reality television. In one notable scene, de Hory is claiming that he never signed any of his forged paintings, a key component if his work is to be labelled a forgery over a replica. At the same time, we cut to an isolated interview with Irving, who is talking about his doubts to de Hory’s claim. The two men could be speaking years apart, certainly they aren’t in the same room, but so careful is the editing that when de Hory makes his statement we witness a stare-off between the two men, as out-of-context shots of Irving are repeatedly placed over shots of a seemingly tranquil de Hory. Any voice at this point happens in voice over.
Any editor can tell you, and once you see it you’ll have a hard time unseeing it, that the moment you drop voice over of an interview over someone’s actual interview footage you are creating your own narrative out of their words. The truth is something made in an editing bay, not something captured on the day it was filmed. It’s the cancer of melodramatic reality television and agenda-driven news programs, but here Welles stretches it almost to the point of the seams showing.
Elmyr de Hory’s story is interesting, to be sure, but it’s where it begins to curtail into a story of Pablo Picasso that the film takes its best turn. Picasso said, per the people interviewed, that he had seen forgeries that he was incapable of telling were his. But at the same time, he claimed that some days his own paintings were only poor forgeries of ‘Picasso’ as an idea.
Which leads into the story of Oja Kodar, Welles’ companion at the time the film was made. She tells a story of her young life as the granddaughter of a famous art forger, and how once upon a time she convinced Picasso to let her sit for a series of nudes. The story is told in the most overtly subjective fashion, Picasso represented as a series of images of the man and Kodar re-enacting her side. Kodar took the paintings as payment for her modeling.
Picasso supposedly learns of the pictures being sold on the market, but comes to find that they are not the paintings he made, but skillful fakes. He confronts Kodar and her ailing grandfather, in a scene acted out by Welles and Kodar as Picasso and her grandfather, about the nature of art. It is the perfect encapsulation of all that we’ve seen, building to what seems to be some vital epiphany on the reality of truth and art.
But like a house of cards, it all tumbles down. Welles reminds us of the promise that opens the film. For an hour, he said, he told us the truth. But for the past 17 minutes he has been ‘lying his head off’. And just like that, the trick is revealed. The climax vanishes, the reveal unreal, and Welles offers us only what he opened with, that all art is lies seeking for some universal truth, and that what is actually real is simply what we make of it.
But is that all? He claims that he told the truth for the first two thirds, but so much of that story felt constructed and false. It was the pat storytelling of any documentarian, perhaps a little unorthodox but certainly within the realm of plausibility. Why then, is the abstract theatrical narrative of the last third so much more emotionally plausible? It is the thing that seems to bring the film closest to answers, yet that’s the unreal part? What are we left to believe?
The answer will probably differ for each viewer, as the line between truth that we’ll accept and truth that’s presented to us, even in supposedly factual things, is as subjective as any other opinion. But Welles’ greatest trick, among many he pulls in this movie (both structurally and blatant, as he ends much as he begins with simple parlor tricks, as if to mock reading deeper meaning into the whole exercise) is to pull back the curtain of truth in non-fiction without telling us he’s doing it.
F For Fake is many things, but at its best moments it is a documentary that deconstructs the genre while enriching it, a film on the nature of film, a desperate piece of fiction struggling to present a very delicate statement on truth that is perhaps even more true now than it was then. The beauty in magic, just as in film making, is all in the trick. That’s where the truth lies, hidden in the art before us, not buried in the reality beyond what we see.