F for Fake

F for Fake is not Orson Welles’s film. It has his signature and his voice and presence make up the bulk of the film, even being within the frames of the film’s best shots. This doesn’t automatically make him the author, at least not the sole author. It began as François Reichenbach’s film, a documentary on Elmyr de Hory, the best and most famous art forger in the business at the time. It follows his expertise as a faker, how he has made an art out of replicating art and passing it off as the works of the masters. Enough to fool the most dedicated of art critics and curators, which raises the argument of who’s fooling who. Elmyr on the critics, or the critics in themselves and the art world at large?

Through this though, it becomes Elmyr’s film. His braggadocio is charming and his insights are much to bright to be rejected as justifications from what some call a serious criminal and a fraud. He’s doing the paintings himself, and there’s nothing fake about that, even if the biography about him is bluntly titled Fake. That book was written by Clifford Irving, who was also interviewed by Reichenbach. It was after Welles was approached to edit the film that Irving was caught up in his own label of being a fraud with his “authorized autobiography” of Howard Hughes. A new story opened for Welles to examine, and he brought along cinematographer Gary Graver to get in on the big fake happening in the states. It is now Irving’s film as well, as he becomes a brilliant subject too. It’s Garver’s film for being the lens behind those brilliant shots previously mentioned. It’s now Orson’s film for his insightful parallels of Hughes’ success to his own, how Citizen Kane began as a lampoon of the reclusive tycoon and way back to how Orson lied his way into show business, a medium all about fabrication. This is the man who terrified a nation with a fake news broadcast of Martians attacking Earth.

Then there’s Oja Kodar, Welles’s last partner in life and creativity. The sequence of her walking through a city street in a short dress, being gawked at by the men was her subversion of the male gaze. Another trick played on the viewer but moreso the men being photographed, one step away from wolf-whistling and having their tongues roll out like a carpet. The interplay between Welles and Kodar in the conclusion is the best expression of cinematic illusion, breaking a barrier between two directors recalling an incident, one of which showing his skills as an actor, and wandering around an abstract set as they perform. It’s all smoke and mirrors, and the revelation really makes you question who is responsible for the film in the first place? What is fake and what is authentic? And does it really matter?

As much as the film arouses thoughts on how forgery can be an art itself, how fakes and crooks game the system in a way that yields some bit of respect, and how “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” as Picasso said, there’s a lot more to be said on the auteur theory. This film theory has been dismissed in recent years, and for good reason, as to how it drops every success in a film on the one person in charge and lets so much garbage off the hook. It also takes away the efforts of some people involved who just added more to the experience. Is A Streetcar Named Desire, a film by Elia Kazan or Tennessee Williams? Perhaps it’s Marlon Brando’s film or Vivien Leigh’s, or Karl Malden and Kim Hunter. There’s too many great creative voices involved that laying them all on the decisions of one feels too simple. 

In that respect, F for Fake is better off going down the line of names: Welles, Reichenbach, Garver, Kodar, Elmyr, Irving, editors Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer, Picasso, Modigliani, Hughes, Robert-Houdin, the men staring at Kodar, whoever planned and built the Chartres. It goes on. The greatest trick artist through the ages ever pulled was convincing the world that it was all their own. Nothing is original, nothing is authentic. F for Fake is simply playing with us until we realize it. Then we’ll have to go back and make sense of what was being jumped around.

Was that really Welles’s signature on the film canister?

#25 of Definitive 200

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