louferrigno’s review published on Letterboxd:
"It's pretty, but is it art?"
The story behind F for Fake's complicated journey from production to release is a tale as infamous as the real story presented, and serves as a delectable forward too unbelievable to be true. François Reichenbach was a documentary filmmaker that intended to film and construct a piece on famed art forger Elmyr de Hory, with the assistance of Clifford Irving, a biographer who gained acclaim for his book "Fake!", documenting de Hory's history and deceptive skills. Orson Welles, whom I'm sure you all know, was initially brought in to merely narrate the documentary as part of his many acting jobs to fund films that would mostly go unfinished, but during filming Irving was revealed to be a fraud himself by fabricating a biography about Howard Hughes and pocketing all profits, forcing Reichenbach to consider scrapping the film out of shame. Welles, naturally, was bemused, and decided to take the footage of this account of multi-layered fakery into his own editing bay, resulting in one of the most stunning, unique, and masterfully done documentaries that explores truth, falsehood, and whether either of those truly matter in the name of art.
The core focus, supposedly, is that of de Hory, the man behind many fake Matisse and Picasso paintings, among others, and his humble trade that deceived many art museums around the world. The concept of "expertise" is met with skepticism, as de Hory is quick to regale how many museums have studied intimately his work and claimed it as authentic, partly exploring what the point of criticism of art can be if one cannot tell reality from fabrication (and, in one of many smirked narrations, Welles retells Picasso's own talent at creating "fake Picassos"). Such criticism of criticism is brash, especially concerning my own cut-and-dry attempts at critique, but the mere existence of de Hory forces a consideration of how the status of a work can be honored, and how interference obscures in judgement of a piece. If a piece is aesthetically pleasing enough to be considered art, yet the piece is "merely" a copy of a legend, does that truly change how good the work of art is? The canvas and paint has not changed, just our background information, yet does that suggest a work of art's precursors and artist's intent is more important than the piece itself? Such questions about the definition of art and its value is ripe for discussion, and Welles and de Hory gleefully use this to their advantage, imprinting aspects of lies to create a better truth, asking if the "experts" are just as fake as the spinsters of false knowledge, and coming to a conclusion, if one can call it that, that such a truth is something we ourselves have to create.
The story of de Hory, however, only makes up a portion of the wild, frenetic jazz-accompanied style the film creates, piling up mistruths one after another. Welles himself becomes a subject on the art of fakery, his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast and his fascination with magic being his own personal, gleeful admissions of deception, but this extends not just to his own recaps of the many ways he's tricked the world in the name of art. This very film employs a stream-of-conscious approach, flowing from spontaneous, unplanned moments in de Hory's story, Irving's story, Welles' story, and even Howard Hughes popping up for a few cameos, yet the meticulous, fast-paced wry presentation, complete with carefully connected thoughts that don't immediately reveal the sleight-of-hand in the many stories and their structures, is itself a form of trickery, edited precisely, complexly, and fooling us with how loose, free-form, and unpredictable everyone's stories unfold. Dialogue is formed from separate recordings to tell one conversation, and it's how these conversations coalesce and reveal many tricks and lies that becomes enrapturing to watch, as if Welles is putting on a magic show and bringing us into that unaware, naive state of being many children exhibit, fooling and deceiving us without our knowledge even with his promise hanging on our heads that, for the next hour, he'll tell the facts of the stories exactly as they occurred.
Many moons ago, in a list of music albums I adore, I made the comparison between F for Fake and Negativland's "Helter Stupid", an album birthed from a lie that snowballed from a stretched truth that serves as a commentary on the gullibility and lack of fact-checking from the mass media. Welles similarly snowballs a white lie, and rolls it down to his captive audience as an avalanche, playfully releasing surprises in his long essay as he ruminates on the nature of art, the illusions that's necessary to create a personal connection between consumer, and the foreboding awareness that life will one day cause all this deception to be whisked away in ashes, once the last tricksters have vanished from Earth's natural course. Beautiful in how breakneck it is, and still having a wallop of a punch nearly five decades later, Welles' ode to the deceivers is the perfect tribute to art that it needs, a reminder that art itself is a forgery of what exists in nature and imagination in a move that's hard to understate as "wonderful".
"It's pretty, but was it art?"