BY ANDREW MOODY
I first read about Orson Welles’ 1973 film F for Fake in a compendium of conspiracy theories by the late author and Playboy editor Robert Anton Wilson, a huge fan of Welles and this movie in particular.
“Perhaps the prime example of the post-modernist artwork, F for Fake is a somewhat faked film about the possibly fake biography of a truly great art faker- or a man who claims to be a truly great art maker.”
The film seems initially to take the form of a documentary about Elymr de Hory, an art forger who claimed to have created a vast share of faked masterpieces hanging in galleries around the world. In Orson Welles: Final Cut by Chris Wade, the biographer writes:
“It is also in its questioning and considerations where the film comes into its own; in its criticism of the art world, the snobbery, the difference in monetary value between a piece done by a renowned artist and a “non-name” even though they are of equal aesthetic value.“
Starring as himself, Welles came onto the project as an editor for a film Francois Reichenbach was shooting about de Hory, and at some point (never clarified) Welles was given free reign to use Reichenbach’s footage and incorporate it into his own film, retaining Reichenbach as his cinematographer. The scope of the film changed to include a study of one of de Hory’s biographers, Clifford Irving. Irving himself was caught trying to sell a faked biography of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, and Francois Reichenbach once acted as a salesman for Elmyr’s fake paintings. Confused yet?
Welles admits that before they settled on William Randolph Hearst as the template for Citizen Kane, coincidentally he wanted to base Kane on Howard Hughes. Add into the mix the tale of beautiful Oja Kodor, who, after numerous jump cuts, multiple narrators, flashback and flashforward and cinematic tricks, used to confuse and test the audience, offers a story about how Picasso approached her with the offer of painting her. He finished 22 portraits, which Kodor took as her fee for posing, the only stipulation being that she never display them in a gallery. Picasso heard of a gallery release featuring 22 of his paintings, but rage turned to confusion when he discovered they were fakes. The film opens with Welles performing sleight of hand magic for a delighted child, and promises the audience that for the next hour “he will tell the truth”. By the time F for Fake reaches the tale of Kodor and Picasso, Welles reminds the viewer of his promise, and confesses “for the past seventeen minutes I’ve been lying my head off.”
This precis of Welles’ deeply strange film may seem impenetrable to the casual reader/viewer, and the initial release of the movie met with outright hostility from the majority of critics who declined to recognize the influence of the surrealist movement, Dadism and 50s and 60s European cinema. Later generations have been kind to this cinematic enigma, it retains an above average rating on Rotten Tomatoes and many scholars of Welles see it as his last masterpiece. Being an iconic part of Hollywood since the War of the Worlds hoax terrified parts of its radio audience, Welles knew that whilst he was internationally famous upon sight, he sought independence as a film director which became increasingly hard to get as his films drew smaller and smaller box office. A devoutly experimental artist, F for Fake was, he confessed: “a new kind of movie … it’s a form, in other words, the essay, the personal essay, as opposed to the documentary…”
In an interview with Jean Clay in 1962, Welles, ever the magician, stated:
If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you. Seventy five percent of what I say in interviews is false… I like what I do, not what I am… Do you know the best service anyone could render to art? Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain a man- not the contrary.”
F for Fake is currently available on YouTube.
Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @Voguishfiction