F for Fake (Verites et mensonges)

F for Fake

Our songs will all be silenced. But what of it? Go on singing.

I can pretty much always be up for more Orson Welles, so when the new edition added his final film, F for Fake, I had a bit of a smile. But, as any cinephile is well aware, there is an underlying question to be found in Welles’ last film: What is F for Fake? Is it even a film? Is it a documentary? Not quite, but the structure is there. Or is it? It can be called a documentary, but that label therein has some falsehood or incorrectness attached to it; it doesn’t tell the whole truth, much like the film itself. It can never be taken completely seriously, because it is a film about fakery, trickery, forgery, and Welles is far too meta about the subject to resist making his film about fakery a fakery in and of itself. Confused yet? Good; then you are playing directly into Welles’ hand. Just as he wants it.

The film purports to be about one of, if not, the greatest art forgers of all time, who goes by the name of Elmyr de Hory. It explores his life and career, and the very nature of his work. But, as I hinted at in the opener, Welles is far too intelligent to make this film a straight biography of de Hory. The man is revered as the greatest forger of all time, so if Welles were to make a film about him, how could he resist making the film itself about the nature of forgery, as it pertains to the nature of art and the business of art purveyors? He could not, and thus we have F for Fake; a film that explores the very concept of art, and how it is in art’s inherent nature to provide falsehoods for our entertainment. And, of course, the film by Welles stars Welles himself, as both one of the main characters and the narrator, the tour guide to this exhibit, and he does his job as only Welles could; with a bombastic sense of presentation that is so overblown it can’t help but be entertaining. Only Welles could make the answer to the question of what is in a mystery package placed in a tree so goddamn theatrical: “A ham sandwich.” What also makes this film as effective and entertaining as it is is Welles’ revolutionary style of editing the film and putting it together. Many have stated that Welles, in this film, invented the “MTV style” of editing; fast and rapid, rarely staying on one image for more than a few seconds before moving to the next, and then the next before the film even realizes it has switched shots. It is an excellent example of why and how editing can make a film either engaging or unengaging; how it paces the film, keeps it moving or still, is largely why films are either watchable or not, and F for Fake is extremely watchable.

Above all, what can be gleaned from F for Fake is that Orson Welles is a consummate showman, and this is probably his greatest show; a show about shows. Near the beginning, Welles makes a promise with the audience: in the next hour, everything the film tells you will be the truth – a promise he repeats a few minutes later in writing. Does this mean that the rest of the film is indeed true? Well, perhaps not; the film is an hour and a half, not an hour long. And besides, Welles starts off the film with a display of sleight-of-hand magic tricks that he himself performs, so already, before the promise is made, he has established that he is misleading us the audience, so why wouldn’t he mislead us that the film is wholly a truthful account? It is this incredibly self-referential modus operandi that highlights and exemplifies F for Fake’s intention; to give us a film that, in quite a different way from Godard, is always able to remind us that we are watching a film, and, in particular, to never fully believe what we are watching. It is a film, not reality; why should we believe it, give that level of trust to a piece of art that has the nature of fakery instilled in its very being? I’d imagine going from watching this film to watching a reality show of today’s TV era would be quite the incredible culture shock; Welles’ ability to lift the proscenium and show us the people working the strings would undoubtedly soil our suspension of disbelief that whatever we are watching, even a reality show, can’t really be what it is purporting to be. And there you have it; Welles has succeeded in his endeavor. Give him the credit he deserves; he is a master at what he does.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

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