Friday, May 6, 2016

F For Fake

F FOR FAKE (Welles, 1972)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date October 21, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

"Up to your old tricks, I see."

"Why not? I'm a charlatan."

What is "F for Fake"?

How do I begin to describe a movie that numbers among its "cast" members not only Orson Welles, but also a Hungarian art forger, Howard Hughes, the cathedral at Chartres, and Pablo Picasso? How do I categorize a movie that can be described equally well as a documentary, a fictional feature, an essay, or even as a super-sized clip show?

OK, I think I know where to start. "F for Fake" is a movie about Oja Kodar. Who is Oja Kodar? Oja Kodar was Welles's partner both in his creative work (she co-wrote "F for Fake") and in life. Oja Kodar is also a woman so beautiful that mere adjectives and adverbs do not suffice to describe her. I have to call in Raymond Chandler for help. Oja Kodar is the kind of woman who could, in Chandler's words, make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. She's also the kind of woman who could convince Pablo Picasso to give her twenty-two original paintings and… No, that's the ending. Always save the best for last. And you don't get much better than Oja Kodar. Let me start again.

"F for Fake" is a movie about Elmyr de Hory, the world's second greatest art forger (the best is Oja's father but that's a different story.) Elmyr has painted more Modiglianis than Modigliani; he can have three new ones ready for you by lunch if you're willing to wait. His paintings hang on the walls of museums throughout the world, not that he'll ever officially admit to it. And the museum curators and art sellers, well, let's just say they'd rather not ask difficult questions. Elmyr also has a biographer named Clifford Irving who has been a busy man. Not only has he written a book about Elmyr, but he's also just ghost-written an auto-biography of Howard Hughes. Or has he? Hughes denies ever having met the man, though it also appears that Irving's wife just might have walked into a Swiss bank one day wearing a wig and pretending to be a woman named Helga Hughes and…

OK, now I'm getting confused again. What exactly is "F for Fake?" Let me try one more time, and this time I'll just start with the facts.

"F for Fake," released in 1972, is the final feature film completed by Orson Welles. He continued to film actively and obsessively until his death in 1985, but most of these projects (such as "The Other Side of the Wind" and "The Dreamers") remained unfinished due in part to a lack of funding, and also in part to an abundance of ambition. Welles was a tireless craftsman who needed to juggle as many projects as possible to keep himself occupied.

With "F for Fake," Welles intended to create a new type of film which combined elements of both non-fiction and fiction; a personal essay akin to the work of avant-garde documentarians like Chris Marker and Stan Brakhage, though I don't know that Welles cared either way for their movies. Though the bulk of the film ostensibly concerns the story of art forger Elmyr de Hory, Welles weaves Elmyr's story (and Cliff Irving's and Oja Kodar's) into his own biography. As he notes with a wink and a smile, his own career began with a rather (in)famous bit of fakery of his own, the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast which drove hundreds or perhaps thousands (accounts differ) of viewers into a panic over a Martian invasion in 1938. Just as he did in his radio broadcast, Welles is both willing and eager to mix fiction with fact in his "documentary." Indeed, that's the entire point. How else do you tell a story about fakers except by faking it? And what is filmmaking if not the art of fakery, the craft of the magician who, with a little sleight of hand, can make you see whatever he wants you to see?

 "F for Fake" addresses many issues, but central to the film is the question of authorship. On one level, there's the question of Elmyr's status as an art forger. Welles repeats a question: "It's pretty, but is it art?" If you can't determine the difference between the original and the fake, perhaps there is no difference at all. In one telling scene, Elmyr forges a portrait and then signs Orson Welles's name (though he misspells it "Wells".) Whose painting is it anyway?

Furthermore, though "F for Fake" is an "Orson Welles film," much of the footage of Elmyr is taken from a documentary shot by Francois Reichenbach, and an early "study" of girl-watching was actually written and filmed by Oja Kodar several years before "F for Fake." Whose film is this, and does it even matter? Welles's suggestion is that all that matters is the final product, and he amply credits the film's other "practioners" – an intentional misspelling – in the opening credits. At one point, Welles stands in front of the magnificent cathedral at Chartres and marvels at its enduring beauty. He describes it as one of the greatest achievements in mankind's history, but notes that nobody ever bothered to "sign" it. It is anonymous, and eternal, and beautiful. It's pretty, but is it art? You bet, says Orson.

"F for Fake" tackles some hefty philosophical issues but it is also a joy to watch solely for its surface elements: Oja Kodar, Elmyr's eel-slick performance, Welles's stentorian voice, Oja Kodar, the kaleidoscopic editing, beautiful paintings, Michel Legrand's music and, of course, Oja Kodar.

"F for Fake" also features Welles at his most playful, a little boy who has never gotten tired of playing with grown-up toys like movie cameras and editing tables. The editing in "F for Fake" is downright silly at times, and wonderfully so. Welles revels in his ability to smash any two images together, and thereby create the rules for his own game in the process. There are many other Orson Welleses in this movie too: Welles the raconteur, Welles the magician, Welles the gossip, and Welles the gourmand. The man loved to eat, and he's not above poking fun at his own girth. In one scene, he hands a platter of utterly decimated lobster to a waiter and tells him to bring the steak au poivre next.

Finally, "F for Fake" is a masterpiece. It is one of Welles' greatest films which, by definition, makes it one of the greatest films of all-time. If we listen only to the Hollywood history, Welles's career was one continuous slide after achieving early greatness. In reality, he was a great filmmaker who continued to make great films at every stage of his career even in the face of endless financial struggles. If you want to count "Citizen Kane" or "The Magnificent Ambersons" or perhaps "Chimes at Midnight" as Welles's best, I won't argue much, but "F for Fake" is certainly not far behind. 

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Compared to the 2005 Criterion DVD release, this high-def transfer shows expected improvement in image detail. Grain looks a bit richer as well. However, the improvement is fairly modest. There's nothing wrong with this transfer at all, but I don't know that you could call it a revelation. Just a refinement.

The linear PCM audio mix is crisp, clear, and relatively flat, as is probably appropriate for the source material. Not a lot to say here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has imported all of the extras from its 2-disc 2005 DVD and included them all on this single Blu-ray disc. Oddly Criterion has added a single new extra with no notice that I have seen.

The new feature is the April 8, 1975 episode of “Tomorrow” hosted by the great Tom Snyder. Snyder has a long (44 min.) conversation with Orson Welles who is in fine fettle, enjoying a super-sized stogie (which just looks normal on the super-sized Welles) while regaling Snyder and the audience with stories from his career. It's not the puff piece you might think. Snyder was a great interviewer and he's not afraid to push back from time to time against the great charlatan, but this is still meant to be a celebration of Welles's career. As I'm sure you know, Welles is a riveting story-teller and there's plenty to enjoy in this new feature.

The repeats from the 2005 disc are as follows.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Oja Kodar and director of photography Gary Graver. More a series of observations than the typical wall-to-wall conversation that comprises most commentaries. I liked it a lot. Originally recorded in 2004 and 2005.

Peter Bogdanovich provides another of his numerous introductions (2005, 6 min.) Welles's friend and biographer, Bogdanovich describes the film as "unlike any other." Maybe so, though he acts as if Welles invented the film essay which would be great news to Chris Marker and Agnes Varda, among others.

"Orson Welles: One-Man Band" (1995) is a feature-length (87 min.) documentary made in cooperation with Oja Kodar. It includes footage from several of Welles's unfinished films: "The Other Side of the Wind," "Moby-Dick," "The Deep," and much more. There are also clips of Welles performing magic on stage, and several short comedy films he made late in his career which portray the playful, self-deprecating side he features in "F for Fake." This documentary is an absolute gem that would be worth buying all by itself. Plus it's got Oja Kodar.

"Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery" (1997): A short feature (52 min) made for the Norwegian Film Institute about Elmyr de Hory. The "straight" version of Elmyr's story. A nice companion piece to the main feature.

"60 Minutes Interviews Clifford Irving" (2000, 9 min.): In 1972, Irving went on a relatively new show called "60 Minutes" to defend himself against claims that his Howard Hughes autobiography was a hoax. He lied through his teeth. In 2000, he was invited back on the show to explain himself.

"Howard Hughes Press Conference" (1972, 20 min.) Hughes held a press conference by phone to deny all of Irving's claims. This feature includes several audio clips of Hughes answering reporters' questions.

And finally we get a nine-minute trailer. Nine minutes?  Orson Welles did everything big. More a short film, it includes much footage recorded solely for the trailer. The "trailer" is hilarious, entertaining, and a perfect description of "F for Fake." Naturally, American distributors rejected it.

The slim fold-out booklet includes a very fine essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Closing Thoughts:
My earliest memory of Orson Welles is as the host of an alarmist program called "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow" (1981) a so-called documentary about Nostradamus's prophecies. I was probably 11 or 12 years old when I saw it, and I didn't have the slightest idea who this fat guy with piercing eyes, a scruffy beard, and a booming voice was. Nostradamus was, of course, a complete fraud (as a prophet, that is – as a physician, he treated many plague sufferers who other doctors wouldn't touch), but when Welles spoke his (very loosely translated) words, he had me convinced. The world was going to end in 1987 when Halley's Comet returned ("when the comet shall run!") and I, for one, was scared to death. For Welles, it was almost true since his own world ended in 1985. I'm willing to bet that he knew it was all fake, though. That's why he was perfect for the job.

He's perfect for this job as well. It's been nine years since I wrote the review posted above and my admiration for “F for Fake” has only grown. It's Welles at his most Welles-ian, and that's the highest compliment I can pay it.

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