Wednesday, August 04, 2004

F For Fake

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

It takes more than a filmmaker as gifted as Orson Welles to make such a bad film so enjoyable. It is a documentary without much in the way of information-gathering behind it, it feels like a massive digression (though it would be a digression from something already utterly inconsequential), and has some truly awkward structuring and staging. And yet it is compelling because at the center, holding the film together with an effortlessness almost bordering on contempt, is not Orson Welles the director, or Orson Welles the actor, but Orson Welles the iconoclast.

Welles comes off as a weird guy here; he dresses as a magician, refers to other, apparently non-existent works, and fills his movie with peculiar transitions and side-paths, and often gives the impression that he's got a lot of thoughts on fakery and artifice that he just can't organize into a movie.

But when he's allowed to be - or talk about - Orson Welles... Ahhh, that's the stuff. Then, he comes off as a fantastic party guest, calmly tossing off outrageous anecdotes and dropping the sort of names that his audience doesn't recognize, though they pretend otherwise less they look unsophisticated. He's self-deprecating, both obviously ("I started at the top and I've been working my way down ever since") and subtly. There's a scene where he is in a restaurant, surrounded by young admirers, telling tales, which is not obviously a set-up but seems unlikely to be real. When he orders an enormous portion, his eyes briefly meet the camera and we see he's having a little joke at his own expense. He spends twenty minutes of his 85-minute "documentary" on a funny but unlikely story that he then admits is false, showing those of us in the audience how easy it is to be taken in without making us feel stupid.

I suppose that when F For Fake came out in the late 1970s, the scandals Welles focuses on would have been fresh, so the lack of much explanation would have been less confusing than it is 25+ years later. Even then, though, it must seem he had very little to say - the segments on Elmyr de Hory, history's greatest art forger, are stitched together from another documentary and often seem more about immersing us in Elmyr's bon vivant lifestyle than actually exploring things - Welles spends a lot of time saying that "the lawyers" won't let him say which masterpieces are actually de Hory fakes. Intertwined is a story about de Hory's biographer, Clifford Irving, who himself pulled a con in claiming to be Howard Hughes's biographer and confidante. Welles doesn't quite find the angle in de Hory's and Iring's stories being intertwined, and the Irving story becomes something of a side note, leading to Welle reminiscing about Howard Hughes and how he was too strange to satirize in Citizen Kane.

The movie's a mess, in many ways; it jumps from one subject to another to a third with only the slightest connections, it's got little original material, and there's precious little for those who watch documentaries to learn something new. And yet, in other ways, it's a reflection of ideas inside the movie, that a thing can be not "real", in terms of not being what it's presented as, like with de Hory's paintings or Welles' news bulletin of a Martian invasion, and still be a compelling or beautiful fake. I get the feeling Welles would have loved The Blair Witch Project, or at least the marketing thereof, because of how it played with people's expectations and used their trust as an artist's tool.

F For Fake is a clever piece of work, a combination of a fake documentary and a documentary about fakes, and it's up to the audience to decide which it is at any given moment. Which is, of course, part of the fun.

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