Friday, March 07, 2008

F FOR FAKE. We all know (or SHOULD know if we are reading this blog, shouldn't we) that Orson Welles was pretty keen on magic. He was a big kid that way. A big BIG kid! Well, it was in this film, his last "finished" film as a director, that Orson was able to indulge his most twinkle-in-the-eye mischievousness as well as throw in a little sleight of hand. F FOR FAKE isn't QUITE a documentary; when pressed Orson himself described it this way: "A documentary? No, not a documentary -- a new kind of film." I myself tend to agree with the description of the film as an "essay" and it was a new "type" of film which Welles wanted to explore but never got the chance to.
F FOR FAKE begins like a magic show. In fact, it has Welles asking for the loan of a personal item from someone's pocket; the ultimate illusionist's come-on! Welles is in a railway station; decked out in a black cloak, slouch hat and natty gloves -- every inch (and that's a LOT of inches) the magician ready to dazzle us. A little boy gives the director a key from his pocket and Orson proceeds to prestidigitate. Now this is quite an important way to begin the film since it is concerned with fakes and fakery. Welles changes the key to a coin and the key appears in the child's pocket. A transformation. A transformation before our very eyes. A woman (Welles' mistress Oja Kodar) leans out of a train window and says "Up to your old tricks, I see." Orson slyly replies: "Why not?!? I'm a charlatan."
This movie is a hell of a lot of fun. Orson lays it out. "Ladies and gentlemen, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery. . .fraud. . .about lies. Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie; almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie. But not this time. No, this is a promise: during the next hour everything you hear from us is really true -- based on solid facts." And those facts are about fakes. Specifically one Elmyr de Hory: one of the greatest art forgers of the 20th century. And then Clifford Irving: Elmyr's biographer. Irving wrote a book about a fake and then proceeded to become a fake himself by writing the famous fake biography of Howard Hughes with (he said) the reclusive millionaire's help. This was one of the biggest literary scandals of the 70's when Hughes came out of seclusion (albeit by telephone call) to deny he even KNEW Irving let alone helped with this fraudulent biography.
Famously, right in the middle of all this frivolity, Welles pauses and presents a startlingly beautiful rumination on Chartres Cathedral and the imperminence of human endeavor. The name of the designer -- the architect -- of Chartres Cathedral is not known to us yet the cathedral he made will outlast most other human endeavors. It really is quite startling in the emotional power of Welles' soliloquy and where he chooses to take us. "Our works in stone and paint, in print, our spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millenium or two but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes, A fact of life. We're going to die. 'Be of good heart' cry the dead artists out of the living past. 'Our songs will all be silenced. But what of it? Go on singing!'"
Now at last, as Orson says, we come to Oja. Because Welles has yet another amazing tale to spin about his mistress' past life as a model. And how she caught the eye of the old master Picasso. Welles reenacts a story which had never been revealed to the general public until the release of this movie. Several years before, Oja had caught the eye of the aging but still libidinous Picasso. He wanted to paint her. But Oja was a sun worshipper and didn't want to give up the summer sunshine for such a long time. So she struck a deal with the painter: Oja would agree to give up her time in the sun so Picasso could paint 22 nudes of her -- her only payment would be the gift of every one of those 22 paintings to her! Picasso painted them and Oja dutifully took possession: 22 new works by Picasso! That's quite a valuable haul for anyone. What happened next and what became of those 22 masterworks I will leave unsaid. You'll have to see the movie. But suffice it to say that the grande finale is a tour de force for Orson Welles.
Like I said before, this movie is a hell of a lot of fun -- but it also deals in some very interesting themes and questions -- among them the Chartres sequence. And the manipulation of people. As a filmmaker, Welles remains the consummate entertainer and this film is entertaining as hell. It is also fairly groundbreaking in it's new cinematic form: the filmic essay. And finally, Welles the director, in his final finished film, still manages to be just as filmically subversive as he was way back in his first film CITIZEN KANE; the film with which his work was forever being compared, the film whose shadow he spent most of his career trying to escape -- and which this essay of a film may have been a real step toward achieving.

1 comment:

Terry Frost said...

F For Fake was the first movie I ever taped on a VCR. Orson when he was playful was masterful.

BTW, I'm currently reading the second volume of Simon Callow's biography of Welles, "Hello Americans", which covers from The Magnificent Ambersons through to The Lady From Shanghai. Definitely recommend both Hello Americans and Orson Welles: The Road To Xanadu.