"F for Fake" (1974)

This is Orson Welles performing a filmic improvisation on the theme of "documentary":

He has received a heap of footage from art dealer and director François Reichenbach, who has been interviewing the world's most famous art forger (Elmyr de Hory) for a television special. They, along with Elmyr's biographer, the charismatic Clifford Irving, are all frequenters of the decadent resort community on Ibiza, and are all in some way implicated in artistic fraud.

For a time it appears that Clifford Irving - who does most of his interviews while a tiny monkey obsessively grooms his sideburns - may be the only honest man (or shall we, following one of the strands of the film's meditations on creativity, call this a "non-artist") among them, but then, as they are editing F for Fake, it is revealed that Irving's famous, exclusive biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes has, in fact, been a giant hoax. Experts are unable to detect that his letters from Hughes are in fact forgeries, representatives of Hughes' corporate empire are so baffled by their boss's inaccessibility and penchant for using doubles that they can't authenticate or invalidate the book, and when the tycoon himself arranges for a telephone interview with reporters to denounce Irving and assert that the two had never met, Irving (in a masterstroke of fakery) asserts that the interview was the work of an imposter.

Meanwhile, Welles reflects on the authenticity of Elmyr's art (which is indistinguishable from the "real thing," and is said to populate all the world's major galleries), the nature of value in the world of creativity, and his own hoaxy past (famously, in a fake news broadcast based on H.G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, on the day before Halloween, 1938, he convinced a significant portion of the radio audience that their nation had been invaded by Martians). What I am telling you is absolutely true, he keeps assuring us - you MUST believe this. And with every passing assurance we squirm a little more, soothed by the most beautiful of all film voices, but ever unsure that he is, in fact, trustworthy.

This was, I must admit, by far the best film I have seen in some time; the only film I have watched in several months that has generated enough excitement in me that it produced the instant need to see it several more times. The film opens with a spellbinding (ha!) sequence of magician's patter from Welles, which is so closely tied to metafilmic shots of preparations for shooting and seam-revealing editing that my very first thought was "Would that the makers of The Illusionist had paid more attention to this film before producing their own reflection of illusion and cinema."

The philosophical, aesthetic and ontological concerns of the film are thrilling enough, but the editing (combining Reichenbach's footage with later interviews and narration done by Welles) is stunning, prescient, and breath-takingly influential. It has a dizzy, associative ingenuity that hearkens back to experimental Soviet cinema and Bunuel and looks forward to the imagistic frenzy that has, perhaps, gotten a bad rap in music videos (which provide, it seems to me, one of the most reliable systems for funding experimental cinema in our culture).

But perhaps its greatest sphere of influence in the present moment and the mainstream is on the fake news philosophy and aesthetic of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show:" where Welles, untroubled by the documentarian ethics of non-hoaxers, cuts images and statements together from disparate times and places, putting them in conversation with one another as if they shared the same space outside of cinema, Stewart uses this strategy in the service (one might say - and I will) of hoax-revelation, to unmask hypocrisy. In the face of our government's increasing feeling that anything said firmly and often enough is true (this is Stephen Colbert's famous concept of "truthiness"), Stewart uses this technique of verbal collage to juxtapose what, say, Dick Cheney - or a Democratic senator, for that matter - said two years ago, with what he tells us today he has always said. The emerging lies, hypocrisies, and squirming inconsistencies are more revealing and forthright than any other coverage we get of our leaders. They also yield a scathing satire on the state of American journalism: aren't the same journalists who claim that this sort of contextless juxtaposition is only ethically possible in comedic "fake news" the representatives of a media that routinely gives us uncontextualized quotations and actions from celebrities and politicians, all in the service of more entertaining (thus more profitable) news?

As Welles says, 'Art is a lie to make us realize the truth.' In F for Fake, hoaxes are infectious; they beget an endless stream of other hoaxes, and produce a labyrinth of (in)authenticity that demands reflection on why it is that we value the real over the (equally beautiful, equally skilled, equally entertaining) false. Is to be an artist, the film asks, essentially to be in actor (split in two between the role-playing of creativity and the shadow of your "real life"), and is to acting, fundamentally, the perpetration of a hoax? (My answer would be that it depends entirely on what the audience believes.) After all, Welles tells us, amidst the scandal of the War of the Worlds broadcast, he could have (like many other hoaxers) gone to jail; instead, he went to Hollywood.

F for Fake (1974)
dir. Orson Welles

  • You can find F for Fake at Amazon (F for Fake - Criterion Collection) or any store that rents or sells Criterion DVDs.
  • Wikipedia has very interesting articles on both F for Fake and Orson Welles. I am suddenly eager to watch and rewatch all the Welles films I can, and to read Simon Cowell's multi-volume biography of the man.
  • IMDB has information about the cast and crew of the film (and a knotty issue this is, too, tied up in the film's own arguments about the nature of art authorship and intellectual ownership), listed under F for Fake's French title, Verités et Mensonges.
  • Vincent Canby's original review in The New York Times is perhaps not entirely representative of the tepid reaction the film received on its first release.
  • In his very interesting and shockingly nasty review of the film (he has some choice words for James Joyce, among others) Dan Schneider rakes the author of the Criterion essay, Jonathan Rosenbaum, over the coals.

10 Responses so far.

  1. Melwyk says:

    What a marvellous essay on this film! I really have to see this. I like how you've placed it in context with similar, current work. This was very illuminating, thanks.

  2. I am so glad that you enjoyed it, melanie! If you do get a chance to watch it ( the Criterion edition is supposed to be very good - I saw it on TCM, however), be sure to let me know what you think!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I've had folk complain when I've written a negative review of a film, but this film I praise, and say it is near great. How is that shockingly nasty?

    Welles would have been the first in line to denude the many frauds that I mention in the review- THAT was his very purpose with this film, and its focus on de Hory.

    I do find it funny that some of the NYR comments also moan about my mentioning Kodar's beauty, even though that's the lone reason she appears in a bikini, and in a faux storyline as the love of Picasso!

    In this day, to actually call black black and white white is considered rude, which shows how far this culture has slipped into self-deception and PC deceit.

  4. I wasn't referring (as I think from your comment you have gathered) to your attitude towards Welles and the film, Dan - as you can see I found your review quite interesting, and labeled it as such in my mention of it.

    Instead, I was applying the word "nasty" to your use of words and phrases like "insipid," "notoriously dense," "talentless hacks," etc. about artists and critics you mention in the article.

    To be honest, I am surprised that you object to the term "shockingly nasty," since it seems quite an accurate, descriptive term (and not necessarily judgmental, like "rude," a word I did not use, would have been) for a consciously taken aggressive stance. Many of the critical world's most famous quips come from self-consciously nasty writers and reviewers, after all - it is an established critical tradition that goes back (at least) to the Restoration in the context of the English language. Surely you intended the phrases you use to shock with the vehemence of their negative opinion, otherwise you would not take on such canonical (which is often read as "untouchable") figures? And that is what "shockingly nasty" means.

    On another note, I am not sure "denuding frauds" actually was the purpose of "F for Fake," which shows a considerably greater attraction to and affection for the frauds it examines than you imply here, even extending to Welles's own joyously empathetic exploration of his own (continuing) hoaxical tendencies.

  5. Anonymous says:

    No, I knew what you meant by the two words, but they are simply not applicable to "insipid," "notoriously dense," nor "talentless hacks", when those are apt descriptions.

    Shockingly nasty is to describe a black writer as a coon or a Hispanic writer as a greaser, or imply that someone is cheating on a spouse or taxes.

    The modifiers I use, whether you agree or not, are apt, and are based upon the artists' works.

    Aggressiveness is not equivalent to nastiness, which only supports my assertion that 'to actually call black black and white white is considered rude, which shows how far this culture has slipped into self-deception and PC deceit.'

    The fact that a word like 'insipid' or 'talentless' can be deemed nasty or shocking shows how utterly uncritical criticism in recent decades has become. If one reads Wilde, Twain, Bierce, Parker, and even up to Jarrell, such terms are tame. I just call things straight down the line. If it's crap it's crap. This is the very purpose of criticism, to explicate and sort. That so much supposed criticism has devolved into mere PR is one of the reasons film (along w other arts) has fallen into such a rut.

    As for canonical, only Joyce wd fall under that term, and I only mentioned his worst work, by far. Haring, Basquiat, Wurtzel and Wallace hardly qualify.

    'On another note, I am not sure "denuding frauds" actually was the purpose of "F for Fake," which shows a considerably greater attraction to and affection for the frauds it examines than you imply here, even extending to Welles's own joyously empathetic exploration of his own (continuing) hoaxical tendencies.'

    The frauds I was referring to were not de Hory and Irving, but the critics of art who cannot tell good art from bad, hence the mentioning of the above figures.

    That was the aim of Welles' film, to attack the crapola put forth as expertise, but which is easily denuded.

  6. Anonymous says:

    BTW- here is an esay I did which takes a similar stance the Welles film does:


    It's on the value of poetic hoaxers.

  7. I can't help but feel that you are responding to a larger argument (and attacks others have made?) rather than to what I specifically argue here, which is not at all an assault on your stance. It was merely a description of your style, as I perceive it, which involves making forceful attacks using pointedly malicious words (like "talentless hacks" and "insipid," which are insults rather than critiques because they thwart the possibility for making an opposing argument based on anything more than subjective opinion).

    This seems to me to be a legitimate critical tactic, and I would defend to anyone your right to use it. It is a different tactic, however, from developing a measured and detailed argument against an artist's or critic's work, one which has as its premise a respect for the work's nuances and the legitimacy of other points of view (this tactic may not be appropriate to this sort of review, which has length and subject constraints).

    Though it is not my personal style, if I were you I would celebrate the nastiness (or, in your terms, aggression) of the terms you use, which have as their intention (it seems to me) the correction of these artists' or critics' positive reputation. (I would follow the definition of "nasty" as "malicious" or "intending to castigate or harm" rather than its alternate meaning of "offensive," which would describe the bigotry of the examples you give, because your assertions are intended to have a negative - or corrective - effect on the readers' views of your subjects.)

    As for Welles's intentions in "F for Fake," as long as we are arguing terminology, I remain unconvinced that "denuding" is the right word for the film's approach to fakery, even that of the "experts" it chastises, or (for that matter) that this is the central ideological mission of the film, rather than one strand of its many interests. Perhaps this is because it did not seem to me to be a didactic film, but rather an exploratory one. Furthermore, it seemed to me to be too fascinated by indeterminacy (How are we to know, I kept wondering, if the paintings in famous galleries Elmyr - or Irving - claims he painted are actually his?) to partake in a strategy described as denuding (getting down to an essential truth). But I am certainly willing to be persuaded.

    All in all, I think perhaps you are too eager to find an enemy or an attack in my comment on your review. It was not meant to offend you or mischaracterize your work, and if it still irks you after my explanations, I would be glad to remove the link from my post.

  8. Anonymous says:

    '(like "talentless hacks" and "insipid," which are insults rather than critiques because they thwart the possibility for making an opposing argument based on anything more than subjective opinion).'

    Actually, they are shorthand, since they are not the main thrust of the article. Were I to write an article in favor of Buster Keaton over Chaplin as a comedian, I might say Chaplin's a 'maudlin poseur'. That's simply a description of what I might think. I don't in reality, but others have said that and worse.

    This is a tack often used in the blogosphere, to label any crit as 'racist', 'nasty' or 'hateful' when really it's mere bluntness. You even admit such in the next paragraph, which voids the bringing up of the point.

    As for celebration, that's for others. The job as a critic is, as you put it, a 'corrective' if dealing with a misperception.

    As for the film's intent, I agree that denuding the art critics was not the only purpose, but likely the main purpose. As one of the readers on NYR put it, the last 20 mins were a love ode to Kodar's considerable feminine charms. And call me sexist, but I liked those charms.

    You misunderstand my reply- I LOVE it when I am attacked (although I do not take this as an attack, merely a misinterpretation of my choice of words), especially by someone who has a manifestly wrong ax to grind. I just thought it was interesting to see you use such rather 'flaccid' attack words (if you will) and see them as nasty.

    I can only presume you do not post on political blogs, because those who argue over Iraq, Bush, Rove, etc. use FAR stronger language. Thus, your being swayed by such relatively inoffensive terms is a bit eyepopping.

    However, I posted another post where I linked to an essay I did on the value of poetic hoaxers. here it is again: http://www.cosmoetica.com/D10-DES9.htm

    However, if you wanna see me really get snarky, read this review of the terrible short story collection that the son of John Steinbeck published: http://www.cosmoetica.com/B288-DES228.htm

    Now, there's nasty, but that bastard deserved it, and more! If only more critics would savage bad art, the rest that is put out would be so much easier to take.

  9. I think that our disagreement comes down to the question of how judgmental the term "nasty" is and whether personal (i.e. racial, religious, libelous, etc.) attacks are the hallmark of nastiness. I can only assure you that this is not how I defined it.

    I am not sure, however, that I want political blogs to be the standard of nastiness in argument or terminology for our intellectual culture (and this is why, perhaps, I don't frequent them regularly - which, as you note, is obvious).

    My preferred model of discourse is a conversation between friends or colleagues who frequently disagree. Perhaps this is because my background is in pedagogy rather than in journalistic criticism; I prefer a model of intellectual exchange which leaves argumentative space for its opposition, relying on the persuasiveness of its argument rather than its vehemence or extremity to convince. The most productive arguments I have ever had, in fact, did not involve a clear triumph for me, but the production of new ideas through disagreement.

    But I have to admit I do enjoy a bit of quippy nastiness in my arguments, from time to time.

  10. Unknown says:

    Every work of art determines my criticism toward it- in substance and in form. As example, my review of Antonioni's L'Eclisse is fragmented, as the film is. A review of an early Woody Allen comedy will differ from an Ozu review, even if both are positive or negative.

    This is something many miss. There is a huge gulf between a good and bad review, and a positive and negative one.

    The Welles review is certainly positive, but also a good review, even if it is negative on some aspects related to the film.

    A related problem is that most critics mix up the terms like and dislike with good and bad.

    Words are important, which is why I choose my words carefully- be it a poem, review, or fiction. Would that Hollywood screenwriters learned that films- despite many claims of it as an exceptional art, is still dependent upon the word.

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