Movie still from 1975's "F for Fake."

F For Fake February 18, 2017    

Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1975) is a documentary in reverse.  By its end have we decided that all the topics touched on are interesting, but more interesting, it seems, is hearing Welles’ hammy narration and watching as he recounts stories with melodramatic pizzazz to transfixed audiences.  How unusual it is to stumble on a doc in which the purveyor of truths turns out to be the person involved we’re most compelled by.


Such only makes sense, anyway, because of the form F for Fake takes on.  A hodgepodge of restless visual intrigue, the film’s primary intent is to shine a light on the nature of authorship, authenticity, and the behavioral tendencies of those who make a living off deception.  The movie’s mostly freeform, the editing breakneck and with a short attention span, and covers territories ranging from thematically relevant to plainly fascinating to Welles himself.


Time is especially spent on two infamous “fakers,” as Welles refers to them. They are Clifford Irving and Elmyr de Hory, linked together by Irving’s writing of a biography about the former. De Hory, or, simply, Elmyr, is one of the world’s most talented art forgers. Irving is a novelist and investigative reporter best known for his completely fabricated profile of reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes.  


If taken separately and spotlighted with convention, the potential for an enlightening, thoroughly engaging documentary could break through.  But Welles seems to be more interested in exploring the psyches of these men and how living lives colored by fakery affects them. What we find is that, like Welles, Irving and Elmyr are in love with themselves and the hold they’re able to have over anyone in their presence.  F for Fake’s maker seems to resent them just as much as he admires them, for their avoidance of creating art with the complete truth in mind (a turn-off for the endlessly gifted Welles) and for their ability to find fame and fortune by duping gullible others.  “I don’t feel bad for Modigliani,” Elmyr grins at one point. “I feel good for me.” If Welles reacts to that statement in horror or in awe isn’t clear.


Once we reach the end of F for Fake, we don’t so much feel additionally worldly (a sense documentaries generally bait) as we do energized.The film, so manic and unfocused, is a ramble that perhaps gives us an inside look as to what Welles’ mind looks like.  I found myself grinning ear to ear for much of the feature’s run time merely because I enjoyed hearing Welles’ stories and ideas as much as he enjoys sharing them.  A scene found later in the film, in which Welles is having a seafood dinner with a group of Europeans, sees a woman laughing madly at the man’s theatricality only to listen intently just a few minutes later. And this woman, giddy, is a true reflector of our reaction to F for Fake. Cohesion isn’t important – relishing Welles’ existence is. He’s a campy fixture we cannot get enough of.


I love that he’s able to get a kick out of himself, too.  I’m fond of his bringing up that his own career was ironically given prominence by trickery – that prominence most obviously provided by his 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds — and by the movie’s ending, which is 20 

minutes long, seems to be about another case of fraud brought to the silver screen, but is actually just a work of fiction created by an evidently delighted Welles.  


True is that F for Fake becomes wearisome sometime before its first hour comes to a halt. Everything is so obnoxiously frenetic, with so many topics melting together sometimes incomprehensibly, that it proves to be exhausting to try to keep up with the man who steals our hearts both behind and in front of the camera.  But the fact is is that we’re so enraptured with Welles’ passion, with the twinkle always glistening in his eyes, and with the tickle forever resting in his voice, that we cannot help ourselves from strongly responding to all in front of us.  If that response is sometimes befuddlement, so be it.  B