Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.13: Orson Welles' F for Fake

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Orson Welles was a cinematic magician, a trickster who used the form of cinema to make people believe they were seeing something they weren’t. Welles did it subtly through camera placement in Citizen Kane, and more ostentatiously through editing in The Lady from Shanghai. But Welles’ most overt bit of cinematic trickery was F for Fake, an essay film “about trickery…about fraud…about lies”. F for Fake was not Welles’ final film (Filming Othello came five years later), but it was his last completed major work, and one of his greatest. In F for Fake, Welles’ formal mastery is at its fullest, a cinematic bag of tricks used to bring in one of his most personal messages.

After an introduction in which Welles promises that “during the next hour, everything you will hear from us is really true”, the film begins as the tale of Elmyr de Hory. de Hory gained notoriety in the 1960s and 70s as one of the world’s greatest art forgers. Among de Hory’s guests is his biographer, Clifford Irving, who has his own part in the story: as the man who fabricated an autobiography of Howard Hughes. Welles also weaves in the tale of his own fakery- as the director of the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast that sent many into a panic. The film finishes with a final tale of fakery, following Welles’ lover Oja Kodar as she tells the tale of her grandfather’s forgery of Pablo Picasso’s paintings…much to the consternation of the real Picasso.

Welles was always an overt formalist, and to some degree F for Fake is his showiest film. Welles is trying to make the audience as aware of the editing as possible, right up to the point where his Moviola breaks down and we actually see him patching everything up. The exuberance of the editing here, zippy but unhurried, discursive yet purposeful, is absolutely marvelous.. Welles combines the playfulness of his own work with that of the French New Wave. From the very beginning, there’s a puckish wit that permeates the film, with Welles performing first a handful of magic tricks, then by tricking us through a quick cut that transports him from a train station in Paris to a studio. Welles practically tells us that he’s fucking with us, but in this case it’s kind of fun to be fucked with.

Much of the material involving de Hory and Irving’s fakery is rather funny- Welles admits that he knows what famous paintings in art galleries are really de Hory’s forgeries, but claims that his lawyers advise him against saying what they are. But Welles’ tales of fakery are not meant to poke fun at de Hory and Irving. To some degree, Welles sympathizes with them. De Hory was a painter of considerable talent, but he could not feed himself unless he forged. Now he throws extravagant parties, but he’s a fake rich man too, used by art dealers who get rich off of his films. When one also considers the arrogance of the experts who can’t actually tell de Hory’s forgeries from the real thing, not to mention de Hory’s own vast knowledge, Welles’ admiration grows clearer. As Welles says, the value of art is based on the opinions of the experts, but they’re constantly fooled by de Hory. “Who’s the expert? Who’s the faker?”

Irving, meanwhile, had his career ruined by fabricating the truth about Howard Hughes. But aren’t most of the tales about Hughes lies or exaggerations? Few really knew what Hughes was like in the final days of his life, but the stories of a man with long hair and fingernails, peeing into jars and wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes are too fascinating too fully dismiss. To some degree, Irving only came up with the best and most believable fake story about Hughes. Sure, he’s a scoundrel, but he’s a rather ingenious scoundrel.

Welles can relate to the two all too well. He himself is a faker: Welles started his acting career as a teenage boy in Ireland who claimed to be a famous Broadway actor, and he went on to create the most original radio program in history by making his War of the Worlds sound so much like a real news broadcast that it caused some people to panic. And then there’s the greatest accusation of Welles’ fakery: the writing of Citizen Kane. Years earlier, Pauline Kael wrote the book Raising Kane, which asserted that Welles’ masterpiece was really the genius of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland, and that Welles didn’t write a word of the film. Kael’s book has been wildly discredited since, but it was damaging for Welles’ reputation. Francois Truffaut considered F for Fake a rebuke to Kael. It is that, but it’s also much more.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film, and perhaps the one most indicative of Welles’ purpose here, is a beautiful monologue about the Chartes Cathedral about an hour into the film. It’s a gorgeous testament to man’s creativity, but it’s also without an author- anonymous. The truth is, one day the authors might die and be forgotten, but the works stand. “Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much”. Welles is half truthful, half saddened there. True, Citizen Kane and the rest of his films stand as great works of art, no matter how much others might deny his authorship or how much they’ve been meddled with. At the same time, though, the author laments.

“And now, at last, we come to Oja”. Welles has teased Oja’s involvement throughout the film, the interwoven takes of fakery and fraud have built steadily to the point that there better be a wallop of a climax. Oh, but of course there is. In his TV pilot The Fountain of Youth, Welles had experimented with mixing narration, still photographs, and film to tell a story, but it reaches its natural conclusion here. We learn that Pablo Picasso was enchanted by a lovely Croatian woman just outside his door- Oja- and that he agreed to let her have 22 large portraits he painted of her. Picasso isn’t available, though, and Welles didn’t have a camera at this event, so a mixture of re-enactment (Oja) and still photographs (Picasso) will have to do. Welles edits it perfectly, implying Picasso’s vision through angle and the use of window blinds opening and closing over his eyes. The edit is both smart on a visual level and a thematic one, speaking to the inherent voyeurism of film.

But the tale grows more complicated, as Oja sells 22 paintings to a museum and profits off of Picasso’s work. A furious Picasso flew over the sea to find 22 forgeries, all by Oja’s grandfather, the Da Vinci of art forgers (“one of his Da Vinci’s is so famous I don’t dare to name it”). Welles and Kodar start a charming little play here, with Kodar as Picasso, cloaked in shadow, and Welles as Grandpa Kodar, shown in a low shot implying lack of power. Picasso rages, but Kodar has destroyed the originals and given the world something beautiful just before his death: a new Picasso period. It’s an incredible story.

And it’s fake. Welles has given us a handful of clues that something fishy is coming near the end of the film. While most of the de Hory/Irving/Welles material is ostensibly true, Welles mixes in some fake material as well- namely, a fake newsreel called News on the March (from Citizen Kane) and a fake recording of Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. The fact that we’ve been watching re-enactments for the final twenty minutes ought to have tipped us off, but we’ve been promised an hour of the truth. It’s impossible for me to communicate the delight I felt at Welles’ delivery of this line: “That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I’ve been lying my head off”. Welles has faked yet another story, but it’s a damn good yarn, isn’t it? And isn’t art, as Welles opines, “a lie that makes us realize the truth?” In that regard, Welles did it better than anyone else. And with one last illusion- the disappearance of Kodar’s fake grandfather- Welles wishes us all, “true and false, a very pleasant good evening” before the blinds shut on Welles’ final masterpiece.

Or, at least, his final masterpiece until we finally see The Other Side of the Wind (please). I’d like to thank you all for reading. Welles might not have had the career he deserved, but he made more than his share of indelible works with the one he got. There’s not a dud in his filmography- even the one I didn’t care for (Macbeth) has a lot going for it. And now, some superlatives.

1.     Citizen Kane (100/A)
2.     Touch of Evil (98/A)
3.     The Magnificent Ambersons (98/A)
4.     Chimes at Midnight (96/A)
5.     F for Fake (96/A)
6.     The Trial (90/A-)
7.     Othello (89/A-)
8.     The Lady from Shanghai (86/A-)
9.     Mr. Arkadin (76/B+)
10. Filming Othello (66/B)
11. The Stranger (65/B)
12. The Immortal Story (60/B-)
13. Macbeth (53/C+)

Best Actor: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)
Runner-up: Orson Welles (Touch of Evil)

Best non-Welles Lead: Anthony Perkins (The Trial)
Runner-up: Tim Holt (The Magnificent Ambersons)

Best Actress: Janet Leigh (Touch of Evil)
Runner-up: Rita Hayworth (The Lady from Shanghai)

Best Supporting Actor: Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane)
Runner-up: Joseph Cotten (The Magnificent Ambersons)

Best Supporting Actress: Agnes Moorehead (The Magnificent Ambersons)
Runner-up: Marlene Dietrich (Touch of Evil)

Best Screenplay: Citizen Kane
Runner-up: The Magnificent Ambersons

Best Director: Citizen Kane
Runner-up: Touch of Evil

Best Scene: Rosebud revealed (Citizen Kane)
Runner-up: Time Bomb (Touch of Evil)

Thanks to everyone who was so patient with this edition of Director Spotlight- grad school really took up a lot of my free time. That’s why I’m starting the next one as soon as possible. I don’t know what my schedule is going to be like, so I’d like to make sure I start the Director Spotlight on Martin Scorsese before The Wolf of Wall Street hits theaters.
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