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F for Fake
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Bedazzled rephrases a timeless joke: After totally flummoxing a poor sap named Stanley Moon (Moore) the Devil (Cook) raises his hand and says: "I confess, Stanley. Everything I've ever told you has been a complete lie, including this."
That's basically Orson Welles' trick in his final completed film F for Fake, a fuzzy essay masquerading in the form of a documentary. Welles loved magic and considered the movies the best conduit for mischievous game-playing; whenever he was left to his own devices he turned to magic acts, whether entertaining troops during WW2 or appearing on the Dinah Shore show as a slightly inebriated guest. He probably suggested the completely superfluous magic act he performs in Casino Royale as a way to avoid boredom. 1
F for Fake is a bogus documentary on con-men and high-stakes fraud, supposedly about art forger Elmyr de Hory and literary faker Clifford Irving (he's the one who came up with a fraudulent Howard Hughes memoir). Both of these men create a mystique around their falsehoods and use their considerable charm to keep their confidence scams aloft, much as Orson uses a trick to keep a levitating body aloft, until he whips off the sheet that covers it. 2 Orson winks, makes jokes, affects an intimidating intellectual air and talks around his subject to misdirect the viewer. There's hardly an honest phrase in the whole show ... the filmic basis of which is "borrowed" interview footage from a straight docu on the forger de Horys.
Some find Welles utterly wonderful in this Chandu the Magician role, galumping about in a cape and felt hat, his eyes slyly darting here and there. Every gag he's ever learned is here, including an endless battery of sophisticated editorial tricks - the rapid-fire cutting, associative cuts and visual slight of hand are worth studying on their own.
Admirers will point to Welles' self-mocking "honesty" in the restaurant scene: He apparently orders the house steak soon after being served an enormous boiled lobster. Detractors will see him avoiding the basic issues in con-games (fraud, crime, hubris, real victims) by spinning the discussion off onto tangents. According to Welles, the shenanigans of de Horys and Irving are justified by the foolish critics that can't tell the difference between originals and fakes. Welles, a bona-fide brilliant filmmaker, seeks our sympathy by constantly referring to himself as just another con-man. He's only that in the context of this movie - unless one wants to be perverse and insist that all films are con-jobs.
Welles is said to have invented his dialogue reference in The Third Man, the one about peace and war and the Renaissance and cuckoo clocks. He used it to jump the Harry Lime character up to a higher (Wellesian) level of sophistication. In F for Fake, Welles caps his wild stack of arguments with a topper about the cathedral of Chartres, a cultural wonder designed and built by artists unknown. It's a tremendous achievement in spite of being unsigned; by some twisted logic Welles uses its example to validate the achievements of anonymous forgers. Of course, Welles insists that he doesn't believe any of his own assertions, and that F for Fake is only a jest. That leads us back to the Bedazzled riddle. Welles trots out a variation on it to excuse seventeen minutes of what he calls "bald-faced lying."(spoiler)
F for Fake is a wickedly rich puzzle and a great source of discussion sure to start arguments among the nicest film fans. The older 16mm material is augmented by Welles' new 35mm scenes, making use of ample footage of Oja Kodar, as an actress, object of voyeurism and writing participant. The section where she and Welles go over the meeting of Pablo Picasso and her grandfather, an art forger, comes after the 60-minute honesty limit established by Welles early on. 3 Other credited "special participants" - interview subjects, patsies, co-conspirators - include Joseph Cotten, Richard Wilson, Laurence Harvey and Nina Van Pallandt. Just so we know for sure we'll never move in the same crowd Orson does!
Criterion's DVD of F for Fake is a fine enhanced and digitally buffed transfer that looks better than the print I saw at Filmex almost thirty years ago. The extras are as thorough as one could imagine; the first disc of the two disc set has a complete commentary by Gary Graver and Oja Kodar, an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and the bizarre 9 minute trailer, the one the distributor would not finish. Disc two has a Norwegian docu on Elmyr de Hory, a 60 Minutes segment about Clifford Irving, audio excerpts of Howard Hughes' response to Irving's claims, and a fascinating feature-length docu about Welles' later years that includes clips from unfinished films like The Deep and Moby Dick. The insert essay is provided by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, F for Fake rates:
Supplements: Introduction by director Peter Bogdanovich; commentary featuring director of photography Gary Graver; Orson Welles: One-Man Band (1988), an hour-long investigation of Welles's unfinished projects; Almost True, a 1992 Norwegian Film Institute documentary on art forger Elmyr de Hory; 10-minute; essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
Packaging: 2 discs in wide Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2005
1. I remember seeing his appearance, and noting his embarrassment when of his card tricks didn't work.
2. There's a discreet cut in Casino Royale masking an identical 'levitation act'; through the miracle of DVD, in F for Fake one can see the wire form revealed as Orson pulls the sheet from the "body." Notice the background greenery 'dimple' below where the cage was - a matte has been used to cover the wire form falling, but the suspending filaments still remain. Modern CGI could easily erase all traces of prestidigitation ... rendering the shot as fraudulent as the average new movie. Orson understood the power of special effects, and uses scenes from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers to illustrate his personal best con-job, the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast.
3. I should try that sometime: Claim in a review that I'm offering ten paragraphs of utter truth. When the review goes longer than ten paragraphs, I'll be free to make up whatever malarkey I feel like! Then I can be upset and confused when readers no longer trust me. (Just kidding, Orson's playing to an audience that wants to be fooled)