E for Essay, Editing, and Exceptional
A Film Review of F for Fake (1974) by Christopher Wostenberg
So far in my reviews, I have looked at narrative fiction films, which is only the surface of all possible films. Films can be pure art, being on display in museums via monitors exhibiting them on loop – the purpose being to elicit an emotion/feeling from the viewer or promote a discussion by the images on display. Within this realm, they might be experimental to depict new techniques, expressions, and conventions of the medium. Overall, the major separation is that art films are not considered as commercial endeavors. The line between the commercial and pure aesthetic art films is blurry, especially since the raise of independent commercial films and the influx of foreign films leading to the art house movement of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While some of the films I have covered falled within this middle ground, for this review I am going to discuss one that is definitely on the more non-commercial art side of the spectrum. And that is F for Fake (1974) which is considered a film essay directed, written, and narrated by Orson Welles.
F for Fake starts by looking at the professional art forger Elmyr de Hory, who had gained notoriety in the late 1960s after being arrested. From there, the focus shifts into de Hory’s infamous biographer, Clifford Irving, who faked an autobiography himself of tycoon Howard Hughs. Going forward, the film explores the concepts of fakery, authorship, authenticity, art, and experts. It weaves in Orson Welles’ own past exploits as they relate to topics along with others involved in the production. The film is edited with material shot by François Reichenbach for his documentary on de Hory along with new material shot by Orson Welles in collaboration with Reichenbach.
I debate the notation that F for Fake is a true film essay. Instead, it is in a category all on its own. While the film tells many stories about the different people, the driving force is not the narrative, but rather the concepts revolving around fakery. This has definitely become a more relevant topic every year with the raise of the internet and social media. The film asks many thought-provoking questions such as:
1) What is art and who decides what it is worth?
2) Who is to blame for the forgeries, artists, art dealers, or the art market?
3) What is the role of experts?
None of the questions are really answered, as the audience is instead left to ponder on them based on the different stories told. Therefore, it is classified as an essay over a more traditional documentary by going beyond simply providing information on a real subject. As part of the film essay format, Orson Welles’ narration and direction is blended with other voices such as Irving’s, Reichenbach’s, and de Hory’s in a manner similar to that of written essays.
Unlike an essay, the film is self-referential from the beginning as it addresses the perceived elephant in the room, “How can we trust a movie about fakery?” The opening shot is of a magic trick done by Welles, leading to the whole idea that everything is an illusion. Next, it is stated verbally and in writing that everything for the next hour will be based on solid facts. But do we believe any of this as the people talking are known to lie and invent their own conceptions of the truth? Even Welles admits in the film of his own treachery in the past and how his entire career is based on him lying about being an actor. An essay would not take efforts to discredit itself, thus making it worthless, but that is the nature of the film and subject matter which is displayed throughout the whole film.
To me, the true greatness of the movie comes from the experimentation in editing. As the point of the film is to weave together different stories and ideas through telling a clear narrative, the editing had to be different. It took Welles over a year to edit the film, as he was working seven days a week. The challenge was taking different film stock, along with audio, to combine into a coherent piece. When looking at the various shots throughout the film, you can tell that the quality is not all the same. There is 16 mm film from the original Reichenbach documentary combined with the more common 35 mm stock of the day. On top of that, the audio does not always align with the visuals. Audio from a shot is carried after the visual is frozen or a new visual has started. A person will be talking from one scene, which will then overlap into a different scene that is from an entirely different film source – a technical feat not readily duplicated for decades.
Part of the technical editing challenges were due to the story evolving as it was being created. The Irving storyline was breaking news by the time Welles got a hold of Reichenbach’s documentary on de Hory. New pieces were shot to incorporate the evolving nature of the themes being presented. For example, part of the film takes place in Welles’ personal editing room, where bits of the film are being reviewed. Instead of feeling improvised, the film in fact seems highly planned. The shots of Welles narrating and walking around different sites are beautifully framed and edited to be seamless. For example, there is a shot of him on the street walking to a restaurant where his image is reflected in the glass windows. Another shot has him sitting on a park bench from behind with seamless cuts incorporated to depict changing seasons. This is, all and all, an exceptional mastery of knowing what material was available in order to edit it together, much a like a magician performing a slight of hand trick.
Welles narration in the art gallery filmed through curved glass to duplicate his image and distort the image. Retrieved from F for Fake (Welles, O., 1974, Specialty Films), scene at 0:36:31
Favorite Scene: As the film is not like others, it is hard to pick a favorite scene. Instead of picking a scene that highlights the film’s themes, I am going to go with one that is visually appealing from an artistic point of view. I have already mentioned the use of store windows to reflect images of Welles as he walks, which is reminiscent of his hall of mirror finale from The Lady from Shanghai (1947), which is a beautiful shot. In a similar vein, I like the aesthetic of the curved glass that reflects Welles while he is in the art gallery. The curved nature of the glass gives us two images of Welles, suggesting his duplicity. At the same time, it mimics the camera lens, emphasizing the concept that we are watching a movie. As the audience, we are behind the lens, giving us the sense that we are creating the art that is on display in the shot. Finally, as it takes place in an art gallery that is distorted by the curved lens, it reflects on the how art can be distorted by what others say about it. Outside the multiple interpretations, it is a great static shot that could be put on display in any gallery as a photograph, which cannot be said of many snapshots of other great scenes in movies.
As F for Fake is not your typical popcorn fare, I caution you to watch when you have 90 minutes of uninterrupted time to watch it in a receptive mood. Allow the film to take you on its journey with its own pacing and logic. If you are not in the right mindset, the film will be challenging to watch. With that said, it is worth watching to see a different side of film. Also, do not be afraid if you do not know who any of the people are; other than Welles and Hughes, I had not heard of any of the other people talked about in the film when I first watched it. In closing, here is Lester Siegel’s (Alan Arkin) line from Argo (2012).
“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit.”