Monday, February 11, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #211 - F For Fake (1973, dir. Orson Welles)

Let’s just get this out of the way: Orson Welles was a genius. Settled? Cool.
Alright, maybe you need some more convincing. Maybe you’re not utterly compelled by his work directing, writing, and starring in the likes of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, or even the recently released, long-gestated The Other Side of the Wind. Maybe you need something headier, more philosophical, more experimental. If that’s the case, then I’ve got the perfect film for you: 1973’s essential meditation on art, hubris, and mortality, F For Fake.
You probably have some questions about F For Fake. Namely, what kind of movie is it? That’s a great question! I don’t know the answer. Here at Twist & Shout, we categorize it as a documentary. But it’s also a narrative film, with entire sections fabricated by Welles, and it also functions as an autobiography, an insight into our aging, tired, embittered auteur. (This was, after all, the last film Welles completed before he died, making it hard not to consider it a manifesto.) Most of all though, this is a metatext, a film about filmmaking. Art about art. Cinema about trickery.
Ostensibly, F For Fake is a documentary about the infamous fake artist, Elmyr de Hory, whose forgeries of Picasso, Matisse, and Renoir all landed spots in high-end galleries across the world. But Welles isn’t vindictive toward Elmyr, instead treating his subject with a certain reverie; to Welles, Elmyr represents a fundamental question for the art world - is a forger still an artist? Welles extends that question to Clifford Irving, a biographer that covered Elmyr’s story... who also, it turns out, forged Howard Hughes’s autobiography.
Amid these philosophical questions, Welles gives details of his own experience as an artist; there’s a soft, lyrical sequence in the film that finds our guide reflecting on his youth as an actor in Europe, a position Welles himself conned his way into: “I started at the top, myself,” he tells us, before adding the poignant, soft-spoken joke, “I’ve been working myself down ever since.” Welles - who I called a genius mere minutes ago - contextualizes himself as a fake, too!
But F For Fake highlights Welles as an artist at the height of his creative powers. The documentary footage is shot with all the depth and focus of his narrative films, and the editing of the film somehow manages to juggle all these various narratives with the deft ease of a skilled street magician. Or maybe he’s a pickpocket. A mime? Who’s to say? Throughout the film, you get the feeling that you’re being played, conned, tricked. And you are - but maybe you always have been, Welles suggests, in any movie you’ve ever watched.
            In case you couldn’t tell, it’s hard to talk about the fine details in F For Fake. This is a film that deals in the very abstractions that Picasso’s - or is it Elmyr’s? - work tackles. In case you also couldn’t tell, F For Fake is one of my favorite movies ever made. I’m astounded, consistently, by this film and all of its intricacies and depths and nuances; stunningly shot, Welles’s careful camera placements and focuses simultaneously reinforce and undermine thematic concerns of authorship and authenticity. These broad themes somehow still feel personal and introspective; sitting from the editing bay, Welles muses directly to us, making the showy editing feel like Welles’s own stream-of-consciousness. Watching F For Fake feels like you’re falling down the rabbit hole; at the end, you’re in Welles’s own wonderland.
I cannot understate how much F For Fake fundamentally reshaped how I consume film, art, music, and pop culture. Welles is a charlatan, a trickster, an artist; he’s the very essence of cool in this film. So, let’s reiterate: Orson Welles was a genius. Settled? Cool.
-         Harry Todd

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