Tuesday, June 26, 2007

F For Fake - A Review

1 Men - 3 Tzec ( - Mayan date

There are probably a few other posts on OM about this film, but I've only just seen it for the first time this past week (well, twice - I watched it again a few days after the first viewing). It's long featured on R.A.W.'s favourite films lists over the years and I've been interested in checking it out for quite a while now. I'm not sure if it was out-of-print for awhile, but it's been re-issued (in the UK) by Eureka! this past February--so I added it to the Amazon rental list.

The film starts with it's "star", Orson Welles, performing conjuring tricks and announcing himself as a 'charlatan' in a train station. The setting then 'cuts' to a film studio and Welles announces that "for the next hour, we will be telling the truth with all of the available facts" Hmmmm...and those "facts" seem to be very bendy. The next sequence involves Oja Kodar (Welles' companion at the time) walking down a street in a (very early 70s) minidress, being ogled by several male onlookers, while Orson tells us that the men were secretly filmed watching her. In most of the shots of the men, Kodar is not actually seen and all you hear is the click-clack of her high heels--so I wasn't sure if the men were actually looking at her..or were just filmed looking at something not in the frame. That sort of ambiguity sets up the rest of the film.

The main bulk of "F For Fake" centres around Elmyr, the notorious art-forger and Clifford Irving, another notorious hoaxster, 'famous' for his autobiography of reclusive millionaire, Howard Hughes, which was shown to be fake (Irving went to prison for the cover-up). Welles shows the pair on Ibiza, living it up at parties attended by the beautiful people, the art crowd and the jet setters. Welles posits that two of the world's greatest living fakers were on the island together and weren't even aware of each other's presence - do you "believe" that? I'm not sure - but it led to Irving writing his book, Fake!, about De Hory. They also shared a connection in Edith Sommer, Irving's wife (who later posed as "Helga R. Hughes" and deposited the publishing advance for the Hughes bio into a Swiss bank account, which led to the unravelling of the hoax)--the waters get murkier. All of this is shown in a series of "jump-cuts", giving the scenes a 'swirly', disorienting feel--heightening the vagueness of the story line and the 'characters'.

A bit of background is given on Elmyr by Orson, while dining in a restaurant, surrounded by an entourage and with paintings on the walls by Jean Cocteau and others. Elmyr was born in Hungary and studied art in Paris, afterward struggling to make a living as an artist. He was interned in a concentration camp by the Nazis during WWII, and was one of the fortunate survivors. He made his way to the U.S. in the 50s and having already started his forging career, sold a mix of original works and forgeries, the fakes proving too lucrative to give up entirely. He left for Europe again (supposedly with the FBI on his trail) and eventually settled in Ibiza in the late 60s. It's also said that Elmyr never really made much money from his fakes. But "are" these the 'facts'? We're never quite sure.

Irving doesn't get as much background--only his supposed connection with Hughes--which Hughes denied, or at least claimed to deny, but that was only over a loudspeaker at an interview conducted by telephone--so was the "real" Howard Hughes' voice coming through the line, or a double (which he was rumoured to have in his service), as Irving claimed. Again, we just don't know for certain. Welles even chucks in the tabloid rumours about Hughes wearing tissue boxes as shoes and says "But I suppose if you can believe THAT..", in relation to Irving's claim that he had secured an actual interview with the extremely publicity-shy tycoon. Welles also features his own greatest hoax - the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds, which seemed so "real" to listeners that many fled their homes from the supposed 'Martian invasion'. Hughes gets another mention as a possible model for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, though I always thought Randolph Hearst was "Kane". Maybe both were melded into the character of Charles?

Orson then soliloques against a backdrop of the Chartres Cathedral, possibly about the "meaning" of art and the triumph of humankind's expression in a "disposable universe" (according to 'the scientists', says Welles). I found it quite a poignant moment, amidst of all of the trickery and fun-house mirrors--it ends with this: "'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced - but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

In the final act - Kodar reappears as the lead in a story about Pablo Picasso and a Scandinavian jazz trombonist. It seems ol' Pablo was watching Kodar walk by his villa every day (there's a clever use of photos and cut-outs of Pablo sulking behind venetian blinds in this bit), becomes enamored and invites her in one day. They become lovers and he has a sudden burst of creativity--painting 22 large canvasses over a summer. Oja puts a price on her companionship and demands Picasso give her the paintings...all of them. He agrees to this and hands them over. She takes them to Paris and sets up an exhibition. Picasso hears about this and wings it to the City Of Light--arrives at the gallery and lays into Kodar something fierce. He then realizes that the paintings being displayed aren't the ones he painted. He confronts Kodar, who takes him to see her grand-father, a famous Hungarian art-forger. They battle over whether the paintings "are" Picasso's, even though he didn't paint them--with neither convincing the other that he "is" correct. In the end, Picasso demands his original paintings back and he is told that the art-forger has "burned them"--and Picasso relents to the pleas of the forger that he give the forger "a whole Picasso period". Sounds good? Orson steps in at the end to let the viewer know that the "hour of truth" had finished 17 minutes previously and that the whole Picasso/Kodar affair was a fake--but never lets on that the hour before that may have been a fake as well.

I enjoyed "F For Fake", though there may have been a subconcious desire to like the same films as one of my heroes--but I think it was much more than that. I liked the Escher-esque quality of a fake-within-a-fake (a "mockumentary" within the medium of film), which may have been one of the first of it's kind. Is it one of the best films you'll ever see? I suspect not..and yet it's very good at what it attempts. Welles shows you the illusion right up close and then whisks it away--or trades one illusion for another. He tries to break you out of one trance (the medium of film) and steers you into another (Elmyr and Irving's stories) and it seems masterfully done to me. I'm not sure how older prints of the film looked, but the new print looks pretty crisp to me--definitely worth a look. It's pretty, but is it art?


Bogus Magus said...

Excellent summary, PG!

It almost deserves a spoiler warning – but the change from words to images means I think someone could still enjoy the film after reading this – in fact, your background research might help follow the rather ambiguous set of characters.

I hadn’t thought of it as a mockumentary, as the genre didn’t exist back then, but I think you got it right. Of course, on television they often offer timid disclaimers “actors were used in this sequence” “simulated action” etc – which negates the guerrilla ontology of the deadpan put-on (like Spinal Tap for instance).

And, yes, it has proved very hard to find for some years. A rather imperfect print was available in Japan, but I got my copy from French Amazon – where my copy carried the title Vérités et Mensonges (Truths and Lies)


Bogus Magus said...

PS: actually, although F For Fake has come up in the general MLA forums, this is our first reference (that I am aware of) on OM.

As well as the Imperfect Index, you can also use the Blogger site search (top left of frame). If you put the word 'Fake' in (for instance) you may find some interesting posts from before, on related themes (I use this trick to randomly sample our output, when browsing).

The Purple Gooroo said...

Thanks, Bogus - D'oh, perhaps you're right - I probably should've included a spoiler warning..hadn't thought of that. I think I left enough out, though, where someone could still enjoy it through their own "filter".

Ha Ha Ha - I ws thinking of "Spinal Tap" when I typed "mockumentary" - as the "Tap" stills stands as one the best, to me anyway.

Thanks for the tip about the "Imperfect index" - I shall use it :-)

Yeah - I wasn't sure if "F For Fake" had been out of print for some time. I do remember checking Amazon a couple of years ago and finding it not available. I'm going to buy a copy of the new re-issue before *that* goes o.o.p.


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