By the ’70s, faded auteur Orson Welles seemed to embrace the vagabond quality of his career, throwing together haphazard film projects while making his primary income through demeaning acting jobs, cartoon voiceovers, and commercials. For instance, while appearing onscreen as the host/narrator of his documentary F for Fake, Welles explains that some of the footage comprising the brief movie was originally intended for other, never-completed projects. This revelation warns viewers that coherence should not be expected, and, indeed, F for Fake is completely scattershot.
The movie is ostensibly an examination of pranksters that focuses on Welles’ European acquaintance Elmyr de Hory, an art forger, and Elmyr’s American-born biographer, Clifford Irving—who, in the course of this documentary’s protracted production, earned notoriety by publishing a biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes that turned out to be bogus. For the first hour of F for Fake, Welles and his editors jump around restlessly between interviews with Elmyr and Irving; footage of Elmyr painting; vignettes of Welles talking about Elmyr and Irving while Welles holds court at cocktail parties; scenes of Welles reviewing footage in an editing room; and other random bits, like cameos from Welles’ Hollywood pals Joseph Cotten and Laurence Harvey. Oh, and there’s also room in the movie’s undisciplined first hour for remarks about Welles’ notorious 1939 radio broadcast War of the Worlds, itself a famous example of fakery.
After the Elmyr-Irving bit runs its course, Welles transitions to a lengthy dramatization of an encounter between European beauty Oja Kodar and legendary Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. (Welles’ filmmaking is particularly ingenious during this sequence, because he simulates Picasso’s presence through the use of still photographs and clever editing.) F for Fake is filled with fascinating ideas and inventive execution, but it’s maddeningly unfocused. The film never lands on solid narrative ground, and Welles often resorts to gimmicky motifs like recurring cutaways to spilled wine.
As a result, it’s difficult to grasp just what Welles is trying to say here. Although he announces at the beginning of the film that F for Fake will be an examination of prevarication, it actually ends up being a celebration of elaborate lies by a man who relishes his own ability to twist the truth. F for Fake is highly watchable, but it also provides a sad reminder of the great work Welles could have been doing at this time of his life, instead of assembling unsatisfying pastiches like this one.
F for Fake: FUNKY