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An essay for the committed.
on 24 November 2000
This little curio was one of the last completed projects Orson Welles worked on, and it marks the stage in his career where everything had caved in on itself. Money was not forthcoming from the studios and the big fellow's output was finally being strangled by red tape.
Welles's response to this indignity was to embrace it as if it was intentional. "I am a great faker," he would proclaim, "half of what I tell you will be lies." So it is that this film is stanced. It presents a pseudo-documentary about art fakery, claiming that many of the great galleries have been fooled by counterfeit works of art.
It is, should you decide to immerse yourself in its Vegas-busy intercutting, as unsettling as a first encounter with (sorry to bring it up) "Citizen Kane" -- how much of it is true? Is this based on a true story?
Of course "Kane" is not. But "F for Fake" may be. The film isn't going to tell you of course. The film is a trick. Welles isn't going to let you into the magic circle.
So we don't know if the art faker named Elmir ever existed, if this is an expose of something Welles learnt during his jaunts around Europe.
Ten years later Welles proclaimed he thought he was making an entirely new kind of film, and was very surprised at its failure. Of course he may be lying, but if you choose to entertain his thoughts, his statement has a whiff of truth.
The movie shows all the hallmarks of the meta-art that was going on at the time -- the restless forces that created Monty Python and The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin. These are possibly good touchstones to bear in mind when watching "F for Fake". Indeed, Welles worked with English comedian Tim Brooke-Taylor around this time, and gathered much of his footage for the film from the BBC.
Welles himself appears in the movie, as himself, interviewing himself, and interviewing his companion of the time Oja Kodar. This relationship brings "F for Fake" one of its most interesting dynamics: It presents itself as a sort of John and Yoko effort. The genius rolling out one more masterpiece under the encouragement of the young woman. They make an odd couple -- the exceptionally stunning Kodar and the big old charlatan Welles -- but at least their partnership suggests that Orson's life, if not his art, ended with a modicum of happiness.
It's a toughie, this, but not without its merits.