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F for Fake (#085)

“100 Films for 100 Rainy Days”



Directed by: Orson Welles » Written by: Orson Welles, 1974 » Region/Time: France, Iran, W Germany, documentary/wtf, 85 minutes.

Starring: Orson Welles as Himself » Oja Kodar as The Girl » Elmyr de Hory as Himself » Clifford Irving as Himself » François Reichenbach as Himself.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, about fraud, about lies. Tell it by the fireside, in a marketplace or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie.” – Orson Welles

We all have one friend in our social group who is The Storyteller. At social functions The Storyteller will regale the audience with a tale slowly and tantalizingly spun out. Frequently, it doesn’t bear much relation to how or what actually happened, but you’ll be damned if it doesn’t seem to be funnier, sadder or more affecting than reality. In fact, now that you think about it, you were there when that story was actually happening, but The Storyteller’s version will forever replace those events in your mind.

Well, Orson Welles is the King of all Storytellers and F for Fake is essentially an opportunity to sit at the dinner table with him as he playfully tells the story of two or three great frauds and fakers. The movie began as a documentary about the painter, Elmyr de Hory. Elmyr was an art forger and claimed to have sold thousands of forgeries throughout the art world, including works of Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. In the course of the film, he paints a Matisse, a Modigliani and a Picasso. All the while, he claims that he does not paint forgeries and certainly never signs the name of the artist to the forged paintings (if they existed). Orson Welles claims that Elmyr is a great actor. The second subject of the movie is one of the main talking heads, Clifford Irving, who had recently completed a biography on Elmyr. He speaks eloquently on the matter of art “experts” and how they were actually unable to tell a real Modigliani apart from an Elmyr Modigliani. If a fake is so good that it is indistinguishable from the real work, is it art? What is art? F for Fake raises these questions, but leaves the answer up to the viewer.

A further twist to the movie occurs when it is revealed that, subsequent to filming scenes about Elmyr, Clifford Irving went on to create one of the 20th Century’s great hoaxes, Howard Hughes’ autobiography. Hughes, the notorious playboy and entrepreneur, retreated into madness and seclusion in the 1960s and is the subject of Scorsese’s The Aviator. Clifford Irving took advantage of this and forged a manuscript in Hughes’ handwriting, claiming it was the notes for an autobiography Irving was to complete. He received an advance of $750 000 from the publishers that was deposited by his mistress in a Swiss bank account. Eventually, Hughes spoke via radio relay at a press conference and debunked the autobiography as a complete falsehood.

It is here that Orson Welles pulls himself into the mix. The original outline of Citizen Kane, says Welles and Joseph Cotton, was based upon the life of Howard Hughes. Welles eventually settled on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Welles also ties in his own great hoax, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in the 1930s that allegedly sent several Virginians into panicked flight as a result of the supposed alien invasion.

F for Fake was Orson Welles’ last commercially released movie, and his first for almost ten years. Except for his first foray into cinema, it was always a struggle for him to get a movie completed and released without studio interference. He left behind a number of partially completely films, some of which may still one day see the light of day, if legal difficulties can be sorted through. His costar in this movie, Oja Kodar, was his mistress for the last ten or fifteen years of his life, and does not see eye-to-eye with his family from previous marriages.

After the movie was released, Elmyr de Hory made several attempts to stop making forgeries and create original artwork, but they consistently failed and he always returned to the lucrative forgery trade. Following his death by suicide, his paintings are now valuable collectibles. In perhaps the most appropriately ironic twist to this movie, his paintings have become so popular that forged de Horys have begun to appear on the market.

I leave you with a quote from Orson Welles from the film discussing the great Cathedral of Chartres in France:

“This has been standing here for centuries. The premiere work of man in the whole Western world and it is without signature. Chartres: celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of Man. But all that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is Man – naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. You know, it might be just this one, anonymous glory, of all things—this rich stone forest, this epic chapt, this gaity, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation—which we choose when all our cities are dust to stand intact, to mark where we’ve been, to testify to what we had in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘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.”

Up Next in the Film Canon: MTV is born!

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