Criterion Project #33: F FOR FAKE (1973)

F for Fake

Spine #288

Year: 1973

Director: Orson Welles

As a movie lover who finds enrichment not only in exploring the theoretical aspects of the art form, but also the formal elements of film and Orson Welles, I found this to be quite a treat. This might sound like cliché, but time really does work wonders for comprehension. It had been some years since I watched F for Fake and I didn’t remember much of the subject, only that it dealt with forgery within the art world, which is a medium I know almost nothing about. What I had forgotten, or never realized, were the structural components that complement the narrative.

Welles introduces himself as a self-professed charlatan, and is uniquely positioned as narrator and purveyor of this free form documentary regarding trickery. The film opens with some sleight-of-hand magic from Mr. Welles, himself, as he introduces the concept of illusion. The concept will be explored throughout the entirety of the film, first in a crude exhibition, and then followed by a very sophisticated game of fakes and forgery.

He begins with a mundane example of trickery as we see several brief clips of various gawkers nearly giving themselves whiplash at the sight of Oja Kodar, who plays herself. Scene after scene we see her model-esque strut drawing the attention of dozens of men on the busy metropolitan street. She’ll prove to be an essential cog in the last portion of the film as well, but here Welles is showcasing a particular kind of illusion with which he is most familiar – cinematic trickery.

The scene displays dozens of cuts between Oja and the multitude of men vying to catch a glimpse of her sensual stride. This, of course, is not an uncommon scene, and Welles is trying to convey the ease with which a beautiful woman can draw your focus and attention away from what he’s doing – not unlike a magician. The real trickery is pure cinema. None of the shots of the ogling men occur with Oja in the frame. The majority of them are brief clips of the gullible men craning around to get a peek, with a few shots of Oja sprinkled in here and there to appear to be the object of their gaze. But, who’s to say these moments all occurred in the same time or the same place? Thus, the illusion of cinema.

Without explicitly saying so, Welles is pulling the oldest trick in the book. The syntax would have us think that each shot is related to the main image, that of a beautiful woman walking down the street in a tight outfit. He claims the men’s reactions were caught on camera as part of an elaborate set-up to record this very phenomena. But, how do we know if these actions occurring in real-time? We don’t. This form of trickery is so common we don’t even think about it. Film language is second-nature at this point.

From there Welles shifts the focus to the main subject, which centers on two men on the island of Ibiza who are inextricably connected through forgery. The first man, Elmyr de Hory, is a Hungarian-born painter whose career as a failed artist led him down the path of infamy. Unable to sell his own paintings, he tried his hand at recreating a Picasso, which was emulated so well it fooled the art experts. As such, his “career” as a forger was born. Elmyr is frequently shown explaining the nuances of the painters he’s plagiarized – from Picasso, to Matisse, and Modigliani – showcasing his knowledge while also scoffing at their skill and the ease with which he is able to reproduce their works. He’s very pleased with himself when he states (exaggerates?) that not one art expert has ever doubted the authenticity of one of his forgeries. He is not without an ego.

But he also seems to be having fun with his talent. We see brief glimpses of Elmyr showcasing his ability, which is frequently followed by him tossing the painting in the fire. This is possibly for self-preservation, showmanship (the camera makes people act in very particular ways), or mockery. It’s like saying to the greats, “There’s nothing exceptional about your work. I’ll copy it with ease and then burn it”. Welles also makes a point of showing Elmyr as a failure – someone without a cent of his own money who lives in a lavish villa he doesn’t even own. So, what is his big illusion?

The second part of Elmyr’s story involves Clifford Irving, an American writer who became friends with Elmyr and eventually wrote his biography, aptly titled Fake! (1969). Irving’s novel brought widespread infamy to Elmyr’s work but never resulted in any legal actions. Elmyr skirted the legality of the issue by claiming he never signed any of his forgeries, and without so much as a witness to his work it was impossible to prosecute. Irving and Elmyr seem to take the greatest pleasure in gloating over the so-called art experts, frequently calling into question the skill and need for these experts. If they’re the gatekeepers determining the value and authenticity of fine art and they are fooled by Elmyr’s forgeries, then what value could they possibly hold?

Is Welles asking a similar question of all arts? He doesn’t reflect this notion in any filmic way, but it certainly calls into question the need for arbiters of value in any artistic medium. He’ll bring the conversation around to his own career a little later on, in which he was nearly jailed for his notoriously realistic radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”. He undoubtedly comes off as a self-aware trickster who pulled every illusion he could to break into the entertainment industry after his own painting career never fabricated. I think it’s safe to say his illusions have produced art of high value, but it all started with an elaborate hoax.

Getting back to the main story, Welles moves the spotlight to Irving’s more infamous endeavor involving the notably reclusive behemoth, Howard Hughes. Irving claims to have been granted access to Hughes after being impressed by Fake! in his later years while in seclusion at a hotel. The film plays a voice recording Irving purported to be that of Hughes talking about Irving and his desire to write his biography. Welles goes through the lengths with which Hughes had gone to remain isolated from everyone, including those running his empire. So, how did this writer come to be granted unprecedented access?

This would eventually be revealed as a convoluted sham after Hughes sued, prompting Irving to take it one step farther by writing a book about how the hoax was staged. The irony of someone writing a novel on perhaps the world’s foremost art forger and then formulating his own illusion is not lost on our humble narrator.

And I think Welles is partially commenting on the ramifications of these illusions. To this day, Elmry’s paintings are seemingly hanging in posh galleries and museums, or part of curated collections, without so much as a second-thought about their authenticity. Once an “expert” has deemed the painting authentic, it becomes a piece of art history. Elmyr asks, if incorrectly assigning a power to a fake can generate this level of value, then what’s the harm? To the people who own it or the patrons who pay to see it it’s real. So what does its value actually mean if it is arbitrarily assigned by someone who can’t tell the difference between Elmyr’s painting and Picasso’s?

The film’s final segment involves Picasso and Oja, whom the film claims Picasso was enamored with while vacationing in the same village. Welles details a yarn about Picasso creating 22 paintings of the striking woman as his model, but instead of keeping or selling the works Oja keeps them as part of the agreement for posing. Later Picasso hears of a new exhibit of 22 paintings of his and a new phase of his career being born as a result. Enraged, Picasso travels to the exhibit and discovers every one of them is a forgery. Still fuming, Oja escorts Picasso to her grandfather, who is the artist behind the fakes and a great admirer of Picasso’s. Welles and Oja re-enact the scenes between the two men, with Picasso continuing his anger and demanding his painting be returned to him.

The final smirk at the camera occurs as this segment concludes and Welles reveals this story was fabricated. At the beginning of the film he promised the audience he would tell the truth “for the next hour”, and as such he discloses that the hour had already passed prior to this section of the film. Charlatan, indeed.

In the end, it makes for a really fun exploration of, essentially, magic tricks. Each of the participants managed to pull a rabbit out a hat, whether it’s a painting, a book, a story, or a short film about a girl walking down the street. As many of the best films do, it probes the meaning behind these actions at a theoretical level. Does a forgery still hold value if the experts deem it so?

The one question you might be left asking is, why go through the dangerous hassle of fooling the art world, or publications, or film/radio? Is it a thrill to pull it off? Where’s the value to the creator? Again, the film asks all the questions and presents enough information to support those queries without providing any semblance of an answer. It’s a film that can be digested and pondered over for days, and it might only lead to more questions. I’m not even sure this write-up is doing it justice, but sometimes asking the question is enough to give you a running start. I’ll have to think on F for Fake some more. And I’ll enjoy every second of it.

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