14 March 2009
I didn't quite know what to expect from an Orson Welles film in the documentary form. Perhaps those saying the same thing in 1975 were on Welles's mind when he made F for Fake, a film that not only refuses any identification with anything "Wellesian" but refuses any comfort of familiarity within the documentary form. It is not really a pure documentary (whatever that is), but a hybrid of nonfiction and fiction that reveals truths not through facts, as with other documentaries, but through lies. "No, not a documentary—a new kind of film," said Welles to Jonathan Rosenbaum when the latter was trying to understand Welles's new project.
The film begins with Welles in a fantastic cape and hat combo, addressing himself as a charlatan after performing magic tricks for a small child. This is Welles number one. We see the second Welles within the documentary, interacting and mingling with Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, the two central fakers in the film. (Elmyr is an infamous art forger while Irving is an author made famous for a book he published in which he claims to have interviewed the reclusive Howard Hughes, later confessing it was a hoax -- remember that Richard Gere film that came out recently?) The third Welles is the editor and Voice of God narrator who is shown in the editing room, controlling the footage of the other two Welleses and the rest of the film through his Moviola. These three manifestations of Welles provide different functions throughout the film, all of them fakers, liars, and charlatans in one way or the other -- whether explicitly in charlatan garb, as a performer, or as omniscient director/editor/filmmaker.
Though Welles does address some "facts" about himself, Elmyr, and Irving within the film, the fact that they are all massive liars (by nature, by trade) undercuts any authority the film could possess in its reporting. And that's exactly the point. Welles is insistent on absolutely breaking down the concept of "expertise" or "authority," which he primarily does by questioning those that make the decisions as to what constitutes art. The most potent examples being that art experts consistently fail to distinguish an original painting by Modigliani or Matisse from one of Elmyr's copies. Welles's own exploration of this idea is undercut by his presentation of it through the documentary film, an authoritative art form in itself; he wants us to not only question concepts such as expertise because of the film, but question the film itself. He makes this incredibly clear when he fabricates a fantastic lie about Picasso and later admits it was made up, which forces us to think how much of the rest of the film was a lie.
Okay, so maybe the idea that truth is relative is nothing revolutionary. But I've never watched a film or read any piece of writing that had me so completely absorbed and profoundly affected by its meditation on the nature of truth. Not only is truth relative, but truth is a lie. Art is a lie. Even so, these lies offer us some sort of truth that transcend fact or logic -- as Picasso said: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." And what else do we have but a bunch of untruths by which we guide our lives, seeking meaning from one illusion to the next. I am no longer a religious person, but my non-religiousness is perhaps just as much a lie. This whole exposition is nothing but a hoax to cover up my fear of the unknown anyway -- and perhaps that's why I am so drawn to films and these plastic arts which make plain their illusion so that a greater level of meaning can be derived. Anyway, I am not a philosopher so I will stop before my thought process becomes so obviously flawed (well, that's the point isn't it?) that I will read back on this and become embarassed. It's just one of those times in my life and I suppose this film came at the right time -- or the wrong time, I haven't quite made it out yet.
And Welles could probably have me follow whatever illusion he wants. He is so magnetically interesting and such a great performer that I am drawn like some mindless disciple to a golden calf (or maybe overweight bull in this case). Here is an oft-quoted video of Welles meditating on man's transcience and the overwhelming thought of life and death: