F for Fake - 1975

Orson Welles' sleight of hand

Orson Welles F for Fake

F for Fake - 1975

"A film about fakers and so-called experts."

Orson Welles called his F for Fake a "new kind of movie" and "about trickery." Film books on the late director (who for this film is also actor, narrator, producer and writer) have categorized it as a documentary, or as a "film essay." None of these terms really sum up what's organized onto the screen.

There is a documentary inside of F for Fake, and there is an essay, too, on art and authorship juxtaposed to fame and anonymity. But, Welles doesn't leave these straight-forward formats alone, but adds more. For example, he inserts footage from other films to advance his ruminations on various related subjects, and pretty soon F for Fake is packed like a buffet table, despite the relatively slender 88 minute run time.

More than just Welles' ruminations, F for Fake looks to be organized around the format of a magician performing a magic trick (Criterion calls it a "prank" on the disc case packaging) using film editing and Welles as a narrator who is sometimes on screen, and sometime only a voice, acting as our guide through it all, revealing some things and leaving other issues alone.

Welles is plain on the analogy of magic to movie-making when he performs a trick immediately as the film starts, turning a key in a boys pocket into a coin. This might be a symbol of what F for Fake is, a performance leading to a hoped for box-office return. As Welles takes the transmuted key that became a coin and turns it into a whole handful of additional coins, he tells the boy these are his, but with another hand motion, Welles makes all of the boy's promised money disappear completely. I suspect this may have been an intended parable of independent movie making (F for Fake did not do well in the original release.)

Besides a magic trick, F for Fake also appears to be a sort of Russian nesting doll (or more literally, a stack of film cans, something Welles puts on the screen for us), as other, additional films keep being screened from within F for Fake, some having their own separate titles, such as when Welles' credits Francois Reichenbach as "his partner" while on the screen, for F for Fake, and in fact about five minutes into the screen time, a brush-written title appears "Francois Reichenbach presents" but it is for a nother film that is only titled ?. (F for Fake starts off with Welles' voice intoning "for my next experiment..." and "Les Films du Prisme presentent" written on the screen. "For my next experiment" is of course in the same phrasing as 'for my next trick,' the traditional magician's dividing his performance into segments.)

The documentary part of F for Fake begins in proper documentary form (with the on screen title "Fake" in animation) with the subject being the art forger Elmyr de Hory. This man is placed by narrator Welles on the island of Ibiza, a place for "the beautiful people" of the "jet set." He then adds writer Clifford Irving who talks about the subject of Elmyr who is also Irving's subject for Irving's project, specifically the 1969 book Fake, which incidentally was published with the title in a certain font style, which happens to be the same font style as the title "fake" shown rotating in animation in Welles' film F for Fake. Then Welles the Narrator points out that while on Ibiza he "fell into the very biggest series of scandals in the whole history of hoaxing, and was a pretty poor experience to start making yet another movie and end up making yet another with a story line rotten with coincidence. For instance, that the author of Fake, a book about a faker, was himself a faker, and the author of a fake to end all fakes that he must have been cooking up while we were filming him..." This grand "fake" is Irving's phony Howard Hughes autobiography for which he later served time in prison.

When Welles breaks from this section (and from out of the documentary Fake), by showing us footage of his cameramen filming Irving on Ibiza, and Welles telling us "sorry I've been jumping around like this because that's the way it was," which tells us F for Fake is also a documentary about another documentary, Fake, mirroring the irony of Welles' documenting Irving who documented Elmyr (and reinforcing what Welles tells us from time to time on screen, "I'm a charlatan" while theatrically dressed in costume, and we can choose whether he means he is playing a part (with costume) of a charlatan, or this is a confession by Welles - who is another subject within this movie - more information and layering which is also more of Welles' sleight of hand).

Welles' "new kind of movie" was originally going to be called Hoax, according to writer Jonathan Rosenbaum in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion disc of the film. The title was provided by one of the main subjects within F for Fake, Oja Kodar (whose birth name was Olga Palinkas) who appears in Welles' movie as both a subject in a story involving Picasso and 21 paintings that get burned, but also appears in an inserted short film introduced by Welles' saying "this, by the way, is from quite another film, a sequence on the fine outdoor sport of girl watching..." and he then tells she is acting as "bait." This sequence balances a much later sequence of a black and white photo of Picasso that is 'girl-watching' Kodar as she walks about outside, with the black and white photo inside a home, with a window shutter opening and closing, which matches the images in the first 'girl watching' sequence where photographers are shown taking pictures, their equipment of course using a different kind of window 'shutter.'

Put another way, and added into F for Fakes rapidly growing baggage of sleight of hand, Kodar is the showman's assistant on stage, acting as distraction while the magician works his tricks. Part of the trick is the extensive editing which makes all of these disparate films, on different film stocks, not just films themselves but characters in F for Fake, which prompts the question: how often does a movie became an actor within another movie? All of this is balanced and flows together with Welles' ideas constantly mounting upon his other ideas, but all of it organized and categorized and mostly able to be followed. Welles probably didn't mean for it to be followed too efficiently as that would sabotage the 'trickery.'

I wondered whether the title F for Fake might actually mean Fake for Fake, that is, one fake answering another fake. This film could almost as just as easily been titled Fraud or Lies, two terms Welles uses right at the beginning to describe what is to follow, though with his caveat that "during the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true, and based on solid fact" but Welles doesn't warn us that F for Fake is longer than an hour.

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Original Page July 2020 | Updated Feb 13, 2023