F for Fake
As the documentary-collage Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995) by Oja Kodar & Vassili Silovic touchingly shows, Welles carried an editing table with him wherever he travelled. In F for Fake, this tool of his trade is deployed with the same childlike zest that Dziga Vertov conveyed in Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
And F for Fake is not merely a dazzlingly edited film, creating vectors of speed, energy and invention that put most movies to shame. In a profound way, it is about editing – about the articulation, combination, collision, juxtaposition of image and sound fragments – and thus, like every Welles film, about conjuring and magic.
Perhaps the very act of editing had a special, poetic meaning for Welles: that editing table was clearly a kind of nest or life-raft, a safe place for him, where he could sift and recast all the fragments both of his own work (finished or unfinished) as well as that of his friendly collaborators.
In cinema history, F for Fake stands like a lighthouse between the grand old era of the montage film – the city symphonies, compilation films, experimental collages – and the modern practice of the essay film. Like Chris Marker or Aleander Kluge, Agnès Varda or Jean-Pierre Gorin, Welles rigorously worked his material into the form of a personal reflection.
Art, fakery and authorship are the loose topics of this dancing essay, which was triggered by a fortuitous conjunction of events. The celebrated documentary filmmaker François Reichenbach (whose later life is retold with light fictionality in Patrice Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, 1998) had shot footage for one of his own projects of an irascible old art forger, Elmyr de Hory. This material included comments from his biographer, Clifford Irving.
However, no one but Irving and his closest associates knew, at the time, that he had just perpetrated his own superb hoax: a seeming autobiography by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Irving bet successfully on Hughes’ reclusiveness, and the public’s willingness to believe any crazy story about him, as a cover for his scam – an affair later fictionalised, with further fancy, in Hoax (2007).
All this delightfully fortuitous stuff – unveiling ever more layers of hidden irony – serves merely as Welles’ launching pad. He ranges far and wide through the philosophy and politics of fakery, from personal coups (including, of course, the War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938) to the paradoxes of aesthetic creation and the artist’s signature (culminating in a beautiful sequence devoted to the “authorless” Chartres cathedral – a testament to, among other things, the skill of Welles’ regular cinematographer in this period, Gary Gravers).
Meanwhile – since this is a film that plays on our own shifting levels of belief – Welles is busy spinning his own little red herrings and hoaxes, at his expense as much as ours. The extraordinary sound design is prominent in this dexterous sifting of materials and levels: try to hear the number of voices that are, in fact, provided by Welles himself.
F for Fake is a total treat, and a key work in Welles’ filmography.
Note: These ideas are developed at length on my audio commentary for the F for Fake DVD released by Madman (Australia) in 2009.
© Adrian Martin June 1996