When whole continents of viewers believe you to have made your best and most accomplished film on your first go, two things can potentially happen. Arrogance can take a hold turning you into a useless artist or the burden or pressure to create something just as brilliant can cripple. For some reason though neither of these factors seem to have bothered Orson Welles too much and his catalogue of work is one of the strongest of any director in the whole history of film.
Citizen Kane may perhaps be residing at the top of the greatest films ever made but its Welles’ last completed film, F For Fake, that really shows the auteur/actor/writer/magician at his very, very best. Unlike any of his other films, F For Fake claims to be a documentary. Welles creates a labyrinth of drama around the fake art scandal surrounding fraudster Elmyr de Hory and his equally slippery biographer Clifford Irving. This however is no mere documentary simply stating the facts.
We are bombarded with imagery and editing all designed to question what exactly lies at the heart of great art. The fakes that Elmyr paints are wondrous, beautiful things, yet the fact that he’s made a huge amount of money from them, thanks both to the art market and experts, draws an ugly irony around the art world; one that seems extremely relevant today with the likes of Damien Hirst desperately trying to claw back the glory days of selling anything for ridiculous amounts of money.
Welles’ own history is laced with fakery as the film delightfully informs us. There’s more magic here from him than any of his magic specific programs and his opening coin/key trick is remarkably impressive. However the true magic is in making the viewer really believe what Welles is actually saying. This is a man who convinced half of America that it was genuinely being invaded by Martians with his Mercury theatre broadcast of H.G Well’s War of the Worlds.
More than anything, F For Fake is more like a poetic essay than a real documentary. The issues raised about all forms of art are the sort of discourse found in heavy, snobbish books in minimalist galleries, yet here Welles makes them accessible but, more importantly, he makes them matter. Why does man create art? Is it for money? Self expression? His summation of this is highlighted best in a short monologue about a cathedral in France. He hints at the pointlessness of art with everything eventually in time turning into the “universal ash”. Yet his message here ends on a high suggesting that it doesn’t matter as life goes on even if one’s own is finite.
The second segment of the film is about a story involving Picasso, highlighting the work of a fraudster and the reasons behind why they create fake work. However this turns into something more in depth than a mere short story. It gets to the heart of what the film is really about; are fakes real and does this affect good art? The answer is obviously split between who has money and who enjoys viewing but Welles is determined to drive home the absurdity of the art market and perhaps even the signature of the artist itself.
F For Fake was made for many reasons. One of the ones often cited is as a rebuke to critic Pauline Kael who accused Welles of taking ownership for scripts he supposedly didn’t write in Citizen Kane. This, now disproved, notion upset Welles a lot at the time yet out of that upset came his best film and one of the greatest documentaries ever made – a little serendipity perhaps. It’s artistic, humorous, witty, colourful and fast paced; a perfect film for the endless summer nights and lazy afternoons in the shade.