If you heard that Orson Welles had directed a movie connecting Pablo Picasso and Howard Hughes to a master art forger who had duped the world's great museums and critics, you might expect a grand and sweeping drama in the mold of Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons; instead, Welles' final feature, F for Fake, is a curious little "film essay" that uses its impressive narrative ingredients as background for a playful discourse on fiction as well as a showcase of Welles' ginchy Croatian mistress, Oja Kodar, in various states of undress.
With his customary showmanship, Welles jogs through the highlights of a few factual cases of fraud, in particular that of Elmyr de Hory, one of the world's most successful fabricators of great paintings; and of Clifford Irving, a writer who notoriously followed his legit biography on de Hory with a faked autobiography of Howard Hughes. Although either of these stories might be worthy of a full-length feature on their own (Lasse Hallstrom's Hoax, starring Richard Gere, depicts Irving's Hughes scam), Welles, at this late point in a career strewn with troubled and abandoned projects, crams them both into an hour which also includes Welles' ruminations on his own legendary case of subterfuge, the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast that convinced impressionable listeners of an actual alien invasion. Welles neatly leaps back and forth from footage shot before his involvement, to scenes of himself relaying (no doubt embellished) lore to bemused jetsetters, and even bits of staged magic; he also constantly references the artifice of filmmaking, not only by cross-cutting between footage shot at obviously different times, but including some shots from inside the editing bay itself. It's all very stylish, both physically quite beautiful and edited with a snappy, ADD-like rhythm that predicts the manic formatting of shows like MTV's The Real World with 20 years of foresight.
As entertaining as F for Fake is, I may have been too conditioned by the four decades of post-modern pop culture cynicism that followed it to find its message or style all that compelling in 2017, which is no fault of Welles'. Surely, F for Fake was a visionary work of its time, but it also, as a product of Welles' decline, is saddled with indulgences, some of which are fun, but few of them contribute to the product beyond padding its scant runtime. F for Fake starts, for example, with a long title sequence of men caught gawking at Kodar's sashaying figure; I assumed that this mimicry of Candid Camera would climax with some kind of arch reveal, such as that the object of this lustful ogling would turn out to be a man, but it ultimately it meant nothing. Welles associates Laurence Harvey and Joseph Cotten appear for a few seconds each with no purpose whatsoever. F for Fake's final sequence, in which Kodar and Welles spin the tale of her grandfather's experience with art forgery is a cute device but a bit too obvious, and is overwhelmed by its fairly shameless promotion of Kodar as an exotic, mischeivous sexpot. It's all a bit of fun — who doesn't want to bask in the Ibiza setting, or watch a tiny monkey pick food out of Irving's sideburns? — masquerading as a deeper treatise on authenticity, which, I suppose, is a form of subterfuge itself, just not one that's very profound.
F FOR FAKE was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Alex Christian Lovendahl, who ranks it at #113 (95%) on his Flickchart, making it his 3rd favorite out of the 21 movies he's seen from Paste Magazine's 100 Top 50 Documentaries of All Time. F FOR FAKE landed on my Flickchart at #1230 (69%), where it's #21 out of the 37 documentaries that I've seen from Paste's list.