Friday, February 26, 2016

At the Movies: F for Fake

At the Movies with Michael5000

F for Fake
Orson Welles, 1973.

imbd: 7.8
Ebert: Three Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% Fresh

So once upon a time there was a painter named Elmyr de Hory who discovered, after the Second World War, that he had a remarkable ability to mimic the best-known painters of his day. Specializing in Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, he was able to make a reasonable living selling previously unknown “minor pieces” that he had, of course, cooked up himself. In the late 1960s, he met a writer named Clifford Irving, who wrote a biography of him that doubled as an expose’ and a publicity stunt. The biography was called Fake!

Then, things got a little weird. After the success of Fake! Irving moved on to his next project: ghost-writing an autobiography for the reclusive industrialist Howard Hughes. But this autobiography was a fake. Irving had letters, documents, and signatures forged, betting that Hughes was so reclusive that he would not break his silence in order to interfere. He lost the bet, and although it was hard for Hughes to get people to take his denials seriously over the phone, his lawyers were eventually able to put the kibosh on the whole crazy scheme.

When Orson Welles made an impressionist documentary about this business in 1974, this story had been on the cover of Time and was common knowledge. People watching the film understood that they were seeing an idiosyncratic film about a strange-but-true story, and when they hit the big twist at the end – for there is a big twist at the end – it must have been pretty effective.

Watching the movie 41 years later, however, I completely failed to track that what I was watching was in any way documentary. I was impressed by the naturalistic acting of the principle characters – although, to be honest, I found de Hory’s eccentric artist schtick a bit over the top. Similarly, it didn’t seem very plausible that what I thought of as “the Irving character” would sit through his interviews being continually groomed by, but oblivious to, his pet monkey. But, as I learn for the thousandth time, truth is often pretty strange.

F for Fake is the last movie Welles completed, and it is best thought of as a film collage. None of the footage is remarkable, and much of it is of home-movie quality, but it has been lovingly edited into something resembling a coherent – but not too coherent – whole. Like the subjects of the film, Welles indulges in some fakery himself, retelling the famous story of his War of the Worlds radio program and including a long passage at the beginning from a different movie, one that doesn’t really exist. This passage is a drawn out joke on the way that film continuity works, jumping between shots of an attractive woman walking down the street in tight skirts and men craning their heads to look. The men craning their heads are probably just random guys on the street checking traffic or noticing something happening nearby, but the effect of the editing is to make them look like they are caught in the woman’s overwhelming sexual spell.

In the DVD commentary, a famous Hollywood guy whose name escapes me at the moment described F for Fake like this: if you fight it, he said, it will be incomprehensible, and you’ll hate it. But if you just accept it on its own terms, it will be captivating. Most people in 1974 fought it, and hated it. It was a complete commercial flop (hardly helped, I shouldn’t think, by its useless title).

Personally, I rolled with it, and found it pretty mesmerizing and a lot of fun. But then, I was watching it all wrong. I thought it was fiction. It’s impossible to say if I would have enjoyed it so much if I had realized it was all true.  Or mostly all true.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.


mhwitt said...

I had not previously heard of F for Fake, but coincidentally recently saw the movie The Hoax which is about Clifford Irving's attempt to convince his publishers and then the world that he had written an authorized biography of Howard Hughes. I dug it. The two films probably share little else in common.

Michael5000 said...

Never heard of it, but it's directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who is always good. I'm down.