Criterion // 1972 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 6th, 2005
During the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid facts.
Orson Welles's final finished film as a director, the 1972 "essay film" F for Fake, has been all but MIA for some years, only being seen on the likes of the famed Z Channel (or so the documentary I've been watching around the clock on IFC would have me believe). Leave it to the magnificent folks at the Criterion Collection to once again swoop into action, rescuing the film from obscurity and bestowing yet another underappreciated masterpiece on an unsuspecting public.
F for Fake is director Orson Welles's examination of trickery -- not in the magic sense, but in the sense of Putting One Over. It's about the Con: how we are able to con one another, and how and why we allow ourselves to be conned. We do, too, as Welles keenly observes, whether it's because we're foolish or greedy or because we tend to romanticize things -- we want to believe in the grand ideas and stories we're being sold, fact and truth be damned. His film introduces us to Elmyr de Hory, still considered the greatest art forger to ever have lived. We also meet an American named Clifford Irving, who wrote a biography on de Hory (aptly named -- what else? -- Fake) and later one on legendary recluse Howard Hughes, which itself was later proven to be a fabrication (a faker who writes about other fakers? This thing is like an onion.). In the last act of the film, Welles tells the rather involved account of a beautiful girl, an art forger, and one Pablo Picasso, and the way in which Fate (aided in no small measure by their occupations and life's work) brought all three together with fascinatingly intriguing results.
Say what you will about Orson Welles the actor. He's the man who gave us Charles Foster Kane. He breathed life into Detective Harry Lime and Police Captain Hank Quinlan. I mean, he didn't so much perform as become the Voice of Unicron, but maybe he's not everyone's booming-voiced bag. He's never really been as respected for his acting as for his writing and directing, anyway; it's Welles's legacy as a filmmaker that continues to thrive today, and I would argue that said legacy is less open to debate than the man's appeal as an actor. You might not agree with the legions of critics who suggest year after year that Citizen Kane is the "greatest film of all time" -- that's pretty much a question of personal taste -- but you can't argue the influence it had on (most specifically) American film. It was and is the watershed movie.
Well, his F for Fake is, in its own way, just as influential as his much more widely-seen-and-appreciated Citizen Kane. One only needs to look as far as the critically lauded work of documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) to see the influence of Welles's F for Fake. With Moore, it's the approach of creating an "essay film" versus a standard documentary; as Welles takes a single subject (in this case, fakery) and explores it in a non-fictional style, so too does Moore -- ruminations on corporate America, gun control, and how swell President Bush is, labeled "documentaries" by the masses, are more like think piece films (that he is as much at the center of his movie as his subject matter is another device often used by Moore). Welles also composes images and includes shots other than his documentary footage; it's a more fully-realized and stylized film than the average non-fiction work, with a visible impact on Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (which is still more a documentary than F for Fake or Moore's films, but clearly borrows elements of Welles's visual approach) and the rest of his body of work.
Not yet convinced of Welles's influence? Well, what would you think if I was to suggest that the reach of the man's little-seen essay film goes as far as modern-day MTV and the cinematic canon of Michael Bay? The editing of F for Fake, which is, quite simply, masterful (and possibly the best thing about the movie), is in its own way groundbreaking -- a brilliantly assembled succession of rapid-fire cuts a quickly-seen images that is unlike that which came before it and which clearly paved the way for the current attention-deficit approach to film and TV editing. The difference with the Welles film, though, is that it's more than just a cover-up for a lack in substance; if what Godard said is accurate, and that every cut is a lie, then Welles ought to use as many cuts as possible in his rumination on fakery. It's cinematic sleight of hand -- the style is so busy we wind up watching the left hand and missing what he's doing with the right.
The film marks a departure for Welles -- stylistically, at least (the departure suits him, incidentally; it's a far more lighthearted and playful film than many of his other movies) -- and yet shares a great deal in common with his body of work. Fakery is nothing new to the director, a man who first drew public attention for conjuring a mock radio broadcast about an alien invasion. Here, he's once again dealing with surfaces and illusion; the main difference with F for Fake is that it's more upfront about its themes and motives. It's also more a film about the methodology of fakery than it is about the end result; event the structure of Welles' movie is a sly and self-reflexive comment on the art of The Dupe. It manages to be both a Trick and a Treat.
I've said it before and I'll say it again -- God bless the Criterion Collection. My adoration for them goes beyond their treatment of the films they release, which is always first-rate (and which I'll be delving into momentarily, in the traditional "how's the disc?" section), but even more so extends to the depth and breadth of films they acquire and distribute; let's face it, without Criterion I wouldn't even know the name of a director like Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill, Fighting Elegy). F for Fake has been given a second life thanks to Criterion, available to be seen and appreciated by a whole new generation of film lovers and enthusiasts. That the studio has dug up and restored a forgotten masterpiece from one of our most important filmmakers should not go unnoticed.
On the first disc of Criterion's two-disc treatment is the feature, presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer of 1.66:1. Because the film hasn't aged terribly well, and because Welles uses a variety of film stocks in its creation (including what looks like some fairly shoddy 16mm), there is some discrepancy in image quality; overall, though, I would suggest that the movie looks as good as it possibly can. The audio is faithfully represented with a 1.0 mono track, directing all of the sound to the front center channel but still managing to keep everything clear and audible; one could select a two-channel playback option on his or her player to disperse the audio more widely, but I didn't find such a measure necessary. The mono track is surprisingly sufficient.
There is an optional feature-length commentary over the movie, delivered by co-star/co-conspirator Oja Kodar and the director of photography, Gary Graver. Kodar, who appears as part of two sequences that bookend the film, has a number of interesting anecdotes about the production, and Graver gives some insight as to what it was like to work with Welles, but we don't learn much about the content of the film. It's too bad Welles is no longer around to provide a commentary track (though one could argue that there's enough of him throughout the film that by the end, he's basically said all he can on the subject). The existing commentary works as a supplement to the movie without necessarily shedding new light on it; it's a worthwhile listen, but won't pique the interest of everyone. Also included on the first disc is an introduction by writer/director (as well as Welles's friend and historian) Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show); he doesn't so much set up the film as he does give some brief background on it, as well as sharing his thoughts on what he (correctly) views as an unheralded gem. There's an "extended trailer," too, which runs nine minutes and plays less like a trailer than a clip of the movie itself (because of the way the film is assembled, much in the style of a contemporary trailer itself).
The second disc is jammed with some truly spectacular bonus features -- and, from Criterion, I've come to expect little else. First up is a feature-length documentary about the unfinished films of Orson Welles -- he had several works in the pipeline but was unable to secure funding or support to see them through to completion. It's a sad story for such a legendary and influential filmmaker (and reminded me of the story of Kurosawa attempting to finance his breathtaking Kagemusha, which had a much happier ending than the projects presented here). The piece is more about Welles himself than it is about F for Fake, but being that F is so much about Welles, it's almost as though the documentary is merely an extension of the feature. There is another documentary, this one running just under an hour, about Elmyr de Hory, the famed art forger profiled so extensively in the film. It supplies some more information about the man and his life's work and makes for fascinating viewing, but because there is so much coverage of him in F for Fake, much of what's presented here feels redundant; if the first doc supplements the movie, this one seems to do little but repeat it. In addition, there is a 60 Minutes piece on Clifford Irving, the Elmyr and would-be Howard Hughes biographer who is again profiled with reasonable depth in the feature, and some press conference footage involving Hughes's denouncement of Irving's claims -- which proves to be even more involving and relevant coming on the heels of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, also newly released on DVD.
A great treatment of a great film from one of our great directors, greatly missed until now? Sounds great.
"I" for Innocent.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2005 Nominee
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary by Star and Co-Writer Oja Kodar and Director of Photography Gary Graver
* Introduction by Peter Bogdanovich
* Extended 9-Minute Trailer
* Orson Welles: One-Man Band (1995): 88-Minute Documentary on Welles' Unfinished Projects
* Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery (1997): 52-Minute Documentary on Art Forger Elmyr de Hory
* 60 Minutes Interview with Clifford Irving
* 1972 Press Conference Footage
* All-new Essay by Film Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum