Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Dec. 21st
Few movies deserve to be described as being in a category all by themselves. Orson Welles’ 1972 film essay on the nature of illusion, trickery and truth earns that distinction and then some. The closest label that fits is “documentary”, but when you put yourself in the hands of a master of deception like Welles, can you ever be sure that what you’re being told is the absolute truth? And just what does absolute truth look like anyway?
The film, which stands as my personal all time favorite, mesmerizes. It’s narrative twists in strands of Welles’ professional history and the story of the greatest art forger then alive Elmyr de Hory. Elmyr is accompanied everywhere by a journalist who is working on a book about fakery, and de Hory might just be the most prolific trickster of all time. He hints that some of the most famous art created by the contemporary masters are, in fact, his fakes. And the art world’s gallery owners and curators all pay the part of the knowing dupe, lest the big bucks slip away.
Yet just when you think you have a handle on where things are going the journalist, a certain Clifford Irving, makes his own play for the charlatan crown. Irving becomes the mastermind of the greatest publishing hoax of the 20th century: The Autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving would see his reputation destroyed after trying to pull one over on the whole of an American society all too ready to believe anything about one of it’s reclusive heros. And here, in Welles’ film, we get to see Irving studying the art of deception at the feet of one of the masters of the craft.
For both Elmyr and Irving their greatest act of deception might just be the creation of their own self-mythology. It is here that the film’s thematic relevance to today’s twisted media landscape comes to light. There is something almost 21st century about the central characters, and the way that the film unfolds like a mystery yarn told by a giddy schoolboy to his closest friends. Piece by piece the soul of these two men is either revealed or invented, and who is to say there is a difference anymore.
Here we see Welles the master editor, both in the frame surrounded by film cans and outside it, pulling together the strands of story in a way that few people in the 1970s could have appreciated. Living as we do now in the social media era, we can see some of ourselves in the charlatans on the screen. Who among us hasn’t moved past the part of dupe and into the role of the faker in our own online lives? Welles has his Moviola to construct his version of the truth, we’ve got Facebook.
The glory of F for Fake is how, in just eighty eight little minutes Welles manages to create a kind of motion picture that stands apart from all others before and since. It’s the work of a master of the art form at the height of both his powers and obscurity. Welles had been in effective exile from Hollywood for years by this point, trying unsuccessfully to get a string of projects properly funded.
IT CAME FROM NETFLIX
Speaking of movies that take the piss out of the art world and are like no other, Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop hit Netflix streaming last week. Like F for Fake, Exit lives in the twilight realm between documentary and something else. By the time the film is through you may not know what was real and what was fiction, but you won’t care. I had no real idea what I was getting into when I saw this last spring, and it remains the funniest movie I’ve seen all year.