Sunday, January 13, 2019

F for Fake

F FOR FAKE             B+                  
France  Iran  Germany  (88 mi)  1973 d:  Orson Welles     co-director:  François Reichenbach

If my work hangs in a museum long enough, it becomes real.
—Elmyr de Hory, renowned art forger

A bemused Welles speculates about the creation of all things and their subsequent worth, becoming omnisciently Godlike for a moment, able to see through what’s real and imagined, as he cuts through the fakery of our existence, offering as many lies as truths, yet isn’t the illusion at least as valuable as what’s real?  Even when left to the experts, it’s often pure speculation as to what artworks are real and which paintings currently hanging in museums are actually fakes.  If the public can’t tell the difference, then what does it matter, as there’s an inherent cultural value in the work either way, as it represents the essence of the artist (who is usually centuries long dead) and worthy of our celebration.  The final completed film in the lifetime of Welles, this is largely an edited masterpiece, as Welles cleverly stitches together his own footage onto an existing unfinished film documentary on art forger Elmyr de Hory shot by French documentarist François Reichenbach.  The question that immediately comes to mind is if most of the film is shot by Reichenbach, how is this an Orson Welles film?  By the end, however, the unmistakable imprint of Welles’ mischievous personality hovers over every frame of this film, where there’s little doubt who the author is.  Welles makes an opening declaration that viewers will, at least for an hour, be told the truth, yet “This is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies,” with the word “Fake!” constantly filling the screen, recalling his own majestic The War of the Worlds radio hoax in 1938 that had an uninformed population in a frenzied panic mode, actually believing we were being invaded by aliens from Mars, with Welles going further here, elaborating in ways he never initially imagined, with flying saucers seen everywhere, crashing into bridges and national monuments, even the White House, resembling TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004) footage from the South Park creators, with President Roosevelt actually forced to meet the Martian invaders.  While the idea of science fiction openly flirts with the world of make believe, what’s riveting about it is how much it resembles a world around us that we chillingly recognize.  Without the notoriety accumulated from that brazenly captivating hoax upon the American public, Welles would never have been able to make his first film CITIZEN KANE (1941).  Developing a theme for the film, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth.  I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”  Welles is also a practicing magician by trade, with a lifelong love of magic and illusion, where he loved card tricks and magic acts, performing one for a young boy at the opening of the film, dressed in a magician’s cloak, using a sleight-of-hand to make a key disappear and turn into a coin and back again, where it eventually ends up in the boy’s pocket.  This introduces us to that innocent childlike love of magic and illusion, which, he suggests, makes us so susceptible to hucksters, trickery, and fraud, identifying as a con artist himself, confessing “I am a charlatan,” where this film is a cleverly disguised essay on truth and illusion, where, like the little boy, it’s so easy to find ourselves fascinated by acts of deceit.   

Introducing his mistress and co-author of a later segment of this film, Oja Kodar, a girl he met during the shooting of THE TRIAL (1962), Welles juxtaposes images of her wearing a miniskirt and walking confidently down the street, described as “bait,” with Candid Camera style footage suggesting she’s stopping traffic, causing a ruckus from all the attention from prowling male eyes, with the reactions shot elsewhere along the streets of Rome, using jarring car skids and sound effects to suggest a heightened state of hysteria from girl-watching, and while convincing, it’s totally fake.  While it all feels very tongue-in-cheek, at this point he introduces viewers to de Hory, a classically trained Hungarian artist who studied in Munich and Paris, yet also experienced the Holocaust, where a good part of his life was spent concealing everything about his past, reinventing a new persona that led to a lucrative career as an art forger, reproducing the works of Modigliani, Matisse, and even Picasso, where telling the truth was not one of his specialties since concealing the truth was his real lifelong profession.  (Insinuated but never acknowledged in the film, de Hory earlier served a 2-month prison stint in Spain for homosexuality and consorting with criminals).  Welles finds him on the reclusive Spanish island of Ibiza (where Welles himself resides) living in a lavish estate, home of one of his unscrupulous art dealers who is supposedly offering a goodwill gesture for making him so wealthy, or so the story is told.  Juxtaposing his own footage into the Reichenbach documentary, Welles brings his subject into new life, even signing a painting with a forgery of Welles’ signature, which of course the director admires.  De Hory hosts gala dinner parties with the upper crest of jet setters and social elite, typically mingling with the aristocracy, evading any and all questions about any criminal enterprise, though he is known for selling fake paintings to museums and collectors all over the world, exiled to Spain with the intent to avoid criminal prosecution in France.  On another front, also living on that same remote island, Welles discovers American author Clifford Irving, who had already written a book in 1969 on de Hory entitled Fake: the Story of Elmyr de Hory: the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, allegedly helping his friend de Hory with his mounting legal fees, with the BBC hiring Irving as their expert intermediary with de Hory for the Reichenbach documentary.  But those plans soured when Irving was hit with his own legal troubles, receiving an advance of $765,000 for the autobiography of the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, as told to him by Hughes himself, providing a signed document of authenticity from Hughes, which handwriting analysts declared authentic.  Of course, this turned out to be a fake, as Hughes denounced the book and sued the publisher, creating a gigantic media scandal while Welles was editing the footage for this film, with a contrite Irving confessing to the hoax, sentenced to a few years in prison, eventually serving 17 months.  Welles found these actions of curious interest, especially the philosophical implications, identifying with both con artists, confessing to some of his own trickery, like recalling at age 16 how he conned his way into a job at a Dublin theater by claiming he was a great American actor, when he hadn’t done anything yet, or like The War of the Worlds hoax, with Welles adding some exquisite footage from the Ray Harryhausen special effects in the B-movie EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956), revealed in a parody of the “News on the March” segment of CITIZEN KANE (1941), including an ironic revelation that Kane was originally going to be a fictionalized version of Howard Hughes.  

A financial flop when it was released, fixated on the quick cut methodology of the French New Wave, avoiding any shots that might be regarded as “typically Wellesian,” instead we find Welles in front of the camera like a master of ceremonies or a specialized guide narrating the film, always a master storyteller and he does not disappoint, despite the fact he didn’t shoot a good deal of the film, yet the way he integrates it into his own personal film essay, exploring how easily art is treated as a commodity, turning it into a financial windfall, with easily fooled experts placing a commercial value that must remain suspect, as after all, which is real and which is a forgery?  Ironically Welles himself dealt with this issue in the final scenes of CITIZEN KANE, with its hoard of crated treasures from around the globe that no one would ever enjoy.  What could possibly be their worth?  One of the most beautiful sequences show Welles alone sitting on a Parisian park bench under a canopy of trees as they change through the four seasons, suggesting there are some things in life you cannot change, that remain permanent, existing both in nature and the human condition.  Perhaps the only Welles film to make reference to current events, this is an altogether different vantage point for Welles, who also questions the idea of art both as an auteur and appropriator, easily demonstrating how a film is “authored” in the editing room, then reflecting over the outrageous claim that de Hory swore he never signed any of his forged paintings, thereby (in his eyes) refusing ownership, drawing a distinction between copies and originals, claiming he only painted originals.  Among the most illuminating sequences is an examination of the towering grandiosity of the Chartres cathedral built in the early 13th century, with the elevating spires and the original stained glass windows still intact, exhibiting a Gothic style complete with statues and flying buttresses, where the idea of authorship has no meaning whatsoever, yet the fact that it still stands in all its original glory is transcendent, as humans are all bound to die, yet art has the capacity to endure, to extend timelessly beyond generations and even centuries.  Standing outside the massive church, Welles ruminates in that deeply resonant voice of his, adding a poetic inflection as only he can, offering comments that couldn’t be more profound, suggesting art is larger than any one author, with Welles concluding, “I must believe that art is real,” elevating the playful tone of this film to a somber reflection for the ages, like an apt description for immortality:

Now this has been standing here for centuries.  The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world and it’s without a signature: Chartres.

A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man.  All that’s left most artists seem to feel these days, is man.  Naked, poor, forked radish.  There aren’t any celebrations.  Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe, which is disposable.  You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us, to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash.  The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes.  A fact of life.  We’re going to die.  “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past.  Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it?  Go on singing.  Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

Oja Kodar returns, with Welles recounting a dubious but delightful story about her spending a sunny summer in the small village of Toussaint on the northern coast of France.  As it happened, Picasso  (who was still alive during the making of the film) was also renting a house there, with Oja passing directly in front of his house each and every day she walked to the beach, passing with such regularity that she became a distraction, mimicking the earlier footage, elaborating on the exaggerated effect she causes simply by walking down the street, as her mode of dress becomes more enticing, slowed down into slow motion, becoming more dreamlike, turning into a leering exhibition of the male gaze, with rapturous music by Michel Legrand suddenly romanticized and sweetened, with Oja becoming a spectral presence until Picasso eventually invites her in.  Seen in various states of undress, with suggestions that she becomes his muse, Picasso produces 22 paintings with her as a model, with Oja insisting that she be allowed to keep them, which she does.  But Picasso grows furious when he reads of a small art gallery in Paris selling 22 new Picasso paintings, flying there at once to confront the gallery owner, only to discover that every one was a fake.  Oja takes Picasso to meet her elderly Hungarian grandfather, an art forger that defended his work with a certain amount of pride, with Picasso angrily demanding the paintings back, only to be told they’ve been destroyed, so now only the forgeries exist.  Welles and Kodar dramatically re-enact this conversation with a special flair, with Welles finally pulling the plug and admitting it’s all a fake, that the story about a forgery was itself a forgery, apologizing to the audience before quoting Picasso, “Art is a lie that enables us to realize the truth.”  The real joy, however, is the omniscient presence of Welles himself, cleverly inserting himself throughout the film, placing himself front and center, where his flamboyant, larger-than-life personality is a tremendous asset, endearing and deliciously entertaining, like the moment he’s dining with friends at his favorite Parisian restaurant La Méditerranée, calmly handing the waiter his discarded plate of mussel shells, “Would you take this away and bring me the steak au poivre.”  Exhibiting a special grace and a captivating élan, he’s all manner and charm, deceptively making us believe he’s a well-intended host, yet he’s a devilish raconteur filled with endlessly probing surprises throughout, perhaps suggesting that his fabricated “crimes” (artworks) are even more outrageous than Irving or de Hory, where this is one of the few films that constantly challenges everything it reveals, as if questioning his own existence, becoming a declaration of terms, a manifesto for a living artist.     

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