F for Fake (1973)
In France in the fifties, Orson Welles was a hero. Citizen Kane was a key film for the young French critics of that era, the generation that formulated the auteur theory. When the auteur theory made its way over to the US it mutated into something different, and became the basis for a cult that worshipped the director as a god. Welles became an icon, a genius who was banished from Hollywood after bringing fire to the mortals.
Welles seems to have been uncomfortable with the attention he was getting from his acolytes. Beginning in the sixties, the man who used to represent the director as hero began minimizing the role of the director. In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and others, Welles repeatedly maintained that critics overstated the role he and his colleagues played behind the camera. The brash young egotist who at twenty needed to be the center of attention now seemed frustrated by the extravagant amount of attention focussed on directors.
F for Fake seems to be his argument against worshipping the author. Though the film begins as a story about forgers, it is really about something very different. The tone is mostly lighthearted, but Welles is actually asking some fundamental questions about the nature of art. What is it? What makes it valuable? And what the hell do critics know, anyway?
Welles begins with art forger Elmyr de Hory, who for years produced magnificent fakes that were sold as Modiglianis, Matisses and Derains. We are also introduced to author Clifford Irving who wrote a book chronicling de Hory’s career. Unfortunately, Irving later found himself in jail for faking a relationship with Howard Hughes in order to land a book deal. The adventures of these two swindlers make a great story, and Welles has a great time telling it. But as he relates the details of the scandal, he begins to weave in other threads. One thread has to do with “the experts”, and the control they exercise over the art market. Another thread has to do with fakery, which could also be construed as creating an illusion. Welles reminds us of his own efforts as an illusionist, not only as a director, but as an actor and magician.
Welles’ role as the “author” of F for Fake raises some interesting questions. The footage of Elmyr de Hory was largely shot by Francois Reichenbach for an altogether different film. The director also incorporates a good deal of archival footage. And even some of the material shot by Welles himself was intended for other projects. So the bulk of Welles’ work was done in the editing room, appropriating existing footage and shaping it to suit his own ends. Certainly this does not fit the standard definition of what a director does, but there is no question that the finished product expresses Welles’ point of view.
What is art? And what does art have to do with its author? Welles seems to be telling us to shift our attention away from the man behind the camera. After sweeping us along in a frenetic quest that has taken us to Ibiza and London, Vegas and Hollywood, we suddenly find ourselves in front of the cathedral at Chartres. The pace slows and we enjoy a moment of meditative calm. Welles stands in front of the cathedral, calling it possibly the greatest achievement in Western culture, and reminds us that we do not know who built it. We do not know the names of the people responsible for the towering spires or the radiant stained glass. Its authors are anonymous, yet centuries later we are still moved by its beauty. Nearing the end of his career, Welles seems to be arguing that we should be less interested in who’s speaking than in what’s being said.