Saturday, July 20, 2013

147. US maestro Orson Welles’ last film ”F for Fake” (1973): The most thought-provoking film on illusion and reality from an exceptionally gifted filmmaker and intellectual

Art is a lie that enables us to realize the truth”—Pablo Picasso

I must believe that art itself is real” Orson Welles in F for Fake

What is cinema? How real is realism in cinema? These are questions that every reflective filmgoer need to ask when we see a realistic film or documentary claiming to record reality, while there is always the director, the film editor, the camera-person, the actors, manipulating the mind of the viewer without the viewer realizing this is happening. Each documentary is telling a story, not merely reproducing facts as we think it is doing. F for Fake explores the extension of this argument in myriad ways, sometimes honestly, sometimes, er.. not so honestly.

Orson Welles, the director and narrator of the film, makes an honest confession early in the film “I am a charlatan.” And you love him for this very candor at the end of the film. You love him even more when he utters another loaded truism “Almost every movie is about some kind of a lie.”  And later, “I must believe that art itself is real.

What is Orson Welles talking about? The movie starts with simple harmless magic tricks that Orson Welles plays on a child. It is not the tricks that are important but the fact that the director himself is playing the tricks that is important. The director/narrator is actually introducing the kid (read instead "the viewer") to subtle interesting parallels of how magicians manipulate their audiences, of how the so-called experts of art can fool art lovers by innocently claiming a forgery is real, of how hoax writers can dupe gullible readers into believing what they write is true, and finally how filmmakers can manipulate the viewers of cinema. Welles tells you quite honestly in this film that for an hour he promises to tell the truth, and he keeps his word, but  the average viewer of F for Fake is not likely to realize when the film cleverly deviates from telling the truth. Welles later acknowledges the part that was indeed fake in his film to the viewer, but what Welles has done is to prove his own contention that art itself is often not real. Most important of all, this swansong of Welles, actually looks back at the life of Welles himself rather than the two more obvious subjects–a distinguished art forger and a convicted fake biographer of Howard Hughes--that occupy much of the screen time.  And yet, F for Fake is actually about Welles. How so?

Let’s start with the opening words where Welles entertains a kid near a rail carriage. “Did I say I used to be a magician, sir? I'm still working on it. As for the key, it was not symbolic of anything... this isn't that kind of movie. You'll find the coin in your pocket now, sir. Keep your eyes on that coin sir, while it's returned to you... as your key. Should we return you to your mother? Is this your mother? No, of course not. Open your mouth wide... and we'll return you your money. And by the way, have you ever heard of Robert-Houdin, speaking of magicians, I mean. Oh no, of course not. But of course, you do know my partner Francois Reichenbach. Robert-Houdin was the greatest magician who ever lived. And do you know what he said? "A magician, he said, is just an actor--just an actor playing the part of a magician."

These words are not banter but loaded with meaning.  Much of F for Fake was made from footage recorded by cinematographer/director Francois Reichenbach (Welles even shows Reichenbach behind a camera, after the amazing street walking scene of actress Oja Kodar, ogled by all the males on the street, and Kodar lived with Welles in the evening of his life but out of marriage.) Orson Welles utilizes the footage shot by Reichenbach that the cinematographer had initially wanted to use to make his own documentary, gets Reichenbach to shoot some additional footage of Welles, the talented art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving, convicted for publishing a fake biography of Howard Hughes as real, interacting with each other. Lo and behold,  on the film editor’s table Welles constructs and perfects the cinematic film essay on truths and lies that he calls F for Fake for posterity. F for Fake is a film about real gifted con men that actually includes Welles himself, one of the greatest and one of the most intelligent filmmakers of all time, terming himself a ‘charlatan’. That’s the bravado of Orson Welles! But there is a caveat used throughout the essay on celluloid--each of these con men is an affable genius in his own right.

"The key" mentioned in the magicians episode near the rail carriage, Welles assures you is not symbolic.  But the visuals that follow do provide ‘the key’ to the rest of the film—Oja Kodar is introduced opening the carriage window and so are the camera crew in action. Kodar and the camera crew play a major role as the film essay unspools. That the key was "not symbolic," is a loaded statement, if there ever was one. That’s the showman Orson Welles!

The magician and 'charlatan' Welles

Note again that in the last-mentioned quotation (And by the way, have you ever heard of Robert-Houdin, speaking of magicians, I mean. Oh no, of course not. ) above from F for Fake, Welles mentions Robert-Houdin (1805-71). Now Robert-Houdin was more than a magician, he was a craftsman, and a well-read showman, facets that are evident in Welles himself. Another recent American work of cinema, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) doffs its cap at Robert-Houdin, who invented the automaton that ran on gears and springs, just like an anlog clock. The automaton was the precursor of the modern robot. Robert-Houdin’s statement that Welles quotes about actors and magicians couldn't have been better understood than by Welles the actor and director who had himself lived out the actor’s world of magic with the incredible War of the Worlds episode on radio and later in his own film Citizen Kane.

I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since,” says Welles in this film. And that, too, is a true statement. Why is that? Welles was the American prodigy best remembered for his remarkable debut film Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, acted, produced and directed at the age of 26, yes 26! And he did it without much help of the Hollywood studio system. Citizen Kane was partly based on the life of a real newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst. And Hearst eventually turned his mammoth media machine against Welles to suppress the brilliance of the movie, ultimately allowing Welles to win a single Oscar for Welles’ co-written screenplay for a film that remains as one of the undisputed best films of all time.

Now how did Welles, at age 26, get to make the movie? To start at the beginning, the young American Welles goes to Ireland and pretends that he is a Broadway star from America, only to make waves as a real actor in Ireland. That real fame catapulted him back to America, initially to the world of Shakespearean stage and then to another related career of writing for the stage. Then in 1938, young Welles read out his adapted H G Wells’ The War of Worlds radio-play on radio so realistically that all those who listened to the broadcast were convinced that Martians had invaded USA, leading to mass public panic. The fame of the radio broadcast of faking a Martian invasion of USA allowed the 26-year-old to enter Hollywood, to act, to write, to produce and to direct his own debut film. Welles’ incredible career began with fakery and was peppered with it at many crucial stages. But prodigies make powerful enemies like Hearst. And it was indeed  a steady downhill run for Welles after Citizen Kane, in spite of his outstanding abilities in several artistic fields. And F for Fake charts this journey of ups and downs by employing the sidebar tales of other charlatans Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving.

Ladies and gentleman, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies. Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie,” says narrator Welles in F for Fake in the beginning. Later, in the same film, the brilliant director confesses to the viewer, “I did promise that for one hour, I'd tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I've been lying my head off.”  And somewhere in the middle of the film Welles oxymoronically states: “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I'm afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.

Aberration of truth or art?

Director Orson Welles is the narrator in F for Fake, which could be considered as a documentary or more accurately a cinematic essay on illusion and reality, captured on film. It deals with illusion and reality in fine arts, in books that fake truth only to become bestsellers, in the lives of public figures like William Hearst and Howard Hughes, in the delicate art of magicians, and last but not least in cinema for its gullible viewers.  The film, at a basic level, is about art, art critics and art collectors.  A painting gains value when art critics rave about it and the art collectors buy it because “the experts are the new oracles” as Welles expounds in F for Fake. ‘Yet there are lots of oysters out there but only a few pearls,” Welles cautions the viewer.

Elmyr de Hory is a gifted forger who can produce a forged masterpiece that even art experts would swear was real. Reichenbach/Welles captures de Hory at work and even Clifford Irving applauding the talents of the forger de Hory, much before Irving himself was discovered and convicted as a talented hoax biographer of Hughes. It will remain one of the finest examples of film editing that manipulates the viewer engagingly. And film shows Welles doing just that on the editing tables surrounded by spools of film that will eventually end up as the film you are watching! Incidentally, Irving was convicted of fraud in 1972 before Welles completed the film in 1973. What a bonus for Welles!That Elmyr de Hory committed suicide before he was to be extradited to France is not part of the film.

After all the discussion on magicians and fakers, Welles pays an amazing homage to the magnificent artistic Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres, Paris, a building constructed and designed by several anonymous builders and architects and that Welles calls “a premier work of man without signature, one anonymous glory..a grand shout of affirmation.

 But Welles probably knew he himself was dying.  So he grimly makes another ponderous statement “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, 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.”

But the name of Orson Welles will matter for lovers of cinema as a magical story-teller par excellence.

At the editing table, Welles narrates as he constructs the final tale for the viewer

The well-read Welles refers in F for Fake in passing to a little known poem Conundrum of the Workshops by Rudyard Kipling and that poem is reproduced in full below:

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it Art?"
Wherefore he called to his wife and fled to fashion his work anew—
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons—and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled: "Is it Art?" in the ear of the branded Cain.
They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: "It's striking, but is it Art?"
The stone was dropped by the quarry-side, and the idle derrick swung,
While each man talked of the aims of art, and each in an alien tongue.
They fought and they talked in the north and the south, they talked and they fought in the west,
Till the waters rose on the jabbering land, and the poor Red Clay had rest—
Had rest till the dank blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to start,
And the Devil bubbled below the keel: "It's human, but is it Art?"
The tale is old as the Eden Tree—as new as the new-cut tooth—
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: "You did it, but was it Art?"
We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, as the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: "It's clever, but is it Art?"
When the flicker of London's sun falls faint on the club-room's green and gold,
The sons of Adam sit them down and scratch with their pens in the mold—
They scratch with their pens in the mold of their graves, and the ink and the anguish start
When the Devil mutters behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it Art?"
Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the four great rivers flow,
And the wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago,
And if we could come when the sentry slept, and softly scurry through,
By the favor of God we might know as much—as our father Adam knew.

One can watch F for Fake many times over and rediscover some aspect of Welles' genius that one might have missed. He stood tall towering over his contemporaries. Even when the stunning Rita Hayworth, his second wife, divorced him, the reason she gave the press was "I can't take his genius any more."

P.S. Who was/is the greatest American filmmaker? For this critic, It would be a toss-up between Orson Welles and Terrence Malick. Both were/are filmmakers of exceptional talent, intelligence and maturity and both made films that are/were well ahead of their contemporaries both in vision and substance. Both filmmakers were/are incredibly well read and that wisdom percolated in their cinematic works. Orson Welles’ last film F for Fake may be unknown to many cinema-goers possibly because it is neither a regular feature film nor a regular documentary. Yet it is a magnificent swansong from the American prodigy.! Citizen Kane won just a single Oscar for Best Screenplay. Similarly, the only Oscar won by a Malick film was for best cinematography in Days of Heaven. Both filmmakers won the Golden Palm (the highest honor) at Cannes Film Festival, Welles in 1952 for The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice, and Malick in 2011 for The Tree of Life.