Years later, reflecting back on his life and work, Orson Welles would say, “I thought I was onto something,” in reference to his last completed film, 1973’s F for Fake. The relative lack of impact the film made on the public at large spurred him to follow other roads, such as the even more experimental (and unreleased) The Other Side of the Wind. But Orson really was onto something with that last film. As usual, it just took us a while to catch up.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Welles had experienced some considerable artistic triumphs in his European-based life and work. It’s been noted that had Welles only made the three films he completed in the 1960s, The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Immortal Story (1968), he would still be considered one of the greatest American filmmakers who had ever lived. Fusing the freedom of continental European production techniques and styles, with the use of found locations and non-actors, with the focused artistic discipline of the theatre, those films all represent Orson at the very height of his artistic powers. Of the three, Chimes was the one closest to his heart, but all were products over which he had complete creative control. The days of fighting studios and backers for the final cut, so he thought, were more or less over.
Another important development in Welles’ life at this point is Oja Kodar, the Croatian writer, artist and actress with whom he had developed a personal and artistic relationship. Kodar was something genuinely new in Orson’s life. Not only was she an astounding lover (she claims Orson was, too, for the record), she was a modern feminist woman with strong opinions, intelligence and literacy equal to Welles’ and a complete identity apart from Orson. She didn’t need him in any specific way, but she chose to be with him anyway. Orson kept his Italian wife Paola (star of Mr Arkadin) at home, and remained married to her and officially loyal, but he led a complete other life with Oja. She pushed him artistically into daring places involving erotica (“dirty movies,” as he himself put it) and opened his eyes to new ways of working and a whole new generation’s attitude towards love and freedom in the 1960s. Orson enjoyed it thoroughly. He and Oja were to remain together to the end of his life.
Some historical context is required to understand how Orson came to make this experimental documentary about “forgery and fraud”. Howard Hughes, though his name carries significantly less weight today, was a towering figure in the early and mid 20th century. Kane himself is based at least partially on this odd, obsessive man who spent his family’s considerable wealth on aircraft designs, movies and his own peculiar interests. He was one of the richest men in America and high in the running for richest worldwide. But he was also an odd recluse, with legendary stories about living in a sterilized hotel suite, tended by Mormon guards and letting his hair and nails grow. By the late 1960s, Hughes had essentially bought Las Vegas from its now-indicted mafia landlords and installed himself in a blacked-out suite.
In 1971, an investigative writer named Clifford Irving published a “biography” of Howard Hughes, ostensibly based on interviews with and carrying the sanction of the man himself. This led to a legendary scandal, as Hughes claimed, and Irving later admitted, that he had based the book on conjecture and second-hand information and had never met Hughes. Irving spent some time in prison for that act of fraud, but the names Irving and Hughes were all over the media for a moment in the early 1970s.
As it turns out, Irving’s book just before his Hughes biography was titled Fake! : The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. Orson was intrigued by both books, and at around this time Welles colleague François Reichenbach was editing some interview footage he shot in Ibiza, Spain, featuring Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving for a documentary intended for French television. Orson was taking a hand in the editing, intrigued by the source material, when the story broke about Irving’s fraudulent biography of Hughes. Suddenly, Welles realized that they had a chance to make a film that really addressed one of the hottest issues of the day and also explored the notion of forgery. Because he now had an art forger (de Hory), a biography forger (Irving) and he decided, based on his War of the Worlds antics and other lies from the old days, that he himself would be the third forger. He would make a film from all of this “found footage”, shot for a very different purpose, about fakery.
When it was finally finished in 1973, F for Fake was one of the boldest and yet most entertaining films ever made. Welles “hosts” the story from his editing suite but also appears in filmed segments, including footage shot at a party attended by Welles and de Hory, and adds an entirely new 25-minute segment to bring a modest TV documentary up to feature length. The film had to pieced together from interview segments, cutaways, sometimes just focusing the camera, that is, footage that most filmmakers would throw away, so Welles just embraced that aesthetic. Rather than trying to hide different time periods or film stocks, Welles just plunges ahead, mixes it up, adds freeze-frames and jump-cuts, runs footage backwards and forwards, repeats them in loops (this is LONG before MTV) and somehow keeps all of the plates spinning while telling a seductive yarn.
More than any of his other films, F for Fake gives you a sense of what it must have been like to spend time with Welles at this point in his life. And he was certainly an engaging and entertaining presence. No somber seriousness, here: Welles laughs uproariously, tells vaguely dirty jokes, points out ironies with his incisive mind, puts on accents to imitate old Hungarians and really fills the room. At one point, laughing over dinner, he spills wine over the tablecloth and that, too, is incorporated into this rollicking patchwork of a film. Orson’s humor was evident right from his days on the radio, but rarely was it in full display as it is here.
Other than Welles’ amazing editing and engaging personality, this is also the film that incorporates his most beloved of art forms: Magic. “Watch closely,” Welles intones as performs some sleight of hand tricks at the beginning of the film. He also includes some footage that would later emerge as the “Orson Welles Magic Show”, but this really illustrates the kind of artist Orson saw himself to be. One of his greatest tragedies, according to writers like Simon Callow and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is that Welles never saw himself as a “serious artist”. He always strove in some ways for the mass audience of Spielberg or his friend John Huston, and loved to please an audience, living for their flattery and approval. On the other hand, his artistic impulses sabotaged that for him time and time again, as he would produce works so challenging and different, and yet behave as if they were something for mass appeal. F for Fake is a great example. The film, even today, seems ahead of its time. Anticipating “dub step” and the fast, assertive editing of the 1980s and music videos, the film is hardly going to appeal to an every day movie goer. And yet, somehow Orson thought it would and was disappointed that it didn’t. It’s as if he had performed a magic trick so elaborate that the audience didn’t “get it”, and applauded out of respect for his abilities rather than the trick itself.
The whole film is structured as an elaborate joke, a play on the notion that documentary means “the absolutely and impartial unquestionable immutable truth.” (Just for the record: that ridiculous notion never applies.) But Orson puts it in writing, at the beginning of this film, that everything it will recount for the next hour is true. That promise, of course, gives him a legal out and when he’s recounting at the end of the film a strange tale in which Oja convinces Pablo Picasso to draw her in the nude and this represents a great lost treasure trove of paintings, we go along with it. Until, smirking like the magician who has managed to fool his audience, he admits that the filmmakers kept their promise, but “That hour was over 20 minutes ago. Ever since then, we’ve been lying our heads off.”
The best contemporary comparison for a film like this would found in film schools, not in the hands of major filmmakers. Indeed: surveying the status of Welles’ colleagues from the 1940s and 1950s in this era just shows how restless Orson was artistically. Goddard may have been as bold, but Fellini had retreated into his eccentricities by this point, Hitchcock was only making “Hitchcock” films and there weren’t many of those left to come. John Huston remained a vital and creative director, but even at his most experimental he never would have made something like F for Fake. Even the New German cinema at the time, with a young Werner Herzog and Fassbinder, only matched Orson for artistic experimentation without surpassing him. Welles’ American disciples, Coppola, Scorsese and the American New Wave, were just catching up to where he had been in the 1950s. Welles was very much the leader of the artistic pack.
But the major difference between Welles and the rest of these artists was that they were all working, often with major studio backing, and Orson was broke and homeless. After the release of F for Fake, he returned to the United States, fully intending to get in on some of the new artistic freedom in the 1970s, already starting to be known as the “era of the director” in Hollywood. Finding no support within Hollywood itself, Welles, as he usually did, began filming anyway, this time of his magnum opus, a film that would synthesize everything he’d learned in Europe and everything he’d learned from Oja with the sensibilities of the new Hollywood. Telling the story of an old director hosting a party at his house, partially to raise money for a new film, The Other Side of the Wind starred John Huston and was shot, on and off, for years. Unreleased and unfinished to this day, we’ll look at the film and its legend another time.
But thankfully, F for Fake remains and is available in a very handsome DVD from the Criterion Collection with beautiful picutre and sound, commentary tracks and excellent documentaries about Orson (Oja’s homage to his later years, One Man Band) and de Hory, catching us up with some of the figures from the film, including a smiling and engaging Clifford Irving. It’s a treasure, like having Orson’s MA thesis, the last film from a master who always considered himself a student.