Movie Review
F for Fake


Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar

realize that here at Stylus, as with most media outlets, whether print or online, the movies reviewed are typically current releases in theatres. So, let me go ahead and apologize in advance for neglecting XXX: State of the Union and Monster-in-Law in favor of something that strikes me as considerably more important—and worthy of several-hundred words of press exposure.

First, I want to encourage all fellow cinephiles reading this piece to join me in worshipping at the shrine of The Criterion Collection. Sure, their DVDs are as expensive as hell, but I’ll be damned if they’re not doing as much as anybody, this side of Godard himself, to try and Save Cinema through acknowledging and paying homage to its rich, profoundly idiosyncratic history. Speaking of Godard, they’ve so far released wonderful editions of Contempt, Alphaville, and Band of Outsiders. (I haven’t yet checked out their versions of A Woman Is a Woman and Tout va Bien, but I imagine they’re no less remarkable.) Among Criterion’s other saintly acts are a Carl Theodor Dreyer box-set (including Day of Wrath, Ordet, Gertrud, and an excellent documentary on Dreyer, Carl Th. Dreyer – My Metier), plus The Passion of Joan of Arc (released separately); a collection of experimental shorts by seminal avant-gardist Stan Brakhage; a handful of Yasujiro Ozu gems; and an upcoming release (June 14) of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the greatest films ever made), following earlier releases of Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Diary of a Country Priest.

While this is merely the tip of the iceberg of the great, previously hard- or impossible-to-find films The Criterion Collection has made widely available, their release of these films is, really, only half the triumph. The DVDs themselves are exquisite, in every way, almost always worth their hefty price tags. Superficially speaking, they’re simply gorgeous. Appealing cover art doesn’t mean all that much, granted, but it’s nevertheless nice to see great films like these displayed in a more appropriate fashion than the supremely cheesy VHS boxes that they were heretofore available exclusively in, if at all. More importantly, the transfers on Criterion DVDs are infallibly pristine, often seeming nothing short of miraculous considering the awful, eyesore versions you would typically have to endure to see a lot of these films before their Criterion releases. The extra features included never seem like the kind of cutting-room fodder tacked on to purely to jack up the price on a so-called “special edition”; more often than not, in fact, you’ll discover resources that may well prove vital to your overall appreciation of the feature itself. In addition, most Criterion releases (or perhaps all, as I don’t believe I’ve yet encountered an exception) include an in-depth essay by an expert in their particular filmic area.

In the case of Criterion’s recent release of F for Fake, the essay is penned by Chicago Reader film critic and Welles aficionado Jonathan Rosenbaum, who notes:
It would be comforting to say my early appreciation of F for Fake included an adequate understanding of just how subversive it was (and is). But leaving aside the critique of the art world and its commodification via “experts”—which is far more radical in its implications than Citizen Kane’s critique of William Randolph Hearst—it has only been in recent years, with the rewind and stop-frame capacities of video, that the sheer effrontery of many of Welles’s more important tricks can be recognized, making this film more DVD-friendly than any of his others. It’s also taken some time for us to realize that his methodology in putting this film together gave him a kind of freedom with his materials that he never had before or since. For a filmmaker who often avowed that the art of cinema resided in editing, F for Fake must have represented his most extended effort.
Later, Rosenbaum makes mention of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and the comparison registers as extremely apt. Both are the products of unparalleled masters of their respective mediums, working near the end of their careers (or life), and simply going for broke. No trick in either artist’s proverbial bag goes unused, many of which require multiple viewings or readings to reveal their presence. For the unadventurous, they’re likely to be described as “difficult,” “unconventional,” “inaccessible,” or worse, but for the actively engaged participant in Welles’s or Joyce’s exercises, they’re not only immensely rewarding and endlessly fascinating but also quite a lot of fun to try and get one’s head around.

Far more difficult than enjoying F for Fake is the legitimate dilemma of attempting to enumerate its virtues and map out its “plot” in writing. I echo the sentiments of Peter Bogdanovich (co-author of the vital collection of interviews, This Is Orson Welles, edited, incidentally, by Rosenbaum) in his assertion that it’s “like no other film ever made.” Lionized as a genius and maverick and condemned as an enfant terrible, Welles regarded himself as, above all, a magician, an entertainer, a charlatan. Suffice it to say, then, that F for Fake is a meditation on illusion, fakery, and lying, in all of its various forms (including film itself), “starring” Welles, his companion and associate Oja Kodar, art forger Elmyr de Hory, (pseudo-)biographer Clifford Irving, Howard Hughes, and Pablo Picasso. If such a cast listing doesn’t peak your interest, the film’s bizarre, playful nine-minute trailer (included on the DVD) should do the trick.

When most people are asked about Orson Welles, they’ll most likely respond with something about Citizen Kane, maybe his iconic role in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, and perhaps his notorious radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. General familiarity with Welles’s work tends to drop of dramatically after these common speaking points. How many fans of Welles’s perennially celebrated debut have seen his very different, but, in its way, equally striking follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, one of the most personal films ever made (and tragically decimated) in Hollywood? How many Shakespeare devotees, or admirers of Shakespearean filmizations in particular, have bothered investigating Welles’s daringly unconventional adaptations of Macbeth, Othello, and, most notably, Chimes at Midnight, considered by some to be Welles’s masterpiece (and a very convincing case can certainly be made to that end)?

The addition of F for Fake to The Criterion Collection is a major step toward a better understanding of one of the most accomplished artists of the past century. The inclusion of audio commentary by Kodar (now in charge of the Welles estate) and director of photography Gary Graver, and a second disc that includes a documentary (of sorts) on Welles cleverly mimicking F for Fake’s novel structure and another one detailing a history of art forgery simply sweetens the pot.

Bless you, Criterion.

By: Josh Timmermann
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