“What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art.'”
I first learned about F For Fake in a short video essay by Every Frame a Painting. Video essays are a film buff’s ticket to YouTube fame these days, because these things are popping up everywhere. They typically take a film or a director and put forward some thesis about why things work or don’t work, exploring cinema from this narrow lens. I’ve grown bored with most of them, which meander through the surface of a subject without much in-depth analysis. Tony, however, from Every Frame a Painting, still rings true for me. He doesn’t make a lot of videos these days, but when he does, they always feel natural. It’s like he really treasures the films he discusses, and he has these ideas he’s been dying to explain. There’s a sense of honesty, which brings me to F For Fake, a film about dishonesty.
F For Fake is also a video essay, a feature length exploration about “fraud and trickery.” Orson Welles dissects this theme as it plays out in real life, jumping around a handful of “true life” stories in which people partake in deception, whether on a smaller or larger scale. The most memorable excerpt, and the one that seems to take up the most screen time, is that of Elmyr de Hory, one of the world’s most notorious art forgers. If Welles is to be trusted (which he very well mightn’t be), Elmyr is responsible for millions of dollars in phony paintings which sit in some of the world’s most prestigious art museums. His smug, playful comments seem to confess his guilt, though you can never be too sure due to the lack of concrete details.
From start to finish, I really loved the movie. At first, I was tempted to call it a big juicy layer cake for all its levels of storytelling and wonderful depth of analysis, but it feels even better than that. F For Fake is like a marble cake. It has distinctive layers, but they mesh into each other in a messy, wonderful construction that Welles’ has carefully crafted beat for beat. Thematic ideas connect every story in the film, with Welles himself serving as your dark, mysterious guide. Dressed in a slick black cloak with his mature, captivating baritone voice, Welles tempts you to trust him as he explores distrust itself. He never lets his audience get too comfortable, but it serves the themes of the film perfectly, and it never drags once.
In one pivotal scene towards the end, Welles himself plays a trick on his audience. There’s a give-away at the beginning of the film that I was able to pick up on that lets you know something is coming at the end (Welles promises complete honesty to his audience “for the next hour,” but the film is 90 minutes long), but by the time the trickery actually happened, I had forgotten all about the introduction and was really pleased with how everything wrapped up, no matter how fabricated it was. Proving himself once again to be a master storyteller, Welles meshes philosophy with actuality, fiction with fact, and even life with death, all in a concise piece of cinema that holds its focus.
Maybe I should have worked my way through Welles’s work chronologically instead of jumping from start to end, but I haven’t adhered to much structure up to this point, and F For Fake has been towards the top of my list for a while now. It seems a fitting film for Welles’s final project. It serves as a curtain speech in a lot of ways. From the powerful monologue about the permanence of man’s creations to the deep dive into the merits of fictional storytelling through a look at his own professional career, there’s a lot of passion in this movie that makes it feel personal. When Welles bids his audience a good evening in the final scene, he book-ends an exciting life of adventure and artistry through film, and I thank him for his service.
Films Left to Watch: 870