F For Fake: Exposing a Charlatan

The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

At the beginning of Orson Welles’ final film preceding his untimely death — a pseudo-documentary/video essay which explores the nature of fakery, expertise, and the craft of storytelling itself — Welles takes on the role of himself (perhaps the greatest role he ever played) and tells the audience, in no uncertain terms, that everything they will be told for an entire hour will be nothing but the God’s honest truth. This is only the first of many, many lies that will come in that proposed hour. F For Fake (1973) is a cinematic experience quite unlike anything to come before or since. Never has there been a film which more convincingly blurs the line between reality and fiction than Welles’ spellbinding reflection on fakery. Its experimental fast-paced editing and enigmatic charm pull you into its reality, where truths and lies freely mingle, indistinguishable from one another. On a first viewing, Welles’ overwhelming charisma and careful sleight of hand are able to feed you countless lies while nary a viewer raises so much as an eyebrow to what’s being told, under the assumption that the promise given at the start of the film was sincere. “Tell it by the fireside, or the marketplace, or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie. But not this time.” Welles says, arrogantly believing he can tell the audience, blatantly, that he will proceed to lie to them wholly, but still expect them to accept everything as completely true. And yet, we do.

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F For Fake. Dir. Orson Welles.

The final fifteen minutes of the film constitutes a reenactment of a fake event: a cockamamie scheme involving co-writer Oja Kodar and famed painter Pablo Picasso, which after being told is revealed to have been a hoax, filling the film’s runtime after the initial hour of “truthfulness” has run its course. It’s a fun gag, certainly for the filmmakers who have pulled the proverbial rug out from under the audience, and for anyone willing to laugh at themselves a little for falling for Welles’ clever trick. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. Upon a second viewing, after one is privy to Welles’ intent to lie to the audience, one can begin to notice the myriad of lies Welles has sprinkled throughout the film: big, small, or otherwise immeasurable. The lies of the film come in three distinct varieties: those which are blatant, easily disprovable and not at all based in fact; those that are forgeries, twisting the facts or presenting information in a way which is directly misleading; and those which are highly suspect, things that cannot be proven as false but are still highly questionable in their legitimacy. Today, we’ll see the record set straight (to the extent that we can, anyway) and expose the lies of this self-proclaimed charlatan, and in the process, unveil how he was able to so conjure up lies as vivid and convincing as the forged masterpieces upon which the film initially centers its investigation.

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F For Fake. Dir. Orson Welles.

The greatest lies in the film have already been outlined, those being the phony promise at the beginning and the grandiose Picasso trickery at the end. Aside from these two, the majority of the film’s lies are much smaller, and easier to overlook; more than likely an intentional choice. Small things, mostly contained in the establishing of players, sneak under the radar, like the name of the famous art forger the film was originally about. “Elmyr Ferenc Huffman” we are told is his true name by his biographer, Clifford Irving, though after learning of Irving’s own hand in forging a faux biography of the legendary Howard Hughes can we really trust anything he says? A quick fact check shows that Elmyr de Hory’s real last name was in fact “Huffman,” but his middle name is not what Irving claims. A lie of this level is practically insignificant, but a lie all the same, and precedence to distrust much of what Irving says. Welles does his fair share of lying as well, claiming certain sequences seen are taken from unrelated projects when they were clearly shot for this very film. He does, however, manage to lie with more conviction when referring to a real previous endeavor, going as far as to enlist the help of two former collaborators to corroborate his alternate history. Richard Wilson, Welles’ assistant at the time of making Citizen Kane (1941), and Joseph Cotten, co-star of the film and long time friend of Welles, both appear in F For Fake to testify that the original idea for Welles’ first film was indeed a life story about a larger-than-life tycoon, but not a newspaper mogul. Instead of Welles, Cotten would have been playing the leading role, that of the maverick record-setting pilot, affluent movie producer, and world famous entrepreneur Howard Hughes; the same Howard Hughes who serendipitously found himself a subject of this film by way of Irving’s bogus biography.

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F For Fake. Dir. Orson Welles.

A search through the indexes of Welles’ own biographies find no mention of a Hughes-centric biopic, only two different projects considered before settling upon the premise of Kane. The first proposal was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a plan that ultimately fell apart when the constraints of the budget proved impossible for a proper adaptation. The second was a lighter project that could be quickly made before the end of the fiscal year. The Smiler with a Knife, it was called, and was pitched as a project for Lucille Ball, who wouldn’t become a household name for another ten years. This, too, fell through, and Citizen Kane was ultimately Welles’ first film. By all records, never was there even a consideration of making a film about Hughes. So, why the lie? Well, it certainly is a fantastic story, piling on even more coincidence atop the already unbelievable connectivity between Elmyr, Irving, Hughes, and Welles. The lie further solidifies Welles’ place within the story, strengthening this bizarre coalition of con-men. The point isn’t even really to make you believe Welles’ intricate lies. These falsities are told through sneering lips, signaling you to doubt the veracity of their claims. Every lie in the film is an intentional invitation for scrutiny, beckoning you to question what you yourself are willing to believe.

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F For Fake. Dir. Orson Welles.

This demand for critical observation is more evident in the more abstract lies of the film: those that are implied rather than spoken aloud. These “forgeries”, if you will, are easier to spot, but still require some offhand information to notice. The most notable of these fabrications is also the easiest to detect. Approximately halfway through the film, Welles begins to reflect on his history of deceptions that brought him fame and success. Specifically, Welles recounts the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast from 1938 that made Welles a household name. Snippets from the broadcast play over footage of cheaply crafted spaceships, from some 1950s B-movie you’ve never heard of, crashing into paper models of various national monuments. It’s hokey-looking and not at all related to Welles’ legendary Halloween hoax, which could also be said of the erroneous soundbites feigning authenticity. Anyone who has listened to the actual broadcast will tell you that not a single word uttered in F For Fake matches with what Welles used to spook the nation in 1938. Even if you haven’t listened to it you might be able to detect the recognizable participation of Welles’ close friend and confidant, Peter Bogdanovich. His unique voice is instantly recognizable to anyone who has watched the countless interviews he has participated in about many great Hollywood directors (Welles included), or from his own successful movie career, both acting and directing. His breathy voice acts as a signifier, alerting any keen observer to the bogus nature of the sequence, and perhaps as well the film as a whole.

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F For Fake. Dir. Orson Welles.

There are a series of smaller forgeries that build upon this web of misrepresentation Welles has laid out. Several shots of Howard Hughes presented in a bogus newsreel segment are actually actor Don Amache, the first line of the Kipling poem Welles reads is slightly altered, and footage of a newscaster reporting on the Irving-Hughes scandal is actually cinematographer Gary Graver doing an exaggerated, nasally affectation. The intent of all this is illusion: a simulation that renders you susceptible to the lies hidden within the deceit. Welles intentionally begins the film as a magician, utilizing his gift for diversion and sleight of hand to dazzle and distract a young boy and, so, too, the audience. Sporadically, he then employs a series of enigmatic accidents that interrupt segments as a way of reinforcing the seemingly casual approach of the film. A glass of wine is spilled over a map of Ibiza, a moviola runs out of film during the middle of a scene, and Welles interrupts himself mid-sentence to ask a waiter to take some unfinished food away. On first glance, these all appear to be natural happenstance that somehow found their way into the film during Welles’ eccentric editing sessions. But why? Why would Welles, the editor and ultimate visionary of this film’s end result, keep in these distracting and unmotivated moments of unrelated mistakes? A closer inspection reveals that they are not as unmotivated as they appear. One does not accidentally shoot three different camera angles of a wine glass spilling over if they didn’t intend to spill the wine to begin with. No, these were calculated moments of circumstance that Welles included to further disarm the audience, combined with a veneer of sincerity seducing them into a deeper state of susceptibility.

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F For Fake. Dir. Orson Welles.

With the blatant lies passing for truth, and the hypnotic forgeries made convincing, the confounding uncertainties of the film become all the more unclear. Uncertainties are the most numerous lies in the film, as the film is essentially built on stating as many unbelievable facts as possible from a number of unreliable sources and seeing what you’re willing to believe. No one in F For Fake is free from scrutiny. Every claim must be thoroughly questioned and considered before settling upon any final verdict. Like every other type of lie, the many uncertainties can be both small and large. Most of them come from Welles, during his color commentary of the events as he presents them. At one point, Welles shows us the corner of a van Dongen painting, supposedly forged by Elmyr. Elmyr is not in the shot, Welles is not in the shot, the entirety of the painting is not even in the shot. Welles claims that van Dongen himself studied this very painting and was certain that it was painted with his own hands. No further evidence is given to support this story, or frankly any story told in the film. We can’t even be sure it’s a van Dongen we’re seeing because of how little is being shown. Welles also tells a humorous story about Hughes and a secret sandwich hidden within a tree outside the hotel room he was living in. This story, too, is ridiculous, but not provable as either true or untrue. Welles does, however, give a potential tip of the hat by ending the sequence with a cut to unrelated footage of Francois Reichenbach saying, “How can that be true?” Welles is clearly aware of the preposterous nature of these stories.

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Newsreel footage of Howard Hughes stands in for testimony in F For Fake.

Given Hughes’ outlandish reputation, though, any number of stories about him could very well be true. In fact, the most uncertain thing within F For Fake isn’t even something that Welles tells us, but something incredible that happened in the midst of the film’s production. More than some phony connection between Welles and Hughes, the greatest coincidence of all came in early January of 1972, when, against all belief, Howard Hughes left the sanctuary of his coveted fifteen-year media absence to denounce Irving’s  fraudulent biography — supposedly. Hughes, eccentric as he ever was, didn’t come forward in the most conventional of manners. The exposing of Irving took place by way of a televised phone call, a team of journalists huddled around a lone speaker blaring into a microphone. It was a peculiar set up, and leaves something to question. At the time, Irving claimed the voice was an imposter, and so, too, does Welles cast doubt on the accuser’s identity. The official story authenticates Hughes as the voice despite Irving’s initial protests and the general skepticism of the whole event. Later that month, Irving confessed to forging the biography and served seventeen months in prison. And, yet, the evidence provided isn’t really conclusive. You can take the flimsy testimony of an indeterminate voice and the solemn word of a known charlatan as truth, but neither are concrete enough to lay to rest this most unusual of happenstance. Thus, Welles asks us to wonder, to doubt, to question what is real and what is not. That which we are promised may not always be true, and ultimately it is up to us to find the truths for ourselves; those that we can, anyhow.

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Welles piles on the curiosity of testimony by telephone by recreating the Hughes event in a supposed interview with Irving by the same means.

Fortunately, there are some truths to be found in F For Fake, though you’re likely not to believe them all amongst the clandestine lies. By the end, the mix of what is real and what isn’t has been so tainted that it becomes a herculean effort just to believe that the entire film isn’t just one giant put-on. However, in order to truly, convincingly lie about something at length there has to be some foundation in truth. If it was all hogwash, anyone could see through it as easily as looking through a screen door. The set up for F For Fake is all very real: Elmyr was a notorious art forger, Irving was his biographer, and there was a great scandal surrounding him and the Hughes biography. There are some rather wild claims thrown in as well that are pretty unbelievable, like Michelangelo being an art forger. Spoken in the same sentence, comparisons between Elmyr and the legendary renaissance painter seem quite ridiculous, but it is true. Even some of the tall tales told about Hughes are at least somewhat truthful. Who could ever believe that Hughes would trek out across the Las Vegas highway wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes, that certainly must be fake, right? Apparently not, at least not in the sense that Welles is lying. This story is at least true in spirit: a myth that floated around the Hollywood circles, speculating on what the legendary recluse must be up to sequestered away in his hotel fortress.

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F For Fake. Dir. Orson Wellees.

And what of Welles? How much of him is real? Welles notoriously lied throughout his life about things as insignificant as his own nose, wearing a false one in every single of of his roles. Welles has a long history of exaggerated claims and contradicting testimonies; some intentionally, some just absentmindedly. When he says he began his charlatan career in Dublin, lying his way into the local theater troupe to avoid going to college, is this not also another one of his well-documented rouses? If it is, it’s a consistent one. The details of Welles’ personal life will forever remain some kind of mystery, but it’s safe to say that this story of his humble origins as a luckless painter is as true as anything else Welles ever claimed, but the measure of that truth can only be decided by yourself. All things considered, F For Fake is as Wellesian a film as one could ever dream up. Every facet of it is emblematic of him as an artist: always in motion, perplexing and thought-provoking, and perhaps even a little incomplete. One could easily attempt to dismiss F For Fake as one giant prank, meant only to pull the rug out from under the audience in the final moments, but to do so would entirely defeat the purpose of Welles’ intentions. F For Fake demands your engagement, forcing you to question the obligations one has to the truth, and if the truth even truly matters. What’s been revealed here is only a fraction of the perjury Welles commits in F For Fake — that is, if you take my statements here as truth. Appropriately, Welles ends the film with a supposed quote from Picasso himself: “Art is a lie,” he says. After every other lie Welles has told, can you find it in yourself to believe this? I encourage you, at the behest of the all the great charlatans, to seek the truths hidden within the lies of life for yourself.

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