DVD Review: F is for Fake

Everyone has heard of Orson Welles, or at least “Citizen Kane,” his film debut. After all, the American Film Institution named “Kane” the number one film of all time in their 1998 poll. “Kane” was released in 1942, but Welles lived until 1985. In that time, he lived to make such films as “F for Fake” and to provide the voice of Unicron in “Transformers: The Movie.” Even Welles didn’t bat a thousand.

But he didn’t really care. He would take almost any acting gig that supported his real love, directing. Almost all of Welles’ directorial work from his last twenty years was left unfinished, except for “F for Fake,” which has just been released on DVD in a special edition from the Criterion Collection. And it shows that Welles never lost his talent or relentless drive for innovation; the man characterized as a has-been could keep up with any Goddardian innovator/imitator given half the chance.

“Fake” is the true story of many fakes and a few fake stories about fakes. I love that description. In this case, truth is truly stranger than fiction. Welles’ creates a portrait of internationally known art forger Elmyr de Hory, who had recently been the subject of a bestselling biography by Clifford Irving called “Fake.”

After the success of Irving’s book, for which Elmyr sued him, the author was called by legendary recluse Howard Hughes (the subject of the recent biopic “The Aviator”) to help with Hughes’ own autobiography. Hughes trusted the writer enough to give him complete access to his autobiographical manuscripts, which Irving turned in to the publisher. Irving received the advance on Hughes’ behalf.

Then, Hughes made the unprecedented move of speaking with the press. He refused to be photographed, so he was interviewed via a microphone, through which he denied ever having met Clifford Irving. Was this really Howard Hughes on the microphone? Or had Irving learned too much about forgery from his former subject?

Welles doesn’t want to make a simple documentary of a story that was highly played out in the press at that time. He took that edge of a story and fleshed it out with documentary footage of Elmyr, interviewing Irving himself, going into an exploration of Hughes, and then jumbling them all together. Rather than allowing his audience to relax, he cuts in and out of the stories, with such shots as pulling from an interview out to viewing the same material on an editing machine, to his own comments about the content of the piece.

Finally, Welles pulls out a new story of fakery: the case of the missing Picassos. He reveals how a beautiful woman seduced Picasso into painting her 22 portraits of her, on the condition she could keep them and never bring them to sale. This is no longer documentary footage of the real participants. Now, Welles acts out the entire scenario with, ostensibly, the woman involved, in a dank set that resembles an avant-garde production of “Waiting for Godot.”

But is this a real story? Or just another fake? How can we ever trust anything the camera shows, ostensibly documentary or not?

“Fake” engenders, within its audience, the ability to look at the world in a new, more perceptive way, one of the highest compliments I could offer a piece of art.

This is a Criterion Collection DVD; thus, beyond the stunning print, there are great special features.

The highlight is an astonishing documentary on Welles’ final years that puts to rest all myths of him as a failure. Looking at parts of his unfinished works, included in the documentary, he clearly remained a maverick genius. He was misunderstood; everyone else was just catching up to his achievements in “Kane” when he was investigating this “Fake.”

With such an adventuresome spirit, misfires are inevitable—note the bizarre readings of random chapters of “Moby Dick” also included in the documentary—but sometimes it works and creates something glorious far beyond the bounds of convention. “Fake” is one such effort.

Or is it?

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

—Staff writer Scoop A. Wasserstein can be reached at wasserst@fas.harvard.edu.

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