H for Hype

Hoodwinkery... swindle... prestidigitation. The themes of Orson Welles's ninety minute film essay. F for Fake, beckon from the press releases
By Mark T. Whitaker

Hoodwinkery... swindle... prestidigitation. The themes of Orson Welles's ninety minute film essay. F for Fake, beckon from the press releases like metaphors of easy virtue. They beg to be used--as catch-words and commentary, not only on art forgery (the movie's main topic), but on movies themselves, on Welles as a director, on the art world in general, and on life. A real come on. It's enough to give any reviewer sweaty palms and a self-conscious stutter.

The pretentiousness of the film itself doesn't help matters. Welles looms onto the screen at the outset, his stupendous bulk cloaked in a magician's cape, pulling pennies out of a boy's mouth and making keys disappear. Next he jumps to his editing room, where he's making movie magic--cutting and splicing a documentary about another sleight-of-hand expert. Hungarian art forger Elmyr deHory. But also about deHory's biographer. Clifford Irving, a hoaxster in his own right. Have it straight so far? F for Fake is thus a cinematic illusion (movie), directed by a renowned beguiler (Welles), about a world-famous flimflammer (Irving) who at the time the film was shot just happened to be assembling a life story of the modern art market's most remarkable phony (deHory). And that's just what the viewer (victim) is supposed to believe. By running the story through flash-forwards, flash-backs, run-arounds and red herrings, Welles goes on to confuse the audience about the veracity of anything, or everything, or--as Welles might like to suggest--nothing.

The message is that art may just be a big gimmick. Unfortunately, F for Fake, as a gimmick on gimmicks, soon begins to wear thin.

The exhibitionist style cloys, because as pure documentary F for Fake has such potential. Welles tracks deHory down in Ibiza, a picturesque Spanish island, where the forger has given up his life of crime for a jolly semi-retirement. (He no longer sells his fakes--Picassos, Modiglianis, Matisses and Van Dongen--but still occupies a villa provided by an art dealer who has turned a handsome middleman's profit on deHory's imitations.)

Stories about deHory's life make for a marvelous puzzle. The man affects the aristocrat, adopting the "de" before his pseudonym and wearing a monocle. Yet Irving traces his origins back to a Budapest ghetto, where deHory started life as Elemere Hoffman. Irving claims that Elmyr's fakes hang in prestigious museums all over Europe and America, but the so-called experts insist not. Others swear up and down that deHory signed the paintings he forged, making their sale illegal; the charming counterfeiter (no doubt at his lawyer's behest) denies the charge. The testimony conflicts like crazy.

Too bad Welles couldn't have graciously ceded the spotlight to deHory, instead of forcing himself, and his own legerdemain, to center stage. He keeps butting--reciting from Kipling, lumbering through fog in Ireland, gluttoning himself with oysters and steaks. Somehow this went over big in Europe, where F for Fake has already played. Some superstars have only to throw a little self-adulation into their work--their childhood memories, their hors-d'oeuvres, their kitchen sinks--and eager-tongued adulators lap it up. Welles and Barbara Walters.

When his own ego is sated, Welles rolls on with self-indulgence to spare, he introduces into F for Fake, for no apparent reason, a young Hungarian protegee named Oja Kodar. Not only a svelte, swarthy beauty, he assures us, but a major new talent: brilliant, sophisticated, articulate. Welles then proceeds to regale himself with two quarter-hour sequences of Kodar parading her proportions around Parisien, and then Hungarian streets.

Her behind certainly speaks volumes, but no more than an ad for No Nonsense panty hose. Or maybe Diet Pepsi and "the shape that girl-watchers watch." Forty-five years ago Welles made two films that set a twenty-year peace for cinematic experiment. Now he's cribbing from underwear commercials.

The man remains nothing if not slick, though, and F for Fake still manages to stay one step ahead of the critic. Throughout the film Welles polemicizes against the expert. Who's to judge authenticity? Is there any such thing as true documentary? If not, who's to knock Welles for all this narrative cutsiness? What's the aim of art: to please the critics or the public? As long as deHory--and in this case, Welles--gets away with it, who's to condemn?

Welles crosses the screen, his foot-long cigar perched between his lips, and booms: "Picasso once said 'Truth is a Lie. A lie,'" he adds, 'which helps to understand reality.'" Take that detractors.

Well, Welles may have launced F for Fake as a salvo against the experts, but Welles's most convincing case against flaunted connaisseurship did not emerge until he brought the film to Cambridge last weekend. It came during the event surrounding the premiere--at a press conference the morning before the opening and a midnight Q and A session after. The groupies grouped. The sycophants psycho-fantasized. The boot-lickers jostled for position.


At the press conference...

Interlocutor: Mr. Welles, am I right in saying the last two reels of The Magnificent Ambersons are packed in a safe in South America?

Welles: I've heard that story, yes.

Interlocutor (embarrassed): Oh, oh--I see.

After the press conference, in the Men's Room...

Fan: Imagine! Of my three idols--the three men I always wanted to meet--that's one dead, one down and one to go.

Fan's friend: Who are the three?

Fan (proudly): Edward R. Murrow, Orson Welles and Tom Snyder.

And that night at the Q and A session. . .

Welles: A director is just a presider over accidents.

Cineastes: Applause.

Welles: I'd like to see more movies made in the way my Macbeth was.

Cineastes: Wild applause.

Welles: I'm afraid I might start to take myself too seriously.

Cineastes: Admiring oohs and aahs.

Note: During all this the Public Address system at the Orson Welles Cinema, which charged three dollars a head for the lecture, has been picking up tunes from a local radio station. As Welles swings into his last pronouncements, the PA brings forth "The Hustle.")

(Welles himself summed up the weekend perfectly, thirty years ago. He was on the set of The Third Man, giving his flawless performance as Harry Lime. The movie's producer, Alexander Korda, was getting on his nerves. Orson reportedly said to him, "I wish the Pope would make you a cardinal, Alex." "Why a cardinal?" Kroda wondered. "Because then," Welles retorted, "we'd only have to kiss your ring.")

The gush ran thick and embarrassing for a man whose career has proved such an anti-climax. The searching, potentially revealing questions about Welles floated over the exchange and remained unanswered. Not because questioners failed to hint at them, but because Welles himself didn't seem to catch their drift.

These queries come by way of Welles's films about disillusionment and corruption: Kane, Lady from Shanghai and the incomparably vice-ridden Touch of Evil. Does Welles identify his life with any of the characters he played or created in these works? Like Michael O'Hara, the sentimental drifter in Lady Shanghai, did he decide early that society uses dreamers; has his work since the seminal first films been that of a disappointed, weary and half-serious wanderer? Does he feel for the sort of cynical moral relativism that Marlene Dietrich sums up so jadedly as she watches the fat, fraudulent and exposed cop, Harry Quinlan, sink beneath the river garbage in the closing shots of Touch of Evil? ("He was a real man," Dietrich mutters. "What can you say about people?")

His indirect answers suggest not. When taking up these works, he treats O'Hara and Quinlan like any other "types." "In Touch of Evil, I was all on the side of Charlton Heston," he says. (Heston plays the Mexican sleuth who gets the goods on Quinlan). Besides, he adds, "I'm someone who likes to look out, not in."

Welles comes off as a man seeped in, and limited to, a theatrical attitude towards Art. (He never tires of adoring his cohorts.) O'Hara and Quinlan seems to work for him only because they make for good melodrama. When you think about this insight as a guide to his career, it makes sense.

If Welles's genius springs primarily from his sense of the operatic and the Thespian, and not from any personalized vision, this explains away all the bewilderment about why he has "wasted" himself bringing Shakespeare bombastically to the screen and reciting poetry on the Tonight Show. To stage a production is to stage a production. Citizen Kane and Ambersons may have constituted neither flukes nor the harbinger of a restless, inspired, opus: they may just have proven that stage-wizard Welles, given good material and the tools of his trade, can put on one hell of an incomparable show.

F for Fake tends to nail this thesis down. For this movie does appear to represent a sort of personal statement--"This is the type of work I'd do if I didn't have to earn money," Welles says--and it merely celebrates technique. The result brings to mind the modern writer whose idea of an Artistic adventure is to describe the side of his writing desk. All along, Welles may have really needed those trusty, stock story lines to hold on to.

Yet some people will continue to fish for fat meaning and lessons about life. A young man rose during the midnight exchange and said to Welles: "I just wanted to tell you that I thought F for Fake was a masterpiece--one of the most exciting things I've experienced--and I'm going home to think and think about it." When some simple editing tricks pass as so many profundities, no wonder Welles thinks of Art as the art of putting one over