Friday, October 7, 2011

Criterion Collection - F for Fake

The idea entered my mind like a transmission from orbit: I-should-watch-the-entire-Criterion-Collection. Maybe it was my fatigue, or the glass of red wine, but, it seemed achievable. And wanting something calm but curious, for my first attempt, I picked the movie 'F for Fake' - Orson Welles's and Francis Richenbach's epic of fraud, sleight of hand, and professional tomfoolery.

The movie begins with Welles himself performing several simple tricks for a young boy with a fabulously wealthy and beautiful mother, clad in expensive furs, looking on. Welles's gravelly narration brings you in and hypnotizes you, and as he explains his intentions - to catalog fakery of all kinds, the movie's credits roll over a montage of men being distracted by a gorgeous woman, shown only from the waist down, walking along in a skimpy dress. "Her name - is Oja."

The point of all this is perhaps to demonstrate the power of distraction, which the film proceeds to make a great deal of use of. It continues in a difficult to follow stream of consciousness style, jumping from one narrator to the next, Welles annotating in a manner one could only describe as vague. Soon it emerges that the movie is all about the island of Ibiza, and two men who live on it, two notorious cons, Elmyr LNU, and Clifford Irving, who have "made each other famous" through their fakery. Welles tries to tell us this is a movie within a movie, a fake within a fake, lies within lies, but so much is happening at once it is hard to tell what he means. A visual sleight of hand, perhaps.

Elmyr, it turns out, is an art forger of such exceptional skill that the artists themselves look upon his forgeries and declare that they themselves painted them. And Clifford is writing a book about him. But who is the master faker? asks Welles, and somehow, all this is tied back to a man of even deeper, more persistent mystery: Howard Hughes. As a Millennial I found this baffling. I knew who Howard Hughes was, but the rest, was I supposed to know them? This was covered in Life magazine, but I wasn't alive to read it.

Without warning, the story shifts to Hughes and Las Vegas and the power of rumor, with Welles as much character as narrator, upstaging himself. And what does this have to do with anything? It seems Irving penetrated the great hermit's shell and wrote a new story... but is this story true? Or is it simply another articulate fake, like the Elmyr of journalism? It is all an attack on the authority of experts, whom the principal characters of the movie - Elmyr, Irving, and Welles - categorically reject. They do not believe in expertise, they say.

The focus shifts again - this time to Welles himself, who paints his career from the age of sixteen onward as a path of fakery leading up, of course, to his most famous con, The War of the Worlds. Through an account of Citizen Kane, we come back to the 'Hughes Affair', and all too quickly we hear a confession from Irving, accused of creating a hoax - but is this merely another hoax, laid atop it all? No matter what, Irving, and whatever accomplices he has, benefit.

In the final moments of the movie, Oja makes her triumphant return, and we learn her story, though little sense it makes in the sense of the greater story. My patience grew short, waiting to see how this would all connect (perhaps because, as a woman myself, I found less appeal in watching Oja than others might have). Welles steals the show again, putting more life into the story than the story puts into itself.

Inevitably, I felt myself straying to Wikipedia, wondering what the hell all these people were talking about. But just as quickly, I found myself echoing the sentiments of Richenbach, who earlier in the film recounts purchasing art, after learning of Elmyr, and opting not task questions of the art dealer, as he no longer wishes to know whether he is getting the real thing or not. I found that neither did I. Whether this movie was a complete fabrication or not, it was an interesting meditation on what 'real' really is, what art really is, and a curious story of the life of an elderly art forger. Why not simply take this movie for what it is? Why taint that with the ideas of experts? "As long as there are fakers, there have to be experts," the movie says. But even more so, we must deny the expert that dwells within every soul, the devil on your shoulder asking, "It's pretty... but is it art?"