Sunday, October 11, 2015

F For Fake: The Least Fake Welles There Is

On the 30 anniversary of Orson Welles' death.

By Lars Trodson

A scene from "F For Fake," released in 1973.

I was in New York recently and went to the Museum of Modern Art. In one of the galleries, hanging on its own wall, was Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” It was clearly a hit. There were more people gathered around it than any other painting, and the handhelds were out, clicking away. I was thinking about this because works of art deemed classic, or extraordinary, often occupy their own private physical space. “Starry Night” was on its own wall, while the other, lesser Van Gogh’s were hung in clusters with all the other lesser, less special paintings. This holds true for  almost all types of so-called classic art, such as the “Mona Lisa,” Michaelangelo’s sculptures and even the original Declaration of Independence.” They occupy their own space.

Movies, on the other hand, cannot occupy the same kind of hallowed ground. The prominence of any movie is based solely on the space you give to it in your own mind. In the physical world “Citizen Kane” can be shelved right next to “Booty Call,” but in your head they may be miles apart.

I was thinking of this because the one film that my mind clicks over to when I hear the name Orson Welles is “F For Fake.” I always wonder why that is, because it is such a curious thing, a hogdepodge of philosophical musings, practical jokes, red herrings, interviews, fake news and, in some places, insights about art that are quite profound.
Oja Kodar in 'F For Fake'

There really is no other film like it. It’s not a perfect film; I find the end game with Picasso and Oja Kodar all rather tiresome. Maybe that wasn’t the case when I first saw the film, but when I return to it I inevitably find my attention waning as it gets closer to the end.

But what is it about that first hour? 

I think, and this is in some ways a surprising thing, is that "F For Fake" is one of the few films where Welles is not in any kind of deep disguise. He’s not hiding behind a wig or a costume or an accent. He's just himself. In this film, shot over a number of years, Welles is more or less in his late 50s.
He looks quite good; big, yes, but healthy, with clear, twinkling eyes. He is engaging and affable, low-key, witty and sly, just as you would imagine him to be at a cocktail party (there is in fact a cocktail party in this movie). Welles is very much alive in this film, and he is a pleasing, reassuring presence — certainly the most sane person in it, surrounded as he is with a bunch of con artists and hangers-on.

But there is something else. “Fo For Fake” is a film that depicts a wonderfully glamorous world, a world of artists and European train stations, and the sparkling isle of Ibiza in all its 1970s glory, and there is Orson drinking wine in a field or eating in a swanky restaurant, and you think to yourself what a marvelous world to be in. The feeling is aided by that light Michel
Orson Welles, 1915-1985
Legrand music, buoyant in that early 1970s way. One of the tricks Welles pulls off in “F For Fake” is that the audience does feel a part of that world, if only for a little while. It’s cozy, like a home movie, filled with friends and you're there to listen in.

Although it’s serious in parts, “F For Fake” comes across as prankish, lighthearted, and because of that it is also, by far, the sexiest film Welles ever made. It is a sexy, warm world he has created here, and that is another thing that pulls you in. Welles never made another film so light on its feet — it is direct contrast to the ham-fistedness of some other works, such as “The Trial” or, God help us, “Mr. Arkadin.”

Because of that, this one is, I think, the one film that should really last in Welles’ oeuvre, not only for its artistry and its uniqueness, but because it is the only film that catches the essence of the man Welles must have been: thoughtful and funny, with a wonderfully inventive take on the world. Plus, all the people he had known!He was the wittiest guest at the party, surrounded by pretty women, and "F For Fake" is the closest us outsiders will ever get to that party, a party that was held when we were all younger and when some of the people we knew and loved were very much alive.