Some of my favorite movies feel like magic tricks. They feel so effortless and simple that when there’s a flick of the wrist or a wave of a finger, it leaves me thinking, how the hell did they pull that off? This is not to say that all my favorite movies have twist endings or beautiful shot composition, far from it. It’s more the way that a tonal shift is handled, or a character turn revealed. It’s the way it keeps you engrossed even when the premise itself is so absurd. And, most importantly, it’s how it makes you forget just what you’re watching.
It’s interesting, then, how F for Fake begins with Orson Welles performing magic for the audience. In case you haven’t heard of it, F for Fake is something of a free-form film essay primarily edited and narrated by the great Orson Welles. This was 1973, well past his golden years in Hollywood and into the era where he took every gig he was offered for some cash. But even then, he still had one of the most fascinating minds in all of film, and we’re given a look into it for about 90 minutes. Its IMDb summary says it’s “A documentary about fraud and fakery,” which is true, but it tells many stories during its runtime: the tale of Elmyr, one of the most notorious art forgers in all of Europe, the intertwining life of Clifford Irving, a disciple who went on to fool the world about Howard Hughes, Welles’ life, and a woman named Oja Kodar. How these stories interact with each other is the work of meticulous and wonderful editing.
I don’t often say that there are must-see movies in the world. Plenty of people have lived long and productive lives without ever seeing Citizen Kane or The Godfather, and adding that “must-see” moniker only adds to the skepticism of someone engaging with the movie for the first time. But, if you make creative work, either for a living or otherwise, I feel like you should see F For Fake. Not because it’s some technical masterpiece, but because I think that what it has to say will speak to you.
Because, like the summary suggests, it’s an essay about fraud, in all of its facets. About lies, and contracts with audiences.
One of the first discussions that F for Fake has is about “critics” and “experts” in fields of art. What the film venerates about Elmyr is that he was able to lift art styles of many different and famous painters, and completely fool the “experts” whose jobs it was to discern art from fraud. Clifford Irving, in an interview, discusses how easy it is to fool experts at galleries by simply changing the inflection of a question. What F for Fake asserts is that critics and experts are as fraudulent as those who commit the forgery. Their knowledge is not superior to that of the artists, nor of the consumer, and that they too engage in a bit of self-aggrandizing to improve their status. But – and this is important here – this isn’t an admonishment. F for Fake doesn’t seek to admonish fraud and fakery in the creative realm, it seeks to celebrate it.
Because it’s all a lie.
“Because the fakes are as good as the real ones,” says Edith Irving.
What F for Fake explores is the lie of “the real ones.” What, exactly, makes something “real” art? What makes a real artist? How can something be “real” when its core functionality is to lie to you? The intent of a film is to make you believe that the characters and setting that you see before you lives and breathes the very same air that you do in that moment, even though it’s all just an elaborate game of make-believe. It’s all a sly bit of slight of hand.
Neil Gaiman, in a blog post titled “The Neil Story,” discusses what’s called the Imposter Syndrome. It’s a term that describes a person’s inability to see their accomplishments as just that, and instead worry that they will be exposed as a fraud. I’ll let a much, much better storyteller give you the full story, but the end thesis is this: no one is immune to the Imposter Syndrome. And that’s what I think F for Fake perfectly captures. What makes Elmyr such an interesting character within the piece is that he is seemingly free from the thoughts of “I’m a fraud.” He knows he is and he knows he’s very good at being one, and he embraced it long before the cameras started rolling. This is not to say that there aren’t consequences for the kind of behavior he shows, in fact they’re very grave. But it’s an interesting dichotomy, isn’t it? The “fake” artist doesn’t worry about being outed as a fraud, and yet the “real” ones depicted are terrified of it. Except…are they real artists?
Orson Welles is one of the pillars of modern cinematic history. His first film, Citizen Kane (made when he was 25), is cited as one of, if not the greatest film ever made. Anybody who even has a passing interest in filmmaking has absolutely heard his name and has an opinion on Citizen Kane (usually it’s, “I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s so great”). He was an incredibly talented artist, whose career spanned many decades and mediums, and is one of the initial inspirations for the “Auteur Theory” during the French New Wave. He was a witty, humorous, big, bold, charismatic person bursting with ideas. But underneath all of that was a hole inside that could not be filled with food, or drink, or creativity. That hole was an incessant fear of not being enough, of actually being a fraud, and for every bold and egocentric statement he made about himself, he also had a particularly vicious and self-deprecating quip that brought himself down. And the issue was that the cavernous hole inside of him was the one that was fed over his career. Kane was proclaimed a dud and panned by critics and audiences alike during its release. His next movie, Magnificent Ambersons, was taken away from him and the edit chopped up to be unrecognizable. Touch of Evil, a late movie of his, had the same thing happen in postproduction (there have since been re-releases that restore his version). He did have successes along the way, but the failures fed his growing need to almost self-sabotage by ruining relationships and being a hard actor to work with. And in F for Fake, we see all of these things. We see the beauty and the sadness, the brilliance and the self-indulgence, and the admission that, yes, we’re all frauds.
Everyone who’s done creative work (or just work in general!) understands this feeling. It’s like being in open water with no floatation device within view. But oftentimes what we fail to recognize is that there are millions of people right out there with us, and we think that we’re all alone. We aren’t. If a man who is now proclaimed one of the greatest ever in his field believed himself to be a fraud, then there’s no way to really combat the feeling. So embrace it. The chances of any of us being known as the greatest ever in any of our fields is slim to none, so why worry about being called out as a fake? The burden of proof is on the accuser, and even then, what’s the harm in embracing being fraud?
So let’s raise a glass of wine – a nice one, not that nasty Paul Masson stuff – and toast all of you; the fakers and the frauds, the posers, the imposters, and yes, the critics. You’re all equal, and all of you equally worthy of the creativity that flows through each of you. It’s the closest thing to magic we have in this world, so be bold, be brave, and don’t be afraid to bend the rules just a little bit.
Oh, and see F for Fake. I highly recommend it.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.