Movie Review: F For Fake

F Is For Fake1973. Directed by Orson Welles.

Orson Welles opens and closes his final film with magic tricks, in part to show us that we can be fooled for our own enjoyment, that we welcome illusions if we willingly participate in them, but also to associate those harmless tricks with the perils of trust. After all — he reminds us at the end — at the start of the film he promised he would absolutely tell the truth for the next hour, then notes that the hour was up long before the end of the film.

The question at the heart of F For Fake is what to believe when a pledge to tell the truth can be true and not true at the same time. If that seems confusing, wait until you hear the story told by Welles of an art forger who is the subject of a book written by a man who claims to be Howard Hughes’ biographer, whom Howard Hughes claims to have never met, if you can believe that it was really Howard Hughes who made the denial. Welles begins his narration (using the footage of an earlier film on the art forger) in a train station that disappears as backgrounds are removed, proving that the teller of the tale creates the reality presented to us. What we choose to believe is determined by the most persuasive storyteller.

Whether the art forger ever forged a painting or claimed not to, whether the author interviewed Hughes or made up the entire thing, whether the young woman who trades Picasso a summer of modeling for the 22 paintings he paints of her — I don’t know if any of that’s true. Whether there’s a bit of truth in any of that is beyond Welles’ point. What you believe is your reality.

And actually, having seen the movie, I know the one part that’s not true. That is, if I believe Welles.

This is not a conventional movie review, but it’s the best I can do for a truly unique work that doesn’t really benefit from an accurate description. You just have to sit back and let Welles’ stream-of-consciousness narrative and editing tricks play with your mind a bit. You won’t be sure of anything when it’s done, but you’ll feel like you’ve learned to spot a fake — by just assuming that everything is fake. The ultimate work of art, Welles suggests, is the Cathedral at Chartres, only because the designer of the masterpiece is unknown, and thus cannot be accused of forgery.

But why should we enjoy being fooled? Maybe because if we are party to the deceit, we aren’t truly gullible. Welles quotes Houdini, the greatest magician of all time, as saying that the magician is really an actor playing a magician, and that’s what’s appealing about the magic trick. We don’t believe it, but like the idea of believing it at the same time. I know, I’m talking in circles. But after absorbing F For Fake, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

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