Remedial Film School: Watching F for Fake with Matt Singer

By  · Published on June 25th, 2015

Janus Films

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Matt Singer from Screencrush is our June guest, and he chose F for Fake (currently available to rent on iTunes and Amazon). Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” (Singer explains): In the opening sequence to F For Fake, Orson Welles lays his cards on the table. “This is a film about trickery, fraud … about lies.” But Welles also calls himself a “charlatan,” and he’s introduced performing magic tricks – and magicians use truth as a kind of misdirection – they tell you something true while pretending to saw a woman in half. There might be a similar kind of misdirection in Welles’ explanation. To me, F For Fake is about trickery, fraud, and lies, but it’s also about authenticity, and I love this movie because it makes me rethink all of my own values about what authenticity means and why it’s important.

The film’s main story is about a pair of “charlatans”: Elmyr de Hory, an art forger, and Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer. Irving wrote a book about de Hory called Fake, and then supposedly used its success to gain access to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes who invited him to help him write his autobiography. But Irving’s Hughes book was just as fake as one of de Hory’s paintings. And then there’s Welles himself, who compares these men and their duplicity to his early days in radio, when he convinced thousands of listeners that Martians had landed in rural New Jersey with his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds.

I’ve only seen F For Fake a couple of times, but I think about it a lot – pretty much every time a new fiction film based on a true story becomes the subject of media scrutiny for its relative accuracy or falsity. Argo is fabulously entertaining, but is it a faithful retelling of the true-life events? And if it’s not, does that make it a bad movie? Similarly, if a painting is beautiful, why is it any less beautiful if it’s authorship comes under question? F For Fake is not only a bunch of great stories well-told – it raises these fascinating questions about the nature of stories and art. “Almost any story is some kind of lie. But not this time,” Welles says in his introduction. Then he tricks everyone. Does that make the experience any less satisfying?

“I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” (Bayer watches): I have finally come to terms with “based on true-life events” movies. They are movies. They are introductions to one possible viewpoint, and I desperately try to make sure I am entertained by the film, and not hung up on the idea of something really happening that exact way.

Many will say the Welles from Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil is their favorite, but give me the man with the over-sized waistline, even deeper voice, and of course the cape. We can’t forget the cape. Welles is front and center with F for Fake and while it might not be the only reason I loved it, it’s the only reason that truly matters. It’s such an odd, free-flowing “documentary” that Welles’ presence works as a stabilizing force. He’s playing. He’s playing with us, the film, the musical score, the editing, the real-life subjects and the actors. It’s infectious.

It’s definitely not a “clean” film. You see Welles in the editing bay, and you wonder why in the world some of the freeze-frame images survived the finale product. Plus, I don’t know if you had this problem, but there were definitely times I was thinking subtitles would be nice.

It helps to know Hughes (simply watch Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio beforehand). The interesting man here is Irving, who is connected to both de Hory and Hughes. The meandering of the film actually gives the subject matter more playful suspense. I often felt like I wanted Welles to go back, or dig deeper, but it didn’t annoy, instead it just gave me a more care-free feeling about the film. That’s where Michel Legrand’s wonderful musical score helps out so much. It makes sense the man has won a few Oscars. Also, I found any tidbit about Welles himself fascinating. And then, they’re Oja Kodar. Her white, brown and orange flower dress is legendary. The film ogles her, and while I normally don’t appreciate such behavior, I was right there with it. She’s exquisite, and had me hooked at the end of the film.

Welles’ best line in the film is, “We hanky-panky men have always been with you.” The greatest insignificant missed opportunity was when a waiter brings a giant lobster to Welles’ table, yet we don’t get to see him devour it. I would pay $20 to watch that man eat that lobster. Speaking of the dinner, where they are also served many other dishes, Welles is clearly reading from cue cards, right?

Did you ever see the 9-minute short film/trailer Welles made in 1976 that was all original material? Have you seen everything that Welles has directed? lists Don Amechie in the archival footage, uncredited in F for Fake. Did you notice him? I didn’t.

And finally, because I always do this with old films, documentaries or foreign language films, let’s make this into a narrative. I see Christoph Waltz playing Elmyr de Hory, and Bryan Cranston as Clifford Irving, but I can’t figure out who could pull off this version of Welles. Can you? I don’t even know who can pull off a cape besides Welles and Sir Ian McKellen. And finally, I don’t think it gets any better than Welles’ voice in this film. Period.

Movie Score: 8/10

“Do you think I should confess? To what? Committing masterpieces?” (Singer responses): Welles’ voice is so magnificent, and F For Fake makes as good a use of his voice as any movie he ever made. (And no, I haven’t seen all of his movies; I’ve still never watched The Trial or his 1978 documentary Filming Othello.) I don’t know where Don Amechie is in the film, but I have seen that unusual 9-minute trailer; it’s included on the great Criterion Collection DVD for the film, which I bought after I saw F For Fake for the first time in grad school. As heralded as Welles is for all his many cinematic innovations, his contributions to the world of movie marketing often go overlooked. He had a gift for bold, clever advertising like that F For Fake trailer or the famous Citizen Kane preview that’s mostly a shot of a boom microphone and that great Welles voice introducing the cast and narrating some of the story (as a man most famous for his work on radio, it was the only way to herald his introduction to the silver screen). That one’s worth seeking out on YouTube if people haven’t seen it.

There was a fiction version of at least the Clifford Irving portion of this story; it’s called The Hoax. It came out in 2006 and starred Richard Gere as Irving; Lasse Hallstrom directed it. It’s not bad actually, if a bit superfluous if you’ve seen F For Fake (and, no, there’s no Orson Welles character). If someone were going to make a fictional remake of F For Fake, the only guy who could do Welles is Vincent D’Onofrio. He played the young Welles in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, and did it again in his own short film “Five Minutes, Mr. Welles” (which is also available on YouTube). D’Onofrio is 55 now, right around Welles’ age when he made F For Fake, so he really would be perfect. I like both your suggestions for de Hory and Irving, but I’ll give you two of my own: Vincent Cassel and Chappie, the robot from Chappie. (Or Gary Oldman.)

“The best critical opinion is a load of horse manure.” (Bayer concludes): Chappie should never be the answer for anything, unless the question is, “What movie should I hate watch?” After watching that short film, D’Onofrio wins. I forgot he was in Ed Wood because I’ve only seen that movie once. I keep thinking about it, but then I get so (stupidly) annoyed that Martin Landau beat out Samuel L. Jackson for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that I don’t watch the film. And you’re right, The Hoax isn’t bad.

This is the first film I’ve seen by Welles that doesn’t make me feel like I’m trying to appreciate it. When I was finally ready to watch Citizen Kane in high school, I knew it was considered the greatest film of all time. I couldn’t get any of my buddies to watch it with me (saying it was from 1941 and black and white scared away all my teenage friends). I remember thinking, “OK, I think I get it.” Since then, I’ve recognized Welles’ brilliance, but I haven’t felt it very often. His styles have been (properly) copied to death, and with that, when I watch his films I feel like I’m getting a good history lesson. This one felt different. Thank you for the discovery of F for Fake.

Your Next Assignment: Actor Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills, Compliance) selected The Pope in Greenwich Village (Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Daryl Hannah). It is available on Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime and to rent on iTunes. Your due date is July 30, 2015.