F for Fake

A one-of-a-kind essay centered on art forgery and hoaxes that is built from spare parts, questionable coverage, obvious overdubbing, and outright bluff, 'F for Fake' is a masterwork most often hailed for its hijacking of documentary form to tease cinema's capacity for making truth out of bullshit

DVD Watch

F for Fake

Criterion, $39.95

He's on the Vice Magazine Web site, the Orson we remember: It's the man who sold us wine and frozen peas, who told us of The Man Who Saw Tomorrow any time we turned on the damned TV. Lew Lord from The Muppet Movie. Planet-devouring Unicron of The Transformers. If tragedy is pity and fear, what about pity and sniggering? I ask because in the popular imagination, after the tragedy of his youth and exile from Hollywood, part two of Orson Welles' life is some other genre altogether, and not a respectable one. It's the genre you can find in Vice's hilariously mean roundup of "outsider art videos," which includes outtakes from Welles' notorious Paul Masson ads documenting something far beyond a bender, an awe-inspiring drunk just short of beatitude. Forget "we'll sell no wine before its time." It's "we'll sell no wine because Orson drank every fucking bottle."

A sunlit flipside to the wine whore's dark night of the soul might be a throwaway in his last completed and released feature, F for Fake (1972), when he suddenly halts narrating the film to summon a waiter. Extending an impressive pile of shellfish remains, that great voice asks, "Would you take this away, please, and bring me the steak au poivre?" But it's not just a gag: At the service of a brazen philosophical essay on nothing less than art and humankind's place in the universe, Welles cavorts about in a ridiculous cape, attends numerous parties and a bullfight or two, eats, drinks, and smokes constantly, in addition to staging two lengthy sequences for the camera to ravish one Oja Kodar, his lover and chief collaborator until his death.

Check out the new Criterion DVD and decide which of those scenes is the greatest "hey, look at my girlfriend" moment in the history of cinema, but get ready for the shock at discovering it wasn't Welles the boy wonder who made a career's most singular work, but Welles the alleged loser, the washed-up disappointment, the shill. A one-of-a-kind essay centered on art forgery and hoaxes that is built from spare parts, questionable coverage, obvious overdubbing, and outright bluff, F for Fake is a masterwork most often hailed for its hijacking of documentary form to tease cinema's capacity for making truth out of bullshit. But for all its formal, intellectual, and art-historical shenanigans, F for Fake is most remarkable as a work of tremendous vitality and emotion, a rare expression of pure joy in Welles' shameless, earnest wonder at human achievement, his epicurean delight in storytelling, film editing, and a woman's flesh. It's joy of such intensity as to be inevitably attended by the melancholy of knowing this won't last. Speaking less from existential resignation than from raw-nerve experience, Welles reminds us that "Our songs will all be silenced. But what of it? Go on singing."

Criterion's gorgeous transfer of the film would be an embarrassment of riches by itself, but then there's a fine commentary track with Kodar and cinematographer Gary Graver, as well as a fascinating collection of extras elaborating on the exploits of the film's "stars": notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory, perpetrator of the Howard Hughes autobiography hoax Clifford Irving, and even Howard Hughes himself, bizarrely expounding on how he clips his toenails. But the greatest prize is the wealth of fragments unearthed in the otherwise so-so documentary on Orson Welles: "One-Man Band," ranging from intriguing odds and ends to astonishing glimpses of genius growing more radical and challenging with age. It all makes for a tenderly forged self-portrait of a fake fraud hitting rock bottom only to reach the top of his game.

Also Out Now

The Complete James Dean Collection (Warner Home Video): Special editions of East of Eden, Giant, and Rebel Without a Cause each get a disc of supplements.

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