Streaming services might have a difficult time classifying Orson Welles' 1973 movie "F for Fake." I've seen it several times, and I still can't.
Much of its content is nonfiction, but Welles incorporates deceptive techniques even when he's telling the truth, and the movie is often most engaging when it takes breaks from its central thesis.
Distributors at the time didn't know what to make of "F for Fake." According to Welles protégé Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph E. Levine ("The Graduate," "The Producers") made a small offer for the film despite falling asleep during the screening, but the movie didn't catch on in America until it played on cable decades later.
It was the last theatrical directorial effort Welles released before he died in 1985, and it's a fascinating swan song to his unique career. As more and more of his previously lost work keeps showing up on YouTube and Netflix, it turns out his lack of business acumen stunted his output more than fading talent.
"F for Fake" began as a conventional documentary about the Hungarian-born art forger Elmyr de Hory, who spent decades after World War II convincing experts in Europe, Africa and the Americas that his own work was that of Picasso, Renoir, Degas and Matisse.
By the time French documentarian and gallery co-owner François Reichenbach started filming him in the early '70s, Elmyr lived in a home that overlooked the gorgeous Spanish island of Ibiza and seemed to be giddily thumbing his nose at the tycoons who wanted their money back and the experts he had turned into fools.
(Side note: During the 1950s, while he was on the run from the FBI, he sold two of his forged Matisses in Little Rock.)
Reichenbach had initially hoped for Welles to use his stentorian baritone to narrate a more conventional film, but Elmyr's biographer Clifford Irving, who was quoted extensively in the footage, may have done more than simply chronicle the forger's feats.
He followed Elmyr's example.
With Reichenbach's permission, Welles re-cut the footage so that Irving now seems to be offering a sort of Freudian projection about how he went about faking an autobiography of the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. Because Hughes had shied away from the spotlight, Irving pulled off the ruse for a remarkably long time before he was discovered.
Welles is also keenly aware that viewers probably know that he may not be the most reliable narrator, either. His 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of Worlds" was mistaken for an actual Martian invasion, and "Citizen Kane" followed the exploits of a newspaper baron who assumed people would think "what I tell them to think."
Thankfully, Welles, who considered directing to be a dictatorship, has a much more egalitarian relationship with his audience than Charles Foster Kane. He wants you to notice cracks in an assertion or if something is amusingly off. When Irving is on the cover of Time, we see a caricature of a disheveled Howard Hughes, but it's hard to miss that figure signing it "Elmyr" is Welles himself.
Irving's legal troubles were mounting at the time, and Welles found intriguing and often very funny ways of getting around to the fact that no attorney would make him available for a more candid discussion.
In Reichenbach's footage, Elmyr oozes charm and joie de vie. It's delightful watching him decorate a canvas, only to decide to burn it. There's a hint that he had just been released from a stint in a Spanish prison on account of his homosexuality. That charm may explain why Elmyr was able to live in a house he didn't own despite fear that French authorities were eager to extradite him for forging their cultural treasures.
Welles has Reichenbach recalling how Elmyr sold him a pair of fakes and then felt bad about it. He wrote Reichenbach a check, which of course bounced.
At that point the dealer had already made a profit selling them without knowing they weren't genuine. He sheepishly admits to being part of the system that enabled Elmyr's crime spree.
Welles also muses that his acts of fakery led to different results. "I didn't go to prison. I went to Hollywood," which punished him in its own way.
Whether Welles is asserting his tale is genuine or not, he raises intriguing questions about what is genuine or what has value in art. Does putting a familiar signature or an extra dollar sign make a painting or drawing any better? In a moment of honesty, Irving points out that having an art market is an invitation for forgers to exploit. With only so many works by Amedeo Modigliani, who died at age 35, the temptation to "supplement" the market is overwhelming.
Before you start to think that watching Welles pontificate on culture from an editing board might make you react the way Joseph E. Levine did, the director consistently approaches his subject matter with wry humor and playfulness. The rapid-fire editing manages to keep the film moving despite several fascinating detours. Somehow the movie stays on course even though Welles bombards viewers with a lot of material.
Welles' co-host is his co-screenwriter and mistress Oja Kodar, who brings up some chilling comments on voyeurism. Before Welles examines his trio of fakers, he follows her walking down the street in a form-fitting dress. It quickly becomes obvious they're actually capturing the men who make ghoulish spectacles of themselves gawking at her. When does admiration become something more toxic?
For all of the weighty material Welles covered in his work (Shakespeare, Conrad, the real value of art), Welles never forgot to entertain. His longtime collaborator Richard Wilson said that Welles aimed for "the highest common denominator." He wanted these discussions to be lively and even fun. In that way, "F for Fake" is more than real.