Lord of Illusion

F for Fake: written and directed by Orson Welles; starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten, Clifford Irving, and Elmyr de Hory as themselves (1973): F for Fake is the last movie written, directed by, and starring Orson Welles that the great film-maker completed in his lifetime. Neither wholly documentary nor wholly fiction, its rapid-fire use of found footage, interviews, and staged events looks like a primer for future documentarians that include Michael Moore, though at no time does Welles claim to be telling the truth all the time.

The movie is “about” two hoaxers. In the 1970’s, late-middle-aged Elmyr de Hory claimed to be one of the world greatest art forgers. Clifford Irving wrote a book about him. But then Irving claimed to have interviewed the reclusive Howard Hughes. And that, too, turned out to be a hoax. A hoax exposed by Hughes himself. Maybe. Hughes replied to Irving with a press conference that Hughes attended only in voice, through a microphone. He was a recluse, after all.

Elmyr’s story allows Welles to branch out into the an interrogation of the nature of ‘reality’ vs. illusion. Elmy claims that his sketches and painting hang in major galleries across the world, billed as the real deal. And as we watch him effortlessly produce Modigliani sketches and Monet paintings, we start to believe that he may be right. Elmy observes that without a cult of experts in the art world — experts who have approved his work as being authentic — there could be no fakers. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship.

And then the Irving hoax comes into the story. And along the way, Welles stages several scenes to illustrate the nature of fakery and illusion (Welles himself, no surprise, was an accomplished magician). And Welles talks about his infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, a non-fake that people took as being a real Martian invasion and then as an intentional hoax, even though a large portion of that broadcast consists of dramatic scenes complete with clearly fictional narration. But even the story of that broadcast has been partially faked by popular history: there was no widespread panic. Or was there?

Sophisticated, fast-paced, droll at times and oddly mysterious at others (in several interviews with Clifford Irving, he has a small monkey on his shoulder, to which I can only add, WTF?). I don’t know if this is a great film, but it bursts with wit and energy and the possibilities of film-making. If only there had been more. Highly recommended.

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