I sought out "F is for Fake," the last feature film directed by Orson Welles, because of its thematic similarity to "Exit Through the Gift Shop," a new documentary about street art that will be reviewed here this week. Both films cast doubt upon the authenticity of acclaimed works of art that are sold for great prices -- and upon their own truthfulness as documentaries.
Welles at least has the good manners to reveal at the end of his film that he has "been lying my head off."
"Fake" is less a documentary than a personal essay by Welles, a meditation on art and authorship. Ostensibly it centers on Elmyr de Hory, the world's most famous art forger, who claims to have passed off thousands of his paintings as works by the masters. Many of his paintings hang in the most famous museums in the world, hailed as masterpieces, he says.
Also portrayed is Clifford Irving, a writer who wrote a biography of Elmyr that exposed and elevated him. Irving later claimed to be writing the autobiography of tycoon Howard Hughes based on interviews with the recluse himself, which he eventually admitted was a hoax.
He served jail time for his fraud, and his story became its own 2006 movie, "The Hoax," starring Richard Gere. (Appropriately enough, Irving disassociated himself from the film, calling it inauthentic.)
Welles happily identifies himself as a fellow traveler of these con men, showing himself performing magic tricks for children as the story opens, and recounting the hoax that launched his career, the infamous radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," which sent large parts of the country into a panic.
Early in the going, Welles solemnly pledges that everything he says for the next hour will be the unvarnished truth, or at least based on the best available facts. He then spends the last 20 minutes of the film fabricating a wild story about a beautiful woman named Oja Kodar, who supposedly posed for 22 nude portraits by Pablo Picasso on the condition that she keep the paintings when he was through.
This sets up a showdown between the great painter and Kodar's grandfather, who painted fakeries of the 22 works and passed them off as Picasso's own. Told with Welles and Kodar as the stand-ins, the two painters debate the value of "real" versus "fake" art, with the forger claiming he has not stolen from Picasso, but added to his legacy. Then he reveals that he has burned Picasso's original paintings upon which he based his forgeries.
At this point, Welles gaily jumps in and announces that the entire story is a ruse. Kodar, in fact, was Welles's companion and lover for the last quarter-century of his life, and his accomplice (and co-writer) for this film.
The movie veers wildly from puckishness to borderline pomposity, as in this moment when Welles contemplates the Chartres Cathedral:
"Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash -- the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die. 'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past. 'Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.' Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much. "Much like "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the very authorship of "Fake" is somewhat questionable. A prominent figure in the film is Francois Reichenbach, an art dealer who interviewed both Irving and Elmyr for his own documentary about the swindlers, before turning the footage over to Welles, who anointed his predecessor as his cinematographer.
The editing of "Fake" is groundbreaking for its pace and the way it cuts off one thought by starting another, and its self-referential nature. Welles narrates from within a film editing bay where he's supposedly cutting the movie even as we watch it, with the frame we're seeing often jumping into the one seen through the editor's viewfinder and back again.
So even as we see interviews with Elmyr and Irving in which they appear to be in the same room addressing one another, arguing even, in fact they are not. Although we do see them together at a party at Elmyr's villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and Welles himself makes an appearance, drinking wine and enjoying the company of his brother hoaxers.
In one terrific moment, Elmyr -- who often burnt his paintings contemptuously moments after finishing them -- does a portrait of the man he calls the greatest forger in history, Michelangelo, who eventually went legit. Elmyr finishes by signing Welles' own name to the painting -- misspelling it in the process, perhaps intentionally.
Welles quotes Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." In that spirit, he argues, even forgers are not criminals but artists.
Or in the filmmaker's own words: "What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I'm afraid the pompous word for that is art."
3.5 stars out of four