From the archive
There were plenty of advantages to living in Paris in the early 1970s, especially if one was a movie buff with time on one’s hands. The Parisian film world is relatively small, and simply being on the fringes of it afforded some exciting opportunities, even for a writer like myself who’d barely published. Leaving the Cinematheque at the Palais de Chaillot one night, I was invited to be an extra in a Robert Bresson film that was being shot a few blocks away. And in early July 1972, while writing for Film Comment about Orson Welles’s first Hollywood project, Heart of Darkness, I learned Welles was in town and sent a letter to him at Antegor, the editing studio where he was working, asking a few simple questions—only to find myself getting a call from one of his assistants two days later: “Mr. Welles was wondering if you could have lunch with him today.”
I met him at La Mediterranee — the same seafood restaurant that would figure prominently in the film he was editing — and when I began by expressing my amazement that he’d invited me, he cordially explained that this was because he didn’t have time to answer my letter. The film he was working on was then called Hoax, and he said it had something to do with the art forger Elmyr de Hory and the recent scandal involving Clifford Irving and Howard Hughes. “A documentary?” “No, not a documentary — a new kind of film,” he replied, though he didn’t elaborate…
Similarly, we should look very closely at what we’re being shown in the early “girl watching” sequence — perhaps the most intricately edited stretch in the film, especially in contrast to the more leisurely and conventionally edited late sequence devoted to Pablo Picasso’s ogling of Kodar. (Both sequences incidentally feature a tune that Legrand calls “Orson’s Theme,” though Welles’s placements of it suggest it might more fittingly be called “Oja’s Theme.”) If we freeze-frame in the right places toward the end of “girl watching,” we’ll discover that a couple of full-frontal long shots of “Oja Kodar” approaching us on a city street don’t actually show Kodar at all but another woman (her sister) of roughly the same size in the same dress. Given the whole sequence’s elaborate peekaboo tactics — a mosaic of almost perpetual fragmentation — it stands to reason that two very brief shots pretending to reveal what many previous angles have concealed can readily fool us by hiding in full view, just like Edgar Allen Poe’s “purloined letter.”
For a filmmaker who studiously avoided repeating himself and sought always to remain a few steps ahead of his audience’s expectations, thereby rejecting any obvious ways of commodifying his status as an auteur, Welles arguably found a way in F for Fake to contextualize large portions of his career while undermining many cherished beliefs about authorship and the means by which “experts,” “God’s own gift to the fakers,” validate such notions.
It has often been asserted that this film was his indirect response to Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane“ and its (subsequently discredited) suggestion that practically all of Citizen Kane’s screenplay was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz. It’s worth adding, however, that his most direct and immediate response to Kael’s screed was his masterful semiforgery of “The Kane Mutiny,” a polemical article that deceptively ran in Esquire under Peter Bogdanovich’s byline, included many quotations from Welles, and cogently responded to Kael’s essay on a point-by-point basis — a remarkable display of Welles’s gifts as a writer that paradoxically had to conceal this fact. In her writing on Welles, University of Michigan professor Catherine L. Benamou has noted the echoes of the fire consuming the Rosebud sled in the burning of a couple of forged canvases, and one could also cite the way that various “conversations” manufactured through editing reproduce aspects of the community chatter about the Ambersons in The Magnificent Ambersons, or the way a Gypsy-like fiddle, Welles’s Slavic intonations, and all the frenetic plane-hopping call to mind Mr. Arkadin. There’s even a cuckoo clock thrown in at one point that summons up both Arkadin and The Third Man. For all his regrets, this self-referentiality is one of the many elements that make F for Fake the most celebratory of Welles’s films. As he puts it while distant views of Chartres nearly replicate our first views of Kane’s Xanadu: “Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing.”
Written for Criterion’s DVD release of F for Fake in 2005. — J.R.