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F for Fake: The Criterion Collection

One need not search too hard for low points in the life of Orson Welles; they are abundant and uniquely depressing (Terry Gilliam has had it easy in comparison). But even taking into account the travestying of his second picture for RKO, The Magnificent Ambersons, truncated and tonally modified in absentia, it's hard to imagine a more dispiriting period than the early 1970s. At least Welles was still a young man in 1942; the bottom had yet to drop out on his Hollywood adventure, and there would be opportunities for redemption. But as the '70s began, those opportunities had passed. Failures, compromises, and half-realized endeavors littered the intervening 30 years, leaving a heartbreaking legacy of genius stifled and abused. Welles was down and out; he hardly required more kicking. But that's exactly what he got with the publication of two books, the first a blinkered assessment of his work by Charles Higham titled The Films of Orson Welles (from which the "fear of finishing" sophistry emanated), and, particularly damaging, "Raising Kane", an essay by The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, which sought to deprive the filmmaker of his monumental, medium-changing masterpiece. Kael's thesis argued in rabid defense of the picture's co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and relied on the recollections of producer John Houseman, who, contrary to printed fact, alleged that not a single word of the screenplay belonged to Welles (Kael never saw fit to interview the filmmaker himself). According to one of the director's biographers, Barbara Leaming, this charge finally brought Welles to tears, and it not hard to see why. After years of rigorous independent production requiring the resourceful scraping together of often-meager resources, his enemies and their champions had come calling for his one fully realized masterpiece. And if they could not deny the movie, they would then blot out his authorship.

From out of this hubbub emerged F for Fake (1976), which began life in earnest as a found-footage project pieced together from a filmed Francois Reichenbach interview of art forger Elmyr de Hory, but blew out into real-life farce when the charlatan's biographer, Clifford Irving, suddenly gained notoriety himself as the fraudulent biographer of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. It was a fantastic, highly marketable real-life drama with one problem: There wasn't sufficient footage from which to construct a feature film. Undeterred and creatively engaged, Welles the maverick went to work and emerged with a stunningly witty and, at times, piercingly emotional treatise on the imprecise nature of authorship, with the director literally acting as the viewer's reliable but prankish narrator. Undoubtedly influenced by the non-linear filmed essays of Jean-Luc Godard (whose formal audacity he quite admired), Welles flits about with a recklessly jubilant verve throughout the first half of the film, vacillating between the scandales de Elmyr and Irving and cleverly creating a dialogue between the two from carefully spliced footage of differing film stock while displaying some magic of his own. After concluding this passage, Welles eschews his heretofore disorienting, kinetically edited approach in favor of a more meditative pace as he indulges in some eloquent ruminating over France's Cathedral of Chartres — a vast, inspiring structure unsigned by an architect — before finishing in vigorous fashion as he tells of a series of Picasso forgeries which implicate the filmmaker's mistress, Oja Kodar, and her grandfather.

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It is impossible to adequately digest F for Fake in one sitting. The overwhelming, breakneck editing of the film's first movement is so bewildering that, unless viewers have spoiled their experience beforehand (a pity and not at all recommended), they have no choice but to give themselves over to Welles, whose ever-impish demeanor verily screams at the viewer that something is amiss. But part of the joy of watching movies comes from the thrill of being had — so, even as Welles insists at the outset that the following will be utterly true, the outlandish lie of his process, a canny conflation of strangely related incidents, puts one on guard. However, what remains clear throughout is that, no matter the source of the footage, be it Reichenbach's or random stock, the work's guide and author is Orson Welles. While he may have had his day in court prior to the completion of this picture, via acolyte Peter Bogdanovich's byline, in an Esquire essay titled "The Kane Mutiny", it is very difficult to read this movie as anything but a stingingly brilliant, if playful, riposte to his detractors (summed up bluntly in the quote, "The best critical opinion is a load of horse manure."). Energized by these challenges, Welles is in stirring command of his craft, which, by necessity of temperament, has grown more sophisticated even as it's been scaled back. This a wonderful, vital, and rebellious work of an unbowed wunderkind who broke open the possibilities of a nascent art form before being punished by a system that could not bear his impetuousness.

The Criterion Collection presents F for Fake in a flawless anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) with crisp Dolby Digital monaural audio. As the company's inaugural (and, hopefully, not final) Welles offering, Criterion delivers the goods with a satisfying and exhaustive two-disc set. Extras begin on Disc One with a leisurely, engaging commentary from Kodar and director of photography Gary Graver. There also is a brief introduction to the film from Bogdanovich, who offers a helpful primer on the bewildering content about to hit the viewer. The bulk, however, is on Disc Two, which kicks off with the quite good Orson Welles: One-Man Band (88 min.), a feature-length documentary celebrating the director's "particular contrarity" that denied him a mass audience. There are tantalizing glimpses of The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep, and many other works that went unfinished due not to laziness, but, rather, dwindling resources — and, oftentimes, rotten luck. This is as persuasive a refutation of the Higham thesis as one is likely to encounter. Also on board is "Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery" (52 min.), a straightforward (i.e. dry) bio on de Hory, and a "60 Minutes II" update on Irving that reunites the faker with his one-time dupe, Mike Wallace. Rounding out this disc is the 1972 Howard Hughes press conference that undid Irving's charade. Finally, there's a lucid new essay from one of Welles's sharpest latter-day defenders, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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