In the opening minutes of F for Fake, Orson Welles the conjuror transforms a key into a coin. ‘The key…was not symbolic of anything. It’s not that kind of movie’, he tells us. But perhaps it is. Or rather perhaps this sequence is. After the last hour and a half, I’m sure that you’ll forgive us for not taking this self-confessed ‘charlatan’ at face value. The conjuring sequence is intercut with shots of a film crew and parts of sets, the traces of construction that a film usually effaces. In this sequence Welles exposes the workings of one trick (film) as he performs another. It’s this sleight of hand, this double movement of honesty and duplicity that, if anything, is the key to the film.
F for Fake exposes fakery while being guilty of faking itself. Ostensibly about forgery in the art world, the film offers a master class in how film can fake. Film, both as a medium bearing the mark of its own material specificities and processes, and film, as that pared-down synecdoche for the black art of narrative cinema, the movie. We see fakery in the glaring differences in film-stock and exposure in the footage that is cut together to show loitering men supposedly “girl-watching” the enigmatic Oja Kodar. We see fakery in the shots of Welles himself, sat in an editing room, his narration “jumping around” like temporally rearranged frames, “because that’s the way it was.” Or so he would have us believe.
“We had to stop these moviolas, use them as time-machines, roll back and come in again!”
By insisting on the potential for time-travel afforded by the processes of editing, Welles hints at the extent to which the film will play games with temporality, disrupting sequential chronology and revisiting previously shown scenes. The repeated coupling of Elmyr De Hory and Clifford Irving, for example, seen talking in separate interviews, gives the impression if not of a dialogue, then of a narrative interdependence. Once established, the playfulness of this device intensifies to wreak havoc with the visual arrangement of their ‘conversation’. For example, this occurs when an artificial lull is created by linking pauses from each interview, or at the point when the men seem to speak to each other, yet do so while facing in the same direction. Whenever the film fakes in this way, pushing the tools of montage to construct outrageous sequences of events, conversations or composite-spaces, the film always leaves a clue as to how the trick was done. We barely even have to “roll back” or “jump around” ourselves to find these traces. Shots of the editing suite, film canisters and views through the moviola are littered throughout and act as confessions hidden amongst the fibs.
The Oja coda, where Welles “lies his head off” about Picasso, Oja’s grandfather and a group of paintings that never were, threatens to turn attention away from these formal devices of trickery. Here, it’s the narrative that hoodwinks us while montage merely amuses (we don’t for a minute believe that Picasso is really watching Oja from his villa). In the previous 60 odd minutes, when Welles is restricted to telling the truth, the greatest truth he tells is not who, what or where was Elmyr de Hory, but that film has an array of tools at its disposal by which to lie. As we have seen, film’s manipulations of space and time can fake as much as the most skilled narrator and the teller of the tallest of tales. Whether the films of Ford, Greenaway or any other director present in this season can be found to be “lying their head off”, the techniques that Welles deploys are always knowingly indicative of the means by which these others do it.
And yet, there is more at stake here than a desire to debunk a set of facile myths about narrative cinema, or even to demystify the hidden workings of filmic production as an end in itself. Near the conclusion of F for Fake, Welles purports to quote Picasso, insisting that “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.” This fundamental concern with the revelatory power of a manipulated image is largely what makes Welles’ confession such a stimulating inroad into thinking about how representational art lies, so that it might lay claim to a level of historical truth beyond the revealing limitations of its own materials. Each film in our season aspires to a version of events that relies on some kind of falsehood to assure the coherence of this aspiration. By aspiring to no higher truth than to revel in the pervasiveness of lies, from the artistic to the plain artful, Welles establishes for us the parameters of an attempt to question the ways in which films work to both hide and hint at artifice, staging and simulation.
The Screen Shadows season on Fakery in film continues on Friday the 18th November with Nanook of the North (1922), The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) and an introduction by AL Rees, author of ‘A History of Experimental Film and Video (1999)’. Find more details here.