Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>F for Fake:</em> The Ultimate Mirror of Orson Welles

In which Welles deflates expectations of greatness — and transcends them

A key image in Citizen Kane appears after Susan Kane leaves Xanadu forever. First, Kane destroys her bedroom and, at the end of his eruption, he discovers the glass ball that evoked the film’s opening line and enigmatic coda: “Rosebud.” He walks from the room past stunned servants and, seconds later, a pair of mirrors in which he’s briefly reflected infinitely into nothingness. A key image for the film because it limns Kane’s elusive real self, but also a key moment in film and literature for the transition from the modern to the postmodern.

“Postmodern” is a slippery concept, so much so that the difficulty in defining it touches the very essence of its meaning. The transition from the modern to postmodern world represents a move from irony (which suggests some comprehension of our beliefs, as well as involvement in our present circumstances) to deadpan (a lack of surprise to, and increasing remoteness from, our world). Postmodern literature, art, and film detach the audience from the content of the artistic subject, with little or no pretense to re-engage the two. As a result, the individual’s place in the world, as well as in the artistic work, diminishes to a cipher as one gets lost amid a plenitude of realities — “realities” because, they increase in proportion to our inability to resist them (from our stance of weakened beliefs).

The postmodern world, thus, has little tragedy left in it — tragedy needs a heightened if not embarrassing measure of belief. Things must matter gravely. Charles Foster Kane nearly takes on a tragic dimension when we view his potential for greatness. Yet the more we ponder his greatness in Citizen Kane, that is, the more the film’s other characters reflect on Kane’s life, the less tangible his greatness becomes. At his most dynamic and grave, Kane shapes the news that people pay attention to; the Spanish-American War becomes “his” war; he collects great art from all over the world; and he becomes so important that he can run for governor (possibly on the way to a presidential bid). Paradoxically, his trivialization of the news (a prominent headline reads: SPANISH GALLEONS FOUND OFF THE JERSEY COAST) underlines the diminution of his character. While much is made of his inability to love, combined with a pursuit to replace or win back his mother’s love, the real tragedy may be that he’s creating a world that has no room for tragic men or gestures! Amidst the scandal of his love affair with Susan Kane, his losing the governor’s race, and his divorce, Kane’s character calcifies into a controlling, self-centered monster, beyond giving and receiving love, beyond all tragedy, at the entrance to postmodernity.

The infinite mirror images of Kane recall the many Kanes we had heard about throughout the movie, the many Kanes that would never coalesce into the substantial tragic figure he imagined himself as, complete with the key to the mystery of his ultimate failure (cf. article on Citizen Kane in this issue). Indeed, many of the characters played by Orson Welles in his movies — Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Franz Kindler in The Stranger (1946), Sheriff Quinlin in Touch of Evil (1958), Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965) — collapse upon themselves psychologically as their last illusions are stripped away. They aren’t the men they supposed themselves or had others believe them to be; their moral centers have weakened and don’t maintain the authority or power they once had.

When we get to a late film in Welles’ career, the documentary F for Fake (1976), he formulates his most explicit statement about contemporary reality, leaving little room for greatness, let alone tragedy. And if F for Fake seems a superficial film, we will then have experienced the first lesson of postmodernism: playfulness, conscious illusions, and an undisguised reflexiveness about making movies. Put another way, what is seen in the film that seems real is not as real as it appears — but most especially we can’t trust the filmmaker Welles himself, he will lie to us and deceive us, if only to get at the heart of the movie’s main contention: you cannot trust anyone, especially anyone who asserts his or her authority without any basis or proof.

And what seems at first glance an obvious point, we discover in practice that the more obvious it is the less we’ll get the point (precisely the lesson of the last part of the film, which deals with a story about Picasso and one of his mistresses). We are just watching a film, a bunch of moving images that represent a certain reality. The problem with movies as an art, the most difficult thing to understand, is that what we are shown and how we see what we’re shown have never been the same. However, the authority of the giant screen image is such that audiences have tended to view what they see literally. The image on the screen overwhelms us (Neal Gabler’s Life: The Movie, and other books by culture critics, have cited the movie image as the turning point for the preoccupying of the American mind), and Welles both takes advantage of this situation and tries to make us conscious of it.

The film image is only an image, and on this subtly unobvious premise Welles frames F for Fake and validates the fakery of film artistry by evincing the fakery of life/people, suggesting that movies have become the art of the 20th century precisely because of this innate mechanism to handle the unreal, the fake (again, Gabler rightly shows that the preponderance of movie fakery has been uncritically accepted by Americans; whereas artistic fakery might well be the antidote). The structure of F for Fake also plays out the meaning of the mirror imagery from his earlier films.

At its center, the film portrays two great fakers. If you’re over forty years old, you will remember Clifford Irving, who claimed to have had recorded interviews with Howard Hughes and published a biography based on these tapes. The hoax was finally exposed when Hughes allowed himself to be interviewed over the radio to disclaim any knowledge of Irving and the interviews. The episode caused a worldwide sensation, and Irving went to jail for a few years.

Coincidentally, Irving had written a book called Fake dealing with an art forger named Elmyr de Hory, the original subject of Welles documentary, the perfect living metaphor for Welles’ design: an artist who recreates artwork by the modern masters that few people if anyone can distinguish from the original work of that master. Elmyr was never prosecuted for selling many of his art works to major museums around the world; no museum could risk the humiliation (and subsequent loss of belief in their institution) of admitting that they had bought fake Manets, Cezannes, and Picassos. Elmyr lived in relative peace and opulence on the island of Ibiza, which also happened to be a Welles haunt.

The challenge that Elmyr presented to experts and authorities (civil and artistic) must have infatuated Welles greatly. The fragile basis on which all authority in society rests and how easily it can be undermined couldn’t have been more poignantly developed. Also, Welles understood the average person’s distrust for artistic and intellectual experts and critics, and that nothing would cause him greater satisfaction than finding out that experts couldn’t tell fakes from real works. This might seem passé in a world that produces movies like The Matrix (1999), which bases its entire save-the-world plot on the fact that nobody can tell the real from an illusion. Welles delights at the proposition that a great faker, like Elmyr, is being written about by another faker, Clifford Irving. Further, Welles not only hammers home this point but starts to undermine his own sincerity (for instance, calling his acting vocation the ultimate fakery).

Chance and coincidence are also hallmarks of postmodern life, and one cannot but hesitate to believe Welles when he suggests that Howard Hughes, not William Randolph Hearst, was the initial model for Charles Foster Kane in an early script. It seems hard to believe because Welles co-writer Herman Mankewicz was a friend of Hearst and spent much time at Hearst’s Xanadu-like estate at San Simeon. How convenient that we should find out that Kane was originally based on the life of Howard Hughes after the Irving/ Hughes scandal was exposed.

Yet one must recognize these titillations: Welles and Hughes did have contact with each other before 1941; Hughes had distinguished himself as a film director (there’s also much of Welles in the Kane character, although Hearst was bitten by the Hollywood bug through his relationship with longtime mistress Marion Davies); Hughes was a recluse and saved and stored many objects from his life in many warehouses much like Kane does. Through serendipity (that the Irving biography of Hughes should collapse in the midst of the filming of F for Fake) and artfulness, Welles creates another succession of mirrored reflections that purposefully blur the real and the fake until we can no longer see which is which. The illusions proceed to a human vanishing point, Elmyr himself.

Elmyr also represents a most dangerous person. An original fraud. (In many ways, a mirror image himself to the celebrity: a person known for being known!) A criminal whose crimes don’t resemble real crimes; moreover, his crimes once detected must go unpunished. Or nearly unpunished. He must promise to make no more fakes. Although, Welles hints that the circumstantial evidence shows that when Irving needed a forged signature, Elmyr was the best candidate to provide it. In fact, I detected a melancholic (not quite tragic) note in F for Fake when Welles reflects on the fate of Elmyr’s talents being absorbed by his forgeries, as if his “real” talent suppresses real talent, possibly a talent Elmyr is afraid to test.

Welles further tweaks those in a position of expertise when journalists listen to Howard Hughes over a radio receiver telling them that he has never met Clifford Irving. The journalists had known Hughes twenty or twenty-five years before and were there to “authenticate” his voice. With great authority they inform the world that they were listening to the real Howard Hughes. (And one can’t help but think how fraudulent journalism has become lately as the news devolved into entertainment.) Yes, it probably was Hughes; yet, this “real” Howard Hughes had descended many steps into his personal unrealities and (according to the book Citizen Hughes by Michael Drosnin) addressed the media sitting naked with a long beard and fingernails several inches long. His reality was more bizarre than the story of real artistic forgeries!

Throughout F for Fake, Welles sustains a lightly detached air, as if the film were an artistic exercise or game, which might disappoint those anticipating the tragic failings of Welles’ “great” men; indeed, this film seems to be more of Welles coming to terms with everyone’s (including his own) expectations of his own greatness since Citizen Kane. Welles himself succumbed to celebrity in his later years, his girth beyond even Hank Quinlin proportions. Only within the infinity of mirrors that’s emblematic of his own artistic themes, Welles could at once deflate the expectations but also finally transcend them.