Truth and Lies about Orson Welles’ F FOR FAKE
Fake? is a labored and dispiriting jape... No more than a home movie, an indulgent, desperate bit of trick editing; for Welles's sake I hope that it is quickly forgotten.
—Stephen Farber, Film Comment July, 1974
F For Fake is a talentless concoction of unparalleled ineptitude... It would have been a more generous gesture to show a retrospective of old Welles films rather than remind everyone of how low his ability as a filmmaker has plummeted.
—Rex Reed, New York Daily News Sept 26, 1975
F For Fake was commercially and critically successful everywhere but here at home. Small-time, amateur distribution and some poor reviews in the smaller cities rendered it virtually invisible in America. This came as a shock to me, because I thought I’d opened up a new movie form—the essay as opposed to the documentary—which would give me lots of scope for future experimentation and would cost little enough, so financing wouldn’t be a problem.
In attempting to explain F For Fake’s state-side failure, it has occurred to me that perhaps the subject matter was at least partially to blame, and that this country is so blissfully enslaved by the notion of the special sanctity of the expert that an overtly anti-expert film was bound to go too much against the national grain.
—Orson Welles, 1983
By Lawrence French
After listening to Gary Graver's informative commentary with Bill Krohn on Eureka's splendid UK edition DVD of F For Fake, I looked at some old reviews and was rather shocked to see how vituperative the comments were. As can be seen from just two of the quotes above, it's not that reviewers just didn't like the film, but their attitude seemed to be "how dare Welles try to make anything so radical or different." While there were some glowing comments as well, the overall trend seemed to be that F For Fake was a decidedly "minor" Welles effort, certainly not worthy of the talented director of Citizen Kane.
Besides Welles own explanation for F For Fake's state-side failure, it may also be that many critics (especially the pompous ones who see themselves as experts beyond reproach) may have felt taken in by Welles trickery and his "opening up a new form" for the movies. After all, it makes a critics job much harder when they can't just pigeonhole a movie as being in this or that genre, whether it's good or bad.
Graver's commentary also brings out many fascinating details about the making of F For Fake, including where many of the locations were shot and where many of the various shots came from. Wouldn't it be ironic if Welles could have lived to make a Filming of F For Fake essay film?
Of course, it's widely known that Welles re-fashioned much of the movie from Francois Reichenbach's documentary on Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, but Gary's comments make it far clearer how much Welles was drawing on so many different sources of pre-existing footage, including Welles' own earlier projects. For instance, Gary reveals that the opening magic trick (of compressing Oja Kodar into a suitcase) was shot by Laszlo Kovacs. This was before Graver had even met Welles, so it seems likely that Peter Bogdanovich may have suggested Kovacs to Welles after Bogdanovich had used Kovacs as cameraman on his first film, Targets, starring Boris Karloff. Graver also reveals that the "Girl Watching" segment of Oja Kodar stopping traffic was shot in Rome (many "expert critics" assumed it to be Paris), and was meant to be included as one of the segments in Orson's Bag, the compilation of short films Welles was making for CBS-TV around 1969-1970.
I also found it quite instructive to look at F For Fake without the regular soundtrack, as it really let's you admire not only Welles staccato editing style, but the way he blends such disparate source material together. In the first few minutes alone, Welles uses shots from nearly ten different sources of film, and masterfully welds them into a cohesive whole. If this was one of the films Welles left uncompleted when he died, I imagine it would be nearly impossible to put it together, even if there were a detailed script to follow! I can now see why no one, even an experienced film editor like Walter Murch, wants anything to do with the editing of The Other Side of the Wind.
Here's a list of some of the major film sources Welles used (there are probably several others), along with the approximate year the material was shot:
1. New footage shot by Gary Graver in 35mm in France (Paris, Orvilliers, Houdan, Chartres); America (Beverly Hills Hotel, Las Vegas, Glendale); Spain (Malaga). (1971-1972)
2. Elmyr: The True Picture (1968) Francois Reichenbach directed BBC documentary shot by Christian Odasso in Ibiza and Paris in 16mm.
3. Magic Trick at airport footage with Welles and Oja Kodar (1968) Shot by Laszlo Kovacs.
4. Portrait of Orson Welles (1968) Reichenbach directed short film featuring Welles.
5. Girl Watching in Rome (1969) with Oja Kodar - shot by an unknown Italian cameraman.
6. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Ray Harryhausen stop-motion film, which itself uses stock footage.
7. Various Howard Hughes newsreel footage from the 1940’s.
8. Don Ameche departing a ship - newsreel footage.
9. Howard Hughes telephone press conference (1971)
10. Stock hurricane and storm newsreel (for Picasso's rage).
One final, fascinating note - Warning - if you have not seen the film read no further!
The Picasso episode is listed as being shot by Gary Graver in Toussant, on the French Riviera, near Antibes and Cannes, where Picasso was presumably staying when Oja first catches the famed painter's eye. Kodar reports this is just another bit of legerdemain on Welles part, as no such town exists in France. It was actually shot at a castle in Houdan, a small village near Welles house in Orvilliers that is on the way to Chartres. Graver also revealed that Oja's scenes posing nude for Picasso in his studio were shot at actress Lilli Palmer's house in Malaga, Spain, probably shortly before or after they had filmed Palmer's scenes for her role in The Other Side of the Wind. Now, just by chance, Malaga happens to be the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, who was actually still alive when Welles was making F For Fake.