Frauds, hustlers, cheats, swindlers, scammers, flimflammers, con artists, tricksters, imposters, charlatans, rogues, shysters, pretenders, sharks, sophists, two-timers, quacksalvers, and fakes. However they’re named, they’re covered in Orson Welles’s last completed film, F for Fake, which is -- more often than not -- a fake itself. Or is it? Perhaps it’s art. Perhaps somewhere in its artfulness, we’ll find real truth. As Welles quotes Picasso in the movie: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Ah, yes, yes, but Welles forgets the rest (or does he?) to finish the quote: “The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”1 Is Picasso himself a con artist? Is Welles? Yes, yes, we’re all charlatans to some extent. From the New York Times journalist who fails to mention that his trend piece is based on ephemera. To the woman who’s right now faking an orgasm in a suburban bedroom outside of Toledo. Fakers one and all. As Welles says in the movie, “Almost any story is some kind of lie.” But that’s not so bad. It’s not always evil. Because even if it’s a lie, it will teach us some larger universal truth, right? Right? Ohhhh, Orson Welles. You’ve made us ask too many unanswerable questions. How can we even trust you? Or this film? You’re making me wonder whether anything is true.
Well-known today, but not so well-known in 1938, Welles was behind one of the biggest hoaxes of the 20th Century when he aired a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which sent much of the country into a moronic panic as people thought aliens really did touch down in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. F for Fake, however, doesn’t start here. It’s not a chronological film, abd that itself is part of its sleight-of-hand. With his own array of film trickery, Welles uses the movie to ask, What is art? Which alludes to the even larger question, What is true? Welles tries answering these questions by focusing on the infamous art forger, Elmyr de Hory, who was so proficient at emulating other artists’ styles---Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse---that museums across the world allegedly still display his forgeries as originals. Somewhere in the filmmaking process, however, de Hory’s biographer, Irving Clifford, became a forger himself by faking the autobiography of the millionaire-turned-shut-in Howard Hughes---a story that was fictionalized even further by a mediocre Richard Gere movie in 2006 [if Richard Gere isn't enough mediocrity for you, take a look at the cover. -Ed.]. And now I’m writing about all of this, and honestly, you have no real reason to believe anything I say. After parsing through facts in the news business for nearly a decade, I fall somewhere in line with Picasso’s thought: “If I pursue a truth on my canvas, I can paint a hundred canvases with this same truth. Which one, then, is the truth? And what is truth---the thing that acts as my model, or what I am painting? No, it’s like in everything else. Truth does not exist.”
F for Fake poses plenty of timeless questions but it raises far more: Welles focuses on literary and artistic forgeries but how many other fakes do we contend with throughout the day? As de Hory says in defense of his fraudulent work, “If you hang paintings in a museum long enough, they become real.” The same could be said about, say, political discourse in the United States. It’s been treated as cheap theater for so many years that today we merely assume that politics is cheap theater. Take this hypothetical for instance, which regularly happens one way or another: A think tank is funded by businesses with financial interests in oil. That think tank writes a biased report on climate change. The think tank’s study is reported by Fox News, which puts its own political slant on it. Then the Daily Show gives its comedic take on the Fox News report. And then we repeat the Daily Show jokes on Facebook the next day, likely distorting them in some way ourselves--leaving something out, adding something in. None of this exactly originates with truth, but as de Hory might say, this painting’s been hanging in the museum for so long now that it’s become real. We don’t question this discourse so much as we just sit back and enjoy it all as entertainment, rooting for whichever characters we prefer.
The cultural critic and poet Lewis Hyde is skeptical of putting political tricksters on the same pedestal as our fraudulent folk heroes: “It isn’t just that their ends are usually too mundane and petty, but that the trickster belongs to the periphery, not to the center. If trickster were ever to get into power, he would stop being trickster.”2 I disagree---we’re continuously tricked by not only powerful political lobbying, but by other financially powerful charlatans that few would consider artists, like advertisers and reality TV stars. All of these things may be at the center of our culture today but they certainly haven’t stopped tricking us into believing that they’re omnipotent. One only needs to look as far as the multitude of insufferable Kardashian shows that E! airs in order to see that we keep being tricked. Welles insisted that the 20th Century was not the century of the fake and that these “hanky-panky men” have always been with us. But how would he classify the 21st Century if he sat down to watch seven variations of The Real Housewives?
F for Fake doesn’t quite stretch this far out into the ether of what is true and what’s a forgery. So perhaps this is no longer an essay on the film, or documentary, or fiction, or film essay, or whatever F for Fake may be in the end. It may be nothing at all. In 1983, Welles told the International Herald Tribune, “In F for Fake I said I was a charlatan and didn’t mean it . . . because I didn’t want to sound superior to Elmyr, so I emphasized that I was a magician and called it a charlatan, which isn’t the same thing. And so I was faking even then. Everything was a lie. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t.”3 Anything, Orson? Bah. Then I’ve likely lied to the reader as well. Maybe it just depends on who you ask.
Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.