Classic Review: F For Fake

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An excellent film — a sort of metadocumentary — that exposes its own artifice and the relationship between truth and trust.

Review:  In the 1973 film ‘F For Fake’, over 88 minutes cinematic genius Orson Welles examines the nature of art in a filmic form not quite documentary and not quite fiction.   It’s proof that the peculiar magic of the medium is not restricted to the categories dreamed up by marketing departments.  ‘F For Fake’ is a truly self-aware film.  It doesn’t merely acknowledge its artifice in a humorous, superficial way; it turns itself inside out.  It is edited in such a way as to obfuscate our attempts to sort out truth and fiction.  It’s like a photograph of a flower-pot hiding its very subject immediately behind it.  For us viewers at Mr. Welles’ mercy, the question is, when are we looking at the proverbial flower-pot?

Orson Welles is brazen and beguiling as he guides us through the twisted tale of an infamous art forger and his equally infamous biographer.  Throughout the story, he weaves in a bizarre fiction and chases rabbits down their trails.  Mr. Welles promises to tell us the truth whilst declaiming himself as a charlatan akin to his subjects.  Welles in his own estimation is untrustworthy, but we believe him anyway, and that is precisely his point!

While he’s at it, he subtly explores sexuality’s use as a deceptive device, through two sequences in which a beautiful woman distracts us from the ideas at play.  He seems to suggest that physical beauty is often used by filmmakers to divert our attention from both flaws and substantive content.  That’s consistent with how often sex appeal determines casting, particularly in works of a shallower nature.  It wouldn’t be enough to say that this is just good business.  Even if it has become second nature, these techniques are a kind of sleight-of-hand.  The plot could disappear into a deep hole, but your basic instincts might not let you notice.  And, for a storyteller more intent on complexity, using human desires to his or her advantage is a simple and effective way to get an audience’s attention while they work past the mind’s more intricate defenses.

In a film-craft sense, ‘F For Fake’ is really brilliant, with rapid cuts, repetitions, and instantly evocative imagery creating a captivating kaleidoscope.  For those of us in the post-MTV world who have to endure and sometimes enjoy the films of Michael Bay and others like him, it’s positively redeeming to see prototypes of postmodern techniques used so meaningfully.  Paired and contrasted with the classic techniques of ‘Citizen Kane’, it’s perhaps the ultimate example of Orson Welles’ range and influence.

‘F For Fake’ revolves around a simple premise: What we believe is true relies on who we believe is trustworthy.  It is a reminder that those we call experts — such as the art dealers defrauded by Elmyr de Hory — also rely on other people for estimates of the truth.  Considering that a painting mimicking an original may trick even the finest eye, what then is an original’s value?  Isn’t it possible to derive the same pleasure from an original and a fake?  If a duped museum believes that a clever fake is the genuine article, and displays it under this pretense, would the viewers in effect be seeing an original, or even the original by proxy?

The film challenges the notion that art’s virtue is in the truth of itself.  Art, genuine or forgery, is properly measured by how well it convinces us.  Aristotle observed, in reference to theatrical art, that (and the emphasis is mine) “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions.”  In short, it’s a noble deception by which we hope to accomplish an emotional change in those who, for at least a little time, choose to believe it.  As in the case of a painting, a film’s communicated truth is in its emotional effect on the viewer.

One hopes that a filmmaker is responsible and doesn’t betray our confidence by convincing us of ignoble things; but what is there to stop them?  My hope as a filmmaker and a critic is to be an honest charlatan.  I’d like to echo Mr. Welles, who in this magic act says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”

Classic Review: Rashomon

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An intelligent, philosophically influential, and emotionally resonant film.

Review:  “Long as I remember, rain’s been comin’ down…” The opening of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1950 film, ‘Rashomon’, immediately brought a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival to my mind.  Two men take refuge from a pounding storm beneath the ruined gatehouse called Rashomon.  One is a common woodcutter, the other a priest.  No words are spoken between them for the longest time, as the rain keeps comin’ down.  A third man joins them.  He manages to pry into the source of their despair; they have witnessed the story of a baffling murder and rape.  The priest’s faith in humanity has been severely shaken by the cloak of lies surrounding the events.  Slowly, all the versions of the story are shared and the conclusion is left ambiguous.  If there is one honest witness, we are left to decide for ourselves.

‘Rashomon’ is exactly the kind of film the world needs, and yet, of course, it is one of the most difficult to get made.  It is a film created from honest doubts, fears, questions, and a little faith.  The murder mystery angle makes it marketable, but the deliberately inconclusive, introspective ending will frustrate those looking for a quick fix.  ‘Rashomon’ is an artful entry into the discussion, not a hamhanded attempt at providing answers.

The film hews close to the minimalism and visual poetry of the silent era, yet has a very large number of shots, 407, which gives the action a similar flavor to postmodern hyperactivity.  It reinforces the fractured, frenetic, and confusing nature of the main event.  Kurosawa bucks common camera conventions, shoots directly towards the sun (something which wasn’t done at the time), and breaks the 180-degree-rule, a guideline for camera placement that prevents the audience from losing track of objects and location.  The murder and rape take place in the forest, which blocks out the sunlight, symbolizing the fragmentation of the truth, and the trees blur together with the camera motion, reinforcing the sense of frustration and spiritual wilderness.

‘Rashomon’ is an unforgettable, very emotional experience.  It’s a thinking person’s film.  It gave its name to the “Rashomon Effect”, which refers to the subjectivity of recollection.  It’s a must-see for cinephiles and philosophers.  “And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

Buy It From Amazon: Rashomon – Criterion Collection