Film Review: Orson Welles' F for Fake
“Fake” - a word we hear a lot nowadays. The proliferation of fake news, paired with the allegations that real news is fake, leads to a lot of people not knowing what is fake and what is real. Orson Welles’ (1975) film acts as a harbinger for the ubiquity of fakeness in the 21st century and deals in themes that are highly relevant in today’s times.
Welles, as a character in the F for Fake and its narrator, says Elmyr is the second greatest faker of all time. So does that mean Welles is the biggest faker? He did fool the country with War of the Worlds and shows off his chops as a magician. Or is this film, or film in general, the biggest faker?
I understood the film to mean that we are all fake, at least in some respects. We are all trying to pull an Elmyr and get one over on other people, the world, and even ourselves. Elmyr says that when his paintings hang in museums for long enough, they become real. In other words, it’s all about perception. If something is perceived as real, then it’s real. As Welles says, “Value depends on opinion.”
This brings me back to our current situation with what is fake and what’s real, or what is true and untrue. Would Welles be surprised at the level of fakery now facing our society? Personally, I believe he would not - he seems to have understood human beings’ proclivity for fakeness decades before the idea of fake news and alternative facts entered the public consciousness. Welles was far, far ahead of his time in terms of the role the unreal would play in future years.
Many people in today’s time would probably side with Elmyr. People who write real news off as “fake” seem to legitimately believe that news they don’t agree with is untrue. Donald Trump is said to spout off lies so vehemently that he actually starts to believe them. In a sense, he has carried off the greatest Elmyr of all time – he manipulated what people know as true and false until many people did not know what to believe, thereby equating his “alternative facts” to the truth. He essentially faked his way to the presidency.
In this way, life has, in the words of Oscar Wilde, mimicked art. And art, according to Welles, is a lie. So, it only makes sense that lies, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and deception abound. Opinions have become more important than fact. It’s not about what is true and what is false, but instead whether you can argue your side and convince others that you are right. Since value depends on opinion, and, as Welles notes
opinion is based on experts, then we have the “experts” to blame for our current predicament, right? Not exactly.
Welles shows experts to not be the end all be all because of the trickery Elmyr executes. Now, the situation seems worse because we can all become “experts” via the internet, and bias is so great that something portrayed as true on one website or one news broadcast can be denigrated as false on another. But clearly, all people make faulty experts, since Welles was able to trick us into believing the story about Oja conning Picasso. None of us know what the hell we’re talking about in a wide array of respects.
Throughout the film, Welles clearly has a point of view in terms of lying and falsity. But he isn’t judging the liars and the fakers – he is one himself. He’s a member of the club along with the rest of us. We are all con artists in one way or another. It is in this way that Welles uses his film to really engage with not only viewers but with the very subject of the film. Corrigan (2011) lists F for Fake as being an example of refractive cinema (182). Instead of engaging with a single film or example of falsity, Welles is commenting on the nature of the form itself by joining in on what Corrigan calls a “public circulation of experience.”
Welles dealt in fakery just as much, if not more, than we all do. Going back to his statement that art is not synonymous with truth, but is instead a lie that makes us see the truth, what happens when not only art, but everything, becomes a lie? Corrigan (2011) also notes Montaigne’s statement that, “The shortest way to truth is a lie” (204). How do we find the truth when the dam of lying and fakeness has been broken open? I personally feel that facts and truth do matter; however, these things become obscured in our hyper-partisan environment. The point is that the Pandora’s box of “fakeness” has been opened and for better or worse is a part of life. Welles just saw it before everyone else.
Corrigan, Timothy. 2011. The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. New York: Oxford University Press.
Welles, Orson. 1975. F for Fake. Film. France.