Ask Orson Welles enthusiasts to name the filmmaker’s masterpiece, and most will, of course, name Citizen Kane. While Welles’ very first feature film may lay credible claim to the title of not just the finest in his oeuvre but the finest film ever made, a growing minority of dissenters have, in recent years, plumped for his last: 1974’s F for Fake. Too truthful to call a fiction film and too filled with lies to call a documentary, it brings together such seemingly disparate themes as authorship, authenticity, art forgery, architecture, and girl-watching into what Welles himself thought of as “a new kind of film,” but which cinephiles might now consider an “essay film,” a form exemplified by the works of, to name a well-known proponent, La jetee and Sans soleil director Chris Marker.
Alas, Welles revealed F for Fake in 1974 to an unready world: audiences didn’t quite understand it, and what distributors showed interest in buying it didn’t quite offer enough money. The feature finally came out in America in 1976, and for the occasion Welles put together the nine-minute “trailer,” never actually screened in a theater, at the top of the post, a short essay film in and of itself possessed of a similar style to but consisting of no footage from the full-length F for Fake. As with the picture to which it ostensibly offers a preview, Welles made it in collaboration with B-movie cinematographer Gary Graver and his girlfriend Oja Kodar — the one you see posing with the tiger — hoping to tantalize with a suggestion of the dance of truth and falsity the film does around such storied figures as Pablo Picasso, Howard Hughes, and infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory.
In the clip after that, you can hear filmmaker (and something of a Boswell for Welles) Peter Bogdanovich briefly discuss the origin of F for Fake as well as the film’s sheer unusualness. “My favorite moment is when he talks about Chartres, this extraordinary cathedral of Chartres which nobody knows who designed, how its authorship is anonymous and he connects that to the whole idea of authorship and fakery.” That sequence from the full movie appears just above; just below, have another taste in the form of one of its passages on Picasso, featuring Kojar as the artist’s ostensible former mistress. Seem strange? Take Bogdanovich’s words to heart: “If you get on the film’s wavelength and listen to what he’s saying and what what he’s doing, it’s riveting. It takes you along through the rhythm of the cutting, and of Orson’s personality. If you fight it, and you expect it to be a linear kind of thing, then you’re not going to enjoy it.”
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.