If you don’t understand what makes Citizen Kane so important, just watch a few movies made before it. In his first outing as a filmmaker, Orson Welles, whether by ignorance or other virtues, pioneered so many aesthetic and narrative techniques that we can now hardly imagine how the medium ever did without. If you don’t understand what makes Welles’ last picture, the quasi-documentary on fact and falsehood F for Fake so important, just compare it to all the video essays proliferating on the internet today.
If Citizen Kane was just slightly ahead of its time in 1940, F for Fake, which came out in 1973, now looks more than three decades ahead of the curve. Nobody knows that better than Tony Zhou, creator of the popular cinema-focused video essay series Every Frame a Painting.
“I’ve stolen more ideas from this film than from any other,” he admits at the beginning of his tribute to F for Fake. “Everything I know about editing” — and he knows a lot — “I’ve learned from this film.”
The first lesson it teaches has to do with how to structure, or rather, how not to structure: instead of making cuts that feel like a repetitive series of “and then”s, make cuts that, in the words of South Park co-creator Trey Parker, stands for “either the word therefore or but.” In other words, whether making a video essay, a feature film, or anything in between, build the structure not out of simple, unordered list-like sequences, but out of causes, effects, and contradictions. Throughout F for Fake, “Orson Welles does the exact same thing, except he doesn’t connect scenes; he connects thoughts. Even though this movie is an essay, each moment has the connective logic of a South Park episode.”
This leads into the second lesson: “Have more than one story moving in parallel,” so that whenever one “reaches peak interest,” you can oscillate to the other. (No less an editing master than Alfred Hitchcock also subscribed to this principle, describing it with the phrase “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”) Welles’ bravura performance, however, rotates between no fewer than six stories: of art forger Elmyr de Hory, of “hoax-biographer” Clifford Irving, of Irving’s subject Howard Hughes, of Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar, of Welles himself (and his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast), and even of the making of F for Fake itself.
Technical points aside, Zhou draws from all this a perspective on his work: “It’s not about what you get. It’s about how you cut it, and what comes out the other end. Remember, video essays aren’t essays, they’re films, so you want to structure and pace them like a filmmaker would.” And in this final major work that he himself describes as a “film about trickery and fraud,” Welles presents that and everything else he’d learned about filmmaking over the past forty years doing it. Even if some say we live a “post-fact” era — a term that would have endlessly amused Welles, or at least the “charlatan” version of himself he plays in F for Fake — the laws of cinema retain their truth.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.