F for Fake is a lot of things: A sort-of documentary, a complete and total fiction, a passion-fueled ramble, a legendary prank, a formal experiment, a tribute to liars and fakers, an ode to Oja Kodar’s ass, and most of all, the sort of one-sided conversation you don’t mind being on the receiving end of. It’s a contradictory and yet coherent work, a film less motivated by ideas and more a loose string of them, a train of thought given form (and oh, what form!) It’s been one of my all-time favorite films from the moment I first saw it, though back then I wasn’t sure I knew why.
When I first saw F for Fake a few years ago, I couldn’t articulate why I was so instantly enamored with it. I didn’t have the right language, the proper understanding of form, the context of Welles’ career. I didn’t quite know what I had just seen, but I knew I was in love with it. There was a little bit of shame that came along with that, a sense that I needed to deserve to have a particular reaction to a film. Watching it again some years later, I realized how silly that was. F for Fake is a rich and sprawling experiment, quite unlike anything that came before or since. But for all its formal depth, it’s a breezily entertaining affair, as intelligent as it is cheeky. Orson Welles was one of the most clever people to ever make a movie, but his work never flaunts that cleverness. In F for Fake perhaps more than any of his films, he brings the audience in on his fascinations and fixations. He makes F for Fake at once an easy film for anyone to like and a profoundly intriguing subject for more knowledgeable cinephiles.
What makes the film truly special, though, is how those two things work hand in hand. The experimental editing that was a staple of Welles’ late-period work (and which was replicated in The Other Side of the Wind) is a huge part of what makes F for Fake so electrifying. The film moves with a jazzy freneticism never otherwise seen in….can we call this film non-fiction? Whatever. The film abandons typical cinematic grammar for something more freeform. Cinema language approximates the way we see and understand the world. The language of F for Fake more closely resembles the way we think about the world. It’s full of visual and verbal free association, using cuts to tie together disparate thoughts and create a coherent idea.
But it’s the incoherence where the film really lives, the sense that Welles himself is as along for the ride as you are. The film follows what we recognize as a train of thought, a non-linear conscious path with plenty of diversions and asides along the way. The film is decades old and it still feels like you’re watching it live as it happens. It’s like Welles is putting down the tracks just ahead of the train. It’s only at the end when you realize he’s been one step ahead the whole time, and you can’t help but be utterly charmed by how taken in you were. Welles is one of the only figures in cinema who could get away with such a bamboozle. Despite his towering intellectual stature, it never feels like he’s talking down to you. He makes it easy to follow along with his ponderings, even if you don’t have all the historical and cultural context that birthed them. Welles is as unpretentious an auteur as there ever was. He references Citizen Kane in F for Fake to say that he “started at the top, and I’ve been working my way down ever since.” That’s still a mightily high bar.