Most cineastes associate Orson Welles with landmark motion pictures like “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Touch of Evil,” and the granddaddy of them all, “Citizen Kane.” But his 1974 oddity, “F for Fake” — a nifty riff on the notion of deceit and what exactly “artistic license” really means, and also the last picture he would ever direct — is worth seeking out for those who wish to dig into the more obscure corners of the legendary filmmaker’s body of work. A loosely structured, free-form narrative hoax, one that Roger Ebert famously called “fun and engaging [but] minor,” “F for Fake” cannot attest to the almost-unanimous acclaim of Welles’ earlier pictures, but, oddly enough, it plays well today. The film has a prankish, fearless spirit that is as ahead of its time, in its own way, as the films of Jean-Luc Godard (an amusing comparison, if for no other reason than Welles had some not-very-nice things to say about the French New Wave pioneer). The film is also fascinating for its editing, which managed to further blur the lines between truth and fiction in the medium that Mr. Welles knew so well. “F for Fake,” it can be argued, remains the quintessential blueprint for the modern video essay. So what better way to learn about than by watching a video essay yourself? Every Frame a Painting has now given us this cool new look at “F for Fake,” which runs under just about five-minutes, and diehard devotees of the old master will certainly want to give it a look.
The author of this particular video essay claims to use “F for Fake” as his own personal bible, and it shows. The essay mostly explicates on the order of how things happen in traditional cinematic storytelling, and why a totally linear structure is never a good thing. Consider 2014’s “Wild,” a jagged, rough film filled with flashbacks and fast-forwards, an entire story seemingly out of its linear place. Jean-Marc Valle’s melodramatically-charged drama didn’t work for many (I loved it), but its structure remains its most interesting quality. By employing different vantage points from the life of the protagonist Cheryl Strayed, the film becomes less a journey from California to Oregon than a disturbing and evocative tapestry of one woman’s very fucked-up life. That same logic on display in “F for Fake” is what saves films like “Wild” from fundamental screenwriting weaknesses, although this is only one recent example.
Employing the Chinese drive-thru scene from “Dude, Where’s My Car?” — wherein Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott face off against a bellicose drive-thru attendant who greets their every request with “and thennnn” — the author of the essay argues adamantly against a formalized, routine structure, against the “and then” logic entirely. He also examines the deadening stasis that a paint-by-numbers narrative — one that moves from A to B in a dutiful and predictable line — can have on a film. Alfred Hitchcock’s old adage that filmmaking is a constant game of, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” is invoked here as well, the idea that basic cinematic storytelling implies two compelling stories working together in unison, and in parallel. It’s fascinating stuff, and there are even some glimpses of some familiar faces along the way, including Welles’ old friend Peter Bogdonavich and “South Park” creator Matt Stone.
“F for Fake” is currently available through the Criterion Collection. Watch the video essay below: