Monday, April 2, 2007

Movie Chat: F for Fake

F for Fake

On the Criterion edition DVD of F for FakeCriterion, there's a filmed introduction to this movie by Peter Bogdonavich. (Note: like all of these Criterion Introductions, you should watch it after the movie. They're less introductions and more afterwords: a chance for the filmmaker to talk about his favorite parts of the movie.) Now, I try to be pretty generous, but Bogdonavich has always struck me as a huge blowhard. I always think about his interview with David Chase on one of the early Sopranos DVD sets where he traces the origins of a number of techniques Chase makes use of in the series back to his own movies, claiming, for example, that in Targets (!!!) he invented the device where all of the songs on a soundtrack are being played, in the world of the movie, over the radio (i.e., the songs on the soundtrack are fully diegetic). He also never passes up a chance to interrupt Chase with digressions that seem to have no other purpose than to give him a chance to name drop, like when he quotes some advice that his good friend Orson Welles once gave him.

Anyway, my point is that I was predisposed to find fault with the Bogdanovich intro, but, even so, I wasn't expecting him to be so, um, ignorant about movies. He talks about how F for Fake was a completely new kind of movie: a combination of documentary and essay. But, and please correct me if I'm wrong, by the late 1960s/early 1970s wasn't this kind of movie fairly common in European art film circles ? Circles that Welles would have been familiar with at the time and, I'd hope, that Bogdonavich would know about due to his interest in film history? I mean, doesn't documentary/essay pretty much describe something like Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (from 1967) or Chris Marker's The Koumiko Mystery (from 1965)? Granted, maybe Bogdonavich isn't to blame and the people putting the introduction together decided to keep things simple, but regardless of who's responsible for the message - "In F for Fake Orson Welles invented a new type of movie" - the message itself is flawed in the same way that a lot of the claims about the innovations of Citizen Kane are flawed: making Welles out to be an innovator/inventor instead of what (it seems to me, at least) he really was: along with D.W. Griffith and Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest synthesizers in American film.

The major "innovation" of F for Fake isn't that it's a new kind of film, but that Welles approaches the documentary/essay form with the same sense of showmanship that he brought to all of his other cinematic and theatrical endeavors. That's what a lot of Welles's supporters miss when they talk about Citizen Kane: that it's one of the most entertaining "great" movie ever made, that Welles goes out of his way to put on a good show, that the effects and techniques borrowed from European cinema (like all of the expressionist compositions) are deployed as much as show-biz razzle-dazzle as poetic devices.

Likewise, what sets F for Fake apart from something like 2 or 3 Things... is that it's as much of an entertainment as it is an essay on fraud, forgery, and illusion. And Welles's attempts to keep his audience entertained - to provide the razzle-dazzle - become a major part of the essay, giving it not only more impact, but more depth.

Frankly, while I'm not surprised that it did badly at the time of it's (not quite) release, I am surprised that it hasn't become better known since. This is all relative, of course: I mean, it has been nicely restored and played the art house circuit and now it's out on a very nice Criterion Collection DVD (so nice that I've added it to my Criterion Wish List), but this is really the kind of movie that deserves more exposure in cinema studies programs and more discussion, in general.

Semi-Related Topic for Discussion:

F for Fake has this very nice Criterion edition, they've also put out a (too?) defintive version of Mr. Arkadin, and the Columibia DVD of Citizen Kane seems to be fine, but otherwise, Welles's DVD catalog is pretty spotty. So, here's the question: is Welles the most important American director whose work is the least well-served by its current release status?

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