Soon after I entered the wonderful world of filmmaking, I became aware of Orson Welles. I was entranced with his eclectic work and larger than life reputation. Of course it was his films that got me: The Stranger, Citizen Kane and The Trial were, most likely, the first ones I encountered.
Something was different with Welles’s filmic style; it breached the prosaic and didn’t fall within the iron templates of conventional filmmaking. The pace of the montage, and the disparate but rewarding cacophony of the angles at times proved eccentric, creating spatially and circumstantially confusing scenes—but that was a good thing: it made a Welles’s film a Welles’s film. You just had to get acclimated to it.
I realized another thing as well, that which set him apart from the crowd: he wasn’t just creating stories with plot and character, he was creating narratives with the camera—the camera itself became a character. It was a unique and provocative presence throughout the films, providing psychologically off-setting dutch angles, the infinite clarity of full depth of field, and its persuasive and pesky sense of place to heighten quirky sensations.
I devoured all of these cinematic possibilities as an enthusiastic neophyte would. Everything was new and I had the blessing to be taken in by the cream of the crop, a master of the form. It was the energy of Welles’s cinema that I carried with me for my own aspirations. He, along with Scorsese and Romero, were my strongest formative influences.
Welles has about a dozen finished films attributed to his oeuvre, – depending on how you ultimately look at some of the projects—some incomplete, some realized into completion by others, footage biding time in faraway vaults. It’s a common but misguided consensus to decry Welles for his fall from grace with Hollywood while at the same time speculating as to the greatness that might have been. What might have been would be a path taken by any other Hollywood filmmaker; and who needs that? Welles was his own man and cinema remains damn lucky for that. He was the independents’ independent; so what if they wore bed sheets for costumes in Othello?
1973 brought Welles’s last cinematic trick (not taking into account a feature documentary on his Othello that he did for German TV) to the screen. This magnificent coda, F For Fake, was a delightful patchwork of old footage and innovative new work; the boy magician casting one last enchanting filmic spell, conjuring a range of disparate delights; a lyrical tapestry of charming personalities and conniving ambitions.
Featured are Clifford Irving, whose claim to fame was faking a biography of Howard Hughes (and duping Morely Schafer on 60 Minutes) and forger-painter Elmyr de Hory who sadly ended up taking his own life rather than face a prison term for his precise replications. These guys are fascinating in the way that they had imposed themselves onto life, and in their subsequent fall from false-grace as the con-men they really were. And like good magicians, these intriguing personas also operated by persuasive sleight of hand, and specifically in their case: word and paint. It‘s fun being allowed to spend some time in their raffish company.
Irving even unwittingly brought the super-reclusive Howard Hughes back from the dead, figuratively, and back into a public appearance, at least aurally, to defend himself against Irving to state that he had never even met the faux author. Irving had walked away with a $300,000 advance for the book and eventually into a prison sentence. This bizarre event returned to the spotlight when it was turned into a film, Hoax, with Richard Gere inhabiting Irving‘s mystique.
Beautiful, exotic Oja Kodar is also featured, equal soul-mate and help-mate, (for the last twenty years of Welles’s life) a necessary alchemy intertwined in the great man’s existence, aiding and abetting him in his continuing pursuit in a productive work-life. Intelligent, ambitious, loyal. Lucky him: a conservator of his work and a protector of his much maligned image. She’s sensually portrayed in a beautiful montage with an intoxicating score from Michel Legrand, and it’s bits in the film like this that give it a stand-apart presence from run-of-the-mill documentaries.
Welles, himself, is a joy to behold in F For Fake and even more so, to listen to—his bassy voice resonates with a dubious but delightful authority. His immaculate presence remains intact throughout the years. He, too, sponsors his own worlds of possible true and false: the realm of braggadocio lays no small claim on almost anyone in this boisterous firmament of braggarts; each with a gleam in their eye, telling and retelling sordid tales of intrusions into the hallowed halls of veracity.
Ultimately, Welles was a factotum in his own servitude, a prodigious polymath: writing, directing, acting and cobbling together the money for his various ventures. A charismatic conjurer assembling all the necessary elements to conjoin his cinematic adventures. He never gave up the ghost until the ghost got him, as it will all of us: but the man was taken away figuratively standing, always a project in mind, a lunch to attend, a tale to tell, a dream to pursue.
Orson Welles will always remain one of my cinematic heroes.