Everything in that movie was a fake!
-Orson Welles, in Orson Welles: A Life in Film, BBC-TV
This film, released in 1974 was the last finished work of Orson Welles. Originally an unfinished documentary shot by Francois Reichenbach, Welles took over at the director's request, and essentially made the work his. Inserting new scenes featuring himself, a new narrative to change the context and severe editing of the filmed material, Welles turns the film into a philosophical essay on the nature of truth and lies in general, and in the world of art in specific. The film is in fact changed so much by Welles' editing, he is credited as the director, not Reichenbach. The finished work is nothing short of the work of genius: Welles constantly moves, in sharp cuts, from one image and sound to another, combining unrelated words and images from different times and places to make conversations and a cohesive narrative.
What is real?
The film revolves around the world of art, where a famous "forger", Elmyr de Hory, has recently been apprehended. However, Elmyr did not forge existing works, instead he created new, original works in the style of the modern masters such as Salvadore Dali, Matisse or Pablo Picasso, and signed the works with their respective signatures. The film goes on to claim that many of the works of these artist currently displayed in museums are in fact not theirs, but original Elmyr's instead, as even experts can't tell an Elmyr from a Picasso, in effect ridiculing the entire art establishment. At one point, a story about Picasso is retold: ... friends showed him pictures and, one by one, he dismissed them as fakes. "But Pablo," one of them said, "I saw you draw this one." Picasso said that he could paint false Picassos as well as anybody.
If there were no experts there would be no fakers.
So the film questions the world of art itself. What is art? Is it only the signature of the artist, or is it the work? If it is the work, does it matter who painted it? So how can it be a fake? Which leads us to the conclusion that all art is fake, including this documentary, which uses a lot of cinematic fakery to drive its point home. For example, Picasso, who appears in various scenes, never appears in the film. All we see is cleverly manipulated photographs. Welles promises in the beginning that: "This is a film about lies but I promise that for the next hour I will tell the truth.", but can we trust him?
A magician is just an actor, pretending to be a magician!
The film also touches upon Elmyr's biographer, Clifford Irving, writer of the fraudulent Howard Hughes autobiography, the careers of Hughes and Welles themselves (the latter of which started with a faked resume and a phony Martian invasion).
Robert Anton Wilson, author of the Illuminatus! Trilogy, also gives a very interesting analysis on this film in his quasi-biography Cosmic Trigger, Vol. 3, Life after Death, which also makes inspiring reading BTW. He raises the question as to how far we should trust so called experts, as the Elmyr case indicates that the experts do not always know shit from shinola. As he says:
After Elmyr, do we dare trust anybody?
Finally, Welles manages to conclude the film in one of the greatest plot twists ever. Giving it away would be a severe spoiler, so I won't. I just recommend the film, which has just been released on DVD by Criterion (Thanks to Adam Walker for this info). There is a VHS, and the film is shown irregularly on PBS or art stations.
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