Long before people questioned whether or not films like Exit Through the Gift Shop or I’m Still Here were a hoax, Orson Welles made a film about fakes. While Banksy and Casey Affleck made the audience question the truthfulness of what they were watching, Welles had far more ambitious sights, making the audience question the truthfulness of film itself and whether a documentary could be anything other than trickery itself.
While the introduction of the film might seem like an esoteric opening, Welles masquerading as a magician and expounding upon illusion, it’s essential to setting up the idea of film as an illusion. Here the camera crew is shown, Welles steps in front of the background that then makes him appear to be someplace far away from the busy train station the opening takes place in. Here, the reality shows the birth of the trickery. And then Orson Welles then assures us that what we see for the next hour will be completely true.
It’s through Welles’ honesty that he reveals the fakery of the documentary. He edits together pieces that don’t actual belong together, in voiceover tells us these pieces are incongruent. Therefore, while we hear someone say something that seems to pertain to what happens, it’s actual a trick, a faulty assumption that just because two people talk in conjunction with each other, they must be speaking on the same thing.
Welles also constantly cuts to the editing room in order to jump and transition the film into a direction that molds the audience’s perceptions of events, takes them out of the context of time. These breaks intentionally ruin the flow of the film because Welles is trying to draw attention to how easily the audience can get caught up in the illusion that the way things follow actually make sense even when perhaps there’s no reason to make some of these connections.
And while Welles claims that the film is being honest, it’s being honest about a couple of frauds. Elmyr De Hory is a charismatic old man who is the world’s greatest painter of frauds. These frauds look so authentic that they pass for the real things in museums and collections. And while this certainly seems a controversial subject, some hold that Elmyr is the biggest fraud of all.
One such man is Clifford Irving, a longtime friend of Elmyr that ends up seeking out his own form of forgery. It quickly becomes a web of deceit where frauds claim some truth about other frauds while the frauds themselves have often deceived their own perception of themselves and others. Curious that Welles can claim any sense of honesty amidst such a world of fakery.
And that’s the point. On some level it’s all deception, lies and fakery. Thinking that the documentary has a pass on the truth is to ignore that film is fundamentally an illusion. But does that mean there’s no truth at all? Welles in the last act says “Art, Picasso said, is a lie — a lie that makes us realize the truth.” And Welles has sought out to show the audience that the documentary is such a form of art.
It’s this that makes Welles’s web of deceit, promise of truth and document of fakery one of the greatest of film truths. It’s all an illusion, a well-played con that far from seeking to deceive the audience, only is working to build to that reveal of truth. Does that mean that the deceit must be trusted? Certainly not, Welles himself makes certain to prove that point before the film ends. But he calls for some honesty amidst all this fakery.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing