Vintage Pulp | Swindles & Scams Mar 12 2009
FAUX ALL IT'S WORTH
Orson Welles' crime documentary has stood the test of time—but it won’t last forever.

Orson Welles’ Vérités et mensonges, aka F for Fake is a documentary meditation on the nature of fraud, forgery and lies that slowly expands to discuss the fragility and impermanence of all human creations. Shot in France and Spain, the film follows two main subjects—Clifford Irving, who infamously wrote a fake biography of Howard Hughes, and master art forger Elmyr de Hory. At the time of filming Irving had served jail time for his crimes, but de Hory was living on Ibiza, safe from prosecution because the many museums that owned his forgeries feared the scandals sure to result if the works were exposed as false.

De Hory’s fake paintings would never have been bought by museums if art experts hadn’t declared them legitimate. The experts were unwitting accomplices to his crimes. Clifford Irving’s fate was likewise determined by experts. He admitted his Howard Hughes biography was phony after Hughes released an audiotape claiming the two had never met, but since Hughes was a recluse who hadn’t been seen for years, how did anyone know it was really him speaking? You guessed it—a panel of experts, i.e. people who had met him, listened to the tapes and agreed the voice was his. But if art experts can’t be relied upon to determine real paintings from fake, how can a bunch of self-described Hughes experts be trusted to verify a voice on a tape? What would have happened if Irving had never confessed? Would the faker have joined the ranks of the legitimate, enshrined there for eternity? And ultimately, when everything of value hangs by such a fragile thread, does any of it have true worth?

Interesting questions, and Welles doesn’t exempt his own field from examination. He discusses his War of the Worlds broadcast, along with the fakery of acting in general. He even makes Vérités et mensonges a bit of a fake by adding sequences from a movie shot by a different director, and constantly dispelling the illusion of filmmaking by showing camera men and sound techs. It’s easy to imagine that Welles, were he alive today, would have been intrigued by the current economic crisis, and the roles played by financial regulators in the U.S. who falsely labeled billions in dodgy investment packages as safe for purchase. These men were either experts without expertise, or forgers with the power to declare their forgeries genuine. Welles probably would have loved that.

Vérités et mensonges was slammed upon release but, as often happens, the art has outlasted its detractors and now most film mavens hail it as a triumph. This too fits perfectly with Welles’ thesis. The works of humans are certain to outlast their creators and critics, but in the end all must—as he says—“fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash.” Not very upbeat. But he also tells us, “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” That's a sentiment we can get behind. Vérités et mensonges opened in France today in 1975. 

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
June 20
1967—Muhammad Ali Sentenced for Draft Evasion
Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was known as Cassius Clay before his conversion to Islam, is sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. In elucidating his opposition to serving, he uttered the now-famous phrase, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
June 19
1953—The Rosenbergs Are Executed
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted for conspiracy to commit espionage related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet spies, are executed at Sing Sing prison, in New York.
June 18
1928—Earhart Crosses Atlantic Ocean
American aviator Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly in an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean, riding as a passenger in a plane piloted by Wilmer Stutz and maintained by Lou Gordon. Earhart would four years later go on to complete a trans-Atlantic flight as a pilot, leaving from Newfoundland and landing in Ireland, accomplishing the feat solo without a co-pilot or mechanic.
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