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.
September 17
1908—First Airplane Fatality Occurs
The plane built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, The Wright Flyer, crashes with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge aboard as a passenger. The accident kills Selfridge, and he becomes the first airplane fatality in history.
1983—First Black Miss America Crowned
Vanessa Williams becomes the first African American Miss America. She later loses her crown when lesbian-themed nude photographs of her are published by Penthouse magazine.
September 16
1920—Terrorists Bomb Wall Street
At 12:01 p.m. a bomb loaded into a horse-drawn wagon explodes in front of the J.P.Morgan building in New York City. 38 people are killed and 400 injured. Italian anarchists are thought to be the perpetrators, but after years of investigation no one is ever brought to justice.
September 15
1959—Khrushchev Visits U.S.
Nikita Khrushchev becomes the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. The two week stay includes talks with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as a visit to a farm and a Hollywood movie set, and a tour of a "typical" American neighborhood, upper middle class Granada Hills, California.
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