Before watching the movie:
I may have only heard of this film a few days before deciding to add it to my checklist (after thirteen years, I finally made a list that’s not just in my head or bookmarks on a streaming site). I know that it concerns Elmyr De Hory, an art forger so skilled and so prolific that the art market would like to pretend he doesn’t exist, and that it was made by Orson Welles, which caught my attention. Especially when I was looking for older theatrical documentaries, which are surprisingly hard to find recommendations for.
While Orson Welles is highly talked about as an actor and director, it occurs to me that his broadly known legacy doesn’t seem to extend much beyond War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane (and an infamous rant outtake on a frozen pea commercial). I was going to say this isn’t one of his better known works, but then, not much seems to be better known.
After watching the movie:
Despite his skill, Elmyr De Hory was never able to sell his paintings, having not developed a distinctive style. However, he discovered a flawless ability to imitate any well-known artist, and on that, he made enough money to live well. The art dealers he sold to were either completely fooled or intentionally held back from asking questions because he was selling for half or a third of what they knew they could get. He was eventually arrested, but the case was kept quiet to protect others’ reputations, and they could not convict him of fraud because no witnesses could attest to seeing him forge signatures. Clifford Irving never got much traction as a novelist, but eventually learned of De Hory and wrote a biography of him titled Fake. On the success of Fake, Irving made a deal on the autobiography of Howard Hughes, which caused a storm when Hughes claimed he had no knowledge of the project until a few weeks before publication, despite a handwriting analyst verifying his hand on the publishers’ contract. And Orson Welles made his name with a radio hoax, in an industry that’s all about putting on a show to fool the audience. Is it even art if it doesn’t preserve your name? Is it art if you were credited falsely?
This gets called a documentary, probably because “film essays” don’t seem to be a genre like video essays have become on platforms like Youtube. It starts out (after some table setting about the nature of deception and showmanship) at least attempting to tell the stories of De Hory and Irving, but the storytelling is distracted, disjointed, and meandering. Once De Hory’s story is completed, it seems to completely go off the rails, and then by the end of the movie you end up wondering if there were ever rails. Themes emerge about art and deception, but it goes to such lengths to get there that it ends up often swinging between annoying and dull.
Often, when a big star personality hosts a documentary, they take up too much of the spotlight and detract from the subject. Especially if the star is also the director. Welles frequently goes on tangents that don’t seem to be relevant when he starts and often continue to not feel relevant when concluded, and they’re often bringing in his own experiences or those of friends he gets to name-drop. As a documentary about De Hory, this will disappoint. But it’s not really a documentary, it’s Orson Welles ruminating about a concept he has a history with. It’s an essay that consumed a documentary in the womb (edit bay?). Irving and especially De Hory are quite enjoyable on screen, but they’re a bit pushed aside by Welles telling personal anecdotes and waxing philosophic.
The editing style is considered innovative, and it is certainly experimental. It’s very jarring and very 70s. Although, as is often the case with influential works, what made them influential becomes unremarkable once it becomes the norm. I wouldn’t have said anything about the editing style stands out except for its frequent frenetic montages of random clips that keep hanging on the last frame for a few seconds before going to the next shot, jump cuts to extreme closeups of the same subject, and other things that I really did not care for. But I did notice in reading a brief discussion of the veracity of the movie that a moment in the film where De Hory and Irving make conflicting assertions was “edited to make it seem like they were having an argument when they were not in the same room”, and I in no way took the juxtaposition of their contrasting interviews that way. The editing creates an awkward silence when their statements become irreconcilable, but that was an obvious rhetorical trick to me, likely because I’ve seen it in other documentaries. It was mildly amusing to me (though like every artful edit, milked too much), but if this was the origin, I can see it being the documentary film equivalent of audiences at the dawn of cinema trying to dive out of the way of The Arrival of a Train.
The movie begins with assurances that the next hour will be solid fact. In fact, it hammers this point so hard that one might get suspicious. Indeed, some of the details of Howard Hughes’s life are unbelievable, and many of the points of the story are described by unreliable interview subjects, but for the most part, the promise given at the beginning of the movie seems as true as the real coin a magician lets you inspect in the beginning of the trick. De Hory and Irving’s stories are told better elsewhere, and this movie is a bit frustrating if you come to it expecting a documentary about them. But altogether, they’re the bait for something much different that Welles is doing with bigger concepts. By the end, I saw the purpose for a lot of what annoyed me and, while it’s not what I was sold, it is in its own way, satisfying.