Sunday, August 24, 2008

Orson Welles and Howard Hughes’ F for Fake : A Response to GoatDog's Movies About Movies Blogathon

Everybody knows that Citizen Kane is about a media mogul modeled after William Randolph Hearst. What is less realized is that the mogul (specifically as a figure controlling a vast conglomerate) appears in roughly half of all of Welles’ films set in contemporary times – Kane in Citizen Kane, Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin, Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons and Howard Hughes in F for Fake. Notably, Welles himself acts the title mogul role in Citizen Kane and Mr. Arkadin. Further, Welles would act in many mogul roles over his career – highlights include Theo Van Horn in Claude Chabrol’s Ten Days Wonder, Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, JP Morgan in Tesla and the voice of Robin Masters in Magnum PI and, more arguably, Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Further, all but one of these mogul figures (Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons) are depicted as either having major media holdings (Kane and Hughes) or some sort of significant shadowy control over media (Arkadin). Further, all three of these moguls (Kane, Arkadin and Hughes) are based upon real-life figures who indeed had major political impacts upon the times. Considering that Welles’ fascination with the media mogul figure spanned from the very beginning to the very end of his film career (from Kane to his last uncompleted film, The Other Side of the Wind), much of this work can be interpreted as (among many other things) Welles’ life-long meditation upon media industries and their organization.

In F for Fake, Welles “investigates” four media figures: Elmyr de Hory ( a fabled art forger), Clifford Irving (a literary forger who wrote a fake "autobiography" of Howard Hughes), Pablo Picasso and Howard Hughes. While most discussions of F for Fake tend to revolve around Elmyr de Hory, it is critical to understand how the four figures interact in the film. Two of the four are artists (de Hory and Picasso). Two of the four’s moving images do not appear in the film (Picasso and Hughes) – we only see still photos of Picasso and only hear what is said to be Hughes’ voice. Elmyr fakes Picasso, while Irving fakes Hughes. Picasso and Hughes (the imitated) are both (largely) unseen, elderly, secretive, wealthy, eccentric, shadowy yet immensely successful figures within the film. So, the “real” in the film is unseen and largely unverifiable, while we see much footage of the fakers (de Hory, Irving and Welles, who proclaims himself to be a faker within the film).

Elmyr de Hory

Structurally, Picasso is thus repeatedly closely connected with Hughes in the film. Which seems bizarre on it’s face, admittedly. Further, the figure of Welles himself is an anomaly within the film – Welles declares himself a faker, but it’s unclear who he’s faking. Welles is also a great artist, but it’s unclear who’s imitating Welles. It’s clear that Welles connects himself to Picasso within the film: Welles is an artist like Picasso, Welles often resides in Paris, the South of France and Spain like Picasso, and Welles and Picasso are both depicted as desiring Oja Kodar (Orson's real-life longtime mistress) sexually.

Which naturally points us to the intriguing question: is it also possible that Welles has some connection to Hughes? But here’s where the complexity grows: both Welles and Hughes were film directors – Welles being the great director of his time and Hughes a mediocre one. So, it is Welles who is the real, while Hughes is the imitator or fake. Conversely, both Hughes and Welles were both businessmen (and both were the sons of inventors whose inventions made both their fathers wealthy) – but Hughes was the great businessman of his time and Welles a mediocre one. So, it is Hughes who is the real, while Welles is the imitator or fake.

Both Welles’ and Hughes’ voices are important in the film – we do see Welles frequently but essentially never see Hughes at all but instead hear Hughes’ voice at a critical juncture.. This is underscored by the amount of time Welles gives in the movie to his radio fakery in the War of the Worlds broadcast (i.e., a hoax created solely by Welles’ voice and aural effects). Meanwhile, de Hory and Picasso are both visually depicted: we never hear Picasso’s real voice at all (though we do see still photos of him). We both see and hear de Hory, but it’s his visual aspect (forgery by visual means) that’s his critical characteristic, not his voice. Picasso’s main action in the film is to stare (i.e., visual action) at Oja Kodar. Welles both looks at and talks to Kodar, tying himself simultaneously again to both the verbal and visual.