Normally I don’t believe in doing this, but because this film takes such an unconventional form, I feel obliged to say a little about what it actually is, mostly because I know a majority of you reading will not have seen it already. F is for Fake relates the subject of fakery in art, primarily painting and filmmaking. It contains a range of subtle and not-subtle satire and a lot of really witty jokes. Welles delivers the narration in a sort of cynicalized Dr. Seuss rhythm, and it’s knowing, devilish, charming, disarming--and annoying (more on this later). He gives a great performance is what I’m saying, and this could easily be overlooked in light of the rest of what’s happening on screen.
Welles uses the technique of stop frame to sublime emotional and choreographic effect. His narration is not, however, limited to his voice. He tells a lot of his story through visuals using the neat trick of having a character say or do one thing, while showing something else on the screen (a held frame, a quick cut, intercutting visual locale/storyline), which comments back on it through counterpoint.
Welles acts as a sort of co-narrator to himself. Making asides, agreements, rebuttals with the players, you the audience, and even his own train of thought. The whole thing really is like an essay/poem made out of film. It does tell a story. It does have somewhat of a linear narrative, which wouldn't really require too much reassembling to make sense of.
Without saying too much, my own critical response to the work (apart from the above explication and insinuated admiration and affinity), is that the work is best from about the first fifteen minutes (the film has already hit its stride but fifteen minutes is when you yourself will have caught the fin) through to almost the end. Perhaps it would be impossible for the end to be the same “stride,” which I had come to enjoy so much for that first and promised hour. Perhaps it had to wind-down, slow-down, admit, confess, land. I suppose it really isn’t for me to say. It’s Welles’ gem, to cut as he pleases.
“Even when a great cinematic stylist like Welles tries his hand at an essay-film, the visuals are nowhere near as interesting as those in his narrative features. F for Fake suffers from too much Francois Reichenbach, who shot most of its documentary material, and Filming ‘Othello’ is a conventional-looking, talking-heads production made for German television. Marker employs a visual style that is notationally engaging and decentered (and occasionally even mournfully beautiful, as in Le Joli Mai, when he had the budget for better cameramen); but for the most part, his visuals lack the syntactical rigor and elegance of his language. Arlyck’s texts have considerable complexity and charm, but his visuals remain only one cut above the usual neutral documentary or hand-held cinema-verite. It is almost as though when the part of the brain that commands a sophisticated rational discourse springs into action, the visual imagination becomes sluggish, passive and less demanding.
Essay film? Whoever said we needed one!
Here it might be argued by some that the power of cinematic images springs from the unconscious mind, not from rational thought processes-that you need access to the irrational, the dreamscape, to make visually resonant films. I wonder. So much of film theory is prejudiced in favor of the oneiric that I doubt if I have the courage to take on these biases. All I know is that many of the film images that move me most reflect a detachment, serenity or philosophical resignation toward the weakened world that I can only think of as rational. I do not want to sound too dualistic by implying that essays are written only with the rational mind; certainly I am aware in my own writing of tapping into unconscious currents for imagery or passion. But I still say that the rational component predominates in the essay, which is a form par excellence for the display of reasoning and reflection. So too should be the essay-film.”
— Phillip Lopate
THE BOTTOM LINE: some parts are so great, brilliant, hilarious (see below). But whenever Welles injects himself too much, it takes away – it is not only annoying but it’s disruptive to the main narrative impulse. So Welles is probably the quintessential example in filmmaking of a true genius whose work probably really did suffer because of his inability to just stay out of it. Kubrick is clearly as much of a control freak as Welles, and although his presence is felt, it does not detract from his work in such an obvious way. Hitchcock may have made his appearances in each film, but this was merely a tiny inside joke, and detracts nothing from the qualty overall. In this way, Welles is an important example for the question of "the subjugation of the creator" in art—particularly in regard to filmmaking (painting, architecture, sculpture and the pure arts are more autoinnoculated against these pitfalls; while writing can of course go either way—one slip of the pen...).
As I was watching the early-on sequence of the girl walking in the street and all the men’s reactions to her, it suddenly dawned on me that Welles was probably just filming everyday reactions and some just ordinary facial gestures of random people in the street, but by way of editing in to the film, he makes you believe they are all in response to the woman in the street he keeps showing. This may have been obvious, but if you are like me, stupid, and it only occurs to you well into the bit, it’s extremely funny—extremely funny—and humbling—to realize you’ve been had).