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.
July 13
1933—Eugenics Becomes Official German Policy
Adolf Hitler signs the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, and Germany begins sterilizing those they believe carry hereditary illnesses, and those they consider impure. By the end of WWII more than 400,000 are sterilized, including criminals, alcoholics, the mentally ill, Jews, and people of mixed German-African heritage.
1955—Ruth Ellis Executed
Former model Ruth Ellis is hanged at Holloway Prison in London for the murder of her lover, British race car driver David Blakely. She is the last woman executed in the United Kingdom.
1966—Richard Speck Rampage
Richard Speck breaks into a Chicago townhouse where he systematically rapes and kills eight student nurses. The only survivor hides under a bed the entire night.
July 12
1971—Corona Sent to Prison
Mexican-born serial killer Juan Vallejo Corona is convicted of the murders of 25 itinerant laborers. He had stabbed each of them, chopped a cross in the backs of their heads with a machete, and buried them in shallow graves in fruit orchards in Sutter County, California. At the time the crimes were the worst mass murders in U.S. history.
July 11
1960—To Kill a Mockingbird Appears
Harper Lee's racially charged novel To Kill a Mockingbird is published by J.B. Lippincott & Co. The book is hailed as a classic, becomes an international bestseller, and spawns a movie starring Gregory Peck, but is the only novel Lee would ever publish.
1962—Nuke Test on Xmas Island
As part of the nuclear tests codenamed Operation Dominic, the United States detonates a one megaton bomb on Australian controlled Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean. The island was a location for a series of American and British nuclear tests, and years later lawsuits claiming radiation damage to military personnel were filed, but none were settled in favor in the soldiers.
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