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Where the truth lies

The thin line between truth and fiction

By Todd Leopold

Watch "Showbiz Tonight" on CNN Headline News, weekdays at 7 p.m. ET.
Eye on Entertainment
Orson Welles
Nicole Kidman

(CNN) -- Hoaxes, urban legends, clever parody and flat-out lies are, of course, as old as humanity.

Some are wonderfully inspired, silly and even harmless, such as the Web site devoted to banning dihydrogen monoxideexternal link (that would be water, for those not scientifically inclined -- such as a certain California city council alarmed by the Web site's claims).

Others are clever marketing efforts, such as P.T. Barnum's display of the Piltdown Man or a 2004 press release for a Web site devoted to comedian Andy Kaufman -- which claimed that Kaufman was still alive.

Then there are those that have caused horrific damage, such as the anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- originally French political satire that was rewritten by early 20th-century Russians into a document about Jewish plans for world domination. The work, a complete forgery, has been the basis for attacks on Jews ever since.

(And if you're ever wondering whether a news item is true, particularly those you read on the Web, consider a couple of things: Have you've seen it confirmed on more than one site? And have you visited the incomparable urban legends Web site [click hereexternal link]? The Web can be a slippery place, but the truth is out there.)

Orson Welles, who knew something about fakery and hoaxes -- besides his talents as a filmmaker, he was a fine amateur magician and master of misdirection -- ended up at the nexus of several.

In the early '70s, he decided to make a film about the fine line between truth and lies, "F for Fake." The movie, which was released in 1976, gets a gorgeous Criterion Collection DVD release Tuesday.

Eye on Entertainment pulls back the curtain.


Welles' first big hoax was one he caused himself, somewhat inadvertently. (Welles always knew his work would cause some kind of reaction, but panic in the streets was something else.)

In 1938 he updated H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" for a radio show and managed to frighten a healthy sliver of the United States, gaining the already-known boy wonder -- Welles was 23 -- a notoriety he parlayed into a Hollywood career. (Ironically, subsequent news reports that many millions panicked -- the real numbers were far lower -- showcased a media sensationalism that ended up being a different kind of hoax.)

Always aware of the power of movies to distract and mislead, Welles often played with the idea of truth in his films. "Citizen Kane," indeed, is a whole film about a man -- to some a hero, to others a scoundrel -- who ends up, finally, unknowable. Welles was blunter in "The Lady from Shanghai," which has a bravura sequence set in a hall of mirrors. (A recent biography, Clinton Heylin's pro-Wellesian and somewhat defensive "Despite the System" [Chicago Review Press], goes into detail about Welles' filmmaking.)

In "F for Fake," Welles found himself with some terrific subjects -- a professional art forger, the writer Clifford Irving, and himself -- and created what Peter Bogdanovich calls a "documentary essay" on the subject of truth and lies.

Irving was a particularly rich find. Originally a commentator on the art forger, Irving turned out -- unbeknownst to Welles when he started making "F for Fake" -- to be engaging in one of the most celebrated hoaxes of the 20th century, in which he claimed to be Howard Hughes' autobiographer.

Hughes later denied even knowing Irving, and Irving went to jail -- but not before defrauding a publisher and much of the news media. Welles incorporated a good bit of the scandal into the film.

Welles doesn't let himself -- or the filmmaking process -- off the hook. Early in the film, after performing magic tricks for a child, he poses in front of a backdrop at a Paris train station as the camera zooms in. When the camera pulls out, Welles is in a room. Movies, Welles is saying, manipulate time and space. In effect, they're artifice; they're illusions; they lie.

But what if there's a greater truth to the lie? The art forger, Elmyr de Hory, is obviously a talented painter. Yet he plows his creativity into forgeries, works allegedly by Matisse and Modigliani that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Is he, truly, a fine artist? Or just an able con man?

"F for Fake" never lets you stop thinking. No lie.

"F for Fake" comes out Tuesday.

On screen

  • Nicole Kidman is "The Interpreter." A Quinn Martin production. (Just kidding.) In the film, directed by Sydney Pollack ("Three Days of the Condor," "Tootsie," "Out of Africa"), Kidman plays an interpreter at the United Nations who believes she's overheard a murder plot. Sean Penn and Catherine Keener are the feds who get on the case. The film opens Friday.
  • Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet meet cute and try to stay friends in "A Lot Like Love," which sounds a lot like "When Harry Met Sally ..." It opens Friday. (Friday update: A great line from Roger Ebertexternal link: "To call 'A Lot like Love' dead in the water is an insult to water.")
  • On the tube

  • This has nothing to do with a regularly scheduled TV show, but can someone make those weak ING ads go away? Just asking. They're not even amusing in a non sequitur-type way.
  • "Joan of Arcadia" gets a message from God telling her that she's about to meet her greatest challenge yet: organizing a Passover seder for a large, bickering family. Not really, but that would be a challenge. "Joan" airs 8 p.m. Friday on CBS.
  • Sound waves

  • It's a big week for CDs, starting with Bruce Springsteen's newest, "Devils and Dust" (Columbia). Word is it's more in line with "The Ghost of Tom Joad" than "The Rising." Comes out Tuesday.
  • Ben Folds, who's been entertaining listeners recently with a wicked cover of Dr. Dre's "B*tches Ain't S**t," comes out with his new album, "Songs for Silverman" (Sony), on Tuesday. (Read about Folds.)
  • The entertaining Eels release their new record, "Blinking Lights and Other Revelations" (Vagrant), on Tuesday.
  • John Prine is more gravelly than ever on "Fair and Square" (Oh Boy), which releases Tuesday.
  • Jo Dee Messina's new record, "Delicious Surprise" (Curb), comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • Anna Quindlen's new book, "Being Perfect" (Random House) -- a slim guide to life for the class of 2005 -- comes out Tuesday.
  • James Bond comes back as a youth in Charlie Higson's "SilverFin" (Miramax/Hyperion), the first volume of what's to be several in the "Young Bond" series. The book comes out Wednesday.
  • Video center

  • "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" comes out Tuesday.

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