From the Archives: In Mank, Fincher wrestles with style and authorship

From the Archives: In Mank, Fincher wrestles with style and authorship

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope for is to leave an impression of one.”

So says Herman Mankiewicz, aka Mank, as he plunks away at his screenplay for Citizen Kane. He’s doing so from a state of convalescence, trapped in a bed with a broken leg and a serious case of alcoholism, and he’s only got a few short weeks before he hits his deadline. He’s not wrong, you know, as every biopic that aims to tell the entire factual life of a man typically ends up being overlong, boring, and thorough to a point where it becomes hard to believe. One need only look at Citizen Kane itself for a masterclass in such things, as it tells the life story of a man…starting at the very end of his life. From here the film dips in and out of a conventional narrative. Moving from flashback to newsreel to descriptions from friends of “that one time that Kane did that one thing.” It’s the type of storytelling that seems normal now, but back in 1941, it broke the mold in a big way.

With Mank, the latest from David Fincher (who needs to stop fucking around and bring back Mindhunter LIKE NOW), these narrative notions espoused by Mankiewicz himself are out in full form. The cyclical, dreamy narrative apes that of Citizen Kane, as does the filmmaking itself. Shot in a crisp black and white, with nary a ceiling out of frame, it’s clear that Fincher wanted to recreate the feel of old Hollywood. It’s also clear that he did not want to tell Mank’s life story, instead attempting to leave the impression of Mank on the viewer. Mission accomplished — i feel like I understand Mank, at least insofar as he’s depicted here, much more than I would have had this just followed him through childhood and into adulthood and a relatively early death. Showing Mankiewicz in what, all things considered, could be called his prime, is the right way to tell the story. Note: a lot of fun easter eggs are apparent up if you watch Citizen Kane before checking out Mank.

Written by the late Jack Fincher (David’s father), the script takes some getting used to, and lends itself to growth over multiple viewings (I loved this movie the first time around, but it wasn’t until my second viewing that I think i really “got” it). Since it moves in and out of time, and rather rapidly so, it is initially tough to figure out character motivations (one scene, for example, shows Mank lashing out by making a terrible bet — and it’s not til the next scene, a flashback, where we learn that he failed to prevent the suicide of a friend the night prior, that we understand the truth behind Mank’s depraved actions). It’s also kinda tough to figure out who’s who if you don’t enter the film with a working knowledge of names and faces of the period. To be fair, the entertainment value is high at any rate, but being a movie nerd who knows who Louis B. Mayer is certainly helps it all come together.

Once the movie completes the occasionally arduous task of teaching the audience how to watch it (it being extremely different in both tone and style from previous Fincher work), it begins to flow much more organically, with the performances bridging the thematic gap between the inside baseball of the plot mechanics and the novelty of the film at large. What I mean is that Mank is incredibly meta, but never in a way that calls attention to itself. The line I opened this review with is a great example of this. Another instance, in which an ancillary character speaks on behalf of the ancillary characters within the Citizen Kane script, threatens to break the line into a form of meta commentary that a younger Fincher would have slathered on the screen quite literally, but here, with more refined, patient direction, it never becomes too much. In fact, as these little meta moments appear without announcing themselves, it becomes quite a joy — especially in a rewatch when you find many many more instances of it that may have passed you by upon initial viewing.

One downside to Fincher’s commitment to style is that there’s simply no way that a film shot with modern tools (RED Monstrochrome was used here) can fully capture the feeling of a film from the 1940s. Fincher is enough of a craftsman that it comes very close (and since most of us subconsciously picture the days of yore in black and white anyway, the novelty of it ends up providing verisimilitude), but occasionally it becomes distracting. What I mean to say is that the first two or three times that a clearly digital “cigarette burn” appears in the upper right corner, its fun and cute. But by the time you hit the tenth one, and you realize that they’re all identical, it feels almost clueless in a way that Fincher never seemed to be when it comes to craft. Suddenly the unspoken novelty of the presentation becomes aggressive and gaudy. It’s not enough to take one out of the picture overall, but it’s a strange, unsuccessful choice that confounds. How did no one say “David, listen, we know that you’re sort of associated with the mainstreaming of the phrase ‘cigarette burns’ in relation to film, but pump the brakes, man, there are more fake burns in this than there are real ones in any old movie.” Then again, when Fincher is on set giving off “probably shared a bed with Madonna in her prime” vibes, he’s probably hard to correct.

Gary Oldman, as our titular protagonist, gives what might be the best performance of his career. It’s not big or showy as Oldman tends to be, but it is dense, thorough, and an absolute joy. Herman Mankiewicz was not the easiest dude to work with, and Oldman makes that much very clear. At the same time, he is able to turn Mank into a lovable scamp. It’s easy to see why Orson Welles wanted to work with him — and if we watch Citizen Kane, we know that hiring Mank was a great decision, albeit a stressful one, if this movie is to be believed.

Once again, Amanda Seyfried gives a killer performance in a movie that isn’t really about her character. I love Seyfried, and it’s great to see her doing meaty work, and I hope that people will watch her in Mank and realize that she can carry any movie you put her in, if only you’ll it her in a movie that needs carrying (Mamma Mia: Take a Chance on Me, perhaps?). She’s not alone, either. Mank is filled with names and faces, all here to populate this throwback world, and all doing great work in the process. Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Charles Dance (whose Hearst is often terrifying), and Ferdinand Kingsley all give colorful, frequently intense performances…that are also quite often very funny. Yes, Mank is readily hilarious, and only gets more so upon rewatch.

I should also note that Bill Nye shows up as Upton Sinclair, and that’s a fun little piece of casting if there ever was one.

As for how true the story is, well, we’ll never really know, will we? Orson Welles says he wrote the script, while Mankiewicz (and the Academy, who awarded him the writing Oscar) say it was all him. I am reminded of the discourse surrounding who directed Poltergeist. Some say it was ghost-directed by Steven Spielberg, while others say that it’s all Tobe Hooper. Well, anyone familiar with either man’s work can tell you that both of their authorial stamps are all over it, while Hooper and Spielberg are both happy to credit the other entirely. The truth of the matter is that it was a collaboration, and a damned fine one at that. Between Welles and Mankiewicz, however, plenty of bad blood bubbled up to the surface, with each man showing plenty of disdain for the other. The script for Mank is referential to a Pauline Kael essay in which the famous critic essentially gives credit entirely to Mankiewicz. The thing is, her essay has since been debunked, but the script fir Mank existed long before this occurred.

So where does this leave us? Well, to believe the surface text of Mank, it’s all him, and Welles is just a thief. But if you look deeper into the texture of the film, you’ll notice that Mank is never really shown writing much of any of it, and is in fact unconscious for a lot of the proposed writing process. How clever to frame things this way! Doing so makes quite a strong case that Mank wrote the script and was emotionally attached to it…but also that he was incapable of completing it without Welles moving things across the finish line. So naturally egos clash, exacerbated by Mank’s alcoholism and Welles’ burgeoning designation as the next capital-G great artist, and before long the two professional friends are bitter enemies. Here’s the thing, though: the movie is only kind of about this.

It isn’t until it is, really, but that speaks to the, for lack of better term, sleepy pace of the film. It’s never boring, not for a second, but it moves pretty leisurely as far as Fincher works go. Mank is a considerably more patient movie than he typically puts out, (Zodiac notwithstanding) but feels a lot closer to a Fincher passion project than any of his previous work (Zodiac notwithstanding). At just over two hours, there’s a ton of material here, but the only through-line is Mank’s volatile existence. The Welles vs Mank material only pops up at the end, after we’ve followed a gubernatorial election, considered the relationship between Hearst, his papers, and his mistress, and even spent time mourning the early death of Irving Thalberg. The plot meanders, jumping forward and backward in time, and it is only at the finish line (and upon a second watch) that the magic of Mank really begins to gel. And when it does, well, magic is indeed the word.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Louis B. Mayer, portrayed here by Arliss Howard, as he gives a newbie the rules of the Hollywood business:

“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Mank premieres on Netflix today.

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We’re digging into David Fincher’s filmograpgy this week in the lead up to the release of his new film, Mank, on Netflix this Friday. See all of the posts here.

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