starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance
screenplay by Jack Fincher
directed by David Fincher
by Walter Chaw I thought a lot, as I am wont to do from time to time, of the 1996 adult film Shock: Latex 2--directed by an interesting artist working in a devalued genre, Michael Ninn--while watching David Fincher's new film, Mank, based on the life of Hollywood Golden Age screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Both films are fetish items, anchored to a specific time and aesthetic, and both deal with eroticized figments of active, sometimes onanistic, imaginations. They even use the same techniques to imitate mediums, the better to replicate sensations attached to genres, cults of personalities, periods of time. The former, the literal porno, has transitional scenes involving a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who serves as a sort of phantasmagoric guide loosely tying together a series of otherwise largely-disconnected vignettes. (Clive Barker uses this rampantly eroticized icon to similar effect in his short story "Son of Celluloid.") Fincher, meanwhile, uses screenplay-text chyrons to announce sequences involving an entire cast of cunning simulacrums of objects of that same fetishistic--at least for the cinephile--significance.
Draw a breath of delighted pleasure in a scene where the legendary Paramount writer's room marches to the office of David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) to pitch a project only to find the great man in conversation with "Joe" von Sternberg (Paul Fox). Is that...is that Chaplin (Craig Robert Young) playing the piano at a party where it's revealed that Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) is conspiring with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) to manipulate the gubernatorial election with the tools of media? Is that Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross)? Wait, wait, there's George S. Kaufman (Adam Shapiro) and, hold on, Bette Davis (Scarlet Cummings)! And there's Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), whom Welles regarded as the evilest man in Hollywood. (And so, oddly enough, do Fincher and Mank.) Hey, look, it's Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) as a "nert"-dropping Brooklyn girl, and frickin' Upton Sinclair (frickin' Bill Nye!) acting as a socialist straw man in Mank's moments of horrible topicality! Someone get me a towel. Mank is, in fact, a totem erected for the self-mythologizing opera of Hollywood during this period--"opera" being a term Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, Dracula again) employs to describe the script for Citizen Kane that he's producing, without help though with the ministrations of stenographer and nurse Rita (Lily Collins), for demonic wunderkind Orson Welles.
Joseph McBride recently went deep into the peculiar portrayals of Welles in the popular conversation--starting in the late '30s with the widespread hatred and jealousy for the boy wonder's arrival in Tinseltown and written in cement with Pauline Kael's typically ill-researched but sexy (and sexily-written) case for Citizen Kane being the fault of anyone but Welles. McBride does as good a job of Neil deGrasse Tyson-ing Mank as any living human who is not Peter Bogdanovich could. Mank is about Herman Mankiewicz in much the same way Citizen Kane is about William Randolph Hearst. It is a magnification, a grotesquerie, a caricature and sometimes perverse simulation of emotional stakes and pathos that along the way captures some of the truth of the corruption of baseline morality represented by the Dream Factory. Through it all stalks Oldman, giving Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance from The Hudsucker Proxy in the role of Gabriel Byrne's character from Miller's Crossing. While we're at it, the Coens did a better job with Old Hollywood in not only Barton Fink, of course, but also Hail, Caesar!. Those films are more authentic than Mank. When Mank throws up those changeover marks (i.e., "cigarette burns"), it doesn't make the picture seem more period-specific. Rather, it reminds of Fincher's own Fight Club and puts one on guard for subliminal genitalia.
So if it's not historically accurate or intellectually pure, if its stylistic imitation doesn't hold water (you can add dust and scratches and ape Gregg Toland's deep-focus and extreme low-angles all you want, but Welles didn't shoot Citizen Kane in 'scope, as Fincher does Mank) and its sly anti-Trump allegory reveals itself as not sly at all, however well-taken, then what's left of Mank to admire? Well, that it's sex for the cinephile, a virtual-reality simulation on an impossible budget that allows the fan to mark the Walk Hard biopic moments where we catch Mank discovering the inspiration for key sequences we remember from Citizen Kane. The ideal viewing condition is one where you sit next to someone who has never seen Citizen Kane before so you can elbow them knowingly throughout and say, "There, that's the opening shot from Kane," and, "There, that's where he got the scene where Kane goes nuts," and, "See him? See that? And that? And also that?" For me, I was thrilled to glimpse a Royal typewriter in Orson Welles's domain. I collect Underwoods myself, but I appreciate a good writing machine shot in vivid black-and-white. ("Photographed in Hi-Dynamic Range," the credits tout, somewhat tongue-in-cheekily.)
Mank's pleasures are simple, in other words, to the point of being almost primally, innately familiar. Algonquin wit Mank is the rebel, the man of the people who, like a besotted, portly Oscar Wilde, deflates Hollywood gasbags with well-placed ripostes and the occasional, disarming moment of sincerity. It makes Mank's open dislike of a true maverick who pissed off the hoi polloi, Welles, all the harder to conscience. I mean, Mank represents a calcified, reliquary idea of the Studio System. His victories are every one of them pyrrhic. Maybe that's the point, that Mank is the grand tragedy of a great man's fall at the hands of an unimaginative man unblessed with ideals. Mank--drunkenly, of course--monologues about his ideals framed by a giant fireplace, because Fincher's mise-en-scène is absolutely meticulous. Here, Mank is skewering the media's role in Sinclair's ignominious defeat while ostensibly talking about an adaptation of Don Quixote, and it's all very powerful in a way that is not actually very powerful through no fault of its own. Mank is preaching to an audience, in the film and out of it, too, that is all out of hope for anything like a moral compass guiding the ruling class. Mank is about being destroyed for trying to survive while avoiding doing the wrong thing. It's self-pitying myth-making centred around an imagined martyr for every cause: artistic, personal, political. He is the eternal American Everyman who happened to write the first draft of a film that used to be called "The American." It could've been called "The Victim." What is it the kids say? I stan.