Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mank (2020).

 Amadeus is one of the first films I can recall watching.  That's no joke, by the way.  It's all true.  My parents introduced me to that flick, and its subject, when I must have been no older than 8.  It's in retrospect that it begins to sink just how rare and odd that kind of circumstance is.  Most family households would think of waiting a goodish number of years down the road until trying to get their kids into such high concept art.  I think the one excuse my folks will ever have is that they were still somewhat in the thrall of what I like to call a late 70s Woody Allen phase.  The upshot is that I grew up knowing at least something about Mozart and Classical Music before I even knew the musical genre existed as an actual concept.  Here's the real point, though.  Some of you reading this are probably thinking, "Yes, but how can you trust that you really know anything about the life of Mozart, or Salieri, for that matter?  How can you be sure the film is an accurate reflection of the life of either composer"?  If anyone out is entertaining thoughts anywhere close to what I've just written above, then I hear what you're saying.  I also can't pretend I'm all that surprised.

Milos Forman's 1984 film has long since entered into the realm of canonical masterpiece status.  That hasn't stopped fans and critics from arguing over its historical veracity.  On the contrary, it really does seem as if it's that very love and acclaim for the movie that keep these debates alive, and in turn guarantee it at least some kind of immortality.  It's probably earned all the praise and criticism in the best way possible.  A lot of that is down to sheer narrative skill.  Even the biggest skeptics are able to applaud Forman and Schaefer's imaginative capabilities, and talent for dramatic characterization.  To this day it still has to be one of the rare examples where a motion picture is recognized for its literary qualities.  Some other films aren't that lucky, however.  

Let's take the case of David Fincher's Mank, for example.The genesis of this project just strikes me as somewhat unique.  It's got to be the first movie I've ever seen that was generated out of a debate among cinema critics.  The starting place seems to have been a New Yorker essay written by the critic Pauline Kael.  It was titled "Raising Kane", and its main purpose was to try and debunk an idea called the Auteur Theory.  It was a concept popularized by critics and filmmakers during the French New Wave of the 50s and 60s.  It's basic thesis was that the director is the one ultimately responsible for the creative idea and final product behind any given film he or she is able to create.  It is just possible to see how this concept can be applied to other creative formats, such as writing or painting.  On the other hand, it could be possible to mount a converse argument.  There is nothing to keep the observer from making the inference that the Auteur theorists were just taking the concept of the writer as sole creator of the finished story, and applying that idea to the director of a film.

Andrew Sarris was one of the influential writers on movies that was a huge believer in, and proponent of, the New Wave theory.  He spent a lot of his time trying to introduce the concept into the conversation of the American mainstream.  He made it the paradigm, or lens through which he used to compose his article on various films that came under his inspection.  Sarris would judge every motion picture according to how well the director as Auteur was able to make the final product succeed.  In all of this, Kael appears to have more or less been Sarris's opposite number.  She seems to have held a distinct disbelief in the idea of the director as Auteur.  Her view seems to have been that film was too much of a collaborative effort for there to be any one single sole voice at the helm.  At least that's what appears to be the case she was trying to make.  My own reading of her essays reveals a very shaky and ill-defined criterion for what a film is, and what makes any given example work and fail.

Anyway, the upshot is that "Raising Kane" was written as a shot across the bow of the likes of Sarris and the Auteur enthusiasts.  One claim that made up part of the essay concerned the movie Citizen Kane.  Kael used her essay to make the claim that is was Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the screenwriters, who deserved the singular credit for penning screenplay of the finished film.  I'm not sure how much any of this is still on the radar of public awareness in this day and age.  If this is the first any modern reader has heard of the conflict, then I volunteer for the position of the last guy to be shocked about it.  Nevertheless, the upshot of Kael's article was that it got just enough attention back in the day to kickstart a minor sort of turf war in film critic circles during the 70s.  It didn't take long for Sarris and others to respond in kind.  The result has been a series of skirmishes that have erupted here and there throughout the decades.  The whole argument is divided into two camps.  On the one hand, you have those like Kael, who argue that Mankiewicz is the real genius behind the greatest film ever made.  Then there are others like Joseph McBride who believe that credit should go more to Orson Welles.

One person who subscribed to Kael's essay was Jack Fincher.  He was the father of a son who would one day go on to make a name for himself in the industry.  The elder Fincher seems to have been in such an agreement with "Raising Kane", that at some point in time, he decided to go all out and write an entire screenplay meant to substantiate Kael's claims.  The name of the script was Mank, and it was Jack's wish that someday it get its time in the spotlight.  The father never lived long enough to see that dream fulfilled.  It would be sometime before his son, David, would be able to compile all the necessary resources to realize that vision.  The few questions that remain are what does this idea of the late Jack Fincher's mean, anyway?  More to the point, is it any good?

The Story. 

There are some people in this life that you just have to puzzle over.  You get them every now and then, like a nail that sticks out of a board at odd angles.  Whenever that happens, eventually, the rest of us may find ourselves pausing to wonder over such individuals.  A lot of times this is because of bad reasons.  In the case of someone like John Lennon, or Orson Welles (Tom Burke), the reasons are a bit more positive.  Then there are guys like Herman J. "Mank" Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman).  They occupy a unique and somewhat precarious position on the totem pole of fame.  Names like his are perhaps never entirely unknown, and yet their may be a sense in which they a not "famous".  I suppose you might think of guys like him as "also rans", the type of individual Billy Wilder once described as "all the little people out there in the dark".  They are almost forgotten because they've etched their names in the history books.

Mank was born in New York, though he grew up with his family in Pennsylvania.  His father, Franz, was said be a demanding sort, always content to belittle his youngest son, for whatever reason.  This did little to for young Herman's confidence.  In fact, he suffered from a lifelong struggle with alcoholism, and this may stem from the verbal abuse his father directed at him.  After serving in the First World War, Mankiewicz gravitated into the realm of the Algonquin Round Table.  That was where he made the acquaintance his sometimes partners in crime, S.J. Perelman (Jack Romano), George S. Kaufman (Adam Shapiro), and Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms).  He was also taken under the wing of editor Harold Ross, and made a drama critic for The New Yorker.  Mank soon began to find his own voice as a writer for the stage.  It was a combination of these talents that got the attention of film producer Walter Wanger, who soon found a way to entice the young maverick out into what was then still known as the orange grove country of California.  

Mank arrived in Hollywood in 1927.  It didn't take long before his authorial voice was finding its way onto the screen.  This came about in at least two ways.  One was from his own scripts, that he wrote himself.  Another was through the fine showbiz art of ghost writing, reworking the screenplays of others with little else for compensation except a healthy enough paycheck.  Even if he didn't always get to see his name in lights, Mankiewicz's skill at the typewriter was good enough to the point that guys like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) soon realized that the smart money was in letting the young - old rummy hang around.  Yeah, he's an insufferable upstart, and its a wonder he can even find the keys on the Olivetti the way he pours it on.  Still, he's got a way with words.  It gets keisters in seats, and that's the real golden rule around here, isn't it?  Just try and make sure he doesn't get too damn big for his britches.

It was while under contract at places like MGM and Paramount that Mank was able to garner enough clout to find ways of expanding the kind of authorial voice he had helped introduce into the movies.  "Film historian Scott Eyman notes that Mankiewicz was put in charge of writer recruitment by Paramount. However, as "a hard-drinking gambler, he hired men in his own image: Ben Hecht, Bartlett Cormack, Edwin Justus Mayer, writers comfortable with the iconoclasm of big-city newsrooms who would introduce their sardonic worldliness to movie audiences (web)".  His star was always precarious in the industry, however.  By the time Welles approached him to help write the script for an idea about the rise and fall of an American Tycoon, Mank's career was at a low point.

Now, with no place else to go, and little where else to turn, Herman Mankiewicz has signed onto to Welles's maverick project.  He's escorted by Welles's cohort John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to a simple hotel room way out in the desert to get the job done.  He'll be all alone, with the exception of a secretary (Lily Collins) to take notation as the inspiration pours for from Mank's head, along with a housekeeper (Monika Gossman) to make sure he doesn't get into the medicine cabinet.  There will also be no liquor.  Mank may whistle while he works.  He will not be permitted to touch so much as a drop until the script is complete.  So, there he is, stuck in the middle of nowhere with several sheets of blank writing paper staring him in the face.  It's the arm pit of summer outside.  He's supposed to complete the concept for a story tentatively called The American, and Orson Welles is expected to drop by to see how the story has progressed in about 60s days.  Sure, right, now sweat.  Everything looks to be squared away.  Now all he needs is an idea!

A Story with an Identity Crisis.

This is one those films that comes attached with it's very own elephant in the room.  I've outlined the first half of it during the opening intro.  The rest of the story has to do with the controversy the film has been able to stir up in critical circles.  Basically, what's happened is that by making the film, Fincher has pretty much re-ignited the old dispute of ownership for the story of Kane.  It's one of those debates that tends to mean a lot within a narrow circle of influence.  Meanwhile, real life tends to pass it all by.  There's been a few moments of back and forth on the matter.  The net result has been a curious mixed reaction.  There's a very skewed, almost schizoid aspect in the critical consensus to the film.  More than one critic has come away with the sense that they've just watched something that by all rights deserves to be lauded as some kind of an achievement.  At the same time, something always holds them back.  The films has earned accolades, and yet the nature of this praise always winds up sounding reserved and cautious.  I think the best course of action right now is to just take on the story itself, and find out if that leads anywhere.

Even when looking at it from this perspective, however, it is just possible to say there are problems.  For one thing, there is the film's odd ambivalence in the way it handles its two main characters.  Let's take the figure of Mankiewicz himself.  As played by Oldman, and written in the script, Mank is both active and passive in equal turns.  We first see him as he is escorted from a car to a bed, laid up with a broken leg.  This is the position he will occupy for the majority of all the action set in the present.  The remainder is set in flashbacks to the early 1930s.  Here the viewer follows Mank as he navigates the various corridors of the old Hollywood system.  The world presented in these sequences will probably come off as broadcasts from an alternate world to a millenial audience who find it hard these days to believe there was ever be a time when Hollywood could reach the height of its powers, or that it's possible for the world to be anything but a post-21st century landscape.  These moments represent Mank's salad days, when his new-found fame allowed him to tag along with Tinseltown's best and brightest.  And it's here that the real star of the picture is allowed to shine.

There's a lot to said for the production value that went into the making of this film.  Fincher is one those directors possessed of a meticulous sense of attention to detail.  Every element in a given scene has to be placed just so.  Even if the scene features nothing more than dust drifting in the wake of a passing car, you can bet Fincher spent just enough time on it to the point where he can take a simple throwaway and make it look good.  The director also spares no lesser expense when it comes to settings like the MGM back lot or San Simeon, the mansion of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).  Fincher displays not just his attention for detail on these stages, but also the capacity of his own memory to recall the kind of set design Welles and his collaborator Perry Ferguson brought to creating Xanadu, Charles Kane's cavernous, and decadent domicile.  The fact that it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between Ferguson's design, and the real layout of Hearst's castle makes an implicit statement about just how well the older filmmakers did their homework on their subject.

At this point, however, there will be some readers asking a very important question.  Weren't we talking about Mank as a character?  Anyone entertaining such thoughts deserves congratulations for their sharp eyes.  Yes, we should be focused on the film's main lead.  It is supposed to be his story, after all.  Many cinema buffs will be drawn to the feature for the single reason that they are fans of Welles and his art.  That's why it's kind of sad news to have to report that Welles almost isn't even in the movie at all.  At best, the Citizen Kane angle is just a marketing draw.  Welles is merely a gimmick, not the main attraction.  Oldman's character is the one who has to take center stage.  It's his fortunes we are left to follow through the whole runtime.  The trouble is I never quite get the sense that the viewer is left all that much to work with.  Part of the reason for the detour into narrative description above is because of the way most of the cast is written.

The film's central weakness is that we are dealing less with real, flesh and blood individuals drawn from cinema history, and more like a series of paper cutouts propped up with spit and cardboard.  When I said that we follow Mank through the corridors of the old studio system, perhaps I should have said that we merely watch Mank as he watches others act around him.  He comes off surprisingly passive for a fictional protagonist.  In the strictest sense, there may be nothing wrong with this.  I can, for instance, recall an Donald Duck cartoon where the interest came less from the main lead's actions, and more from his reactions as the world careened out of control around him.  The difference is that the latter example provided tons of incident to keep the audience riveted.  All Mank has to offer is a series of meet and greets with various famous names.  This in itself would also not be a problem as long as everyone was given interesting things to do.  By all rights the very nature of the setup should be interesting.  We're talking about the making of one of the greatest films of all time here.  Why not have fun with it?

I'm not sure I can figure out why Fincher was unable to enter into the proper spirit of things.  His interest in both Welles, Kane, and even Mank himself tend to drift away into other avenues as the film runs on.  We start out with Mankiewicz and Welles setting a deadline for a finished script, then a few flashbacks to the glory days, interspersed with Mank's chronic hangups with trying to have a good idea.  So far, so good, albiet uneventful.  Then everything takes a 180 degree turn as we see the protagonist get roped into the behind the scenes machinations involved in Upton Sinclair's 1934 run for the Governor of California.  We see Mank slowly allow himself to get drawn into this power struggle, which eventually leads him to clashing with Hearst and his cronies.  The bitterness of this experience is what leads Mank to curse the newspaper tycoon out right in front of his own court.  He makes himself look like a complete idiot while doing it, yet the screenplay goes with the conceit that these encounters are what gave Mankiewicz (not Welles) the idea that would eventually morph into Kane.

And here is where it all kind of falls apart for me.  I think a lot of the reason for that is because this is the moment where the film decides to switch gears.  When the whole thing was kicked off, it was about how the script for Citizen Kane came to be written.  All of a sudden it decides to take a detour into a minor bit California history.  It's in these moments that the movie feels as if it loses all sense of momentum.  A lot of it has to do with just how unnecessary the whole detour really is.  Now to be fair, it may just be possible on occasion for the kind of creative set switching on display here to work.  The Coen Bros., for instance, were able to take time out from the main narrative of Fargo to allow viewers to spend some down time in order to get to know a character like Mike.  It's a creative gambit they are able to pull off so well that the side plot flows into the main current with a gracefulness that makes the whole thing appear seamless.  I'm afraid that just doesn't happen in Mank's case.  Fincher doesn't appear to be that adept at juggling multiple plot threads as much as others.

Instead, it just feels as if the story has wandered off course for a goodish chunk of the time.  It would be interesting to find out what made Fincher decide to go down this path.  I can at least think of one possible answer to that question.  However, if there should ever be any truth to this surmise, then it just serves to underscore the uncertainty at the heart of the proceedings.  The clearest impression I get from the Campaign 34 scenes is that Fincher might be trying to say something (the exact nature of this couched statement is a matter on which I remain unclear) about how the social ills of Welles' and Mankiewicz's day has a certain level of relevance for audiences in the current era. If that's the case, then I suppose Fincher at least deserves credit for trying to make some sort of valiant effort.  At the same time, it's easy to imagine some in the aisles claiming that the whole thing comes off as a mere token gesture.  I  haven't a clue if that's true or not.  

For my part, the criticisms I do have about these gubernatorial sequences is that no matter how well their heart is in the right place, the whole thing lacks a great deal of clarity.  This unfocused quality is present a lot more than might be healthy for whatever it is the director wanted to accomplish.  To be fair, it is not the message Fincher seems to be trying to get at that sounds like a bad idea.  On the contrary, I can see plenty of room for calling out a lot of the problems plaguing society at this current juncture in time.  My question is whether or not he's going about in the right way?  For one thing, he tries to make his point by focusing on bits and pieces of history that, in retrospect, really do come off as a poor attempt to make a molehill stand in for a mountain.  When the plot point of the campaign face-off got started, I'll swear I had no real clue what the hell was supposed to be going on, or why I should even care.  I had to go out of my way to read up on even the bare bones of the conflict.

To be even more fair, I've said elsewhere on this blog that I sometimes think an artist who forces and rewards the audience to pay attention to significant allusions in his or her work can be doing themselves and the readers or viewers a favor.  It really can be a form of service couched inside a piece of light entertainment.  It is just possible this is what Fincher was attempting to do by getting the main character caught up in a bunch of backroom power struggles.  The problem is how impossible it was to find any good reason to care about what was happening on screen.  Even when a single death takes place, it feels more like the use of a prop, rather than the cost of a life we should be lead to care about.  The whole thing just felt more like puppeteer string pulling, rather than legitimate drama.  The biggest issue that hampers Fincher's good intentions, however, is just this.  The California 34 Campaign is one of those political struggles that has gone on to have very little influence on the way modern viewers think or live today.  In that sense, it's hard to dismiss a sense of comedic irony, inasmuch as the whole affair just comes off as one great, big, pointless struggle over thin air.  If you want to make a good point, tell it in a way that allows us to care about the message, especially if it's one that needs to be said.  All the artist can accomplish otherwise is to just shoot both the message and himself in the foot.

Perhaps the real irony in all this is just how much this little side plot takes away from the film's ostensible main subject.  I thought I was suppose to be watching a story about the writing (or raising, if you prefer) of Kane.  Instead, I get dragged away from all that in order to about an insignificant chapter of politics.  So which is it?  What story am I being told, or supposed to pay attention to here?  The fact that the narrative actually does manage to work its way back to that desert hotel room, and bring Welles at last on stage indicates that this is at least supposed to have been the point everything was building up to.  And yet so little time has been spent focusing on the main plot point that it almost winds up as an afterthought of its own story.  It shouldn't be too much of a surprise if the avoidable, yet natural enough result is that all you're left with is a film that remains unsure of its own identity from the first reel to the last.

Conclusion: Still waiting for the story to be told.

The director seems to have found himself at a crossroads of competing loyalties and obligations.  On the one hand, the foremost obligation belongs to that of the director's father.  Mank appears to have been a passion project for the Fincher clan ever since the elder Jack first penned the script back in the late 70s to early 80s.  The then younger David had been looking for the right venue to get his father's work off the ground ever since his breakout effort with the movie Seven.  When his Dad passed away in 2003, the sense of obligation probably doubled.  More than wanting to honor his Dad's efforts, it probably doesn't take a psychiatrist to realize it was also the director's way of trying to reconnect with his past on more than just an homage level.  The other three obligations were the interconnected strands of both the audience, and Mankiewicz and Welles themselves.  

One of the most awkward tasks the director found himself faced with was having to take his Dad's own words, and then efface them via the inevitable rewriting process.  In an interview the director did with the online magazine Vulture, Fincher even went so far as to state that "he felt early drafts were too anti-Welles (web)".  "The first draft," Fincher went on to specify, "just felt like revenge (web)".  He even admitted to his father that he didn't see the point of including the whole Sinclair Campaign subplot.  It got to a point where the director's wife even wound up asking “How much of this are you doing for yourself?” She said to me, “You’ve been thinking about this movie too fucking long. It’s not doing you any favors.” There are people in this movie who weren’t born when the script was written. Two years is enough pre-visualization. Twenty years is too much. I have nine drafts on my shelf. I’m cleaning off that shelf. It’s time to take a deep breath (ibid)". 

 Perhaps this explains the final product's overall lack of focus.  It's less the outworking of artistic enthusiasm and more some form of existential crisis that was never able to find either the right emotional or creative outlet.  Nor did this help the script in finding its own sense of identity.  This has resulted in a film that tries to go in several incompatible directions at once, and has gone on to achieve a discernible accomplishment.  It's able to satisfy no one.  It can't seem to make up its mind about itself, and so it really comes as no surprise that it's unable to reach an understanding about its two main leads.  That's a shame, because the making of Citizen Kane remains a story well worth telling.

The whole situation reminds me of the last time the topic came up.  I've spoken already about another film which used the making of Citizen Kane as the basis for its story.  That was one was called RKO 281, and it still doesn't fare any better, even when compared with Fincher's own attempt at the material.  I think what the latter film has done more than anything, is to make me realize that there's a real tendency out there to want to approach Welles in general, and Kane in particular, through kind of mythologizing lens.  There seems to be a genuine interest in the director and his film.  However, so far, all the filmmakers I've watched tackle the topic seem intent on using the bare bones of history as a jumping off point for their own flights of fancy on the subject.  I think a film like Amadeus has proven that this method of approach can be successful as long as the storyteller finds the right way into the narrative.  The difference there is I never got the impression that either Schaefer or Forman had anything like axes to grind, they were both just in it for the pure fun of the plot itself.

With Mank, on the other hand, there is the sense that the writing is trying to approach, or is in search of something like a final thesis statement.  This also doesn't strike me as out of the norm, as most of the stories I've read and watched can be said to amount a series of searches after a statement.  What makes Fincher's efforts stand out (and maybe not in a good way) is how its two main collaborators can never manage to get together on just what it is they want to say about Welles and Mankiewicz.  To hear his son tell it, all Jack Fincher was focused (almost obsessed on) was trying to shove Welles out of the limelight in a desperate sense of conviction that the director was never the auteur he was lauded as.  David, on the other hand, seems less comfortable with the whole idea.  This leaves us with two storytellers at odds over a narrative.  This means the audience has no real excuse if they discover that the two lead characters come off as empty husks, more than actual people.  The final outcome may not be good art, yet there's little use in trying to say the results aren't natural, given the circumstances which left it all hanging in a state of imaginative purgatory.

We never do get a true sense of either Mankiewicz and Welles as either characters, or historical personalities.  While ostensibly the main character, Herman is more often just Jack Fincher's mouthpiece for whatever it is the old writer needed to get off his chest.  This peculiar need or desire reduces a fundamentally dynamic character like Welles to little more than the celluloid equivalent of a punching bag.  Not once is the audience given a genuine insight into the director's creativity and passion, the two main drives that motivated him throughout his entire life.  I have complained here already that Mank himself comes off as passive due to the script.  I just didn't know it was possible to do the same to Charlie Kane himself.  When Burke's Welles finally does make his big entrance near the end, he's never really allowed to come alive by saying or doing anything of substance.  Instead, it's like watching a toddler throw a temper tantrum.  

The real Welles knew how to throw a fit.  That much is very true.  The curious thing is the way he went about it.  In real life, Welles often used his abilities as a theatrical speaker to do more than just browbeat. Even in a bad mood, he would often find ways of turning a rant on its head in mid-stride.  He wasn't content to just leave it at cussing someone out.  It wasn't long before the tone of the bluster and bombast took a turn in an interesting direction.  What started out as a talking to would start to shift into an aggressive, yet also special form of pleading.  It may take a while, though soon his collaborators would often realize he was no longer the neighborhood bully, but the captain who fears a vessel is sinking and is desperate to keep it afloat.  All of a sudden, the rant would turn into a rallying call as Welles would devote himself to doing all he could to make his collaborators try and understand the value he saw in the art they were all trying to make.  That very much included underlining how much of their success really was a group effort.  Welles was never a stranger to being a boss or a tyrant.  Yet even he knew the director couldn't get anywhere without a little assistance from the help of others.  It's one of his somewhat ironic strengths.

These are all the reasons and facets of why the director of Citizen Kane remains such a fascinating figure as both an artist and a man.  It was this sense of passionate commitment to the arts that has intrigued viewers ever since he made his big break on the scene.  The result is a series of debates that show no real sign of stopping any time soon.  That, I'm convinced, is something to be grateful for.  Besides, all the historical evidence points to Welles being more responsible for the final Kane script than Jack Fincher is willing to recognize.  If Dave Fincher is correct in calling the unedited script something like a form of revenge, then I'm sort of left to wonder why.  What would account for such a winner-take-all approach.  The claim is that he's doing it for guys like Mank, yet the man himself is never given much room to breathe.  Is it about Welles himself?  That seems a bit more likely.  If it should turn out there was some need on the screenwriters part to try and knock Mr. Charles Foster off whatever pedestal he perceived to be there, then I'm afraid we've reached the point where I have to go "That's your problem, pal.  Not mine".

As for the Auteur theory, may own take on it is somewhat unique.  The idea isn't mine, and it wasn't the product of film circles.  It can be traced all the way back to a 19th century novelist called Frank Norris.  His thought's on the creation of stories boiled down to just one maxim: "The book is the boss".  He was talking about literature, yet I'd maintain that Norris's words have a validity for all storytelling, regardless of medium.  At the end of the day, two other things stand out to me about the narrative arts.  The first is that it seems we could never really improve the stage on which it is set.  In other words, we can never quite manage to make even the most lifelike story seem as true to reality as the bare facts of can allow.  We can't just make it real, in other words.  The result is that the ultimate value lies in its themes, rather than any possible mode of pictorial representation, or so-called "realism".  This is something Fincher's movie is well aware of.  Doesn't it seem a mistake to believe that the real events between Welles and Mankiewicz took place in a stylized world of black and white?

The second major truth I've been able to find is just this.  As long as you're telling any kind of actual, legitimate narrative, you can never really escape from the written word.  And so, you can never truly leave the page.  It's like trying to talk without ever opening your mouth.  What would Hamlet even be like without it's dialogues and soliloquies?  At the end of the day, all films are bound to the texts which they have emerged from.  Some will call this notion nonsense, that film is an independent medium all its own.  To which I must respond that the history of the arts tells a very different story.  Mankind may have started out by trying to replicate what he saw on the walls of a cave.  However, it was only language that helped us understand ourselves and the world.  It's a maxim so fundamental that it's a bit easy enough to forget, especially if no one bothers to pass the information on.

What all of it has to do with either Fincher, Norris, or Welles comes down to just this.  By giving the story, in and of itself, the highest place of importance, Norris is not slighting the role of the artist.  On the contrary, I'm willing to argue that by giving the storyteller the role of second place, Norris may even have dome artists everywhere something of a favor.  In the first place, it allows both audience and artist a certain amount of perspective.  The proper function of art is not to gratify the ego, but to arrive at the truth inside the lie.  It's a rule this is (or perhaps should be) binding on both artist and reader.  By placing the making of art within and at least some form of ethical context, both parties are able to benefit in a way that serves each of them.  At the same time, the role and function of the artist is able to become a bit more clear.

At its core, Norris's statement is akin to the early 19th century Romantic Poets.  It is a short-hand repetition of the idea that the one in charge of all art making is the Muse, or rather the Imagination, in and of itself.  It is the channel which the artist is somewhat at the mercy of, because without it the possibility of art itself vanishes clear off the map.  It is more than possible to ignore the imagination and its products.  The great majority of people do that everyday.  The one person who doesn't do so, however, is the artist.  The writer ultimately is faced with the choice of whether or not to lower his or herself to the level necessary for completing the work.  If anyone can do this, and prove through their efforts that they have the talent necessary to both tap into the creative vein in the human mind, and realize as much as possible of it in words, then perhaps they really can live up to the title of storyteller.

I have said that this essentially Romantic take on the nature of creating art is one that places the artist in a secondary role.  However, this isn't the same thing as saying that the artist is unimportant to the process, or that there are no personal obligations in which any of them must operate under.  One of the benefits of the creative process is that it can sometimes act as a good judge and molder of character.  In that sense, part of the truth behind any work of fiction is also bound to include the truth about the artist himself.  It is sometimes just possible to understand the nature of the artist's own character based on the way a story is told.  A good case in point is a novel like Misery, or even a film like Citizen Kane.  The artist, in this configuration, is best thought of as the maker-as-transcriber.  He's the owner of the particular ballpark the story needs in order to play a (hopefully) good game.    What this perspective does is more or less take the idea of the Auteur and turn it on its head.  The artist is important, yet only inasmuch as he can be true to both the story and himself.  

I think it is at least to enough of his credit that Orson Welles adhered to all of this, on some level.  I have seen him described as an actor who "excelled at playing the men who looked down on the world".  A good example of this type is shown in the later career figure of Harry Lime, from The Third Man.  Perhaps it was the natural skill Welles displayed in the portrayal of these figures that has colored his reputation to a great extent?  If so, then all I can say is that, whatever other differences there are, I more or less agree with the same critic who believed: "In truth, Welles likely saw himself as one of those dots.  And with (the late period production of Chimes of Midnight, adapted from a Shakespeare cycle) audiences finally got to see Welles as he saw himself".

Orson's entire idea of his own role as an artist can therefore be summed up from the following lines of Sir John Falstaff.  "Let not us that are squires of the night's body be called thieves of the day's beauty.  Let us be Diana's foresters; gentlemen of the shade; minions of the moon; men of good government; being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal (web)".  I will say this.  If I ever hope to be a critic, then it's sort of my job to acknowledge that artists, just as a subject, or a phenomenon, are as much a part of the natural order of things (whatever that's supposed to mean) as anything else.  Another thing I know that's true is Welles' own awareness of the problems attending the nature of human character in general, and of his own in particular.  This is something of a leitmotif in almost all of his works.  His films tend to feature protagonists whose character (or lack thereof) is often their own undoing, time an again.  I think Martin Scorsese is the one other artist who has gone on to explore the concept in any depth.  It is the very presence of this motif in works like Kane that lead me to believe the ultimate credit for the movie has to go to Welles, as I don't think the finished product would be quite as impactful without it.

As for the debates of Sarris, Kael, and the Finchers, the Romantic paradigm outlined above places their work in a curious, somewhat ironical light.  The danger for them is that too much of a focus on the artist can help to overshadow the work.  At the same time, no art is made in a vacuum, and I've seen enough examples to know that artists can be just as fallible as the rest of us.  I've provided at least a good beginner's answer to these challenges in the preceding paragraphs.  It just leaves the question of where the pair of critics, and two filmmakers fall on this scale.  If I'm being honest, it looks as if their own searches into the topic have led them to zero in on whatever part of the whole paradigm has caught their attention to the unnecessary exclusion of all the other relevant information.  This can be a mistake, and in the arguments over Kael's and Sarris's theories, along with its perpetuation by the later father and son team, we see the outworking of that mistake in real, historical time.  It's a case of both critic and artist stuck searching for the proper statement of what art is.  Perhaps this accounts as much for the flaws of the Fincher film, as any of its other problems.

As it stands, Jack Fincher's Mank is a vague, semi-coherent screed masquerading as a film.  The writer was desperate for a statement that could never quite be articulated in a way that made sense, and as a result, the film suffers for it, and the audience along with it.  What makes it a real shame is that from a stylistic point of view, all the ingredients were in place for the chance to make perhaps as good a docu-drama about Welles best film as we could have got.  It's just a shame it was all squandered on one man's attempt to enact the kind of Salieri versus Mozart paradigm in real life.  Whatever else the events were like behind the scenes, it wasn't that kind of narrative.  The movie has no choice then, except to come off as a wasted opportunity.  This leaves the fans of Welles and his movie in a disappointed sense of expectation.  There is plenty potential out there for the definitive biopic on the making of Citizen Kane to see the light of day.  David Fincher's Mank is not that film.  For now, then, all we can do is wait, and hope.


  1. I'm a David Fincher fan, but I just can't quite make myself get interested in watching this.

    1. Trust me when I say you're not missing much. There are one or two moments that might be interesting.

      I think I like some of the few scenes where the main character is hanging out with guys like Ben Hecht, George Kaufman and David Selznick, or Mayer and Thalberg. The problem is all the good moments are just a bunch of snippets involving a decent cast in need of a much better script.