Friday 4 December 2020

Illustrious corpses: "Mank"

As you may have spotted, Film Twitter has enjoyed an extended field day these past few weeks picking over and away at Mank, David Fincher's account of the genesis of Citizen Kane/evocation of Hollywood in its Golden Age pomp. This should surprise no-one. Rarely has a film been so self-consciously made for Film Twitter, and for movie nerds in general. Here is a movie that proves entirely in thrall to Hollywood legend, shuffling on a supporting cast who'll require no introduction if you've read the right biographies. Louis B. Mayer! David O. Selznick! Ben Hecht! Irving Thalberg! As compiled by one of the few contemporary directors both ambitious and gifted enough to match Orson Welles for technical virtuosity, Mank has been stuffed deep with nods, references and Easter eggs, slipped into shot - just past the stick-on cigarette burns applied to the corners of the frame - so that some clever dick can explain who or what is being referred to in 280-character missives. It is also a film self-consciously made with Hollywood in mind. A lustrous, high-definition study of the studio system and those mad or bad enough to work for it, Mank is the film that may yet provide Fincher with the awards-circuit love he missed out on a decade ago with The Social Network, and backers Netflix with the key gongs it missed out on with 2018's Roma. This is a film in search of lost time, faded glories - and, as written by the director's late father Jack (1930-2003), a measure of extra credit for all the undersung writers of this world. No wonder the reviews have glowed so. I'm far from anti-Mank, but I must confess that, while watching it, a question entered my mind to which the film only fitfully provided anything like a satisfactory answer. What's in this for anybody else?

The best I can suggest, if you're neither of Film Twitter nor Hollywood, is free entry to a vast Hollywoodland theme park constructed by a noted perfectionist on a colossal Netflix budget. You'll still need some interest in Kane as a cinematic foundation stone, but Mank does at least open up some new avenues around it. For one, the Finchers have decided Welles has been dramatised to death - or that no-one could dramatise Welles as well as Welles dramatised himself - so they keep their "dog-faced boy" on the sidelines; Tom Burke is a bit skinny even for the Orson of 1940 - our younger actors no longer carry the weight they once did - but he has exactly the amount of fun you'd hope he'd have in what amounts to no more than a walk-on role. The focus has instead been shifted onto Kane's co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, in the hope he might present as somewhat more approachable and sympathetic. As played by Gary Oldman, this Mankiewicz is a worldly, boozy bon vivant who begins the picture flat on his back (introduced in a body cast after a car crash renders him temporarily immobile), and who - even in the Kane-aping flashbacks cluing us in to how he got here - appears resigned to his lowly place in the Hollywood pecking order. Movies featuring Welles tend to end up All About Orson, so recentralising Mankiewicz arguably makes Mank a more democratic exercise: he's even been given a drawing-room monologue on the differences between Communism and socialism. Fincher Sr.'s line is that Mankiewicz was the man who pulled Kane together while Orson was away playing dress-up and carousing - the keen observer who absorbed the stories of Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, crowning his recent renaissance), who heard out studio bosses, striking workers and panhandlers alike. Welles loomed large, which is why he so often turned up playing authority figures; but Mank was the man on the street, at the middle of things - which, the film concludes, is one reason Kane spirals out to touch on matters of politics, showbiz, life.

Does Mank generate the same fascination as Kane? It's no less promisingly stuffed: the route into pre-production on Kane takes us through such narrative sidestreets as the outbreak of WW2, author Upton Sinclair's intervention in the Californian gubernatorial race, and contract troubles at Mayer's MGM. (You get Film Twitter points for identifying the speakers at the emergency meeting Mayer calls at one point.) Fincher acknowledges this busyness via a sequence that sends Oldman-as-Mank running around one studio lot, alighting on one subplot after another. That's entertainment! Increasingly, however, I sensed Mank becoming clotted with detail and grand designs. Fincher wasn't ever going to cut a script he inherited from his dad, and Netflix weren't going to stick him with a Houseman-like producer, ready to stage an intervention whenever this director got too caught up in his own thoughts. The result is a movie that approaches the density of Kane, but not its elevating clarity or levity. As befits auteur cinema about the origins of auteur cinema, this may be a matter of contrasting personalities. Even in exile, Welles remained a showman who operated on theatrical instincts, forever turning outwards towards his audience. Fincher is a brilliant analyst, but a far more introspective filmmaker: he walks into Xanadu in part to solve whatever puzzles remain unsolved around Kane, and even when he's just lining up a snapshot of an era, he steps with a far heavier tread than Welles. The dialogue deals in a pastiche of that smart-talking comedy so in vogue in Hollywood circles circa 1940, yet Mank tends to feel witty rather than funny in the laugh-out-loud sense, and there are several points where it feels smugly clever-clever. A pun on the name Mervyn LeRoy is pretty good, but it's then so laboriously mansplained that all the joy gets sapped from it. Couldn't the Finchers have left that for Twitter?

There remain untrampled pleasures, if you've even the remotest interest in movie history or modern movie craft. First among equals: the sound made by the keys accompanying the typewritten text that marks scene changes, more slap than click. (One reason they don't make writers like they used to, Fincher maintains, is that they don't make typewriters like they used to. Remember how this director made a fetish item of the reel-to-reel tape recorder in the opening credits of Mindhunter?) The movie nerd in me also sighed appreciatively at the first of the film's fades to black, which fade to exactly the right shade of black; it's a pity more people won't get to experience those in a cinema, their natural home, but then - hey - that's 2020 for you. It's not entirely without human interest, either. The closest Mank gets to making a case for itself as a standalone text is whenever it allows Oldman to occupy the frame. It's not just that we're seeing a skilled but now-notoriously erratic performer being properly directed, recalibrated for the first time in what seems like centuries; there's also the pleasure of watching Oldman being allowed to be crumpled and jowly (no latex to hide behind here), and thereby transformed into the kind of lived-in, worked-over character actor Fincher gravitated to over the sadly truncated course of Mindhunter. Fincher will deserve any nominations for directing that performance alone; Oldman's prize should be getting to cling onto the Oscar he stole off with for Darkest Hour. All of these elements merit giving Mank a look, but if you find yourself shut out of it for long stretches, then know you're not alone: this is what happens when a filmmaker sets about pleasing himself and playing exclusively to his base. Fincher Sr.'s intention may have been to open up Kane's extratextual mysteries, and thereby share its hidden wealth. I fear the film his son has produced, however, is only loftier and more elitist yet - not to mention wholly out of touch with the year 2020. One reason the American commercial cinema is in such a state, eighty years on from Kane: its most technically virtuosic filmmakers have themselves beaten a retreat.

Mank opens from today in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Netflix.   

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