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Saturday, 10 April 2021

Mank

Mank is a film by David Fincher about Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the screenplay by Citizen Kane. It got 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Before talking about the film, I should mention the controversy over the authorship of the Citizen Kane screenplay. This is the summary on Wikipedia:

“In February 1940 Welles supplied Mankiewicz with 300 pages of notes and put him under contract to write the first draft screenplay under the supervision of John Houseman, Welles's former partner in the Mercury Theatre. Welles later explained, "I left him on his own finally, because we'd started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on storyline and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine." Taking these drafts, Welles drastically condensed and rearranged them, then added scenes of his own. The industry accused Welles of underplaying Mankiewicz's contribution to the script, but Welles countered the attacks by saying, "At the end, naturally, I was the one making the picture, after all—who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank's and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own."” 

A lot has been written about the subject, like this article in Variety:

https://variety.com/2020/film/columns/who-wrote-citizen-kane-orson-welles-herman-mankiewicz-pauline-kael-1234841438/

Or this article in the Smithsonian: 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-really-wrote-citizen-kane-180958782/ 

The latter mentions a book called Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey

“Analyzing two overlooked copies of a Kane “corrections script” unearthed in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the University of Michigan, the journalist-turned-historian Harlan Lebo found that Welles revised the script extensively, even crafting pivotal scenes from scratch—such as when the aging Kane muses, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Lebo also saw notes by Welles’ assistant, Kathryn Trosper Popper, who recorded the director’s and writer’s reactions to changes in the screenplay (“Welles: Loves it. Mank: It stinks!”).” 

In David Fincher’s film, not only does Orson Welles not write a single word but Mankiewicz is also the one to come up with the concept and the story, drawing on his own personal experience with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. The film also shows that Mankiewicz writes Citizen Kane based on Hearst because of his grudge over Hearst’s smear campaign against Upton Sinclair, but apparently there’s no evidence of the real Mankiewicz supporting Sinclair, and his politics were complicated but leaned conservative. It was Welles who was a leftist.   

Here’s an article fact-checking Mank

https://slate.com/culture/2020/11/mank-movie-accuracy-david-fincher-upton-sinclair-netflix.html 

Here’s a review about the problems with Mank:

https://thewire.in/film/mank-netflix-review 

You may say that this is a fiction film, not a documentary, and historical fact doesn’t matter, but can you say so about Anonymous, admittedly a more extreme case, a film about Edward de Vere being the true author of Shakespeare’s plays? There’s also a delicious irony when Mank is about fake news, the dishonesty of Hollywood, and the naïvete of the audience for believing that King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford is a virgin at 40 (a line said twice by Mank), but the film itself is full of untruths.

To leave all that aside, I don’t really share lots of critics’ enthusiasm for the film either. For example, Mank got an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Its B&W is better than the B&W of Roma, which is not a very high bar, but if you place Mank next to Citizen Kane, you’ll see that the cinematography of Citizen Kane is so much better, especially the lighting. 

Mank:

Citizen Kane


There is a huge gap between Erik Messerschmidt’s flat lighting in Mank and Gregg Toland’s expressive use of light and shadow and the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane. People who praise the B&W of Mank, like those enthusing about Roma a few years ago, probably have never seen a proper B&W film. 

I’m not going to talk about Tom Burke’s performance as Orson Welles—Welles has a strong, dominating presence that is hard to match. 

Gary Oldman is good in the role of Mankiewicz, as always. The film as a whole, however, isn’t as good as people say. It isn’t compelling. Some people say Citizen Kane is boring, which I’ve never understood—the only thing that may be dry about it is the newsreel at the beginning about the life of Charles Foster Kane, but after that point, the film becomes utterly captivating and often funny. Mank is the opposite, interesting at the beginning but soon tedious. 

I’m going to cheat and put up this passage from Eileen Jones’s review in The Wire: 

“The film’s lax flashback structure from Mankiewicz’s point-of-view seems to be in contrast to Citizen Kane’s dynamic flashback structure from multiple, contradictory points-of-view, just as Mank’s blah cinematography could be run alongside Citizen Kane to demonstrate what not to do with black-and-white film. Weird gimmicks like the “cigarette burns” in the upper right corner of the frame and soundtrack pops which characterised the movie projection process in 1941 are included in Mank to no real purpose other than to make you think momentarily that there’s been some mistake.

Both Mank and Citizen Kane feature legendary, tormented, contradictory men at the centre of the narrative. But Mank is so insistent that its hero was a total mensch maddened by the vile power politics of Hollywood that it undercuts the fascination of Mankiewicz’s obsessive drinking, gambling, and wisecracking.”

That’s another problem with Mank, the film seems to present Mankiewicz as the only mensch in Hollywood. There are some other nice characters such as the typist/secretary (played by Lily Collins) but she is outside Hollywood—everyone else in Hollywood is dishonest and selfish and corrupted in some way. 

Owen Gleiberman’s review says “Mank is a tale of Old Hollywood that's more steeped in Old Hollywood – its glamour and sleaze, its layer-cake hierarchies, its corruption and glory – than just about any movie you've seen, and the effect is to lend it a dizzying time-machine splendor.” (source

The poor man probably has never seen Sunset Boulevard

If you haven’t seen Mank, go ahead and watch it if you want to. Or you can (re)watch Citizen Kane, and Sunset Boulevard instead, and have a better time. 

21 comments:

  1. Interesting. I've been curious about Mank, but haven't watched it yet.

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    1. I guess you'd be excited about watching it now lol.

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    2. Yes, well, your review didn't add to my interest...

      It didn't *entirely* kill it, so one of these days... There is a lot of room for a movie to be pretty good without being as great as Citizen Kane (or Sunset Boulevard) and if an actor can't impersonate Orson Welles, one of the most distinctive figures around, well...that's not necessarily much of a condemnation.

      Have you seen Touch of Evil? I actually prefer that to Citizen Kane.

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    3. My complaint isn't only that it's not Citizen Kane though, I've talked about other things.
      I've seen Touch of Evil, I don't think it's as great or complex as Citizen Kane because of its plot, but I love F for Fake. That one is terrific. The Trial is also very good, up till the ending.

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    4. Your arguments sound solid, and they make me less likely to see it (though one enjoys discussion). Only 'not as good as Citizen Kane' is not the same as 'Truly terrible, you're wasting your time.' Maybe, though, you meant the latter...?

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    5. I've just said "My complaint isn't only that it's not Citizen Kane though, I've talked about other things" lol.
      My blog post was quite clear: I wasn't only saying that it's not Citizen Kane. I've written about the historical inaccuracies, "the delicious irony" (with the implication that the film is smug in its repetition of the line about King Kong and Mary Pickford), the flat lighting, the uncompelling storytelling, the depiction of Mank as the only mensch in Hollywood, etc.

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    6. Anyway, to change the subject: have you seen any of the films nominated for Oscars? Or that's not your thing?

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    7. Finally saw Mank last night. Well, I'll say it: it's a pretty terrible movie. The camera work got tedious pretty quick, but I was mostly put off by the script.

      I'm usually not very diligent about seeing the Oscar nominees, and this year worse than usual. But on the whole if something wins an Oscar I count that as a mark against it rather than for.

      The Delia Bacon was a riot, too. Anti-Shakepeareans played for laughs!

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    8. Hahahaha. Can you believe it won Best Cinematography???
      I recommend "The Father" & "Minari" though.

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  2. We watched "Mank" a couple of months ago, and it made almost no impression on me. I can hardly remember a single detail of the film. We had really high hopes, because we're fans of Oldman, and he did a fine job as always disappearing into the role, but it wasn't much of a role. Indeed, there were no real characters in the film, just symbols spouting cliches and making speeches. Most of the scenes that I remember were set pieces, with a simplistic moral lesson and a lot of unrealistic speechifying masqueraded as dialog. I just don't get the praise this thing has received. Hollywood loves to look in the mirror, no matter how ugly the reflection. The mere fact of the mirror seems to be enough.

    Black and white is arty, and must be praised. But have you seen "Alice in the City"? That's a good-looking black and white film.

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    1. Hahaha you hate it even more than I do.
      I've seen Alice in the City. It's good, though I can't remember the way it looks.
      A new B&W film I really hate is Roma, because of the film itself & because a bunch of philistines were comparing to Fellini. It's not even proper B&W!

      I watched another Oscar film yesterday & was also disappointed: have you seen Another Round?

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    2. I have seen hardly any of the films nominated this year. We were close to watching Another Round a few months back, but we thought it would be too depressing.

      I thought Roma was pretty, but I was not blown away by the cinematography. It's a lot like Jim Jarmusch, I think, which is to say mannered but not original. Inoffensive.

      The next film I want to watch is Lawrence of Arabia. We watch it about once a year, and it's starting to feel like the right time.

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    3. Ah. Another Round isn't depressing. I may talk more about it but might ruin it for you, so probably shouldn't. It didn't go in the direction I expected. I'm not a fan myself but it's very popular among critics.
      I felt very strongly about Roma because it's just greyscale, not B&W. There were no real blacks, no real whites.
      I still haven't seen Lawrence of Arabia. That's one of my humiliations, hahaha.

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    4. I know what you mean about Roma. It was all glowing silvery grays, like the world was made of velvet. But a lot of midtones, yeah.

      Lawrence was released the year I was born, and had a 25th-anniversary re-release in a gorgeous 70mm print the year I turned 25, when I saw it for the first time in a theater. We have it on DVD but it makes the rounds of art theaters every couple of years and we always go. Splendid film-making, and eminently quotable, too.

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    5. Now I know when you were born, hahaha.
      It went to theatre once in Leeds, a few years ago, but I missed it for some reason, probably it clashed with something else I had to do. There was only one screening.
      It does look good, and of course everyone knows about the match cut. I should watch it but it's one of those films that you know you have to watch but never do, for whatever reason.
      Is it your favourite film of all time then?

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    6. I have no issues with people knowing that I'm old.

      I don't know if I have a favorite film. I am certainly fond of LoA, but I've seen it often enough that I know its faults about as well as I know its glories, and sometimes I think it's much too long! Probably the films that most move/impress/whatever me are ones that I can't watch that often. I quite like Cabaret and All That Jazz, for example, but I keep my distance. Streetcar Named Desire is I think brilliant, but if I never see it again, I would be happy because it gets too raw. I shouldn't admit this, but the movie I've watched most often is Jaws. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with one specific very bad year about 20 years ago, where that movie sort of became an admittedly odd sort of refuge. In its defense, Jaws has a perfect three-act structure and is the very model of Campbell's "transformational journey of the hero," which is not saying much, but in terms of adventure storytelling, it's pretty hard to beat.

      We watch North by Northwest every year, and a lot of noir in general.

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    7. I see.
      I've not seen Jaws, haha. Me no like sharks.
      Cabaret & All That Jazz are good, but have you seen Sweet Charity? There's not much to the film but I love the dance.
      I know what you mean about A Streetcar Named Desire, I want to show it to my bf but haven't been in the right mood to revisit it. Vivien Leigh is just wonderful.
      Do you watch non-English language films?

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    8. I don't know Sweet Charity. I'll look into it.

      A couple of decades ago, I saw Streetcar at the theater, in a new print with a restored scene that was cut from the original before it's first release. The restored scene makes it clear that Stanley rapes Blanche. A powerful scene, brilliantly acted, that I don't think I want to watch again. The whole film is so bleak, so great, but not really a date film! Like watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff with one's sweetie. You really need to brace yourself first!

      We watch plenty of non-English films, yes. I have decent German and my wife has decent French, so we trade off and bitch about the subtitles (which is really just us showing off for each other). We've watched a lot of Bergman and Szabó , but now we try not to limit ourselves to European films. A while ago I watched a lot of Latin American surrealist films, like Santa Sangre. I'm very interested in Turkey right now, and wish I knew more about the Far East. Currently we're both exhausted and lazy, so if it's not on Netflix, HBO, or PBS, we probably won't see it. We read a lot more than we watch movies.

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    9. Ah, Sweet Charity is a musical remake of Nights of Cabiria.
      I didn't know about the restored scene in A Streetcar Named Desire...
      Do you watch Japanese, South Korean, or Chinese films?
      Normally I watch about 100 films a year but last year and now I don't watch as much as usual. Can still read normally though, I've heard people complain about being unable to read during the pandemic.

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  3. I absolutely love Nights of Cabiria. One of my favorite Fellinis. We went to a Fellini festival a couple of years ago and this was the first movie in the series. My wife had never seen 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita.

    I've seen some Japanese films, but I don't really know where to start, especially since I'm sort of lukewarm on Kurasawa who is the only Japanese director Americans have heard of. My wife likes some current Chinese directors, so she gets to pick those. I am lousy with titles, so I don't remember what I've seen. Some thrillers, some very actiony sci-fi. South Korean film is totally unknown to me.

    We keep reading at pretty much the same pace. I'm always reading two or three books at a time, so it feels like I never finish anything, but at the end of the year I see that is not so.

    Spending so much time looking at screens (hey, I'm doing it right now) means we are less inclined to watch films/tv after we're done with the workday of late. Our tv is just another computer monitor, after all. We've been taking a lot of bike rides. It's windy and overcast today, but we plan on getting in about 24 miles this afternoon. We'll see. Time is out of joint, etc. What a strange year.

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    1. I should warn you that I mostly like Sweet Charity for the dances, which are so bizarre & wonderful. Don't expect Nights of Cabiria.
      A Fellini festival sounds like fun.
      Shall I recommend a few Japanese, Chinese, & South Korean films to you? Just give me a number if you do.
      Which Kurosawa films did you watch? I absolutely love some of them & not like some other (acclaimed) ones.
      Bike rides sound fun. How's the situation in your place? We're gradually coming out of lockdown now. I live in Leeds, northern England.
      It's a strange year indeed.

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