They do make them like they used to

The timing of the release of Mank on Netflix could not be more poignant. A movie about the writing of Citizen Kane, which some consider the greatest American movie ever made, if not the greatest movie of all time, Mank comes at a time when the communal experience of watching movies on a big screen, in a dark theater, surrounded by strangers, seems mortally imperiled.

Movies are over 100 years old but their demise has been predicted since the advent of the talkies. Something is always threatening the end of movies as we know them. First, it was sound, then it was TV, then it was increasingly small screens, and now it’s COVID-19, which together with streaming services, conspire to finally put a nail in the coffin of people huddling together in the dark to cry, laugh, and scream.

Among a sea of mostly garish Netflix offerings, Mank is defiantly classy and nostalgic. To begin with, it is in gorgeous black and white, which already is taboo for most audiences. What’s more, it is an homage to the classic Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s, which to young audiences must seem like antediluvian fossils. David Fincher, one of the coolest of contemporary directors, whose movies have always been stylishly of the moment, got the very current Trent Reznor (formerly of Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross to write a lush film score in the style of the great film composers of the day like Max Steiner and Miklos Rozsa. From the old-school opening credits, the framing of the shots, to the play of light and shadows of Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography, Mank is a love letter to the craftsmanship of films from that era. The screenplay is by Jack Fincher, the director’s father, who passed away in 2003. The movie is an elegy.

But Mank is not just a movie about making movies, like Hail Caesar!, The Player, or Truffaut’s Day For Night. It is, curiously, a film about the genesis of movies: it’s about how they get written. It’s a movie about writing, starring the man who wrote besides Citizen Kane, It’s A Wonderful World, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Pride of the Yankees, among many others.

As a rule, movies about writers or artists tend to be dreary. No matter how absorbing the life of the artist in question, the scripts fall short on drama and incident. Watching the genius main character wait for inspiration to strike or attempt to write is like watching paint dry. In this case, however, the writer is the legendary Herman J. Mankiewicz (a splendid Gary Oldman) and Jack Fincher manages to make his writing of Citizen Kane very interesting. Mank has a much grander scope than a run of the mill biopic; it is both an ode to movies, screenwriters, and old Hollywood, and a surprisingly resonant, gimlet-eyed look not only at the deceptions of movie magic but at the power that people who make movies can wield. It is also the story of a very gifted, self-destructive writer and how he navigated, rising and sinking, the Hollywood studio system.

Herman Mankiewicz, the head of writers at Paramount at the time, is hired by the founders of the Mercury Theatre, 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles (the wonderful Tom Burke, who somehow nails that voice) and John Houseman (Sam Troughton), to write a script for Welles’ first movie. The opening title explains that Welles was allowed to make this movie with absolute artistic freedom and creative control.

Mank, however, is an epic alcoholic recovering from a car accident, so they confine him in a house in Victorville, California to dry out, aided by a stash of Seconal provided by Welles. Mank needs to write this script between 90 and 60 days, which he does by dictating it to a British stenographer (Lily Collins) while reminiscing about his friendship with the real-life characters that inspired Kane, Marion Davies (the excellent Amanda Seyfried), and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

Just as the real Mank fictionalized his friends, Mank fictionalizes how Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane. The structure of the movie feels like a spiral going back and forth between Mank’s present and the memories that he is transforming into art. To advise us when we are going in or out of a flashback, titles appear as the slug lines of movie scripts (a slug line is what precedes the description of a scene in a screenplay: “INT. LIVING ROOM — NIGHT”). The images we are seeing were once words on a page. That is where the magic begins. We are watching a script come to life about a script that has to come to life. It’s all very meta.

In the flashbacks we get to meet a fascinating cast of characters: Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, depicted as both sentimental and ruthless by the fantastic Arliss Howard, producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and the gang of writers employed by them, which includes some of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, and giants like Ben Hecht, Charles McArthur, S.J. Perelman, and Herman’s formidable brother Joe.

This movie seems to have been written for film buffs, screenwriters, and movie people. It’s a movie’s movie, about a writer’s writer, and a director’s director. I wonder if people with no knowledge of Orson Welles, Kane, the Algonquin, and the movie stars of yore can still get a kick out of this insidery account of one of Hollywood’s most remarkable stories.

Movies about movies share cliquey insights about how the magic is created, and the truly great ones swing between besottedness and cynicism. Mank is no exception. It depicts the collaborative alchemy that is responsible for the creation of movies while never losing sight of the sometimes bitter ironies that underlie the myths that keep the “dream factory” alive in people’s imaginations.

In a surreal scene, Mank ambles into a Western movie set and is at first dismissively treated by Mayer and Thalberg, the producers. Then he schmoozes with its star, Marion Davies. Fincher’s camera follows the pair while the camera in the movie set is shooting a horse chase. We see the action as it is being filmed by the fictional camera while Davies asks Mank for a cigarette standing atop the pyre where her character is supposed to be burned alive. Hearst, the man who is bankrolling the entire mishegoss as a star vehicle for Davies, appears inside a covered wagon and orders that Mank should sit next to him at dinner. Reality and fiction seem to meld into one. The movie drips with many similar visual ironies.

Movies have enormous power, even when faking reality for entertainment purposes. Hollywood movies in particular have created abiding stereotypes that are almost impossible to dislodge from the public imagination. In the beginning, Hollywood portrayed Black people in extremely offensive ways. It made Native Americans into villainous savages; it erased entire ethnic groups. If any ethnic characters appeared, they were relegated to the backdrop or depicted with broad stereotypes. Yet, ironically, almost everyone in Hollywood was an ethnic transplant. You couldn’t find a Jewish character in a Hollywood movie despite the fact (some people argue that because of the fact) that most of the studio heads were Jews. Although things have improved somewhat, Hollywood movies are still rife with toxic stereotypes, erasures, and omissions.

Mank goes beyond the revelation that in movies everything is fake except the emotions they elicit, which are real and powerful. It explores what happens when filmmakers harness those magic-making capabilities in order to distort reality for political purposes, which is actually part of the story of Charles Foster Kane/William Randolph Hearst. You may be surprised to learn that Marion Davies, the quintessentially American blonde, was actually a Greek girl from Brooklyn. This is a typical if moderately innocuous Hollywood fiction, but the fake documentaries created by MGM against Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye!), the writer and socialist candidate for governor of California, are far more disturbing. Mank reminds us that fake news has been around since filmmakers understood that they could fabricate reality with celluloid. It’s a thin line between popular movies and propaganda.

In one scene at Hearst castle, we get to eavesdrop on how the studio chiefs, here in the form of L.B. Mayer, turned a blind eye to rising Nazism to protect their profits in the German market. We see the chummy complicity of powerful media moguls whose aspirations are closer to power and commerce than to art, while the talent is made to feel like trained monkeys.

Like all the great movies about movies, Mank is both cynical about and besotted with moviemaking. In sumptuous images, it confirms that movie fakery can give birth to transcendent art, but the same magic can be used for bad purposes.

A movie about a witty writer had better have the best words, and Mank is wordy and sophisticated. As in every Fincher movie, everything is polished to perfection. Oldman has great chemistry with Tuppence Middleton, who plays his wife Sara, and with Seyfried. He disappears into the role with gusto.

The unbearable tension between reality (writers, salaries, exploitation, politics) and myth creation (movie stars, Hollywood, glamour) is the cause of much actual suffering in Tinseltown. Hired hands are asked to create everything from great scripts to bad scripts to fake newsreels, writers have to fight for credit, and talents like Mank have to wrest reality from the unforgiving clutches of fantasy.

Citizen Kane, which is considered by many the greatest film of all time, won only one Oscar — for screenwriting.

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