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Mank: David Fincher’s Xanadu

Thursday 17 December 2020, by George Crosthwait

Something is troubling David Fincher. Despite his multiple Oscar nominations, the consistent box office returns that keep the studios purring, and the cult fandom generated by his dark and twisty thrillers, something is gnawing at him. He hasn’t done his “Hollywood” picture. And really, how do you expect to be taken seriously as a white male American auteur without a handsome and lightly satirical peek behind the soundstage. Look around you. Scorsese has made Aviator, Tarantino has Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Coen brothers have Barton Fink AND Hail, Caesar!, (that’s not to mention films by Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, Barry Sonnenfeld, Frank Oz, Damien Chazelle, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Jay Roach, Martin McDonagh, Richard Kelly, James Franco, Michel Hazanavicius, Curtis Hanson, Spike Jonze, Tim Burton, Mike Figgis, Bernard Rose, Robert Altman, Robert Aldrich, John McTiernan, Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, Richard Attenborough, Terrence Malick, Peter Bogdanovich, John Schlesinger, Vincente Minelli, Warren Beatty, Sidney Pollack, Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray, Billy Wilder, George Cukor, William Wyler, William Wellman, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Preston Sturges, and Buster Keaton).

Now the World has Mank. Fincher’s tribute to a golden age of the Mankiewicz bros., Orson Welles, the creative process, the studio system, executive control, and alcoholism. A handsomely mounted (Netflix) production with a personal genesis, Mank has thrilled the critics and taken its place in the pantheon of cinema’s most self-indulgent sub-genre. What is there to make of Hollywood’s addiction to self-representation? Certainly, there’s a degree of brand management occurring here; a constant need to justify that the act of making movies is so important/fascinating that there needs to be more movies about it! And, of course, the cultural legacies of such films are guaranteed by the unceasing cascade of award nominations—Fincher is, at the time of writing, every bookies’ favourite for the Best Director Oscar.

Onscreen representations of Hollywood tend to fit into two categories: celebrations of movie magic (The Artist), and industry satires (The Player). These categories overlap somewhat, so you might reasonably expect at least a few swipes at unscrupulous producers in the former, and some eventual vindication of cinema in the latter. In reality, one should always regard Hollywood self-satire with suspicion. It is hardly revelatory to paint studio execs as exploitative, or to suggest that the industry as a whole values profit over artistic vision. The exposures of #MeToo and Time’s Up were painfully shocking, but if we’re being honest, not all that surprising. Whenever Hollywood indulges in self-critique, the actual effect is to remind the public (and the industry drones) that producers are odiously powerful. If you mess with them, you do so at the risk of your career. This can also act as a mea culpa: “We know Hollywood is messed up, but at least we can criticise ourselves”. When an industry is constantly poised in a Teflon coated stance of self-satire, sincere accusations from outside parties tend to slide straight off. “Tell the story you know”, declares John Houseman in Mank. Maybe it’s all just Hollywood water cooler chat.
How effective can a Hollywood takedown of an institution, or public figure, be? Citizen Kane may have pissed off William Randolph Hearst, but did it hamper newspaper sales? Rupert Murdoch might not like Succession (if he watches it), but is presumably happy with the health of his evil empire. Hearst actually appears as a major supporting character in Mank, alongside a rogues’ gallery that includes Louis B. Mayer, Ben Hecht and David O. Selznick. As cartoonishly reprehensible as these caricatures are, forget about making links to media moguls or studio heads of the present (a couple of wafts at Goebbels and fake news aside). Like other golden age hagiographies such as Trumbo and The Aviator, Mank’s “Hollywoodland” is presented as a temporally isolated space where art triumphs and everyone cheerfully trades witty barbs like Dorothy Parker after a large scotch. Whilst this mythical past is haunted by ghouls like Hearst, Mayer, and Joe McCarthy, their presence is countered by guardians of the craft. Our saviours in Mank include the visionary prophet Orson Welles, the doomed but noble Irving Thalberg, and the uncompromising court jester Herman Mankiewicz, flirting with career suicide but protecting his creative honour.

Mankiewicz is an interesting vessel through which to tell this story. Whilst Fincher may be righting a misconception that Citizen Kane was a co-authored script, Welles remains the unchallenged genius. Fincher adores him. We rarely see his face, and Tom Burke’s booming impression dominates, even when heard through the phone. He is frequently framed from below, towering over everyone, or from behind, in darkened silhouette. One analysis of Mank and similar films is to draw a connection between creator and subject. Take for example the perfectionist Martin Scorsese the rehabilitating an OCD suffering Howard Hughes as a tragic romantic in The Aviator, or the exploitation upcycler Quentin Tarantino’s aging tough guys saving the world from hippies in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Here, Fincher isn’t hubristic enough to compare himself directly to Welles, but possibly sees himself in Mankiewicz: the highly successful, uniquely talented and principled, yet flawed and underrated studio veteran.

Mank’s opening credits plunge the viewer into immediate pastiche territory. A golden-era-esque title card fades into digitally simulated black-and-white celluloid stock. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score accurately captures the atmosphere of an (anachronistic) 50s noir—nostalgia often miss-remembers what 1940s Hollywood sounded like. As the first artificial reel-change “cigarette-burn” (surely Fincher’s career “rosebud”) marker appears, you might find yourself experiencing a kind of inauthentic authenticity. A sense that everything looks like it should and is thus uncannily unreal. Whilst there are some zingy exchanges—Mankiewicz and Marion Davies’ moonlit stroll through Hearst’s menagerie is a clear standout—much of the dialogue occupies the awkward space between the didactic “I’m [insert Hollywood player] and I work at [insert studio] and I made [insert well known film]” and the niche “I hear you won an arm wrestle [sic] against Wallace Beery”). Mank doesn’t even operate as the “creative block” tale it establishes in the first act. The moment Mankiewicz’s deadline looms, he simply completes his script with relative ease. What remains then is an occasionally witty, handsomely mounted, mildly informative, narratively turgid, hollow shell. It is telling that some of the truly interesting backstage-movies come courtesy of non-male, or non-white directors. See Kitty Green’s The Assistant if it’s a real industry critique you’re after, or Spike Lee’s assault on Hollywood narrative history in BlacKkKlansman, or even delight in Sofia Coppola turning Tinseltown tedium into its own aesthetic in Somewhere. Compared to these, Fincher comes across as pretty frothy.

And after all that having been said, it is interesting to note that Mank itself is based on a script penned by Fincher’s late father, Jack (also responsible for an early The Aviator draft). Maybe then, this is all a tribute to the unrecognised talents of a loved one, and for all those un-optioned scripts, and movies that might have been, now lost to the void. A disposable film to scold Hollywood’s creative entropy.

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