Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 05, 2020 11:33 pm 
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A trip back to old Hollywood

You can't get away from the fact that this film was scripted by the director's father, Jack Fincher, who is dead (1930-2002). This picture is a labor of love, a touching tribute, and long in the making. And this is a movie about the writing of a script, a very famous one, for Citizen Kane. Did David Fincher fiddle with it? Did Orson Welles add anything for this one aspect of that famous film that won the Oscar, in 1940, for the two men? Most important, the matter at hand: was David Fincher up to the task of bringing his dad's screenplay to life? A big budget movie in black and white wasn't easy to get by the studios. The result is dazzling in some ways, its sheer complexity of staging, its period feel, its cinematography, its lighting, its cars. But does it entertain? Was it all worth it?

Mank juggles many balls in the air. It provides an essential footnote to the making of one of the world's most admired films, , an homage to how movies used to be made that constantly recreates the look of period Hollywood and period picture-making, and it skewers the old studio system, and the new one. It shows us a glimpse of what it was like when talkies were talky.

It's a rich and complicated portrait of the thirties and very early forties. Like Citizen Kane itself, this movie jumps around in time, making free with flashbacks, while at its center is that boring topic for a movie, an artist at work: Herman J. Mankiewicz, AKA "Mank," a funny guy and former correspondent in Berlin, an Algonquin Round Table wit in New York, a swift script doctor in Hollywood, and everywhere a gambler, pretty loyal husband of "poor Sara" (Tuppence Middleton), and an alcoholic in his early forties who would drink himself to death at the age of 55 - lying inert, dictating a script. A lot of busy flashbacks are needed to liven that up.

The movie also takes time to review the leftist writer Upton Sinclair's audacious campaign for governor of California, which he lost decisively. It also takes time to depict some of Manks's bad drunks and disastrous bets. He's said to have once bet five thousand dollars on the fall of a leaf. Here he makes an even more disastrous wager.

Meanwhile, at center stage, in the main time-line, Mank has two months, in bed with a broken leg, to dictate the script, with a stenographer, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), a sympathetic Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) to mind him and a fussy Brit, Welles' theater collaborator John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to monitor the writing process.

Fincher hired Tom Burke, a good actor (he played Anthony in Joanna Hogg's terrific 2019 ]The Souvenir to play Orson Welles. He makes little effort to look or sound like the man whose looks and voice we know so well, though - a missed opportunity, because what this movie lacks is contrasts. There are beautiful grays, and the interior lighting, the deep focus in homage to Kane cameraman Gregg Toland, is pretty, if not as dramatic as Toland's.* But this script, and this film, lack big moments.

I come back to the cars, and the landscapes. The exterior studio spaces are memorable, as are crowd scenes in the Upton Sinclair sequence and the well-evoked grand mealtimes in the baronial dining hall of Hearst's San Simeon. (For this is the revelation for some of us: Mank was a friend, or rather the favored "court jester' of the media czar, and hence his screenplay arguably a betrayal.)

A long drunken speech by Mank in that baronial hall is difficult for even the great Gary Oldman to make convincing. As Marion Davies Amanda Seyfried is acceptable and and as Hearst Charles Dance adequate, but the casting isn't this film's strong point. I'll remember a long thirties limo, stretching out its proud length. And Marion Davies in a chauffeured car arriving in the country to see Mank and beg him to shelve his script, after she's learned it's about Hearst and her (no nice).

Fincher's film evokes the old California landscape better than any contemporary film has ever done. It really, really takes you back there. Whoever chose the locations was brilliant. As dp Erik Messerschmid (Gone Girl, Sicario does impeccable work. But the script, for all its energetic talk, doesn't sparkle, nor does this movie. It tells a lot of little things but the necessary few big things that grab you and pull you along aren't there. Mank should have written it, and Orson directed it.

Mank, 131 mins., debuted Nov. 13 in limited theatrical release. It went online via Netflix Dec. 4. Metascore 79%.
*It's shot with a new black and white digital camera, the RED Monstro Monochrome (Monstrochrome) and digital has special powers to capture images in dark settings, but the look is not the same as film, colder, more chiseled. To use digital for a movie that seeks to evoke the cinematography of the late thirties seems an unfortunate choice. Mank's images dazzle with their tonal range and precision, but look strange.

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