A black hole of a movie, David Fincher’s Mank revels in its own contradictions and paradoxes. It’s a love letter and a poison pen, though like much of its meticulous director’s output, this film (that’s not a film, though it’s often made to look like one) is weighed down by the burden of time. Fincher narratives tend to be about the slow march toward a literal and/or metaphorical grave, from existence to non- in a world whose prescribed neutrality we often mistake for cruelty or indifference. Think Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills reduced to hollow-eyed lifelessness after all the serial-killing shenanigans finally hit home in Se7en, or Edward Norton’s nameless narrator violently bearing away childish things at the skyscraper-razing close of Fight Club. If there’s any hope in Fincher’s world it manifests as a rebirth within the life a character is living (see Michael Douglas’s stress-tested-to-enlightenment businessman in The Game). But being human is a one-shot deal. And we’re all headed to the same place, each of us an is that will inevitably become a was.
The Herman J. Mankiewicz concocted by Fincher and his late screenwriter father Jack (with some clear assist by an uncredited Eric Roth), and embodied with inebriate’s charm by Gary Oldman (in a personal-best performance I’d put alongside his Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears and his George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), bears about as much relation to reality as De Niro’s fabulist gangster Frank Sheeran in The Irishman. Mankiewicz was not the driving force behind Citizen Kane, for which he penned a hefty first-draft screenplay and eventually fought for and won credit alongside its multi-hyphenate co-creator Orson Welles. But this version of him thinks he was, and that’s all that matters. The movie isn’t interested in re-litigating this inside-baseball bit of Kane lore, but instead utilizing the myth, birthed from a muddle of facts, as a jumping-off point to explore a very specific kind of survivalist self-loathing.
Mank tends, to put it mildly, toward logorrheic excess, and he surrounds himself with people who can keep up, or on whom he can project his myriad cynicisms with rapier-thrust precision and a court jester’s glint. It’s his way of dealing with the void that taunts many a creative type. Facing a blank page, lost in a tangle of thoughts that might never be tamed (and which it’s easier to allow to remain a jumble), is as close as any dyed-in-the-wool scribe can come to hell on earth. Mank’s solution is to blur the divide between real and imagined. A steady stream of verbiage is his engine and alcohol is his lubricant. This is part of the reason why the rat-a-tat expository dialogue of the early scenes (“You all remember the Algonquin cabin boy, Charlie Lederer”) doesn’t rankle me much. Despite how it might read on page, it feels in motion like a person pushing back against an encroaching, all-consuming abyss by continually reinforcing the identity of himself and the others around him. De Palma did something similar in Mission to Mars when he made much of the script’s over-explanatory exchanges a key personality trait of the astronaut characters, talking themselves point-by-point through often intense otherworldly situations.
Mank itself is an alien nation. Fincher is on record saying he wanted it to be an object that could have come from the era (the early 1930s to the early 1940s) it portrays. But I think this is a case of either authorial ignorance or calculated caginess. Yes, the audioscape (overseen by Ren Klyce) is echo-y mono, the digital black-and-white imagery by Erik Messerschmidt occasionally treated with faux-celluloid scars and reel-change cigarette burns, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross recorded for the most part, if not entirely, with period instruments. Yet for every then there is a countervailing now, such as the 2.20:1 aspect ratio that seems very Netflix (unless it’s some arcane reference to 1930’s abortive widescreen epic The Big Trail), or at least a later, my favorite being the throwaway moment during Mank’s walk with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) around San Simeon when she nearly cavorts in a fountain La Dolce Vita-style and Mank pulls her back as if to say, “Not yet….”
Theo Panayides criticized a similar anachronism in a scene where Mank quotes Groucho Marx’s “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member!” a full decade or more before it was officially reported. But I think such touches, even if conceived out of film-referential cutesiness, jibe with Mank the character as a kind of oracle out of time (not to say he predicts the future so much as unwittingly channels it, in glimpses that barely resonate), and Mank the movie as a project that works overtime to negate itself, being both the thing it appears (end-of-year, prestige-laden Oscar bait) and a complete subversion of same.
Evidence of these nullifying rebel undercurrents abound. See, for example, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) militantly noting that MGM doesn’t stand for “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” but “Mayer’s Ganze Mishpocha,” or most any part of the tragic subplot involving fictional second-unit cameraman Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane), who helps the Republican-leaning MGM hierarchy upend the gubernatorial candidacy of socialist Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) by creating fake newsreels. (“But it isn’t news and it isn’t real,” says Mank, a line that manages to hit some strange sweet spot between the obvious and the implied.) And it’s very apparent in Mank’s final confrontation with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the millionaire newspaper magnate for whom Charles Foster Kane will be a not-so-secret onscreen avatar.
Hearst delights in Mank’s verbally dextrous company. This extends even to when the soused screenwriter takes burn-it-to-the-ground command of the climactic costume banquet, railing against Hearst and rewriting his muckraker’s ascent, on the fly, as a modern-day Quixote story. Dance is a perfect foil to Oldman in this scene, the stoic facing the stormer, the enduring smirk on Hearst’s face particularly chilling in its opacity. When he finally does speak, it’s to regale Mank with the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, so as to illustrate where the real power in their now-concluded relationship lies.
Many films would frame Mank’s eventual penning of Kane as revenge served cold, and there is something in the structure of Fincher père’s screenplay, which intercuts the Hearst banquet with Mank’s later confrontation with a hot-headed Welles (Tom Burke) over onscreen credit, that seems to support that reading, while also equating the capitalist Scrooge with the micromanaging wunderkind. The way Fincher fils executes it, however, undermines any sense of triumph, or indeed of heroes and villains. This is all just another marker for Mank on the road to oblivion, as fleeting a respite as the moment in which his brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey), eventually to eclipse him in success, describes the first draft Kane script as “the best thing you’ve ever written.” Pelphrey says it in such a way that the line lands less with uplift than equivocation.
An end credits chyron, superimposed over an image of Mank (the fictional one) holding his Best Screenplay Oscar, notes that he confided the following in a friend: “I seem to have become more and more a rat in a trap of my own construction, a trap I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of an opening that will enable me to escape.”
He is. He was. That’s all she wrote.
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s multimedia whatsit Gorillaz completed the first season of their Song Machine project on Christmas Eve. I have an extended weekend at SUNY Purchase in 2017, where I effectively got to be Wyatt Russell in Everybody Wants Some!!, to thank for getting me into the genre-shifting, virtual-band performance art of 2-D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle, their backstories equal parts Rivette and Resnais in all their playfully torturous convolutions.
I can’t help but approach most art from an aural-visual foundation. That’s, at least, where I feel most comfortable, and a key reason I’ve rarely written about music, books, painting, etc. I almost never feel like I have the language to express myself in those other arenas, though lately I’m tempted to dive into the deep end, let the process sort things out and just be sure not to act like an all-knowing, butt-covering asshole along the way. Better to move toward the fear than away from it. With Gorillaz, at least, there are plenty in the way of mini-movie music videos to explore and dissect, and Song Machine, over the course of its nine installments, is also stacked in terms of collaborators, a few of whom are youthful favorites.
It was inevitable I’d take to Strange Timez (the title track of Song Machine’s physical and streamable album, though Albarn initially conceived the project as singles-only) because it features The Cure’s Robert Smith, visualized as both a Méliès-esque man in the moon and a disembodied head on a 2001-like monolith that Murdoc, that goblin-green Keith Richards manqué, can’t help but reach out and touch. Similarly, the Beck-featuring The Valley of the Pagans spoke to the repressed gamer in me by being set almost entirely in Grand Theft Auto V. In addition, it includes such sublime stanzas as “She's a plastic Cleopatra on a throne of ice/She's a hemophiliac/With a dying battery life” that more than epitomize the Dadaist artistry of my favorite Scientologist.
The real grower has been the 2-D, 6lack and Elton John ballad The Pink Phantom, which affectingly taps into our current stream of COVID-related loss and longing (“Wait, I got so many examples of all the/Good times we had, long summer nights/Held you long time, put your name in my rhyme”) and then gently lifts it to a zenith of universality (“In a sky made of diamonds/Where the world is flawless/I’ll be waiting for you on the other side”).
Because of the pandemic, Albarn and Hewlett had to rework the Song Machine project midstream (the music videos were released approximately once a month over the course of 2020). I gather there was supposed to be more of a mix of animation and live-action footage, as in the lovely Désolé, a stirring, soaring collab with Malian signer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, in which the band discovers a portal to Lake Como and Hewlett decorates the surrounding sky and architecture with several ghostly animated figures. (My personal favorite: A Max Schreck-ian Nosferatu peering out of a shoreline window.)
Song Machine’s “season finale,” The Lost Chord, concludes things in suitably apocalyptic fashion as the Gorillaz quartet returns to Plastic Beach, the landfill-in-the-sea setting of their same-titled 2010 album, where they come face-to-face with remnants of their past (R.I.P. Cyborg Noodle) and watch in horror as a coral-reef outfitted sea monster played by U.K. soul and Brit-funk crooner Leee John uses his literal laser-beam eyes to raze it all to hell. The touchstones here are both kaiju flicks and Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (the latter evident as the scraps of the Plastic Beach mansion fly through the air in super-slow motion). But 2-D’s last-minute save of Murdoc, the oft-at-odds duo clasping hands before vanishing into a deus ex machina wormhole, is pure Gorillaz in its when-the-chips-are-down optimism.