The Truth About Mank

The best stories are the personal ones and your version of your truths – as you see, feel or overall experience them – will make your best stories.

This in no way means that any great story you tell needs to be true in the traditional sense, or even needs to be one you’ve experienced first-hand.  In fact, all it really requires is for you to capture the spirit of what you believe is the absolute truth in that moment.     

This time.. we can handle it Jack

That is the selling point.  If you truly would swear to it down deep in your soul (Note: Or convincingly appear to until the point that you actually do) and can trim enough fat off so that it is boiled down into something simple and essential, well, chances are you will convince more people than you can imagine along the way.

This goes for everything from vacuum cleaner sales and earnestly told short stories to public charlatans seeking to lead, and then perhaps to re-lead, nations of, say, 330.6 million people.

I’ve been preaching this to my writing students and to myself for years.  (Note: Not the faux leading part). A philosophical truth might not be reliable, but certainly YOUR truth is.  How can it not be if you’re truly being honest with yourself?

Also important

If this sounds a little pretentious, well…that’s absolutely correct!  You can’t have deep thoughts about anything without being a little full of YOURSELF.

Objectively speaking.

This seems an excellent way to approach watching the infinitely watchable, fascinating, occasionally infuriating and impressively resonant new Netflix film, Mank. 

Cheers to Mank

Directed by David Fincher and first written by his late journalist father Jack Fincher almost 30 years ago, Mank purports to tell the origin story of what many critics still see as the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane.

Long credited as the brilliant auteur work of its then 24 year-old director, producer, star and co-writer, Orson Welles, Mank tells us a different story.

It is the story of how Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, an alcoholic and affably brilliant rogue/mensch among his fellow ink-stained wretches, came to write (Note: Well, actually dictate) the classic screenplay, to a secretary without Welles anywhere in sight while bedridden in a full leg cast.

More to the point, it is the story of how Kane’s “fictionalized” anti-hero, publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane, was based on Mankiewicz’s volatile friendships with and remembrances of William Randolph Hearst, the real publishing magnate, and his longtime mistress and muse, the actress/singer/dancer Marion Davies.

… played by almost shoe-in for an Oscar nod, Amanda Seyfried

The elder Fincher wrote his screenplay all that time ago as a “retirement project” and based large chunks of it on Pauline Kael’s famous two-part 1971 New Yorker essay, Raising Kane, which itself purported to be the true story behind the making of the classic film, with great anecdotes s and scads of research to back it up.

However, over the years much of that article has, if not disproven, then heavily debated, though in no way does that make what’s contained in it any less true or false.  As Ms. Kael herself admits at one point in her extremely long, yet never thoroughly engrossing account: 

When you write straight reporting about the motion-picture business, you’re writing satire.

It’s a good point

In fairness to Ms. Kael, because who would dare not be, (Note: Certainly not myself) in this quote she was referring not so much to the facts of her story but to the relationships between the suits/studios and the various creative artists (nee, the crazies, as she admiringly puts it) who worked for them and, often, were smarter than they were.

Of course, smarter does not necessarily mean savvier or better able to function in the real world.  What Mank, Ms. Kael, both Finchers (Jack AND David), and even Orson Welles himself, all too painfully knew and demonstrate in their work is that you can have all the talent, best answers and most amusing bon mots in the world, and still not wind up on top.

On the other hand, neither will anyone else.  Because NO ONE ultimately gets to be in the number one slot, whatever one deems that to be, all of the time. It depends where you enter their story and what you see as the end to that particular motion picture.

Which is certainly the case for Mr. Kane

Legend has always had it that brash boy wonder egomaniac Welles was destroyed by the Hollywood moguls who resented his talent even as they fed on it. 

But what we learn in Mank is that even though the former might have been true what also might be is that Welles’ ego was so large that even directing, producing and starring in Citizen Kane wasn’t enough for him.  He demanded and ultimately received co-writing credit on a film in which he never wrote a word. 

Conversely, Mank also lets us know that no writer really does it alone.  Despite all the public denials in the world, legendary scribes like Mankiewicz, and even we lesser ones, WILL pilfer our truths from ANYONE while swearing up and down to EVERYONE else that it’s merely our imaginations that are Just. That. Good.

Truth bombs

That’s what Mankiewicz (Note: Mank to his friends, most notably Marion Davies) did with the Kane/Hearst story, according to the Finchers, or at least according to the film they’ve just made about it.

In fact, his real life remembrances of Hearst and Davies, not to mention those of Hollywood moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Irving J. Thalberg, are the most intriguing sections of the Mank story.

We watch as he parties with them, works with them, gets sloppy drunk on their liquor, and gambles away the overly generous paychecks they offer, in part only for the mere presence of his wit and wisdom.

.. and drink he does

We also watch as he grows intellectually, morally and finally physically disgusted by who he realizes, in the events leading up to World War II, these people and himself truly are.  Yet by this time it’s far too late to do much of anything lasting about it except for drinking.  Or so he thinks.  Until Orson Welles enters his life.

Which does not mean he ever stops drinking.  It only means that in either a blatant, or pained act of revenge and/or justice, he can finally start writing.  Again. 

Don Draper would approve

Like all Hollywood biopics, or historical stories based on real-life people and/or events, much will be made on what in Mank is false or simply approximates the truth.

But that’s an unanswerable, losing proposition and entirely misses the point of the film and the thousands of stories like it.

Anything may or may not seem real onscreen, on the stage or in the pages of a book or even newspaper, but the fact is that none of it absolutely is.

It’s how those facts are arranged, and what they tell us about ourselves, the characters we’re watching and reading, AND the folks who made them up.

That’s where the real truth lies, if there is any to be had at all.

If Only You Could Save Me – Adryon de León (from Mank soundtrack)

Hackety Hack

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 1.46.22 PM

Yakety, yack. Hackety, hack.

All of Hollywood and then the world were abuzz this week over the massive computer hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s email system.

First it was about the idea that anyone could pull off such a massive theft of so protected a system.

Then it morphed into the high-minded conversation of whether it was done by North Korea in retaliation for the upcoming Sony movie, The Interview – a film where two schnooks played by Seth Rogen and James Franco are pressured by the US government to assassinate North Korea president Kim Jong-Un.

Yep... these two geniuses

Yep… these two geniuses

From there it went to just about the only thing that can trump international intrigue in importance – and that would be the bitchy, salacious, gossipy and racially insensitive (Note: The latter are Rev. Al Sharpton’s words, not mine) hacked emails themselves.

Someone actually had the audacity to call unofficial Queen of the World Angelina Jolie nothing more than “a camp event,” “a celebrity” (Note: To be said with a sneer) and “a minimally talented spoiled brat,” only to then refer to her plan to star in a new film version of Cleopatra as “a $180 million ego bath.” You can thank Scott Rudin, currently the most prolific producer in contemporary Hollywood history whose credits include No Country For Old Men, The Social Network and Moneyball, as well as dozens of some of your other favorite major studio films and Broadway megahits, for steering the world toward that which is really important.

I have an EGOT, bitches

I have an EGOT, bitches

Except the spotlight was then quickly taken away by other email musings on the unofficial Most Powerful Man in the World, U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, by Sony Pictures Chair (Note: No relation) Amy Pascal. This was when she complained/wrote to Mr. Rudin at the end of one presumably very long day about having to attend a stupid breakfast (Note: Her words, not mine) honoring/fundraising for the prez, and wondered in printed correspondence to said producer, what to ask him. When Mr. Rudin sarcastically wrote, if he’d like “to finance some movies,” Ms. Pascal quipped back, “Should I ask him if he liked Django (Unchained)? To which Mr. Rudin countered “12 Years (A Slave).” To which Ms. Pascal bested or “The Butler” or “Think Like A Man.” To which Mr. Rudin topped “Ride-Along,” confessing he’d bet that the first Black president (who is, incidentally, equally as much White as he is Black) most assuredly likes Kevin Hart.

tumblr_mv5uubxlqb1sl9baeo1_500

Don’t they know the president has very publicly admitted to being hooked on both House of Cards AND Homeland and that each have very few to no Blacks as regular cast members? Oh right, that’s TV. And not even HBO.

Unfortunately, the public conversation has now moved on to the inevitable public apologies by both the producer and the studio executive, ironically dispersed to press outlets mostly via email, where both producer and studio executive are desperately trying to steer the conversation back to where we started. In case you don’t remember where that is it’s the massive computer hacking of Sony Pictures email system and the crooks that perpetrated the crime. But both being extremely savvy and armed with a bevy of some of the most ingenious publicity consultants money can buy, the producer and studio head, in separate statements, each managed to smuggle in one other culprit — the complicit media who ran with the stolen goods (those pesky emails) and are thus continuing the crime of making these private, written conservations very public.

I mean, just who are the real villains here, anyway, they or we may ask?

It sure as hell ain't me!

It sure as hell ain’t me!

Are you tired yet? Well, perhaps. I know I am. But that’s only because we are once again dealing with complex issues there are no immediate answers for. However, these two grown adults (said prod & exec) acting like petty elementary school kids with the centralized power of high school bullies as they privately take down the more accomplished colleagues that they hate, are annoyed by or are just plain bored with, is something much more understandable. We can all relate to that conversation because we have all either been bullied or have been the bully. Perhaps even both.

I was never good at determining villains because I tend to see the world in insurmountable shades of gray that can never quite be fully deciphered. I mean, even when I rant against people like the Duggars, Sarah Palin and Michael Bay I question for weeks afterwards whether I’m being completely fair or going to hell, though not necessarily in that order and not necessarily both every time.

MjAxMi00NzJjMDAzMmUwZDIzMjdh

So I am going to refrain from judgment and talk about two byproducts of this debacle – the victims and the broader reality.

The victims are not Pres. Obama, Angelina Jolie, said producer, studio head or the myriads of other very well paid, successful people whose privacy and/or dignity has been momentarily taken. They are all smart, resourceful, wealthy and have developed somewhat thickened skins from years in the battle. They can take care of themselves. No, it’s not fair but they’ll be fine. Believe it because it’s true. Really.

The victims are the hundreds of other Sony employees who will no doubt have their identities stolen, will lose their jobs because a corporation has to do something when this happens, have their health records compromised and spend the next number of years living in paranoia every time they correspond with anyone – whether electronically, in person or via any other tablet or instrument of choice. I know this as a victim of identity theft myself for two years running because some hateful cow or sow, buck or f–k (Note: Apologies animals) filed a federal tax return in my name and actually got two different four-figure refunds in my place each year. Trust me, it’s not fun.

1596.strip

Still, there are enough systems in place where these people should all be able to get beyond what’s happened to them and resume some semblance of a new normal life. It sucks the big one and it’s really awful that we live in a world where any one of us at any time can now be virtually violated with little consequence to the perpetrator. But one supposes that is the price we pay for eschewing snail mail for messengers, messengers for email, email for Twitter, Twitter for texts and texts for….microchip implants? I’m surmising, not suggesting. And by the way, I did finally get my tax return after more than a year – each time. I can only hope it takes less than that time for the average lower-mid level laid-off Sony employee to get their next job. But let’s err on the side of optimism. For now

What seems to bother me even more is not the crime – heinous as it is – or the victims of the theft – awful as it is to be a victim. Or even the unfunny racially tinged comments of the producer and studio executive – dumb and small-minded as they were in those moments and even now.

Ugh.. there's more??

Ugh.. there’s more??

Rather, it is the accepted way business is done in the world. The cutthroat, diminishing, low brow fashion so many people exhibit in their industries when they do not get what they want when they want it and the manipulative, back-stabbing, underhanded tactics they will use in the most casual way to sabotage their perceived enemies as all the while they are smiling to their faces, sending them polite, charming and even complimentary communications or merely hiding behind their own work as a way to benignly avoid contact until they pull the big rug out from under those that they choose to engage in the first place.  Perhaps this is human nature. But I don’t think so. And even if it is, we have evolved, if just a little, from the caveman days of hunt or be hunted and fight or flight. Haven’t we? Last I heard there were no Paleolithic nanos or iPods or even iPads. Which reminds me, it was Mr. Rudin’s perception Sony was acing out his upcoming movie about Steve Jobs with intended Cleopatra director and self-professed close friend David Fincher that began the brouhaha here in the first place… but let’s not get off topic.

"Leave me out of this!" says the deity that invented "the cloud"

“Leave me out of this!” says the deity that invented “the cloud”

I’ve spent the majority of my professional life in and around the entertainment industry and I know these hacked emails (Note: See links below for some samplings) typify the best and worst parts of show business. The best being the possibility that people love the piece of entertainment/art you’ve created or hope to create and respect you and your talents so much that they financially and enthusiastically support its coming to life in a way that can be seen by millions of people around the world it will not only please but perhaps influence or change for the better. The worst, however, are the endless and needless betrayals, insults, condescension and out and out lies behind your back or in front of your face by the very people you work with, have dinner with, party with or even do more than that with, who you could have sworn to anyone who will listen are your friends.

There’s an old expression I sometimes evoke to the college juniors and seniors that I try to prepare for the industry each semester and that is that show business is nothing more and nothing less than high school with money. I say sometimes because I’ve sort of put it to bed in the last year or two since after all this time it began to feel, well… tired.  I agree – it’s very tired.   But sadly, that doesn’t make it any less true.