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)

Time Traveling with TCM

As the 2020 presidential election looms like a giant sword swinging over our collective heads, it’s difficult to know what to do.

Turn off and there’s the guilt, or eventual guilt, over whistling past the graveyard of American democracy.

Turn on and there’s the endless anger and non-stop memes (or worse) that pits US against THEM and saps whatever energy is left for I.

I’m with you Steph

What that leaves each of us with right now is individual choice, a sure sign that American democracy is not dead…yet.

That was reassuring for half the weekend because I, for one, scheduled a relaxing few days at home lying around, reading and catching up on the 75% of programming saved on the DVR that needs to be erased…at some point.

But then I turned on Turner Classic Movies

That seemed like a good idea because this month TCM is featuring 31 Days of Oscar.  What this means is that until March 2 every film scheduled on the network is a nominee or winner of Hollywood’s top prize.

Also featured: Ben Mankiewicz and his lush, thick hair #notjealous #veryjealous

For those of us worn out from the politics of it all popping up on the news, in social media and as a part of even the most generalized pop culture memes everywhere, that provides a virtual luxury vacation of escape.

You can ostensibly tune in at any time and be pretty sure you’ll have an all expenses paid trip of at least two hours into an alternate story reality much more preferable and a lot less toxic than the one we all currently reside in.

Ok Rhett… let’s say sometimes  just AS toxic

And I’m not just writing this because my dear friend, Pola Changnon, a fellow movie lover, was recently and very deservedly named general manager of the whole damned network several weeks ago.

Though partly I am.

Damn right!

At our celebratory dinner I couldn’t help but gush a little to her at how, in these trying times, it was such a relief to tune in TCM and, suddenly, get lured into a non-2020 narrative where there is no Twitter and usually not much in the way of anything Orange employed onscreen.

Even though any number of the films on TCM might be available to rent and/or purchase, somehow, when you think of doing that, you instantly say to yourself, I don’t have time to watch this!

But when they suddenly appear on Channel 256 (in LA of course) on your TV or screen of choice and you get hooked, hey, no one can blame you!

Margo’s got the right idea

To do so would be like getting down on someone for eating a slice of that already half eaten chocolate cake left out on the counter or helping yourself to a single drink at an open bar at anyone’s yearly holiday party and being met with a nasty stare by the “Church Lady.”

You’re entitled.  We’re all entitled.

But here’s the thing about escape.  Wherever you are, there you are.

At least that’s how it felt to me watching the classic, Oscar nominated movie, The Third Man on TCM this past Saturday afternoon.

* not directed by Welles

Foolishly thinking a 1949 film noir with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles that I somehow had managed not to have ever seen all the way through could free me from the T***P era what I discovered was… um… NOanything but.

Based on a Graham Greene novella The Third Man is brilliantly photographed and edited, has a great twist and turn story, terrific acting and innovative directing, AND an unforgettable score.

It is also a perfect evocation of the moral dilemma we all face in the, okay let’s say it now, Trump Era.

AH!! DON’T SAY IT!!

Rather than transport us away into post World War II Vienna (Note: Though it literally does) it more effectively brings us right back to the question of 21st century individual choice.

That is to say, how to confront moral decay and, yeah, pure evil when we see it.

– The Third Man doesn’t have children in cages as a result of the whims of a powerful man but instead shows us kids locked in a hospital, dying of (Note: Okay, no spoilers here) because of the actions of a brilliantly clever (Note: Evil?) genius with no moral compass.

– The Third Man isn’t about an election and the loss of the rule of law but instead is about one writer/investigator challenged to make a defining moral choice in a sea of contradictory and sometimes but not ultimately confusing facts.

Figuring out the light from dark (bonus cool lighting)

 – The Third Man doesn’t have raging arguments between longtime neighbors and family members about right vs. wrong but it does ask us to consider whether our most loyal bestie from childhood can be good and evil at the same time and calmly consider how every one of OUR actions – past, present and future — has and will affect not just ourselves but the rest of the world as we know it.

Not bad for a half century plus old black and white feature where everyone but the American writer played by Joseph Cotten speaks with an accent, the Twitter-sphere didn’t exist and no mention at all is made of democracy, elections or the rise of the socialist left and/or the dictatorial repressive right.

But it does have Ferris Wheels!

A great classic movie is a little like a vintage piece of clothing you hold on to over the years.   As norms change you know that in a pinch it will perfectly fit some occasion, event of even era you are suddenly faced with.

It’s comforting, it’s clarifying but at the same time it also makes you think, sometimes of all sorts of things you might want to forget.

Or should remember.

That’s saying a lot for the days we’ve been living through and have yet to go through.

Anton Karas – Theme from The Third Man