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)

The Truth About Charlie

Do we need to worry about him?, said my husband two-thirds of the way through Charlie Kaufman’s new Netflix film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. 

It’s not that there is anything specific in Kaufman’s surreal descent into some kind of madness that you’re not totally sure about that is worrisome.  In fact, he has covered these themes before in, well, most of his films.

See above

But seldom has he ever got so mired in his clever muddle that you actually begin to question his wellness as an artist.   Or just his wellness.

An original and bold thinker/writer/director, much of Kaufman’s work has always grappled with the internal craziness adrift in contemporary life.

In fact, his voice has often been a welcome respite for those of us who have grown so overtired at the escapism, gauzy coddling or sheer nihilism offered by most American movies these days.

Nothing says “impending doom” like a house that is constantly on fire #synecdoche

Yet for decades, it has been apparent that in all of his major works – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Synecdoche and Anomalisa – Kaufman has ultimately been firmly and indisputably in control of the narrative.

The issue with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, an often confounding marvel of fascinating film scenes, shots and sequences, is that Kaufman has gone so deep into the rabbit hole of self-reflection and insanity that he literally loses his perspective and takes us down along with him.

It’s like somehow you got a bum tour guide to an unearthly land but only realize it when you’re 3250 miles from the nearest phone, cell tower or landmark of anything resembling civilization.

One might say “a whole mood”

One could argue that after pushing the narrative screenwriting boundaries just about as far as they could go this is the logical and appropriate spot for Kaufman to be in.

Certainly we’ve all been having a mass nervous breakdown the last few years, questioning anyone and everything while wondering if any of it ever even existed the way we thought it did.

And you thought we weren’t going to be political.

Well, yes and no, at least not outwardly.

Because when my husband turned to me on the couch and wondered aloud whether we should be worried about Charlie I was truly at a loss about what to say.  It definitely wasn’t a firm ‘no,’ nor was it a confident ‘yes.’

This feels like the right response

Rather it was a maybe/I don’t know how I feel or how to answer this question.  Or, more simply, the same answer I’ve seemingly been giving everyone the last three and a half years.

The difference is, of course, Kaufman’s new story is nothing as simple as the survival of a two and a half century old democracy.  Instead, it’s essentially about a couple complexly yet forthrightly played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons (Note:  One feels that casting two actors named Jessie/Jesse is another post modern Kaufman strategy to f-ck with our minds) driving back and forth in a car on a road trip during a snowstorm, with a middle section where they visit the male Jesse’s parents.

It’s not too far of a leap to state that it’s Kaufman’s belief that we’re all caught in our own perennial snowstorms, living life on a perilous road where an accident, or series of them, could happen at any moment.

A running theme in Kaufman’s work

All this, of course, takes place against an endless inner dialogue of our own insecurities and of our own making, played out through the words of the female Jessie, which we are loath to share with anyone lest they judge IT as crazy.

To end the monologue would mean to have to engage with a distasteful world that we know in our heart of hearts is indeed loony tunes, or at the very least unfair.  So we (and she) continue with an inner dialogue that is sure to drive us (and anyone who would happened to listen – nee, the audience) totally and 100% certifiably insane.

What are you trying to say Chairy? #IsMyMonologueTooLong

This is the ultimate conundrum this latest iteration of Kaufman presents to us.  That is, amid references to everything from John Cassavettes, A Woman Under the Influence and Pauline Kael, to soft serve ice cream, the musical Oklahoma!, life in high school and the English poet William Wordsworth.

Granted, it’s not for everyone, nor, like any of his other films, does it seem he intends it to be.  That is what makes Kaufman the single most original and iconoclastic and recognizable screenwriting voice in the industry today.

It’s not that he doesn’t want us to see his movies, as evidenced by his availability for all kinds of media interviews.  It’s that as a creative artist he is uniquely on his own road, letting his feelings and thoughts hang out in a very particularly way that first and foremost appeals to him.  In short, in I’m Thinking of Ending Things Kaufman more than ever before doesn’t appear concerned what WE think or even whether WE can easily follow what he’s offering.

Would you even take a peek into his mind?

He’s simply serving up his inner mind and demons as they are in a three-act dramatic structure of his own design.  And, like the dinner with the parents set piece of this new work, it’s for us to decide whether we want to devour it whole and get drunk on the menu or turn our nose up at what’s being offered and starve because we fear our stomachs will be upset, or our sensory responses will get forever messed up, by the conflicting smells emanating from the table if we sit there too long and indulge.

Not unlike the feelings you get when you open a newspaper (Note: Either physically or virtually) or turn into cable news these days.  Do you stay or do you go?  And if you do stay, for how long and how deeply and to what effect or end?

For example… will I watch this?

In this meta way Kaufman seems to be on to something as the sole writer-director this time out.  As is often the case with his artistry, it’s not so much about the plot but the existential questions being raised about life at this period of time as filtered through a particular world view – HIS world view.

That’s an area very few known filmmakers and/or artists are interested in or able to challenge us with right now and, as one great writer from the previous century so aptly put it, attention must be paid.    

I cannot NOT look! #help

Or, well, at least it should be.

(Note: Okay, that writer was Arthur Miller re Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. And yeah, even using that type of theatrical metaphor is insidiously Kaufmanesque.  One more piece of evidence of what will happen if YOU try too hard to attach your own significance to anything having to do with a creation of his).

So let’s not ponder anything more of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.  It will ruin the delightful torture of going a little deeper into your psyche than usual to figure out what the hell is truly going on in the latest story you are unwittingly being dragged into.

And if that’s not an exercise worth sitting through in the FALL of 2020 then, well, I don’t know what is.

Patrick Vaill – “Lonely Room” (from Oklahoma Broadway 2019)