Archive for Jack Fincher

Manky Business

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 8, 2020 by dcairns

MANK certainly qualifies as a late film, not for its director, David Fincher, who we hope has many films left in him (where would they be located, anatomically? this one’s from the heart, obviously, but others seem to originate from… lower down) but for the writer, Jack Fincher, who is unlikely to write anything new having died in 2003.

The idea of a son filming his late father’s screenplay is… I think the word I’m trying to avoid is “bad.”

I must say, we never suspected a sentimental streak in this filmmaker. It IS sweet, but is it wise, this posthumous collaboration? How do you kill your darlings after the death of the author?

The lively interplay of director and writer is going to be unavoidably absent, or else conducted in the survivor’s imagination, perhaps not the most reliable place to hold a story conference. The best scripts need tweaking, or the director needs to be able to ask the writer about his intentions.

(Nice example: “Get your arse over here, the fucking scene’s not working!” frothed John Schlesinger down the phone at Waldo Salt. The film was MIDNIGHT COWBOY and Jon Voight was nursing Dustin Hoffman, who had taken a serious turn for the worse. But the scene was just lying there. Salt came over, watched a rehearsal, and diagnosed the problem at once: “He’s playing it like he cares. Remember, Joe Buck is selfish. He’s only concerned that this is going to stop his trip to Miami. If he cares now, we have nowhere to go at the ending, when he finally does relate to another person emotionally.” Watch the scene for the moment of calculation in Voight’s face…)

The irony that Mank is a film in part ABOUT the writer-director collaboration is a rather glaring one.

Pros:

The photography is lovely. The trailer attempted a rather hamfisted pastiche style which the movie largely eschews — there are slow fades in which doors and windows linger a little longer than everything else, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, and SORT OF like the long dissolves in KANE that used lighting changes to make some features of the outgoing shot linger longer. But it’s not a direct copy. The film does have a Vorkapich montage or two, appropriate since the action jumps back to the early thirties on a regular basis.

Gary Oldman (I remember him when he was Gary Numan) as Herman Mankiewicz disappears down into his character and really brings the man to life.

Amanda Seyfried is always good, and as Marion Davies her friendship with Mank was the only relationship that felt particularly interesting. She’s smart, but doesn’t quite know it, and he’s the only one around smart enough to notice. There’s something touching about it.

Oh, and Tuppence Middleton has some good bits as Mrs. Mank. Charles Dance has William Randolph Hearst’s eyes, but I regret he didn’t attempt what Welles called the magnate’s “very high, eunuchoid voice.” And the fat-suit tailor held back a little too much. Bigger is better with these ovular press barons.

Tom Burke has the nose Orson wished he had. He sometimes gets the timbre right. On the whole, he’s an honourable attempt, but I have a suggestion for the next time somebody makes a film about early Orson — cast an actual youngster. Given Welles’s baby face, it shouldn’t be that hard to find somebody. Christian Mackay was somewhat uncanny in ME AND ORSON WELLES — maybe because we’d seen Vincent D’Onofrio and Liev Schrieber spectacularly fail to nail it — but you can’t get around the fact that he was at least ten years too old to play the wunderkind.

And the cigarette burns signalling “reel changes” were cute, and perfectly timed to avoid being distracting, something that was rarely the case back in analog days.

The demerits outweigh the merits, I feel. Leaving the script for last, this film has the worst cutting I’ve seen outside of INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED (sample) and the score is execrable. Not that a lot of skill haven’t gone into both, but their EFFECT is horrible.

I mean, maybe I was tired — OK, I admit I was tired, but I’m 53, I’m always gonna be tired — but the cutting managed to create a problem that the early makers of widescreen movies worried about but rarely seemed to actually fall afoul of — when Fincher cuts rapidly in a conversation, since his framing is pretty wide and his screen is very wide and there are frequently lots of characters, it became hard for me to spot who was actually speaking, and by the time I’d found them, we were off on another three-shot of all-new men in suits. When a room full of writers pitch a story en masse, we cut on the lines, in the best Jack Webb Dragnet fashion, but then Fincher and his cutter screw it up by inserting a quick shot of Oldman exhaling cigar smoke for no reason. There are also jarring angle changes as Oldman and Seyfried walk through the Xanadu zoo…

Is it possible that the confusing stuff made it into the final cut because they couldn’t test the film on roomfulls of people due to Covid? But even showing this movie to ONE person ought to be able to bring out this feedback. Unless I was just tired, or sitting too close or too far from my Toshiba.

The music, like the cutting, is by talented regular Fincher collaborators, but their excuse would be that they’re working in an orchestral mode that’s unfamiliar, trying for something that has aspects of pastiche — for some reason incorporating Gene Krupa’s syncopated style. The publicity burbled about how they used only instruments available during the period(s) — which is not that impressive, surely, it just means the used an orchestra. Watching MANK is pretty much like trying to watch a movie and listen to a record at the same time. And I don’t mean a silent movie. Once in a while, the sound and picture synch up in a surprising way. Mostly, the music drowns out the dialogue, bursts in on moments it has no business “accompanying”, and shrilly attracts attention to itself like a stroppy two-year-old shrieking in your ear.

Now, regrettably, we must address the script.

Things you would not know from seeing MANK — that Welles was an actual genius; that he respected and liked Mankiewicz; that his direction of the script was pretty good; that he was leftwing. I mean, there’s all this stuff about Upton Sinclair and the politics of the time — the fake news(reel) stuff was terrific and timely, I admit — but mostly the script deals with this by having people talk while eating and drinking about an offscreen Sinclair — pathetic dramaturgy — and yet the fact that Welles was politically committed and very active at the time is ignored. Presumably because the whole, crazy idea is to make a film about CITIZEN KANE with Welles as the VILLAIN.

(Even the newsreel bit gets messed up by the insertion of a fictional minor character who makes the newsreels and is guilt-ridden — he also gets Parkinson’s disease, quite a burden of woes for a guy who never even existed — this has the effect if DETRACTING from Mank’s guilt, not visualising or dramatizing it.)

The script follows the Kael playbook in minimising OW’s script contribution (Kael’s work on this point has been definitively been debunked by Bogdanovich and others), also erasing John Houseman’s — Welles later said Houseman, no longer his friend, deserved script credit for his assistance — whereas the Troughton they’ve hired to play him is required to depict the character as an irritating buffoon who just gets in Mank’s way,

The idea of making a movie about the writing of a movie is just so spectacularly foolish — unless you have some kind of tremendous struggle going on, but here the key collaborators are ABSENT — or unless it’s TRANS-EUROP EXPRESS and we actually get to watch the movie the author’s spitballing. But despite the inert nature of the process, the writing scenes (WRITING SCENES!!) are actually more coherent as narrative — there is a task to be done — than the flashbacks, which ramble along for an hour before any slight sense of shape or purpose begins to emerge.

I mean, I guess the idea behind the structure is that Mank’s life was disappointing to him, he felt washed up, and KANE was a last chance to do something he could be proud of. An old-fashioned Hollywood redemption story. But then, the movie can’t explain why he trashes Marion Davies, and he denies it — and that’s a central enigma or lacuna that the movie doesn’t know what to do with. It seems to be on his side when he insists that Susan Alexander Kane isn’t Marion Davies. But what we SEE in the movie contradicts this. I mean, if she’s not Susie Kane, there’s no reason for her to feature in this story, which is about KANE not Hearst, right?

Ironically, this could easily have been cleared up if the movie showed Mankiewicz and Welles, you know, DISCUSSING THE PROJECT, like we know they did. They could even put the blame on Welles. It’s pretty clear, looking at the situation from outside MANK’s perspective, that they made Mrs. Kane a failed opera singer not a successful retired movie star in order to have a bit of plausible deniability if threatened with lawsuit (Welles had already survived War of the Worlds by the skin of his teeth and had some ideas about self-preservation, however much he liked sailing close to the wind).

Ultimately, if the movie is about Mank’s redemption via KANE, which is about settling with Hearst (and not Davies), there’s a hell of a lot of stuff that just doesn’t need to be there (why is George S. Kaufman in this film?) and a hell of a lot more that does. Look at the opening text:

“In 1940, at the tender age of 24, Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO Pictures with a contract befitting his formidable storytelling talents. He was given absolute creative autonomy, would suffer no oversight, and could make any movie, about any subject, with any collaborator he wished.”

Even in those two sentences, we are told that RKO is struggling, which is never relevant in the story (we never meet anyone from RKO), we are led to believe the movie is about Welles (it isn’t) and the line about his formidable storytelling talents comes off as sarcastic if anything, and certainly isn’t something we SEE. And his autonomy re collaborators would seem to reference Mank but surely this experienced screenwriter was, by that time, seen as a safe pair of hands, an old-timer who could show Welles the ropes, in which case all this build-up goes nowhere.

Can we get hold of the writer for a quick polish?

MANK stars Joe Orton; Linda Lovelace; Snow White; Ward Meachum; Pvt. Cowboy; Kalique Abrasax; Dick Pabich; Mr. Hobhouse; and Sardo Numspa.