Mank my words

Blockbuster not able to match Citizen Kane

Promotional poster for “Citizen Kane”, 1941

Mank is a word to conjure with. Let us forget that it’s only one letter shy of “manky” (“unpleasant, disgusting, poss. smelly”) and veers perilously close to Mant, the B-movie-within-a-movie (“Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror!”) in Joe Dante’s delightful duck-and-cover comedy Matinee (1993). For in the approach to this year’s Academy Award presentations on 26 April, Mank is the leading contender in the Oscar league table, with ten nominations. It was directed by David Fincher, whose critically adored hits include Se7en, Fight Club, and The Social Network.

“Mank” is the nickname of the film’s protagonist, Herman J Mankiewicz, screenwriter of Citizen Kane (1941), and he’s played by Gary Oldman, who’s roughly twice the age of the real-life character. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you Orson Welles’ film directing debut has been a regular fixture in critics’ polls of Greatest Films Ever Made. It also provides perennial fodder for dispute over the film’s true auteurship, as per Pauline Kael’s 1971 essay, Raising Kane, which controversially elevated Mankiewicz’s contribution at the expense of Welles, the 24-year-old director, producer and star.

As for the true auteurship of Mank, not a single one of those ten Oscar nominations is for the screenplay, credited to the director’s late father, Jack Fincher. Which is probably just as well, since Mank sometimes comes across as more an act of filial piety than a film, packed as it is with cringe-making dialogue: “You mark my words, The Wizard of Oz is going to sink that studio,” and “Times are changing, Mr Mayer, and I’m not just referring to this Depression.” It’s worth repeating, though, that screenplays are not synonymous with dialogue. They’re tools, along with editing, for imposing structure – in other words, determining the order in which story elements are disseminated.

To this end, Mank has to solve the perennial problem of scenarios about writers; its protagonist spends most of his time lying in bed, taking phone calls, or dictating his script to an amanuensis, none of which are activities likely to quicken the pulse, even when accompanied by literary bons mots such as “Just call me Ahab.” Fincher père’s solution is to alternate the bed scenes with flashbacks of the writer hobnobbing, a decade earlier, with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, from whom he will draw inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane in what we infer is an act of writerly revenge, though his reasons for this, political and personal, are fudged.

It’s ironic that, in a collaborative art form reliant on writers to give it shape, the act of writing itself is almost entirely devoid of cinematic interest

It’s ironic that, in a collaborative art form reliant on writers to give it shape, the act of writing itself is almost entirely devoid of cinematic interest. The working lives of all the professional writers I know revolve around raiding the fridge, messing around on social media, brewing endless cups of tea and coffee, or replacing the sealant around the bathtub as the deadline looms. None of this makes for thrilling viewing, though the lesser-known Steve Coogan comedy Hamlet 2 contains an uncannily accurate montage called “The Creative Process” in which wide-eyed panic at failing to get anything down on paper alternates with talking to the cat, and weeping. In fact, I’ll wager that writer’s block, or not writing, has given us more memorable movie moments than any amount of active scribbling: check out Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or John Turturro in Barton Fink.

Filmmakers repeatedly resort to clichéd images of fingers tapping on keyboards, typewriters clattering, and staccato close-ups of letters appearing in American Typeface font, as can be seen in the opening scenes of Misery, Atonement, and Seven Psychopaths, to name just three writer-centric films. With the switch to word processors, nothing much changed other than PCs or Macs being marginally less photogenic than Smith-Coronas or Imperials, though the most beguiling writing machine in cinema history has to be the one in Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg’s reimagining of the novel by William Burroughs – an insect-typewriter hybrid with a talking sphincter.

And it’s true that many writers do talk out of their backsides. “You must write your first draft with your heart,” says the reclusive author played by Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, which is obviously a load of bunk, or “You’ll never write well if you fear dying,” as Woody Allen’s version of Ernest Hemingway says in Midnight in Paris; the fact the real Hemingway might have said this doesn’t mean it isn’t tosh. Writers in films, both fictional and non-fictional, are only interesting as protagonists for reasons other than writing. For example, if they’re alcoholics (The Lost Weekend, Leaving Las Vegas, anything adapted from the work of Charles Bukowski), get blacklisted (Trumbo), commit suicide (Sylvia as in Plath, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours), get murdered (Sunset Boulevard, Prick Up Your Ears, The Player), are themselves murder suspects (In a Lonely Place), or attempt a military coup before committing seppuku (Mishima).

But you don’t actually have to be a writer to do any of these things. Indeed, the best films about writers are not about writing: they’re about addiction, or domestic abuse, or mythomania, or murder. Mank isn’t about much, other than the writing of Citizen Kane, and if you want to see a film about that you’d be better off re-watching Citizen Kane itself.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer


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