Mank and Masters - The importance of personal touch in modern and historical works.
Mank is a fantastic biographical film which is essential for modern artists to see. Taking home the Academy Oscar for Erik Messerschmidt's cinematography, Mank is masterfully assembled from screenplay to end product.
While in film school, many explorations of the historical nature and feats of older Hollywood films is one of the most valuable take-aways. Most film school programs take us through Citizen Kane in one way or another and if they do not, that is an institution I would question. The point is, Citizen Kane marked a milestone in storytelling on the big screen. The screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles is propped up as a glimmering example of how change comes about through the way in which we tell stories. However, in film school, we mostly hear about Orson Welles and seldom explore the man truly responsible for taking major personal risks and capturing the unique story of Charles Foster Kane, a character who is based on the businessman, publishing tycoon and politician billionaire William Randolph Hearst. This person is Mank or Herman Mankiewicz himself.
The Hearst Castle was shrouded in elite activities and gatherings throughout the 1930's. The gigantic Victorian themed mansion housed beautiful furniture, art collections and was a major centerfold for birthing big ideas among big Hollywood players. From Actors to Directors to major studio conglomerates, all would seek the open courts of the Hearst Castle in search of the ear of William Randolph Hearst whose wealth and power were sought after for financial backing and support, especially in the industry of Motion Pictures. Herman J. Mankiewicz was among those early Hollywood figures, but what he was after is up for debate and a heavy force driving the plot of Mank.
One very famous line from Citizen Kane is uttered in the opening of the film, when our protagonist Charles Kane is on his death bed. We hear him utter the cryptic last word "Rosebud" as he stares into a snow globe and passes on. The film unfolds as characters explore the origins of his life trying to understand the meaning of the final spoken word of Charles F. Kane before his passing. Was it the secret to his success? Some kind of pass phrase?
In fact no, and this is where the writing really twists the knife as a work of genius and brilliance among its time. We are taken to an incinerator where the meaning of rosebud is still a mystery, but life moves on as Mr. Kanes meaningless trinkets are divided up, some things going to a pile to be burned and destroyed. And into the fire goes one familiar prop; a sled from the very first act of the film, where Charles Foster Kane was an innocent child sliding down hills just as his poor parents are making the decision to give him a life that they would never be capable of providing, one where he is raised by the banks. As the flames wrap up this seemingly worthless item from the attic bowels, we close in on the words "Rosebud". The sled was Rosebud! The meaning of his last utterance decoded! It was not in all of the things he did, but in the innocence he lost somewhere along the way, the innocence of childhood fun and the simple times he enjoyed even as a poor child, riding down hills on a simple object he called his sled. The story now resonates with a powerful message, that the man who could have it all only enjoyed what he had before it all, back when he had nothing. This was the beginning of something new, something non-linear, something which we see far more often in storytelling today. The beginning was the end and the end was the beginning. After all, Bernstein says in Citizen Kane "Look, before the beginning young fella, now, it's after the end"
Citizen Kane sparked controversy for decades to come and would be known as one of the most debated films ever created. What makes Mank so brilliant is in it's ability to take us back to that golden age. The sound editing and dialogue is vintage and genuine; The way the actors speak their lines, the crackles which occur when their volume levels peak. Combine this with the black and white tones among the framing of each scene and we are brought into the golden age of film by watching a modern replication of what it was like to watch a film in that age, and all of this is done nearly seamlessly while telling a very important biographical tale from then (1930's) until now (2020's).
Once we are in that period, we get to witness an extremely detailed telling of one of the biggest discussions that occurs among cinephiles today; How did the brilliance of Citizen Kane come about? We watch Mankiewicz as he struggles in his own issues with alcoholism and civil tones mingled in economic change as he is hired to write this screenplay, something which only he and Orson Welles himself probably understood at the time. We become exposed to what Charles Mankiewicz knew and endured in order for him to have this idea that would change the way films would play out for decades to come. In twenty years, Citizen Kane will have affected filmmaking for a full century. Citizen Kane is eighty years old... and yet so young when you really think about the spark which it ignited.
Mank in itself has one very important aspect which aligns it with Citizen Kane as a film rather than a biography. This aspect is something personal, meaningful and takes the picture from the screen and into our hearts. This project must have been more personal for Director David Fincher than any of his previous works. You see, the screenplay for Mank is given credit to one authors name, Jack Fincher. Howard Kelly "Jack" Fincher is his full name. He was born on December 6th, 1930 and passed on April 10th, 2003. He was an American author, journalist and screenwriter among being the father of David Fincher. Perhaps this alone makes Mank not at all unlike Citizen Kane in itself... but I guess that's for the audience to determine.
"An artist is only appreciated after he is dead." ~ unknown, dead, artist.