Tilting At Windmills

Mank

by George Wolf

Since its release in 1941, Citizen Kane has earned such a prodigious place in film and popular culture that the utterance of merely one word can summon it.

And as much as Orson Welles’s masterwork has been dissected over the years, Mank reveals its essence in unique and wondrous ways.

Director/co-writer David Fincher (who honors his late father Jack’s script by listing him as the sole writer) takes us into Citizen Kane through the shadowy side entrance of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Officially, Mank and Welles shared the Kane writing credit, though just who did the heavy lifting is still a source of debate for film historians.

Fincher’s view is clear. But even the dissenters may feel powerless to the seductive pull of Mank‘s immersion into Kane‘s creation, and to the stupendous lead performance that drives it.

As Mankiewicz (“and then out of nowhere, a ‘Z’!”), Gary Oldman is out-of-this world-good. His Mank is a charmer, a gambler and a frequent drunk, bedridden by injuries from a car accident and under the gun to deliver Welles a script in just 90…no make that 60 days. And no drinking!

Tick. Tock.

The first few pages bring a critique that “none of it sings,” which is funny, because all of this sings.

Fincher’s rapid-fire dialogue is beautifully layered and lyrically precise, more like the final draft of a script than authentic conversations, which only reinforces the film’s commitment to honoring the power of writing. Onscreen typeface and script direction transition the flashbacks to Mank’s years in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, running in social circles with power brokers such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s not-so-dumb blonde mistress Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried).

Oldman expertly sells Mank’s truth-to-power rebellion as a sly reaction to his own feelings of powerlessness. His charm as a “court jester” belies a growing angst about America’s power structure that Welles (Tom Burke) is eager to illustrate.

And though much of Mank‘s power is verbal (just try to catch a breath during Oldman’s drunken Don Quixote speech), Fincher crafts a luscious visual landscape. Buoyed by Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous B&W cinematography, Fincher recreates the era with sharp period detail and tips his hat to Welles with Kane-esque uses of shadow, forced perspective and one falling glass of booze.

Talk of “getting people back to the theaters” and manufactured news will feel especially relevant, but Mank provides a nearly endless peeling of satisfying layers. So much more than a story about how a classic story was told, it’s a sweeping ode to the power of courageous art, no matter how flawed the artist.

Hooray for Hollywood?

The Other Side of the Wind

by Hope Madden

The Other Side of the Wind—how pretentious is that title? It’s supposed to be, of course, because it’s an Orson Welles film and he’s a genius. His latest, released more than 30 years after his death, explores his genius and the changing paradigm of the Seventies film industry.

Retrieved from hundreds of hours of footage filmed over 10 years, The Other Side of the Wind was meant to be a comeback or sorts from an idolized auteur whose funds were drying up in the face of a changing cinematic aesthetic.

It’s about an idolized auteur with dwindling funds who’s trying to launch a comeback in the face of a changing cinematic aesthetic.

Yes, Welles was meta before meta was even a thing.

Esteemed director, Jake Hannaford (John Huston) is to screen his new film at his 70th birthday party to an audience of cinefiles, sycophants, film critics, hangers-on, freaks and industry insiders.

The event becomes an ingenious satire of 70s moviemaking, and watching it more than 30 years after the fact gives the entire spectacle a time capsule appeal. It’s like a trainwreck you cannot turn away from.

Welles pokes fun at the pretentiousness of then-cutting edge filmmakers and their neurotic relationships with self-loathing, arrogance and idol worship—usually using directors from the period, acting as stand-ins for, well, themselves.

He doesn’t seem to have much respect for the films being made at the time, either. As Hannaford’s film unspools, one in-the-know viewer yells: “The reels are out of order!”

To which the projectionist replies, “Does it matter?”

Nope. It does not. Welles’s film-within-a-film is an unendurable, plotless hippie hallucination—a perfect parody of much of the arthouse output of the era. It’s as if Welles, by way of Hannaford, is asking: Is this what I have to do to get a movie made?

As well and as wildly as the movie-making satire plays, at the heart of this film is humiliation on exhibition. Hero worship is hollow, commerce is still king and a man who can’t pay can’t play.

The whole thing is just a big ball of Seventies.