Put Some “Mank” on It
By J. D. ConnorMay 9, 2021
FOR DAVID FINCHER, Mank is not about who “really” wrote Citizen Kane. That score-settling may have been part of the first drafts of the script by his father decades ago, but Fincher fils had other interests: “It was not my interest to make a movie about a posthumous credit arbitration. I was interested in making a movie about a man who agreed not to take any credit. And who then changed his mind. That was interesting to me.” Herman Mankiewicz’s mind, not his credit, is the interesting thing.
For a while, Mank (Gary Oldman) doesn’t want credit for anything. He’s signed away credit on Kane and he is keeping quiet his sponsorship of hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Mank gets us to the point where he wants credit. Late in the movie he argues about it with Orson Welles and Welles throws a fit. We don’t see any of the filming of Kane and we don’t, for all that has come before, see any of the actual script of Kane. (Those properties belong to AT&T’s WarnerMedia and this is, crucially, a Netflix movie.) There is then a coda where Mank and Welles win the Oscar for Best Screenplay and trade barbs about who was more responsible. Mank obviously implies it was Mank, but if you want to know who did what, Robert Carringer’s work is the standard account, supplemented by some recent excavations by Harlan Lebo. (Welles did plenty.)
Instead of an arbitration session, Mank is a biopic, like Kane, and like the Kane he is writing, Mank’s own story is an involuted, fragmentary tale designed to, as he puts it, “leave the impression” of a life. As Michael Denning has made clear, Kane is the culmination of Welles and the Mercury Theatre’s Popular Front aesthetics, that mid-’30s mélange that would give us stories about media moguls (Kane), spies (Journey into Fear), culture heroes (Young Mr. Lincoln), and salt-of-the-earth working folks (The Grapes of Wrath). But if Kane embodies the aesthetics of American Popular Front, what is Mank doing? What does it mean to produce such a spiral biopic in an era without a People’s Front against fascism and war? What is it missing? What happens to its aims? And what does that have to do with wanting credit?
In Mank’s 1934, muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair has been duped by William Randolph Hearst’s (Charles Dance) early populist principles, has grown disillusioned, and has decided to run for governor on the Democratic ticket. Hollywood Republicans led by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) pull out all the stops to prevent California from becoming the red flank of the New Deal. (Whether the subsequent “Campaign of the Century” played the decisive role in Sinclair’s defeat or whether Raymond Haight’s spoiler centrist candidacy was sufficient is a trickier question. Mank never mentions Haight and his 13 percent of the vote.) Mank himself inadvertently gives Thalberg the idea for a Hollywood dirty tricks campaign, regrets it, and is so galvanized by this inadvertent betrayal of his politics that he, like Sinclair, turns against Hearst. (This is likely false. As Greg Sargent summarized, “There is no evidence that Herman took any stand for Sinclair, let alone a nearly heroic one, or even voted for him. His brother [Joseph], on the other hand, wrote outrageous anti-Sinclair radio dramas.”) What is more, Mank wants it known that he has turned against Hearst, even at the risk of his friendship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Mank’s change of mind half a decade later, then, is overdetermined: he wants people to know his name is on the line. He wants to show Hearst that the organ grinder’s monkey is a bigger actor in the network than the grinder imagines. He also, like any good professional, wants credit for his work. In doing so, he is finally living up to Thalberg’s 1934 advice: “When I come to work, I don’t consider it slumming. I don’t use humor to keep myself above the fray. And I go to the mat for what I believe in. I haven’t the time to do otherwise. But you, sir, how formidable people like you might be if they actually gave at the office.” In Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Thalberg comes across as a righter-than-you-know figure. Here, too, “the boy genius” diagnoses Mank correctly: Mank possesses skill, but he lacks commitment. Mank is ostensibly the story of what happens when the skill and the commitment come together.
And what happens is that you want credit. But that desire is a mere professional’s satisfaction; it has nothing to do with the particular formal achievement of Kane or the strategies of Mank. Mank says the narrative design is circular, like a cinnamon roll. This is his big formal idea, and John Houseman, Welles’s partner, doesn’t see how that can work. Mank assures him it will; we know it does. What cinnamon rolling has to do with socialist sympathies goes unexplored: Mank has political ideas, and Mank has ideas about how to write Kane, but these two don’t dictate each other, not even a little.
Mank’s aesthetic ideas only get close to being political ideas, or to swimming in the same water as its putative political ideas, in its vision of collaborative writing. The collaboration with Welles vacillates between patronage and partnership. As a social relation, it’s a mess. Mank also dismisses the MGM system of bringing in one writer after another in “relays.” He prefers Paramount’s version where the writers are brought in “all at once […] Helps spread the blame around.” We actually see that in a scene where the writers are summoned to David O. Selznick’s office as a group and, exquisite corpse–style, pitch Josef von Sternberg a remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They rapidly bounce story beats around the room, thinking they’re putting one over on the boss before the idea is dismissed. This is the insincerity that Thalberg recognized, and overcoming that means getting out from the shadows of shared blame and into the light of individual responsibility. What it means for Mank to exist in a world without a Popular Front is that it has no sense of the range of possible linkages between or determinations of aesthetics and politics. The only determination that matters is Mank’s determination to make Kane matter.
Mank, as it happens, mattered very much to Netflix. With 10 Oscar nominations, it represented the studio’s strongest hope for that first, elusive Best Picture win. For a while last year, there was a consensus that Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods would be Netflix’s most prominent Oscar contender. It was a movie explicitly about race and racist violence, it came from a certified auteur, and at its heart featured an enormous performance from Delroy Lindo, whose time had surely come. Da 5 Bloods got only a single nomination for score. (It lost.) But Netflix being Netflix, it had other Oscar options: if not Da 5 Bloods, then perhaps The Trial of the Chicago 7, or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Over the Moon or Hillbilly Elegy, Pieces of a Woman, Crip Camp, My Octopus Teacher, or even, for fuck’s sake, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga for “Husavik.” And Mank, whatever its attractions, seemed algorithmically designed to succeed with an older version of the Academy: black and white, a movie about movies, and decidedly not about race, particularly Blackness. (It won only for cinematography and production design.)
In Mank, the only Black person with a speaking part appears in an anti-Sinclair newsreel, a Mr. Butler, played by Malachi Rivers. Butler is asked whether he intends to vote (he does), for whom (Sinclair), and why: “Mr. Sinclair’s got something new. He got that EPIC Plan. I feel as though it’s time we should try something new out again. I need prosperity.” Butler’s answers are sandwiched between those of two older white men, one who worries about chasing the capital out of the country, the other who worries that he’ll lose his job while we see a shot of a trainload of backlot extras dressed as hoboes arriving in California.
It might be surprising just how faithful the dialogue is to the real anti-Sinclair newsreels Sargent discusses; Butler’s lines are nearly verbatim. But given that, it might be more surprising that in the original newsreel Butler is followed by a second Black man who plans to vote for the Republican, Merriam. The implication in Mank is that MGM is trying to drive up white turnout by emphasizing Black support for Sinclair. If Mank’s newsreel racebaits and redbaits to shore up Merriam’s candidacy, the original was more sophisticated.
That sort of bargained accuracy occurs throughout the movie, in which elements of the historical record are preserved to reward our hyperattentions, while the context shifts drastically, often to shore up contemporary configurations of race. When Mank first visits Hearst and Davies at San Simeon, he wakes up to find them shooting a Western on the grounds. A group of Hollywood Indians wait, bored, while Hearst himself directs cowboys from a camera car. Across one of their laps there is an issue of The Hollywood Reporter with the headline “Lindsey Promises Speed,” the actual headline from February 17, 1934. Lindsey was Judge Ben Lindsey, newly appointed to oversee labor complaints in the industry under the National Recovery Act. The “joke” lies in the mismatch between Native American garb and the media sophistication. The better joke lies between the boredom of sitting around and waiting on a movie set and the speed promised by the New Deal, but even that joke leans into stereotypical representations of the Native stoicism.
As for this movie-within-the-movie, that week in 1934, Davies wasn’t shooting anything, because Hearst had just fired Raoul Walsh as director of Operator 13 and was replacing him with Richard Boleslawski. Again, Blackness lies at the center: Operator 13 was not a Western but a Civil War spy movie in which Davies, in blackface, falls for Confederate officer Gary Cooper. To keep Davies sympathetic in Mank — we are just meeting her here — the genre and the racial masquerade shift, leaving her bemused at playing the role of imperiled white womanhood (hence sophisticated, like Mank), rather than relishing her turn as a “yaller girl” spy.
Even Mank’s interest in Shakespeare is warped by its racial avoidance. If the Bard is the paradigm for interest in “posthumous credit arbitration” in Mank, Shakespeare is the paradigm for aesthetic aspiration. To the screenwriter’s surprise, 1934 Hearst proposes that Mank might be the Shakespeare of the sound era. Houseman will warn him off that notion, telling him as he settles in to write Kane that “nobody expects Shakespeare. People aren’t spending their hard-earned 25 cents to see Macbeth.” Mank retorts that “Maestro the Dog-Faced Boy did Macbeth,” only to have Houseman dismiss even that, chalking up the “Voodoo Macbeth” to Welles’s showmanship, and not to the thing that they were actually discussing, i.e., Welles’s understanding of what the popular audience might want.
But Shakespeare was one of the Popular Front’s great interests and would be one of Welles’s sustained fascinations. Certainly his production of a Black-cast Macbeth set in Haiti for the Federal Theater Project benefited from the enormous publicity machine he was able to bring to bear on its behalf. But the insistent display of Black revolutionary power in the Americas — and in Harlem, where it was staged — seems less an imposition upon the material and more an attempt to find the most appropriate channel through which its performers can conjure its power. The Works Progress Administration gave the production pride of place in We Work Again, a 1937 documentary that remains a compelling portrait of Black labor, including artistic labor, under the New Deal.
Welles gave Kane a largely Black retinue of servants, beginning with the orderly who pushes the aging mogul around the estate in the News on the March newsreel. Those shots have the look of fugitive, handheld glimpses grabbed by unseen paparazzi to satisfy the appetites of a curious mob. During the campout, a Black pitmaster tends to a hog on a spit, part of the scene’s deep gloss. Most significantly jazz drummer Alton Redd sings the key line from “In a Mizz,” underlining the film’s psychological turn: “It can’t be love / For there is no true love.” The centrality of the jazz combo is entirely in keeping with a Popular Front understanding of the aesthetic significance of African American musical traditions: these musics, from older spirituals and blues to modern jazz, were taken up as essentially, ineradicably American, products of their time and popular achievements.
The remarkable whiteness of Mank, by comparison, is surprising, since Fincher was happy to grapple with the FBI’s fraught relationship to African Americans in Mindhunter’s second season. Even more, Mank stands out at Netflix, where, in addition to its Oscar contenders, the studio last year launched flagship series from Shonda Rhimes’s Shondaland and Ryan Murphy. In contrast to Mindhunter’s lowkey proceduralism, Bridgerton and Hollywood are engaged in a historical counterfactualism that Netflix appears all too happy to foster. Branded representation behind the camera helps the series break through with audiences while racially diverse casts and crews help the company meet its corporate inclusion goals. If a star the caliber of Régé-Jean Page can be minted along the way, that is a win-win-win. Mank must be playing a different role.
An analogy from the world of contemporary fandom may help explain how Mank’s form and its studio function align. Last September, tumblr user gomjabbar posted that, “[E]very time a new Star Wars movie or show is announced all the fans are like ‘OMG Glup Shitto is back [cry cry cry emoji]’.” In the midst of The Mandalorian’s dominant run on Disney+, the dig at the fans took off. It helped that “Glup Shitto” was a plausible Star Wars name. And it helped that Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni went into great detail about the references tucked into the background of The Mandalorian’s design. Anyone making their way through the bonus content knew where gomjabbar was coming from.
It is worth going into the specifics of this meme that apparently has nothing to do with Mank, because it would be a mistake to think that intense, Glup Shittoid–style fandom is confined to movies (and TV shows) that have the cultural reach of Star Wars. “Glup Shitto” takes aim at fan investment that has reached the point of de-narrativization, a place where the experience of reminiscence overwhelms the actual quality of the character’s reappearance. “How cool was it when Ahsoka Tano showed up?” is a rhetorical question.
Thus far no one has managed to turn a streaming movie into a true blockbuster. They seem, as journalist Kim Masters notes, to hit and fade very quickly. Series such as Game of Thrones or Stranger Things can seemingly occupy vast cultural spaces. Mank cannot and is not attempting to. And yet Mank is built like a franchise that is offering viewers that charge of piecemeal recognition. An early crane shot of the Paramount lot shows us period-accurate posters on the walls, props we might identify, and off in the distance, ever-so-tiny, the original HOLLYWOODLAND sign framed by two soundstages. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross drops bits and pieces of Bernard Herrmann’s original for Kane. The sound design by Ren Klyce has brought 1930s radio punctuation to the narrative, just as Welles did. If you crank it up, you can hear the whirring of a film projector in the mix. There are a million recognizable objects, a hundred actors playing real figures from Hollywood history. When it works well, Mank feels like the inheritance and renovation of a range of craft competencies and attentions. And when it does not work well, it is the classical Hollywood nerd’s version of Glup Shitto. “OMG Ben Hecht is back!” Sometimes it does both at once.
Mank abounds in cinema-signs, evidence of exhibition and the world behind-the-scenes. There are cigarette burns in the upper right corner to indicate reel changes — digitally added, nearly subliminal artifacts of celluloid exhibition practices. This would have played much, much better in a theater, I’m sure; I found it too cute by half at home. In contrast, there are moments when we get old-school ring flares in the lens — those, too, were digitally added, as I learned discussing the movie’s cinematography with Director of Photography Erik Messerschmidt. But they are subtler and seem to give the air in the night sequences an unexpected thickness. The movie is widescreen, shot in an aspect ratio of 2.2., a width that was never common, but would not even have been in the range of possibilities until after World War II. It is, however, how Fincher and Messerschmidt shot Mindhunter, and it does, on a home television, end up modestly letterboxed, giving the viewing a frisson of “The Cinemah” without wasting too much screen space on the black bars.
Flashbacks are indicated by onscreen sluglines in typewriter font accompanied by the ratatat of the keys. When the scene heading is fully typed, we hear the trilled crrrunch of two mechanical returns and the whole line moves down the screen, out of the way of the central action. It’s screenwriterly! It’s also exactly the opposite of what would happen if one were really typing. I found this maddening, but that’s not important. What is important is how this moment — like the cigarette burns and the lens flares and the posters and the scenes crowded with period characters — is typical of the movie’s mode of address here and throughout: Mank solicits in its viewers a total, pixelated attention that can recognize any bit of business, design, dialogue, sound, even a beam of slanted light as a reference. It is a vast compendium, and for that it may seem Wellesian. It isn’t.
A few years ago, Netflix got behind the effort to finish Welles’s final film, The Other Side of the Wind, and earned, from everyone involved, an enormous quantity of goodwill. (I discuss that effort and the results here.) Netflix, as a studio, produces, acquires, and licenses an impossibly large range of content. It is a firehose of new material that no one could keep up with, across genres, modes, durations, languages, levels of finish, and prestige. Docs, trashy and solemn; cartoons for all sorts of audiences; Oscar bait; flagship series from name-above-the-title showrunners; and utterly unremarkable procedurals. It is tempting to believe, as a result, that no piece of it therefore “matters” to the company the way that, say, Game of Thrones or The Sopranos mattered to HBO or that the MCU matters to Disney.
We know what the interest of Mank was for Fincher and I’ve tried to convey what that interest might be for fans, but what is Netflix’s interest in a Netflix program? At a basic level, the aim for any Netflix title is to give subscribers enough of a reason not to cancel the service and to give nonsubscribers enough of a marginal reason to sign up. Netflix wants shows that reduce churn and drive growth. That, of course, is not all. Titles interact with each other, generating network effects. They build out managerial competencies so that even if this particular show doesn’t hold or build an audience, through it, executives learn better what might and how to manage that process. Titles signal to creative workers throughout the industry that Netflix has those competencies, that it will treat them well or fairly (or badly), thus giving the company priority access to better titles or better talent.
When those aims are in conflict, Netflix gets to make a choice, and those choices are crucial signs pointing to the nature of the company to the extent that it is not merely bound by churn and growth. When they cancelled the rebooted One Day at a Time (2017–2019) after three seasons — three seasons being a typical series run at Netflix — a public outcry castigated the company for giving up on an important program for Latinx representation. And Netflix knew it, tweeting, “And to anyone who felt seen or represented — possibly for the first time — by ODAAT, please don’t take this as an indication your story is not important.” Netflix even took the rare step of having studio head (and co-CEO) Ted Sarandos issue a statement about the cancellation: “This was a very difficult decision and we’re thankful to all the fans who’ve supported the series, our partners at Sony, and all the critics who embraced it. While it’s disappointing that more viewers didn’t discover One Day at a Time, I believe the series will stand the test of time.” Creator Norman Lear called them out, “I wish I could understand Netflix’s decision to not pick us up for a fourth [season]. Is there really so little room in the business for love and laughter?” Netflix weighed the bad press against the calculated losses of continuing to produce ODAAT and decided to eat the bad publicity.
In contrast, when Netflix acquired the rights to stream old episodes of Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle was furious they had done so without asking. Chappelle has been the linchpin of Netflix’s push into standup comedy, bringing enormous controversy and tremendous viewership to the network — but also to their push beyond their own platform in the “Netflix Is A Joke” channel on YouTube. That’s where they put Chappelle’s remarkable piece on the murder of George Floyd, 8:46, and where it has racked up 30 million views. So, as Chappelle explained in Unforgiven, a video he posted to his own Instagram, “I called them, and I told them that this makes me feel bad. And you wanna know what they did? They agreed that they would take it off their platform just so I could feel better. That’s why I fuck with Netflix.”
Netflix’s decision to greenlight David Fincher’s Mank, then, fits in relatively predictable ways into the streamer’s dedication to prestige, to talent cultivation, and to its desire to be regarded as fully part of — yet wholly distinct from — “legacy” Hollywood studios like Mank’s MGM, Paramount, and RKO. Beyond that, it would seem, Netflix doesn’t have to care about what Mank says or means or how it works. The movie will have done its job. And from there, a movie critic’s job may be to figure out what that meaning or function actually is.
The split between strategy and execution is the problem. That split opens a gap between the studio’s aims and its means, the same gap that we find between Mank’s anti-Hearst politics and his multipolar modernist storytelling. Mank’s Mank isn’t quite strong enough to hold those together; Netflix’s Fincher et al. aren’t quite either. They see that gap. And they attempt to patch it up with sincere professionalism. If that fails, there is always an infinitude of reference-making to convey the feeling of a complete aesthetic experience. What, after all, is the alternative? One alternative is Kane.
Early in Kane, during the News on the March newsreel, we quickly survey Charles Foster Kane’s corporate power: “Its humble beginnings in this ramshackle building, a dying daily. Kane’s empire in its glory held dominion…” This shot might be understood as the grand opposite of Mank’s revelation of the Paramount lot. As the shot begins, an Inquirer delivery van passes right to left, promising a “War Map in Color” and progressively revealing the paper’s former home. The ramshackle building has been boarded up. Romanesque, brick, papered with illegible ads. The window on the right seems to promise “Loft to Inquire.” Recessed beyond a short flight of stairs, the front door reads “EATS,” and a cryptic “CSS” appears at the base of a flanking column. Atop the other entry column there is a graffiti hammer and sickle. On the left edge of the frame, three Black men are talking, two smoking cigarettes. They flip a coin for some reason. Behind them a graffiti swastika — reversed from the usual Nazi version. The nonsmoking man begins with his back toward us, his white pants the brightest thing in the frame, and then, without any warning, he roller-skates away, all the way across the screen, countering the movement of the delivery truck. (The shooting script makes no mention of these men and offers no hint of how we are to take this inexplicable eruption of motion.) I have never encountered any critic who has a reading of this shot — it might be out there; there is a lot of Kane criticism. What is it?
This is Popular Front baroque, an image filled to bursting with signs of decay and political extremism and violent conflict and modern leisure. These men aren’t (or aren’t here) confined to stereotypical occupations like porter or orderly or even jazz musician; nor are they confined to an even more stereotypical shiftlessness. They are, in this flash, friends, and one of them has apparently taken to zipping around New York on roller skates. An image like this — utterly unpredictable, confounding, hyperlegible, and opaque by turns — emerges not simply from the mind of a maniacally attentive auteur and a stellar art department. It is not the product of an assemblage of referents. It’s not about someone’s mind or motivation. It’s an image built on a particular sort of trust that your ordering of the world captures something essential about it, because whatever makes possible that order is itself of that world and because you are as well. In this happiest of liberalisms — one Welles knew to be aspirational at best; a fantasy more often — metonymy and the political unconscious exchange priority as fluidly as the roller skates of someone who knows what he’s doing. In contrast, Mank’s aesthetic world is built on choices, references, and interests, and in such a world you can find only a politics of sincerity and bad faith.
J. D. Connor is an associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Hollywood Math and Aftermath:The Economic Image and the Digital Recession (2018) and The Studios After the Studios (2015).
LARB Staff Recommendations
A new essay by J. T. Price from the High/Low issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal, No. 29.
Alex Harvey delves into “The Brothers Mankiewicz” by Sydney Ladensohn Stern.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!