Fake It After You Make It
On Subscriber Swag, David Fincher's 2020 'Mank,' and the Glorious Put-on of Orson Welles
Paid subscribers unwind over a tawny port at the Employee Picks clubhouse on W. 46th St.
This is another of those entries that combines pure practicalities with other ephemera. If you would prefer to hop ahead to the other stuff, simply scroll down to the page break and you’re there. What’s up front has to do with specifics about some tchotchkes due to paid subscribers to this newsletter that I’ve written and posted about in recent months; if that malarkey is of interest to you, by all means, read on.
In late October I wrote about the prospect of some “value added” material for paid subscribers. I’ve got a good idea of what that will be now. What I’m working towards being able to send out in mid-February is a package that consists of a stylish button emblazoned with the logo of this Substack, an annual “membership card” done in the style of a mid-1970s campus film society, and a ‘zine that will hopefully be an inviting and cherished physical object which you can place on or in the vicinity of your toilet. Some of the items that I intend to include in this publication, my ability to ride heard on contributors pending, include handsome comix about D.W. Griffith, Jamie Gillis, and Little Rascal Norman “Chubby” Chaney; previously unpublished interviews with Wang Bing (from 2017) and Budd Boetticher (from 2000); a colloquium with the noted American cinematographer Sean Price Williams about the films and life of Blake Edwards; and assorted other tomfoolery.
If this sounds like the sort of thing you would like to receive, and you are a paid-in-full member of the Employee Picks family, please send me your address and the e-mail attached to your subscription in the next couple of days. You ought be able to do so by responding to this newsletter, or by contacting me through one of the various social media platforms that I routinely denigrate myself on in order to generate clicks. I’ll run some extra copies of the ‘zine as well, so if you want that gorgeous piece of physical media but are unable or otherwise disinclined to pay into this project, I will figure out a way to facilitate that in the next few months. I understand also that I have paid subscribers who are upstanding and intelligent men and women who are attracted principally to whatever I do here in the way of finely honed criticism and scholarship and have no interest or attraction to the more puerile, clubhousey aspect of my “practice,” and don’t want to clutter their mailboxes with a bunch of chintzy junk. Totally fine, indeed more than respectable, I applaud you for it. I am, however, trying to get a full mailing list finalized in the very near future, so if you do want this stuff, please do let me know in the next few days.
As I have never been able to emphasize enough, I am very much flying by the seat of my pants with all of… this. I’m not yet sure how much the printing and postage for this massive mail-out will cost, and to my delight and dismay, in making preliminary inquiries about addresses I’ve discovered that I have a great number of readers and subscribers who live outside of the United States. I’ll not have a handle on what the total price tag for all this jazz will be until I’ve got an idea of what’s the total run of the ‘zine et al, but if it happens to be well beyond my hilariously slender means, I’ll devise a system whereby people who feel they owe a little extra can kick a little more into the coffers. As with everything, I’ll try to keep this on a wholly voluntary basis—if you have the ability to contribute a few clams, you can, and I’ll be very appreciative; if you don’t, no sweat. End of the day, everybody who wants this fol-de-rol is gonna get it.
Speaking further of printed matter, something that several people have broached to me is the idea that it would be appealing to have the material that has appeared in this Substack available in a bound and printed form. I’m very sympathetic to this request, as I have not read anything longer than 2,000 words online since, possibly, ever. Hurts my dang peepers, don’t love it. It seems as though I may have the ability to bring forward an annual print revue of some kind in the not-too-distant future. If I indeed do manage this, prior to the run I’ll change the settings so that the existing pieces are available online to paid subscribers only, with a fair bit of advance warning so that everyone else can anticipatorily copy-paste or whatever to their heart’s content. Quite honestly in any circumstances I’m never going to make anything I write too difficult to get your mitts on so if you find yourself faced with a paywall just drop a line, I’m an extremely soft touch.
Finally, for the true carry-me-out-in-a-box completists, in 2020 I finished a book about Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a movie which, by happy coincidence, was recently treated to a digital restoration by the Royal Belgian Film Archive, a digital release by New York’s Metrograph cinema, and a Blu-ray courtesy of the UK-based home media company Second Run. Tsai, who to my mind is one of the most titanic art-makers working in any medium over the last thirty years, seems to be having a minor resurgence of public recognition. I keep forgetting how appallingly old I now am, and that there is an entire generation of younger cinephiles who didn’t live and die with every movie that this man made as they appeared, and are now getting to enjoy the privilege of encountering them for the first time. I’m very jealous of them.
The existence of the book was made possible by Annabel Ivy Brady-Brown and Giovanni Marchini Camia, co-founders and publishers of the film digest Fireflies. It’s the first in a series of ten books from their imprint the Decadent Editions, each dedicated to one film released in one year of the now-alarmingly-distant “aughts”—that is, the 2000s. Among future volumes in the series is one by Melissa E. Anderson on David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), which I anticipate enormously. Melissa, in addition to her being one of our finest writers on film, is one of the most vigilant editors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, with a keen eye to searching and destroying the amateur boners that continue to riddle my prose—unusual word reps, a perverse obsession with em-dashes—even as I slouch towards my self-parodic Late Style period. (cf. the remainder of this piece.) Annabel and Giovanni are also just about as good at making me sound reasonably intelligent, and I believe we’ve put together a volume worth owning and maybe even reading. I keep most of my film books in my living room and their spines present a rather sober, if not entirely drab, face to the world, in marked contrast to the books about music that they share the shelves with. How black-on-white or white-on-black with the occasional dash of red came to be the official palette of cinema book spines I don’t know, but nevertheless it is so. It is with some pleasure, then, that I report that Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the book, has some real dandyish panache—a deep, luminous purple with metallic orange foil lettering. If you would like to preorder it, you can do so here.
Like you, probably, I have spent a significant portion of 2020 bouncing off the walls of my living space, with my preferred venues for socialization—bars and movie theaters—rendered off-limits for the better part of the year. Like you, possibly, my sense of time has been irreparably damaged by the loss of anything resembling a schedule or routine. I still have the occasional deadline to meet, but to the chagrin of those setting them these deadlines have come to seem more like suggestions than immovable markers, and the externally determined and imposed events that previously formed a framework for my existence have fallen away almost entirely. Knowing that I had a 7:30 PM film to make the following day used to mean that I had to pack up whatever I was doing the night before at midnight so that I could get the train home and get up and work decent banker’s hours the next day so that I could be out and on the Q platform at 6:30 PM (always give yourself an hour, that’s just common sense), allow two hours for the movie and then two or five drinks afterwards and be back on the train around midnight and do the whole thing over again tomorrow—to paraphrase Willy Nelson by way of Ray Price, it weren’t no good life, but it was my life.
Now there’s no 7:30 PM screening and no two to five drinks afterwards and no subway at night, and whatever appointments are made are appointments that I’m making myself with others, and therefore subject to change. The deadlines are, many of them, self-imposed now, with employers on-hiatus or closed-up for good, and no longer having to set my watch for, say, MoMA’s scheduling of Fred Halsted’s Sex Garage and L.A. Plays Itself at 8:00 PM on a Saturday, or to really do anything other than occasionally show up at a few friends’ apartments with a six-pack of Modelo before the witching hour, time suddenly becomes very… elastic. I have no children; I live alone with a 10-year-old tuxedo cat that needs to be fed twice a day, and volubly attests to this need; I have to do enough work to bring in a certain amount of money every month. Everything else is negotiable. So maybe I will start working at 3:00 and knock off around ten—AM or PM, doesn’t matter, whatever. Maybe I’ll order Domino’s online—I like how the website refers to building the “Pizza of Your Dreams,” as if anyone had ever dreamed of a Domino’s pizza. Maybe I will download Rafal Zielinski’s 1985 Canadian teen sex comedy Screwballs II aka Loose Screws (1985) and stare at it in a glassy-eyed haze. Ha ha the fat guy is wearing a t-shirt that says “I Eat Anything.” That’s so fucking dumb I love it.
It came, then, as a bit of a shock to realize, as the Year of Our Lord 2020 comes to a close, that I was expected to have some thoughts about the Year in Cinema, as if such a thing had happened, as if there had been a Year, or Cinema. Every day through late November and into December my buzzer would ring and my FedEx deliveryman would present me with a large package containing “swag” from Netflix or whatever other corporate entity was pestering me. Some years back, when I must have still had some pretensions to professional respectability, I was voted into a critic’s award-giving organization, and as a result of this I now receive, unsolicited, such treasures as a hard-cover coffee table book about the making of George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, a 7” EP of the Celeste Watts-sung theme from Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, or a nice screener disc of David Fincher’s Mank.
I watched Mank. Threw it on around midnight one night while my ladyfriend was over. She’s an artist but not really a “film person,” which isn’t particularly important to me, but I’d been putting on some pretty undeniable stuff for her around this time—the Clark and McCullough shorts I was watching for my last piece here, George Kuchar’s Weather Diaries, James Whitney’s Lapis (1966), things like that—and she seemed to be warming up to the medium, which of course I’m not going to be upset about, because I really do think it has quite a bit to recommend it. But then I fired up Mank, and five minutes in it’s just so affected and so corny that I feel like I owe her an apology, which turns out not to be necessary because she’s dead asleep.
I watched the thing through because I was supposed to review it, though I eventually punted on the assignment, as it’s gotten increasingly difficult for me to write about things I don’t have some level of passionate engagement with. If I had written about Mank I could have told you that it contains several homages to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), whose hard-drinking co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, is its subject—for example several of its fade-outs are preceded by the dimming of the set lights, a theater tradition that Welles, a cinema neophyte coming from stage directing, brought to his first film. There are other esoteric “Easter Eggs” relating to the wider Welles filmography, too, as when the film’s William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) recites to Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) the “parable of the organ grinder’s monkey,” at which point it’s impossible not to be reminded of the parable of the frog and the scorpion from Welles’s 1955 Mr. Arkadin.
The movie, among other things, sets out to illustrate the vital role of the screenwriter in the filmmaking equation, and it does prove that point, though not in the way that it intends. Judging by what ended up on the screen, the script, by Fincher’s father, Jack, a journalist who died in 2003, must’ve been a pretty sorry job. Beyond filial piety, one can kind of tell what would have attracted Fincher to the material. He originally had intended to shoot Mank after completing 1997’s The Game, which for my money is his most completely effective film. The character played by Michael Douglas in The Game is a somewhat Charles Foster Kane/William Randolph Hearst-like figure, immured in his enormous wealth, cut off from the life of the world, and an interest in the insulation and isolation that comes with money is something that recurs in Fincher’s films. Kane is all over the Sorkin-scripted The Social Network (2010), too—in Fincher’s movie, the “Rosebud”-shaped wound at the heart of its oligarch subject’s empire-building ambitions is a young Mark Zuckerberg’s rejection by his college girlfriend.
I get all of that, it’s just that I just don’t particularly care. Amanda Seyfried has adopted a charming Bronx brogue to play Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies, and acquits herself well, but Oldman’s a honey-baked ham as the dipsomaniacal Mank, who other people in the film are constantly reminding you is a wit, which is helpful because it’s a dreadful, tin-eared comic performance. I’m not one to demand absolute fidelity of films based on real people and events, but the decision to cast Oldman, who is in his early sixties, as Mankiewicz, who would’ve been between his mid-thirties and early forties during the years depicted in Mank, is a strange move, and one that blunts whatever sharp edges the movie might have had. Among other things, it alters the dynamic between Davies and Mankiewicz; what could have come across as a precarious, flirtatious relationship now, by virtue of the age gap and approach, takes on a sort-of dampered, low-stakes, father-daughter quality. The screenplay takes unusual pains to reassure us that Mankiewicz, for all of his hell-raising, is basically a sexless and harmless and good-hearted fellow, as when his wife, played by Tuppence Middleton, chastens him for his “silly, platonic affairs.” Nearly everyone in the movie, which is about Americans, hails from the United Kingdom, hence: “Tuppence Middleton.”
I don’t know if the real Mankiewicz fucked around—maybe he wasn’t in any shape to, though even an inveterate tippler like Faulkner managed to get into some extramarital monkey business in Hollywood while his wife minded the manse in Oxford. Nevertheless, it’s curious that Mank is so insistent that he didn’t. It’s a movie that doesn’t leave much room for hanging question, for the mishmash of life, instead offering a tidily Manichean tale about how Mankiewicz’s traumatic encounter with the “bad” kind of film propaganda (a right-wing scare film produced through collusion between Hearst and MGM under Louis B. Mayer, intended to put voters off of the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair) eventually leads to him contributing to the “good” kind of film art (Citizen Kane, a brazen broadside openly addressed to wealthy magnates like Hearst and Mayer.) This is not the most compelling subject matter for me, in part because I’ve never believed in the efficacy of art in furthering political aims not already decided on by other factors, namely direct political action. V.I. Lenin proclaimed that “Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important,” but it was the Red Army that took Simbirsk, not Pudovkin. Thom Andersen and Noël Burch made a superb essay film, 1996’s Red Hollywood, that gives very persuasive evidence that later-to-be-Blacklisted screenwriters slipped often quite flagrant leftist messaging into movies of the 1930s and ‘40s, but somehow the United States did not go Bolshevik.
It’s not that I don’t think that art and politics are intertwined, but that the cases of art “making an impact”—or at least making the impact that it is intended to have—are fairly few and far between: the 1906 publication of Sinclair’s The Jungle is one noteworthy exception. Fincher gives Mayer, played by Arliss Howard, a one-liner that has variously been attributed to producer Samuel Goldwyn, Humphrey Bogart, and playwright Moss Hart: “If you’ve got a message, send it by Western Union.” This illustrates the meddling Mayer’s hypocrisy, of which ample evidence is given through the film, and also happens to be a sentiment I generally agree with—I say “generally” because there are no rules in art, which is one thing that makes it worth caring and thinking about perpetually. This may be a generational thing, or maybe just a matter of my being inclined to flock to the like-minded, but I used to believe that there was some kind of consensus about the relationship between art and politics: that they were related, but related in a way that was hard to put your finger on, and that art operated as this space outside of society and politics, per se, while enjoying the court jester’s freedom to comment and goof on both. For some time now I haven’t felt as though that consensus continues to exist, if ever it did outside of my own head, and that the focus has returned to the message, and the insistence that it be a good one, whatever that means. In any case, insofar as I can tell Mank has a nice enough message, and if that’s what you go in for, sure, you should check it out.
Welles to my mind is one of the mightiest of political artists, precisely because of his capacity to invite and entertain and explore ambiguities, all that unruly stuff that fills a message with static. In his personal life Welles’s politics could not have been more clearly articulated, and entirely laudable. I have never been able to listen without emotion to his series of broadcasts calling for justice to be done in the case of Isaac Woodard, the black World War II veteran who, on February 12th, 1946, while still in uniform, was beaten blind by a South Carolina sheriff while en route to his home and family. In his art, however, Welles was soapbox averse, an ironist who couldn’t bring up any issue without feeling compelled to scrutinize it from all sides. Touch of Evil (1958) is one of the most potent films about fascism because it understands and submits to the dark luster of unchecked power, as personified by Welles’s Police Captain Hank Quinlan, a larger-than-life figure who far overshadows the film’s ostensible hero, Charlton Heston’s straight-arrow, due-process, altogether tight-assed Mexican cop, Ramon Vargas. It understands, too, the efficacy of authoritarianism—how very easy it is to get things done when you don’t have a bunch of meddlesome checks and balances to deal with. After a bombing kills two at the U.S.-Mexican border, Quinlan develops a gut feeling about a suspect, and then proceeds to manufacture the evidence that will put that suspect away. Vargas grows distrustful of Quinlan’s methods, and begins an investigation into them that will lead to Quinlan’s downfall and death. When Quinlan eats it, face-down in a bog of waste water, word comes in that the perp that Quinlan had fingered through illegitimate means has confessed, a final validation to the solidity of Quinlan’s instincts. What this amounts to is a queasy recognition—the wrong cop got the job done in the wrong way, but he got it done. He was right, but he’s not right. Oftentimes life’s like that. Things don’t add up the way that you want them to. Virtue isn’t followed by reward, and you have to suss that out, figure out if the problem is in your thinking or if the fault is in the stars, and to what degree, if any, you’re willing to make changes in how you view things on the basis of new evidence, or sacrifice your ideals on the alter of pragmatism. And if it can’t change the world, raising these dilemmas is something that art is good for—one thing, anyways.
But that’s messy business, and the responsible artist is expected to clean up after themselves, and turn the lights off when they’re done. In Hollywood, they’ve generally preferred to keep the rabble-rousers on-screen—in fact they adore a streamlined rise-and-fall and romantic wrecks washed up on the shoals of their hubris. Part of the appeal of making a movie about Mankiewicz is that it gives you two for one: “Mank” clawing his way back from the brink of final alcoholic oblivion and Welles, played by Tom Burke, at the height of his invincible youthful arrogance, unaware of the Icarus-like tumble that still awaits him. Or at least this is usually how Welles's trajectory is depicted: the wunderkind who is given the keys to the kingdom, produces the Greatest Movie Ever Made at age twenty-five, and then spends the rest of his life trying and failing to equal that accomplishment, all while routinely degrading himself in commercials for fish fingers and rotgut wine and commanding the dais at Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts at the Friar’s Club to light into Foster Brooks.
A good illustration of just how frightened the film industry was of Welles when he first touched down in Los Angeles can be found in 1940’s “Pat Hobby and Orson Welles,” one a series of stories written by F. Scott Fitzgerald for Esquire towards the end of his life, about the character Hobby, the tippling former author of intertitles for the silent screen who, five years “between pictures,” continues to bum around town trying to cadge work from anyone who might choose to remember him from the old days. This tale opens with Hobby questioning a studio bookie about this mysterious and ominously bearded figure, Welles, who is due to come and shake up the business. “What credit’s he got,” asks Hobby, “What’s he done to draw one hundred and fifty grand a picture?” In the course of the short story, Hobby develops a fixation on Welles, who he imagines is responsible for his own actually long-established and self-imposed obsolescence, and the fact that he suddenly can’t bluff his way past studio security: “Never before had the studio been barred to Pat and though Welles was on another lot it seemed as if his large body, pushing in brashly from nowhere, had edged Pat out the gate.” Hobby curries favor with an old acquaintance, Mr. Marcus, now a studio head, by stoking the mogul’s fear of Welles, confiding “I wouldn’t be surprised if Orson Welles is the biggest menace that’s come to Hollywood for years. He gets a hundred and fifty grand a picture and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was so radical that you had to have all new equipment and start all over again like you did with sound in 1928.” In the end, Hobby is a little too successful in his scare campaign. He is later fitted by a makeup artist friend with a stage beard that renders him the spitting image of Welles, distinguished at this point by his bohemian facial hair, and the sight of “Welles” in the flesh—in fact, Hobby—is enough to give Mr. Marcus a heart attack. Hobby flees the scene to his local watering hole, and the yarn wraps up with him bellied up to the bar, blending in perfectly with the bearded bums. One minute you’re the hottest thing in town, the next minute you’re bending elbows with some hobos. It’s a joke I imagine that Welles would have appreciated; he certainly enjoyed fake beards, and putty noses, and all of the other props of theatrical fakery.
Fitzgerald used Hobby as a figure to burlesque not just Hollywood’s has-beens, but also himself, and to explore his own sense of failure, which was not yet final. (Did he rankle on seeing the rapid ascent of Welles, another Midwestern arriviste, no older than he when This Side of Paradise had made him a literary celebrity in 1920? How could he not have?) At the same time that Fitzgerald was pumping out his Hobby stories and punching the clock for piecemeal screenwriting gigs—his lone screen credit was on Frank Borzage’s 1938 Three Comrades, an adaptation of an Erich Maria Remarque novel—he was working on his ultimately unfinished fifth novel, The Last Tycoon, whose central character, Monroe Stahr, was largely based on his recollections of Irving Thalberg, of whom he held a rather more complex and appreciative view than does Mank.
Fitzgerald knew by then that he was widely regarded, as Welles would one day come to be, as the Golden Boy who had lost his sheen, the once angelically handsome and fortuitously married chronicler of Jazz Age mores who’d run out his line of credit and split with his mad Southern belle and now was living meekly and drunkly with a gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in front of Graham four days before Christmas, 1940, at age 44, never having set eyes on Citizen Kane. The writer Nathanial West, author of the purest apocalyptic vision of Southern California, 1939’s The Day of the Locust, and like Fitzgerald a gigging scriptwriter, got word of Fitzgerald’s death while on a hunting trip in Mexico, started back home with his wife, Eileen McKinney, to make the funeral, and, running a stop sign in El Centro, California, was involved in a collision that killed them both. American letters have never had a worse 24 hours. Eighteen years after Fitzgerald’s death, Graham would write a book about their time together, Beloved Infidel, and it was made into a 1959 movie, one of director Henry King’s worst, with Gregory Peck badly cast as a flailing Fitzgerald, lamenting his inability to get by in the business that was turning a profit off his romantic corpse. Gore Vidal has comment on Fitzgerald at the end of the road that I almost wish I could forget: “I’d never much liked Fitzgerald’s face in the early photographs but found the later one touching because he always looked as if he was trying very hard not to scream.”
By any measure other than creative accomplishment, Fincher has done quite a bit better in Hollywood than either Welles or Fitzgerald, and when an unmitigated success like Fincher takes up the story of a broken-down, end-of-the-rope man like Mankiewicz, you have to wonder what exactly they can claim to know about failure and disappointment. This is unfair, I know, and discards the role of the creative empathy which is the duty of the artist—to reach beyond their own experience—but sometimes you can’t help but think about films a little differently depending on who they’re coming from. Writing about Tim Burton, whose 1994 Ed Wood I have seen come up several times in reference to Mank, David Thomson observed that “there is a way in which Tim Burton’s life so far has been the opposite of the kind of story he wants. For he keeps returning to the theme of a displaced or misshapen child who must try to make a way in a hostile world… Meanwhile, Burton, still only in his mid-thirties, has gone from working-class Burbank and a childhood spent watching Vincent Price in Roger Corman movies, to teenage years on Super 8, to Disney and the California Institute of Art… to amazing stories, untold fame, and residuals enough to fill the banks of Gotham. How can he stand such happiness?”
I don’t question Burton’s affection for Wood, but there’s no denying that a vast chasm of experience exists between the lived experience of Burton, who has a net worth estimated around $130M, and that of the director of the 1970 pornographic comedy Take It Out in Trade. Fitzgerald could see something of himself in Pat Hobby in a way that, for example, Billy Wilder, his overburdened mantle already groaning under the weight of award statuettes for The Lost Weekend (1945), couldn’t have seen himself in the “waxworks” that convened in the home of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950)—and come to think of it, Fitzgerald would’ve known a little more about alkie writer Don Birnam’s plight in The Lost Weekend, too. And it is tempting to say that when Welles in the sixties wrote of seeing the ghostly toper Griffith around town for a new Spanish film magazine called, naturally, Griffith, he was revealing a little something of himself, or how he thought people thought about himself. Welles writes:
“I met D.W. Griffith only once and it was not a happy meeting. A cocktail party on a rainy afternoon in the last days of the last year of the 1930s. Hollywood’s golden age, but for the greatest of all directors it had been a sad and empty decade. The motion picture which he had virtually invented had become the product—the exclusive product—of America’s fourth-largest industry, and on the assembly lines of the mammoth movie factories there was no place for Griffith. He was an exile in his own town, a prophet without honor, a craftsman without tools, an artist without work. No wonder he hated me. I, who knew nothing about films, had just been given the greatest freedom ever written into a Hollywood contract. It was the contract he deserved. I could see that he was not at all too old for it, and I couldn’t blame him for feeling I was very much too young. We stood under one of those pink Christmas trees they have out there, and drank our drinks and stared at each other across a hopeless abyss. I loved and worshipped him, but he didn’t need a disciple. He needed a job. I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D.W. Griffith.”
Was Welles ever subject to the feelings of being an unqualified interloper, commonly described as “impostor syndrome”? He had, after all, bluffed his way in to everything. He had no college, no credentials to speak of; had become an actor by presenting himself at the Gate Theatre in Dublin as an established Broadway star. But I believe that no small part of Welles’s brilliance lay in recognizing that everyone was faking it—that the official markers of legitimacy were no more “real” than his little masquerades, and that so much authority was actually only conferred by money, and that con artistry was nigh on ubiquitous. The liberation that could come of such a knowledge is enormous.
By the time that he wrote those words about Griffith, Welles had already made his last film for a Hollywood studio—Touch of Evil, for Universal—having spent much of the 1950s in Europe, cobbling together two films, 1951’s Othello and Mr. Arkadin, that I also count as masterpieces. His exile was a complicated matter involving chasing money and the insalubrious atmosphere for left-leaning artists in the United States during the McCarthy years and much else besides. If I’m a little dubious as to how and to what degree art can affect politics, there can be no doubt whatsoever that politics impacts art, as they do everything.
Andersen and Burch, co-authors of Red Hollywood, were run out of Ohio State University in a Reagan Era purge of lefty faculty. In an introduction to a collection of photographs taken in Columbus, Ohio in the 1980s by Joachim Brohm, a German in thrall to the color photography of Americans like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, Columbus native Vince Leo describes the vibrancy and cultural ferment of the city at the time—the free exchange between an amateur “shutterbug” culture and the academically minded photographers at OSU, the bounty of used bookstores, the art-house cinema Studio 35—and the disastrous aftermath of decisions that led to running some of the best and brightest out of town. I am inclined to be distrustful of older people waxing poetic about the world their youth, but not that distrustful, because I am not that young, and I can still remember a time that was slightly less awful that the present, and I am always trying to figure out exactly what happened. Leo’s explanation is this: “The Department of Photography and Cinema became one of the first skirmishes of the Culture Wars. A Chair was deposed, contracts went unrenewed, and, in a strange repeat of the flight from 1930s Germany, [Ronald] Greene, [Allan] Sekula, and Andersen found themselves regaled in the California educational matrix, but the discursive cloud of Ohio had given way to the oppressive buckets of Middle America.”
If you’re a Midwesterner, as I am, from the southwest of the same state as Leo, you very possibly will have grown up with a similar sense of a great heritage squandered, a betrayal that is hard to identify. (In this sense, at least, maybe the Midwest is still the a bellwether for the rest of the nation.) All of this can be found in the lamenting opening narration of Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), a film which begins its story in the Victorian era. The voiceover is read by Welles, a Wisconsinite by birth, and is taken from the source novel by Booth Tarkington, a native of Indianapolis, Indiana: “In those days, they had time for everything.”
There is a long and storied history of artists-and-academics-in-exile, like Welles on his European perambulations, and a tactical retreat doesn’t amount to a surrender, but nevertheless through the sixties the idea of Welles as an exemplar of wasted potential had begun to take root. Reviewing his 1965 Chimes at Midnight in the pages of The New Republic in June, 1967, Pauline Kael recapped the narrative that had developed: “Like Brando, Welles is always being attacked for not having fulfilled his prodigious promise; but who has ever beaten the mass culture fly-by-night system of economics for long?... There is a widespread notion that a man who accomplishes a great deal is thus a ‘genius’ who should be able to cut through all obstacles; and if he can’t (and who can?), what he does is too far beneath what he should have done to be worth consideration.” The title of the piece in question is “Orson Welles: There Ain’t No Way”—a reflection of the impossible task faced by an insubordinate talent like Welles’s, and the inevitable failure that will come of trying to buck the system.
Chimes at Midnight isn’t an achievement well below that of Kane, though they do have a great deal in common when it comes to talking about power, and about the catastrophe of success—the phrase I take from a 1947 essay by Tennessee Williams. I will defer to Kael on one point: the mass culture fly-by-night system is a bitch to beat. Times there have been when popular culture has also produced art of the highest order—some will point to the English Renaissance theater that produced the works of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Welles’s great favorite, William Shakespeare, whose work Chimes at Midnight is a pastiche of, piecing together bits and pieces from Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard II and Henry V. Many, too, would cite the studio-era Hollywood where Welles struggled to keep his footing, and I wouldn’t be inclined to disagree, though even amidst the freshest outpourings of popular art, there will be certain figures who insist on swimming against the current.
That the things worth paying attention to in culture are rarely going to be the things that the mightiest engines of the culture industry wants to bring to your attention is something that I began to understand at a fairly young age. There was this sudden eruption of an underground idiom into what we then quaintly called the mainstream as represented by the Nevermind crossover, but that lasted for the blink of an eye. One minute you were playing “Drain You” on repeat and absolutely flabbergasted that something like this was popular now, the next minute you were being told you should listen to Marcy Playground—it was really fucking weird, but eventually you got your head around what a fluke that moment had been, and adjusted accordingly. There were other happy accidents, and they happened with regularity enough to hold your attention on the multiplex and the FM radio. I have recently been revisiting the American films of Paul Verhoeven, and the fact that such a freak ever got his hands on Arnold Schwarzenegger and tens of millions of dollars seems today like science fiction. Hell, even the superstardom of Schwarzenegger has started to seem avant-garde. But you learned you had to cast a wider net, start sniffing around on the fringes, and thankfully there were still various outlets and flourishing underground economies to keep those little ponds stocked.
At some point in this no-longer new century there came to be a creeping distrust in the field of cultural criticism about those economies, a conversation that was tied up with debates—many of them entirely valid—about privilege, gatekeeping, elitism, poptimism and so forth. And yet when the dust has cleared I cannot escape the feeling that, like so much of the well-meaning and entirely sympathetic discourse that has prevailed over the last decade, this has somehow played a role in delegitimizing and sapping enthusiasm from any kind of oppositional or alternate culture, and helped to deliver us to the hands of Jeff Bezos, Disney+, and a managerial caste that is obsessed with credentials distributed by institutions of higher learning that, if we’re being realistic, do much more rigorous gatekeeping and shelter far more dysfunctional and actively malicious personalities than your average basement hardcore show.
Maybe I’m giving all of this too much credit. Maybe the Internet alone was enough of a shock to the system to kill off the pest cultures that had been the traditional incubators of vitality and experiment. Certainly politics has played its part, as in the dismantling of the culturally vibrant Columbus that Leo describes. You don’t have the boom of American regional filmmaking in the 1970s, for example, without certain tax loopholes that encouraged investment in films; close the loopholes, and the films disappear, too. Similarly, if you want to understand one of the reasons that Italy, which for generations fostered one of the richest cinematic traditions on the planet, is now known internationally in the film community for exporting grotesque parodies of its former greatness like Luca Guadagnino and Paolo Sorrentino, look no further than Silvio Berlusconi’s siphoning of resources away from the movie industry and into his television stations.
The manner in which politics affect aesthetics doesn’t always add up the way you might wish it to: Benito Mussolini, for all of his castor oil and shenanigans in Ethiopia, had a great deal of positive impact on that vaunted Italian cinema, and in my piece on the Brazilian Cinema da Boca do Lixo I discuss how much this extraordinary period of creativity owed to a quota system enforced by the country’s military junta. (Should there be any question on this point, I am not a fan of either regime.)
My pessimism tells me that whoever happens to be in charge, there’s never going to be a paradise for artists on this earth. If the demographic character of who has access to the filmmaking apparatus really starts to shift, and the massive imbalances in race, gender, sexuality, and class that exist in who is allowed to make movies begins to be altered, I would count this as a welcome development. I like white people just fine but I feel no overwhelming need to be surrounded by them; if ever I need to see one, I can look in a mirror. The barriers that have existed here with regards to race and gender have always been glaring; sexuality is a somewhat harder matter to pin down; I can say definitively, though, that the class disparity has somehow managed to get significantly worse over time. Hard as it may now be to believe, the job of film director in the United States was once an occupation not-infrequently filled by people who didn’t originate in the upper middle-class or higher: John Ford’s father was an Irish immigrant bartender, Frank Capra’s was a Sicilian fruit-picker, and Gregory La Cava’s was an Italian shoemaker. Careers in movies like theirs don’t exist anymore—the country and the industry has changed, the place the medium holds in the culture has, too—but I’m not sure how many single-generation trajectories like theirs exist in the arts now, and we’re none the better for it.
The film industry will continue to pat itself on the back for making progress, as ever has it done, for incremental shifts in percentages, but the deck remains impossibly stacked against true iconoclasts. If we can imagine a black artist in every way like Bill Gunn—as eccentric as Gunn, as indifferent to the accepted wisdom of what constitutes a “well-made film” as Gunn, as brilliant as Gunn—who was born forty or fifty years after Gunn, can we realistically imagine that he would be able to accomplish much more than Gunn did, at least through the channels of industrial filmmaking: a couple of films, some screenplays and some teleplays, an experimental soap opera? Would this Millennial Bill Gunn be offered The Lion King 3? Would he even want it?
Looking in the most widely divergent political and economic climes, you will discover the unerring commonality that sui generis pain-in-the-ass artists tend to get it in the neck. Welles didn’t often have the opportunity to put the mechanisms of the Hollywood studios to his use—“the biggest toy train set a boy ever had,” as he put it—but neither was Sergei Parajanov, a figure of very nearly the same prodigious, once-in-a-generation artistry, the fair-haired boy of the USSR’s film industry following his break from socialist realism with the magisterial 1965 Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors. He was harried, persecuted, shipped off to Siberia. Welles, who was in and out of the former Yugoslavia a lot, seemed to be able able to play that famous old cinephile Marshal Tito like a fiddle, but several Yugoslavian filmmakers were not so fortunate. Posterity offers some cold comfort. There’s a statue of Parajanov in Tbilisi, Georgia, now, and one of Welles in the Croatian city of Split, made by Oja Kodar, his partner at the end of his life.
Welles came to Croatia to film part of his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial in the suburbs of Zagreb—he had wanted Prague, but found Czechoslovakian Communist bureaucracy a little too Kafkaesque for his liking. He worked on and off from 1966 to ’69 on an adaptation of Charles Williams’s thriller Dead Calm, to be titled The Deep, shooting along the Dalmation coast with Kodar and others, and not long thereafter bought a villa in Primošten, which became a holiday home and retreat for the couple. By this time, the legend of Welles, the squandered and incontinent genius, had been formalized in an atrocious, sloppy biography by the Australian hack Charles Higham, while his role in the writing of what some regarded as his lone indisputable achievement, Kane, had been relitigated in Kael’s 1971 book-length essay Raising Kane, rebutted in multiple venues, only to arise again in Mank.
After Higham and Kael had got their shots in, Welles was only able to complete one more feature film, 1973’s F for Fake, in his lifetime. I’m not insisting on a direct correlation between these events, but I don’t imagine that the bad press helped. It’s true that the house always wins in this mass culture fly-by-night system, but having friends like these can’t do you any favors. Welles never stopped with the hustling and the filming and the planning, but a funny thing about filmmaking is that scripts and fragments don’t count towards the final evaluation of your corpus as even an unfinished novel like The Last Tycoon did towards that of Fitzgerald. The private struggles towards greatness were far less visible than what might be perceived as public indignities catering to the lowest common denominator. He absorbed the fat jokes on the Celebrity Roasts, was the spokesman of Paul Masson wines from 1978 to 1981, and ended his career as a not-particularly-choosy gigging actor performing the voice of Unicron, a sentient planet, in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie. Towards the end of his days he told a biographer, Barbara Leaming: “You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.” It’s very droll and a little depressing and also could describe one aspect of what Welles, that most self-absorbed and self-revealing actor-director, had been doing for more than a half century: “I tear myself apart on the screen.”
At any rate, it probably wasn’t the note that Welles hoped to end on—but how many of us not named Yukio Mishima get to choose that? And if Kane has anything to say, it’s that there are many perspectives on what constitutes success, or a life well-lived. This is at the heart of Chimes, too, in which Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), under pressure from his father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud), is forced to foreswear the company of his beloved and buffoonish companion, Sir John Falstaff (Welles). There is a suggestion of this in Mank, or an attempt at it, in the scene where Hearst washes his hands of Mankiewicz, as Hollywood had of Welles. When one person capers for another and at the other’s forbearance, we can hardly speak of a relationship of equals. Power offered can be power withdrawn, and evidence of its permanent withdrawal is one way of defining failure.
It can’t be denied Welles’s capering before the public eye—at least his filmmaking, which by every indication he considered the most important aspect of his creative life—ended some time before his life did, but if we measure success by this yardstick, very few filmmakers measure up as having won the game: discounting premature deaths, I can think offhand of Clint Eastwood and Manoel de Oliveira. Some welcome perspective on Welles’s “failure” is provided by something written by Jonathan Rosenbaum, in response to a 2009 Thomson column about Welles in The Guardian and, incidentally, Thomson’s 1996 Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. Quoting Thomson’s summation of Welles’s final days in the Guardian piece—“He died, alone and broke, in a cottage in the Hollywood hills…”— which seem intended to evoke the death of Charles Foster Kane, Rosenbaum asks:
“Has Thomson ever been [to Welles’s house]? I have, and would describe it without hyperbole as a mansion—actually a rather sumptuous Southern-style mansion that evoke, say, 20th Century-Fox’s William Faulkner adaptations of the 50s such as The Sound and the Fury and The Long, Hot Summer. Anything but a ‘cottage.’ And ‘alone’? He lived with a gorgeous and brilliant artist and devoted creative collaborator who happened to be away at the time, helping to get her spectacular villa on the Dalmatian coast (I’ve been there too), which he’d already visited, in better shape for the two of them to live in more permanently. And he’d just spent the evening with some other close and valued friends, including a Sicilian prince who worked as his European business manager and his recent biographer, Barbara Leaming. Not exactly alone, in my opinion. And not exactly broke either, considering his immediate surroundings, both in Hollywood and in Croatia. And hardly inactive either. (He died, after all, in the middle of typing notes for a shooting session with his cameraman, Gary Graver, scheduled for the following day.) But I guess it makes Thomson and his fans a lot happier if all this can be read as ‘failure,’ to be then mitigated by their generous reappraisal that maybe he wasn’t so unfortunate after all.”
Now, Kane has taught us that you can have a perfectly nice mansion and still not be particularly fortunate, but all of this and a few masterpieces under your belt doesn’t sound like a bad tally. The God-damndest thing about art, though, is that you can never, ever really know what you did, all of it being a matter of taste, and if you’re any good at it you’re probably consumed by insecurity about your accomplishments a fair amount of the time. There is no scorecard, and that makes matters tricky; people can and will quibble over who’s the GOAT in some arena of sports, and there is room for debate of course, but if you’re Michael Jordan you’re probably feeling pretty good about your place in the conversation, because the numbers bear you out.
In art, you have money and public plaudits and awards to keep track of your standing. Mank ends with Mankiewicz outside his home accepting a Best Screenplay statuette from the Academy, shared with Welles, Kane’s only win in nine categories. Mankiewicz quips that his acceptance of the Oscar, alone, is in the spirit in which the screenplay was written, “In the absence of Orson Welles,” and if there is some irony at work here, I fail to detect it—it plays like a sentimental last laugh affirmation, the moment when Mankiewicz, having managed to keep his addictions from wholly consuming him and writing for the final time to the full level of his abilities, receives at least half of the validation due to him from his peers. At least half the full credit, that is, if we take Mankiewicz’s assertion as true; Fincher is content to give us Welles making some reference to rewrites and to leave the matter at that. I hadn’t believed that Fincher was the kind of filmmaker who gave a lot of thought to Academy Awards—he’s never won for Best Director—but after this movie I’m not so sure. It’s too bad. Unspeakable evils have been committed in quest for that gold. Just look at what happened to poor Peter Farrelly.
I won’t pretend not to understand the impulse to go for the little gold guy, because who among us doesn’t crave a little validation from time to time—the artist, so often made to feel ridiculous and frivolous and altogether unnecessary, not least of all. The Australian critic Robert Hughes said, “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize,” and I think he’s more or less correct, but that this self-doubt must coexist with a measure of arrogance. I have been thinking of Welles’s arrogance lately—not the nasty kind, though I don’t doubt he had more than a touch of that, but the vital kind, the kind that equips a person for impossible tasks such as, say, trying to operate outside the system with meager and ever-dwindling resources, cobbling together catch-as-catch-can movies with pieces shot years and continents apart, by any means necessary, using one’s not-inconsiderable personal charm to beg or borrow his next cash infusion or walk-on favor. With all the hubbub about the belated appearance of Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, released after being completed with Netflix financing in 2018, one hears very little about Welles’s other posthumous film, Don Quixote, shot in bits and pieces between 1957 and 1972—not a property likely to attract one whose image of themselves isn’t both a little romantic and a little absurd.
I can only speculate as to what early success does to a person, not having enjoyed it. Williams’s “Catastrophe,” which describes the period after The Glass Menagerie vaulted him out of obscurity, dwells on the necessity of not succumbing to the suddenly available comforts and conveniences: “Once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to—why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.” Williams was into his thirties in 1945, when his little memory play made him a public figure, but he is talking about something that I believe Welles understood: that once you have attained a pulpit, you have to keep making it hard on yourself in order to have anything worth saying.
Striving for too long can make the craving for official validation a monomaniacal obsession, and sometimes I think that sort of tunnel vision is what closed in Kael—she was almost fifty when she got that swank New Yorker perch, and once she did, the woman who’d once had a daughter with the experimental filmmaker James Broughton seemed to lose all interest in cinema that originated outside of the official channels connoting importance: studio releases and prestige film festival picks. When you get that seat at the table with full knowledge of how you’ve had to scratch and kick to get there, I imagine it can seem proof that the prayed-for miracle of meritocracy is really true, and you become disinclined to pay attention to those still beating at the door or, stranger creatures still, those just wandering off and dithering around and doing their own thing. Where do they get off?
The much-perpetuated view of Welles is that his own early success became a millstone around his neck, a reminder of wasted promise. I would propose that what “happened” to Welles was almost diametrically opposite to this—that, having had the world laid at his feet as a precocious and incurably curious and inhumanly energetic and irksomely talented midwestern arriviste and dilettante, he understood in a way that few of us can how little value that world had, and began to seek his fun elsewhere. Welles at his enfant terrible worst, by which I mean his best, exemplified the disdain of the natural aristocrat: a serene sense of inborn worth and a total disregard for public opinion, probably something you can only enjoy if you have been the subject of public opinion throughout your brilliant youth, and you know how cheaply that its attention is won, and who is signing the checks, and how much you would ultimately diminish yourself and your work by asking “How high?” when they say jump. I think Gunn had this too, though God knows where he drew it from.
Talking about things in terms of winners and losers makes things readily comprehensible, gives us a secure sense of our own pole position—I did such-and-such by age such-and-such, “30 under 30,” and so on. Journalists have always rushed to lay down laurels before a fresh face, and ever will it be thus. But the threat that was and is presented by Welles is not solely located in his precocity, because after all how many precocious youngsters are given their debutante debuts every day? It is instead in his malingering tenacity; his refusal to move along peaceably once another story had been located.
Mank meant very little to me—a couple hours down the toilet but so what, I do it all the time—though I suppose I am grateful for the way that it started me, and other people, talking about and thinking again about Orson Welles, who is not, after all, its subject, but whose unbidden ghost has been knocking around again with its release. Part of what still resonates about Kane is its disrespectfulness, its uncourteousness—the manner in which it puckishly punctures the ballooned self-importance of the American power brokers of the first half of the 20th century, in spite how much influence they had accumulated, in spite of how much bought-by-the-yard culture they had hauled over from a declining-in-influence, economically depressed Europe as testament to their own taste, or that of their wives and buyers. They’ll still die with all the money, but it’s a wonderful thing to at least be able to cause them a bit of discomfort.
Charles Foster Kane wasn’t exactly Hearst, who Mankiewicz knew socially. He wasn’t the Chicago industrialist Samuel Insull, who built the Chicago Civic Opera House for his wife, the Broadway ingenue Gladys Willis, whose performance in a 1925 revival of The School for Scandal was panned by Mankiewicz when he was a young theater critic, or almost was, before he conked out in front of his typewriter dead drunk, just like Joseph Cotten’s Jedediah Leland does in Kane. (Cotten had been a drama critic for a time, too, at the Miami Herald.) He wasn’t either Harold Fowler McCormick, the head of Chicago’s International Harvester Company, who’d used his fortune to push the opera career of his wife, Ganna Walska, or Robert R. McCormick, a relation and another Chicago bigwig, crusading publisher of the Chicago Tribune. He wasn’t even C.W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Company, the model for the character played by Spencer Tracy in William K. Howard’s 1933 The Power and the Glory, a film whose flashback structure Kael cites as a possible Kane influence. Post was the grandfather of the second wife of that film’s screenwriter, Preston Sturges, who had with his contributions to that film begun his attempt to take Hollywood on his own terms, by sheer dint of talent and main force—the final results of that attempt were about what they always are, but anyways Sturges got off more rounds than most do.
Kane was an American type, and Welles and Mankiewicz got that type dead to rights: the Big Man who had everything at his fingertips but is eaten up by a need for some kind of affirmation that he couldn’t buy. The portrait is raised above caricature because Kane taps into its creator’s own, and our own, need for affirmation, rooted in a sense of having somehow cheated to get where he is. It is raised to the realm of art through its melancholy understanding that very often we cease to want what we want once we get it. Would Everett Sloane’s Bernstein in Kane still be carrying on about that girl with the white parasol on the Jersey ferry if he’d worked up the nerve to talk to her only to discover that she worked at the glove counter at Bloomingdale’s and spoke with a lisping Queens accent? What was Charles Foster Kane going to do if he dug that stupid sled out of storage, anyways? Go tobogganing around the grounds of Xanadu?
Welles’s compassion as an artist never slackened, but neither did his disrespect—or, rather, his precocious art weirdo’s inability to take at face value what others told him was due respect. Many Americans, even the bright ones, get a little mushy when it comes to Europe, for as a nation we suffer from a lifelong insecurity complex about the supposed sophistication of the Old Country, but there is nothing of this in Mr. Arkadin—watching it, another investigation film like Kane, here on the trail of one Gregory Arkadin, a shady European businessman of uncertain origins played by Welles, one gets the impression of the Continent as a free-for-all Wild West, a place where traditions are invented overnight, titles are bought and paid for, chiselers and frauds abound, and brainless fashion plates bounce around from one proto-Bunga Bunga party to the next. The really funny thing is that it turns out that the Robber Barons and the Kanes back home have been hungrily accumulating the markers of refinement from a bunch of phonies who don’t have much more of a claim to ownership to them to begin with—who ever came up with owning art to begin with, anyways?—and in many cases the paint is still drying on their Old Masters, which is where F for Fake comes in, Welles’s film about the Hungarian-born art forger Elmyr de Hory, a colorful adventurer after Welles’s own heart.
I’ve loved Welles and his films for my entire adult life, but I don’t know if until recently I’d ever got close to understanding the almost totemic, heroic significance that he held for the “movie brat” generation of the 1960s. I was familiar with later cases of opposition and rejection and abnegation, of people walking away from a game that had at least signified a willingness to allow them to play, and so had failed to appreciate how enormous his own example had been. During his time in Hollywood, Welles had enjoyed the confidences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been married to the glamorous Rita Hayworth, and as an A-lister and tireless broadcaster was just about as central to the operations of power and public opinion as any young man could hope to be. His later life might be uncharitably described as “slumming,” counting among his close collaborators Jesús “Jess” Franco, his assistant director on Chimes and the man responsible for finally delivering a cut of Don Quixote to a muted reception in 1992, and Gary Graver, Welles’s stalwart cinematographer on The Other Side of the Wind, both men involved with the business of making dirty movies. You might say that this was a matter of contingency and circumstance, and that these are the sort of folks that you wind up knocking around with when you’ve done so much to make yourself a pariah and a punchline, but I prefer to think that it was also a matter of preference, and that Welles liked to keep the company of people who he recognized as fellow artists, even if they did make films that were regarded as disreputable, movies with titles like The Erotic Exploits of Maciste in Atlantis (1973) and Amanda by Night (1981), to hanging around with, I don’t know, Paul Newman or whoever.
Who decides what’s prestigious, anyhow? The Academy? If a dying mogul would give the riches of Croesus for a sled bought at a Midwestern five-and-dime store, and a counterfeit Goya slapped together with a few francs worth of paint and canvas is worth a million once it hangs in a museum, why can’t it be true that Franco’s 1983 Lillian the Perverted Virgin is a greater work of art than Mank, or that Ed Wood has made more worthwhile films than Tim Burton?
I am writing about Welles, and about the optics of respectability and winning and losing, because I think Welles had something figured out, and that something had very little to do with the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair or the power and the glory. It’s this: things are not what they seem, what’s actually important is not what’s been identified as important, and if you want to get to the heart of matters you are going to have to let yourself drift far away from the officially designated center.
All of this is of course projection. Welles, that massive, multitudinous man, slid into the skin of Charles Foster Kane and Falstaff and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to explain himself to himself, and he now makes a convenient costume for those of us who like to try to invert our ongoing failures into seeming like principled stands. I understand the draw this get-up has for me, but keep asking myself why David Fincher wanted to make a movie about Herman Mankiewicz, assuming that he wanted to make a movie about Herman Mankiewicz, and that it wasn’t just a matter of the script being there and the money suddenly being available and his feeling some lingering sadness over the death of his father and an obligation to honor something they’d talked about together, all of those years ago, and to trying to get back to that feeling through a fat bag of Netflix moolah.
Fincher is I suppose what you would call an anti-authoritarian filmmaker, with certain conspiracy-minded tendencies, and I wonder if he ever wonders why these positions have cost him so little, personally and professionally—why he has never found himself barred from the studio gate like Pat Hobby, or uncorking a bottle of Croatian wine before trying to romance some skittish financiers in Dalmatia. His The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) comes from the first of a series of bestsellers by Stieg Larsson, the Swedish socialist journalist-turned-pulp fiction sensation whose research of right-wing extremism found its way into his fiction, in which this rot is found to penetrate the very highest levels of Swedish society. Fincher’s 1999 Fight Club, adapted from a novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, ends with the defiant detonation of several buildings containing servers that hold information about people’s credit card debt, and the demolition is depicted with a sort of moony romanticism—The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” plays as the towers crumble in slow-motion before Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, holding hands. All of this is as pure a paean to open, armed insurrection as you will find in mainstream ‘90s cinema, almost as seductive in its way as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), and if it has ever caused Fincher a moment of disadvantage in his rise to the top ranks of Hollywood, I am not aware of it. The Social Network, as close to a Kane-like shot across the bow of a real, contemporary figure in power that Fincher has ever made, was lightly criticized by its subject, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, because it “made up stuff that is hurtful,” though he acknowledged the film’s accurate depiction of his wardrobe, fleece by fleece.
Through recent Mank-related publicity we have learned that Fincher has regular movie nights with Brad Pitt, and that Pitt is always amazed by just how much Fincher sees when watching a film, and the nattering commentary he provides. Says Pitt: “He’ll be muttering the whole time: ‘That shot works. That’s a bad handoff. Why would you go to the insert of the glove there? Stabilize!’ It’s like watching a football game with Bill Belichick.” I’ll freely concede that Fincher is an excellent technician, but that detail work comes with a failure to grasp the bigger picture.
Pitt’s Belichick comparison, casually enough thrown out though it is, is nevertheless instructive. It places filmmaking on the level of sport, where proof of consistent excellence in performance is quantifiable, attested to by points scored, statistics, and titles won, all of this tied into inborn talent, yes, but also rigor of preparation. If the Patriots have won six Super Bowls under Belichick, it is in no small part because they are an excellent fourth quarter team, and if they are an excellent fourth quarter team, it’s because of the conditioning and drilling that Belichick and his lieutenants put the players through, running the hill from September to December. These are matters of discipline, diligence, and consummate professionalism, and they tend to reap rewards in sport. But while these things don’t count for nothing in art, they aren’t everything either, for art, as a pastime without rules and regulations, is one arena in which the raw amateur can sometimes outdo the professional.
Describing the difference between himself and Lawrence Olivier, Welles once stated that Olivier “was—and is—a professional, whereas I don’t see acting as a profession, as a job, never have. I am an amateur. An amateur is a lover—amateur, the word, comes from “love”—with all the caprices and the difficulties of love.” The proud amateur offers an affront to the professional, as can be seen in Fincher’s statements to French Premiere magazine while on the Mank publicity trail, in which he laments that “Welles’ tragedy lies in the mix between monumental talent and filthy immaturity,” and states that much of the greatness of Kane was due to the contributions of veteran cinematographer Gregg Toland—in other words, the professional taking the amateur by the hand, letting him think he’s running the show while doing the heavy lifting and quietly, selflessly picking up the “boss” whenever he trips over himself.
If, like Fincher, you came to directing feature films by working your way through the ranks—working as cameraman and matte photographer at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, pumping out commercials for Revlon and music videos for Paula Abdul—you are hardly likely to discount the value, nay, the necessity of this experience. And it can be massively valuable, to be sure, but it isn’t everything, for an autodidact coming into a foreign field possessed of an untrained mind that has not yet learned the ins and outs of how things are done can sometimes, by virtue of not having had the rules of professional conduct dinned into them through the years, conceive of entirely new ways of doing things, like dimming the lights before a fade-out, or like using dialogue in a talking picture the way it might be used in a radio play. Welles certainly learned much from Toland’s know-how, but mightn’t Toland have hoped to learn from Welles’ know-nothingness, too? Per Welles, it was his very inexperience that attracted the celebrated DP to the picture; in a late interview Welles quotes Toland as saying to him “I think if you’re left alone as much as possible we’re going to have a movie that looks different. I’m tired of working with people who know too much about it.”
On this must take the word of Welles, a born liar by his own admission, but it does seem very much the sort of challenge that an artist like Toland would snap at. And if we admit that Toland helped to elevate Welles’ work in the case of Kane, can we discount the cases of previously workmanlike cinematographers who, after working with Welles, went on to far greater things, like Stanley Cortez, who worked with Welles on Ambersons; Russell Metty, who was on The Stranger (1946); and Charles Lawton, Jr., who shot The Lady from Shanghai (1947)?
Welles, by his own testimonial, started treading the boards professionally to avoid making use of a Harvard scholarship, and would later opine that “the trouble with school is that it’s very good for some minds, and very bad for others. It’s giving you opinions… Schools are opinion factories.” The same might well be said of professional apprenticeship. Artists come in all shapes and sizes, and from all manner of backgrounds, but it only stands to reason that a certain conservatism would be pronounced in many of those gestated in the belly of industrialized, professionalized, rigidly hierarchal systems, who, having put so much time in climbing the ladder and following the conventional channels to the top, would have a vested belief in the system, and a resentment towards interlopers and outsiders. And while Fincher may believe, as many of his films suggest, that the world is ruled by corrupt power brokers orchestrating shadowy conspiracies beyond public view, he has nevertheless managed to keep in the good graces of those that control the purse strings.
It can be argued that this is a case of discretion being the better part of valor, and that by staying at the table Fincher is able to reach a far broader audience for his “subversive” art than Welles ever did. But if anything, Fincher’s smooth-sailing through a career of provocations offers a reconfirmation of just how little percussive impact cinema has in the wider world—how little, possibly, it ever had. Today, media-trained, well aware that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and most anyone in the public eye, constantly cautious of being caught out, now knows it looks bad to get uptight over a ribbing or a caricature, as Hearst did over Kane, because your tetchiness then becomes a confession, an admission that you’ve been seen in a way you don’t care to be seen, which must say something about your secret self. The opportunity for embarrassing revelation or self-reflection or the shining of a spotlight on some corner of yourself that you would rather not see in full clarity: that is something a film can do, even if it doesn’t very often, if ever, swing an election.
I don’t say that the possibility of an American Major Motion Picture that could actually succeed in perturbing our overlords in Washington, D.C. or Silicon Valley doesn’t exist, but Fincher hasn’t made it. It’s hard to shake the rafters of the establishment, and maybe still harder when you’re standing inside the building, and though that isn’t the only thing you can or should try to do with $30M, but if you’re going to dig up the bodies of Mankiewicz and Welles you might at least make a full-throated attempt at it. It’s not easy: every critique is to some extent a mash note; every warning is an invitation. The Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), a movie that concerns a wholly subjugated humanity reduced to functioning as energy sources for their cognizant AI masters while living in pharmaceutically induced comas in hermetically sealed pods, has probably had as much impact on culture and life and the way that we talk about both as any major American film of the last quarter century, but one unnerving revelation of recent years has been the degree to which the future that the movie imagines is apparently, for many people, not necessarily perceived as a dystopia. Zuckerberg, in a 2016 on-site Q & A on Facebook Live, enthused openly about the possibilities of techno-telepathy, discussing experimental technology that would allow for thoughts to be shared via computer, implicitly with third parties skimming off useful information as necessary: “I do think in the future we will have the ability to just capture kind of a raw emotion or thought that we have,” said Zuckerberg, “That’s just straight out of The Matrix, right?” Cool, Zuck! Help yourself to my inner life! Where is my mind?
I have been thinking about relative worth and value and the perception of failure as they pertain to Mank and Kane and to Fincher and Welles and Mankiewicz, because these topics seem to figure into so many of the conversations that I’ve been having with my friends and loved ones who are involved in some aspect of the art racket through a goodly portion of this year in which many of us have lost a big chunk of what little money we had coming in, and are feeling the press from the terrible weight of our irrelevancy. These conversations keep circling back to a few familiar existential quandaries: Why am I doing what I’m doing? Who am I doing this for? What’s the point? Should I go on? And if so, how? Putting aside the qualities of Welles’s work, which will remain up for debate eternally just as everything pertaining to art does, his inability to play by the rules; his sullen, snake-bitten slinking away from the big ballgame to go off and putter around in his own corner of the playground; and his scrambling and desperate and sometimes inept maintenance of his independence remain such an inspiration as to how one can, still, forge ahead. (Get it? “Forge.”)
I wish I had learned earlier what I believe that Welles had the opportunity to intuit when he was still baby-faced and dashing and somebody whose ass people wanted to kiss: that quite a lot of what we call culture is a crock of shit that’s tied up in status and dirty money and glad-handing and trading favors and the arbitrary assignation of values to reinforce the status quo and the tacit maintenance of certain clubhouse rules to keep out the riff-raff. And yet mixed up somewhere in this muddle is art, irreplaceable and uniquely capable of articulating things that we didn’t know we knew or that we desperately don’t want to be disturbed by, and, if you really can’t help yourself, it’s something entirely worth ruining yourself for, but on your own terms, if you must, so that at least you get to decide if you’ve pooched it, not them. And if you can’t make a Citizen Kane at twenty-five, there’s still time to learn and continue to learn from Welles in his stubborn defiance and lucid disorderliness. Did you know that Cervantes published the second part of Don Quixote when he was sixty-eight?
I imagine most people who would be inclined have read a piece like this to the end will by now seen the outtakes of the huge, glowering Welles on that 1980 Paul Masson wine commercial in which he’s visibly drunk, and struggles, without success, to manage anything even remotely resembling a “normal” line-reading. It’s comical and a little dreary, and you can feel some sympathy for the exasperated crewmen on the shoot who want to wrap and go home, but I’ve also come to regard it as a big, beautiful blown raspberry: this total failure to meet the bare minimum of professionalism on what after all is an autopilot job, the naked contempt for work that is beneath one’s talents, the hugely undignified assertion of basic dignity by way of pure, belched disgust. Because who is it that’s been determining what’s professional, or the correct way of doing things—George Schaeffer or Hearst or Senator McCarthy or Leonid Brezhnev or Reed Hastings? And what the fuck do those imposters know about art, anyways? Of course I’m a fraud, too, but who isn’t, and at least I’m having fun. Welles doesn’t look happy here, but more typically he appears as a riotous, Falstaffian figure, and I imagine him as a happy man, for there is so much joy of not doing the proper thing, in failing to placate a person you are supposed to impress, in being bad, in making a scene, in realizing it’s all a game and then redrawing the rules for yourself. So take another swig, stare the camera down, and say it with me: “BWAHHHHHHH THE FRENCH.”
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