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The writer-director Paul Schrader once said that screenwriting "is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art."

I thought about that quote the other day when I watched David Fincher's new movie, Mank, which can most easily be described as the story behind the making of Citizen Kane, arguably one of the four or five best movies ever made.  But Mank is far more than that, because in so many ways it is a meditation of the nature of creativity within the world of filmmaking, where screenwriters often are seen as a necessary evil.  People can say that the script is important, but film never has been seen as a writer's medium;  it generally is perceived as a director's medium, where what we seen on the screen is far more a result of the director's vision that the writer's.  In some ways, this is entirely fair - film, after all, is a visual medium, and movies often are better when they show us rather than tell us the story and characters.

Herman J. Mankiewicz, on the other hand, was a man of words.  He'd written for the New York Times and then The New Yorker in its early days, and he was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table.  He was lured to Hollywood, like so many smart and savvy writers - think Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner - by the promise of easy money;  he used to send telegrams to other writers saying, "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” 

As Mank begins, the eponymous protagonist (played by the great Gary Oldman), having broken his leg in a car accident, has been spirited out of town by John Houseman (yes, that john Houseman) to work on the script for what eventually would be called Citizen Kane.  It is no small challenge - Mank was on a tight deadline set by Orson Welles, and he's a chronic drinker and compulsive gambler with almost no self-discipline.

The film's premise - it was written by Jack Fincher, the director's father, and largely reflects one side of a debate that has occupied many film critics and historians over the years - is that Mank developed the characters of Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander based on his real-life and largely unpleasant experiences with William Randolph Hearst (played by Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried in a revelatory performance).  The other side of the argument - and its supporters are no less passionate about it - is that Mankiewicz was far less a creator of the film than Welles.

One of the conceits is that Mank shares an aesthetic with Citizen Kane - it is shot in gorgeous black-and-white, and there are shots all through the movie reminiscent of the classic 1941 movie (enough so that there are moments where Fincher seems to be showing off a bit).

But narrative - as fascinating as it is - is less important here than how the film charts the rotting of a man's soul.  He knows he is wasting his talent, he knows that he has become a clown for other people's amusement, and he often is unsuccessful when reaching for an iota of respect or dignity. Mank believes he is better than that, and yet he is trapped by ambitions that can be fulfilled by settling.  It is a lesson worth learning.

Mank is a fascinating movie about the movies - and, ironically enough, it is available on Netflix.  I recommend it.

Tried a new Albarino the other night, and loved it - the 2019 Seastone, which is crisp, with just enough fruit, and perfect with seafood or a light pasta.

That's it for this week.  Have a good weekend … I'll see you Monday.

Stay safe.  Be healthy.