Mank, And Taking Things Seriously


On the online recommendation of a friend, I watched David Fincher’s movie Mank over the weekend. It’s the story of dissolute Herman Mankiewicz as he works to finish the screenplay to Citizen Kane, after Orson Welles has cut a month off of his three-month deadline.

The central question of the film is why Mankiewicz is writing Kane as a takedown of William Randolph Hearst, when he knew both Hearst and Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, socially, and was a frequent guest at San Simeon. That’s a question for another post, because it may contain some spoilers.

Part of what makes this movie about Hollywood work is that almost all the main characters are actual historical Hollywood figures, most of them titans of the industry’s golden years in the 30s. Among them is Irving Thalberg, who now has a annual Oscar named after him. Thalberg began life as a writer, but by this time was Louis B. Mayer’s production supervisor at MGM.

Early in the movie, we get a sense of what Mankiewicz thinks of Hollywood, when he sends a telegram to a writer friend of his inviting him out to the coast: “There are millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots.” In a confrontational scene in Thalberg’s office, Mankiewicz resorts to wit and clever condescension. This provokes Thalberg to retort:

I know what I am, Mank. When I come to work, I don’t consider it slumming. I don’t use humor to keep myself above the fray. And I always 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.

A later generation of writers would give at the office, both for better and for worse.

It’s not a particularly original observation to say that social media has encouraged this “court jester” tendency in too many of us, myself included. I’ve often had the idea of FB as a big, multithreaded cocktail party with lots of simultaneous conversations going on. It’s easy to drop in, see where things are, lay down a laugh line, and stick around for a moment to enjoy the laugh reacts.

That’s not always an inappropriate thing to do. Sometimes the conversation itself isn’t very serious. And I happen to best enjoy humor that draws connections between unexpected threads. Maybe there really is something there that’s food for thought.

But then you actually have to go and do the thought. Leaving the connection unexplored is lazy and it’s cheating. A joke itself may be the product of some thought or some intuition or even some analysis. Sometimes it’s an excellent way to quickly encapsulate an entire worldview. But unless you’ve put in the work, it’s a dead end, it’s a lot of icing without the cake.

Posting rewards cleverness, writing rewards thought.

It’s part of the reason that I’ve begun writing again here on the blog. Yes, I want to escape the tyranny of having Facebook own all my writing on subjects as they come up. But it’s also a medium that’s more conducive to thinking things out and considering consequences and implications. I don’t necessarily want to be a humorless Irving Thalberg, but at the end of the day, there’s more substance to a Joseph Epstein than a Henry Mankiewicz.

We’d all be better off stretching those muscles more often when it comes to serious subjects.

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