When a Modern Director Makes a Fake Old Movie: A Video Essay on David Fincher’s Mank

As of this writ­ing, Mank is David Fincher’s newest movie — but also, in a sense, his old­est. With Net­flix mon­ey behind him, he and his col­lab­o­ra­tors spared seem­ing­ly no expense in re-cre­at­ing the look and feel of a nine­teen-for­ties film using the advanced dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies of the twen­ty-twen­ties. The idea was not just to tell the sto­ry of Cit­i­zen Kane scriptwriter Her­man J. Mankiewicz, but to make the two pic­tures seem like con­tem­po­raries. As Fincher’s pro­duc­tion design­er Don­ald Gra­ham Burt once put it, the direc­tor “want­ed the movie to be like you were in a vault and came across Cit­i­zen Kane and next to it was Mank.”

Cin­e­maS­tix cre­ator Dan­ny Boyd quotes Burt’s remarks in the video essay above, “When a Mod­ern Direc­tor Makes a Fake Old Movie.” After estab­lish­ing Fincher’s sig­na­ture use of com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery to cre­ate not large-scale spec­ta­cles but rel­a­tive­ly sub­tle and often peri­od-accu­rate details, Boyd explains the exten­sive dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion involved in “aging” Mank.

Fincher’s artists added clouds, dust, “the gleam of vin­tage lamps,” grain and scratch­es, “lat­er­al wob­bling,” and much else besides. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy itself pays con­stant homage to Cit­i­zen Kane’s then-ground­break­ing angles and cam­era moves, even employ­ing “old-school tech­niques that dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy and a decent film bud­get have made increas­ing­ly obso­lete” such as shoot­ing day-for-night.

And yet, as most of the com­ments below Boy­d’s video point out, the result of these con­sid­er­able efforts falls short of con­vinc­ing. Maybe it’s all the shades of gray between its blacks and whites; maybe it’s the smooth­ness of every­thing, includ­ing the cam­era moves; maybe it’s all the mod­ern act­ing. (As the New York­er’s Richard Brody puts it, “Our actors are of their time, and can hard­ly rep­re­sent the past with­out invest­ing it with the atti­tudes of our own day, which is why most new peri­od pieces seem either thin or unin­ten­tion­al­ly iron­ic.”) If any film­mak­er could over­come all these chal­lenges, it would sure­ly be one with Fincher’s back­ground in visu­al effects, fas­ci­na­tion with Old Hol­ly­wood, and noto­ri­ous per­fec­tion­ism. For all its suc­cess in oth­er respects, Mank proves that one can no more make old movies than old friends.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Makes Cit­i­zen Kane a Great Film: 4 Video Essays Revis­it Orson Welles’ Mas­ter­piece on the 80th Anniver­sary of Its Pre­miere

How Did David Finch­er Become the Kubrick of Our Time? A New, 3.5 Hour Series of Video Essays Explains

Fight Club Came Out 20 Years Ago Today: Watch Five Video Essays on the Film’s Phi­los­o­phy and Last­ing Influ­ence

David Fincher’s Five Finest Music Videos: From Madon­na to Aero­smith

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.