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“Mank,” 1934, and Now

A while ago, Riverdaughter asked what people’s favorite movies of 2020 were. Obviously, there weren’t nearly as many movies as usual. And I admit that I do not see many movies, as I actually think that the quality has declined, though of course I always hope to find a few I like.

And I will admit further that the only movies of 2020 I have seen are “Greyhound,” “Tenet,” and “Mank,” which I saw last night. I thought that “Greyhound” was very well done, and very tense. I admire Christopher Nolan; I thought that “Interstellar ” was a great picture, but I was not engrossed by “Tenet,” which had its moments, but was rather cold, and the apparent science was not so easy to understand. But I think that “Mank,” is an excellent movie, in some sense a throwback to films of a different era, and most particularly of course, “Citizen Kane,” the writing of which is the subject of the movie.

It was directed by David Fincher, from a script written by his late father Jack Fincher, in 1993. I have not seen many of David Fincher’s films, which seem to often be filled with rather gratuitous violence. But I did like “The Social Network,” and now “Mank.” In brief, it follows the screenwriter Herman L. Mankiewicz, as he works on a script for a film which Orson Welles wanted to make, and who chose him to write at least a first draft. That became “Citizen Kane,” which many consider the greatest film of all time.

Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz shared an Oscar for best screenplay, for “Citizen Kane.” It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but only won one, not even Best Picture. That has been attributed by many to the fact that the ultra-powerful William Randolph Hearst waged an unceasing campaign against Welles and the film, because Charles Foster Kane was pretty obviously a devastating, though not completely unsympathetic, portrait of Hearst.

I had thought that “Mank” was about the controversy as to whether Mankiewicz or Welles deserved credit for the screenplay. The influential film critic Pauline Kael had written a piece in which she strongly believed that Mankiewicz deserved the credit, and that Welles had essentially poached it from him. Other film historians are not so sure. They both contributed a great deal to the film. Welles of course directed and starred in it.

But “Mank” was about much more than that. It was a fascinating portrait of Hollywood in the 1930’s. The movie was shot all in black and white. It showed the power of the big studios; and all the writers, many from the former Algonquin Round Table, who were brought out here and paid very well to write scripts, subject of course to the liking of the moguls who ran the studios.

There is glamour and charm in the Hollywood world,, but also cold financial calculation and power by the studio heads. In the midst of the Depression. Louis B. Mayer tells his writers and actors that he is going to have to cut their salaries in half for eight weeks, but then give it back to them. Apparently he did put their salaries back to where they were, but never made up the lost pay. And in fascinating irony, most of the studio heads, who likely started out poor or at best middle class, became Republicans, supporting all of the Republican candidates, and almost forcing their employees to donate to them.

The election of 1934 for governor of California was a momentous race. Upton Sinclair, the famous author, an avowed Socialist, then registered as a Democrat, and ran for governor. His politics were not wildly radical, but they did involve some control of farms and businesses which were being wrecked by the Depression and not helped by corporations. His platform was named EPIC, (End Poverty in California). Sinclair was very popular, almost legendary, for his muckraking novels such as “The Jungle,” and “Oil,” exposing the corruption and soullessness of big business. He had a real chance to be elected.

But the corporations which ran California, notably including the Hearst media empire, and the movie industry, were determined to defeat him. Hearst’s papers wrote article after article mocking Sinclair. It was estimated that about ten million dollars were spent against him. Greg Mitchell wrote a well reviewed book about all of it in 1992, “The Campaign of the Century.” The book won a Goldsmith Book Prize. I actually skimmed a good deal of it in a bookstore once, and just found it too depressing to buy and read.

In the movie something is depicted which Mitchell indicates in a recent New York Times piece that the rumors of these had “existed only as memories or press reports until I discovered them in an off-site MGM archive in Los Angeles in 1990, while researching ‘The Campaign of the Century.'” MGM made phony “newsreels”pretending to show the average Calfornian’s feelings about the campaign.

They would have people, many of whom were bit actors, stand up before the camera, pretending to be regular folks, and say that they were supporting Republican candidate Frank Merriam, because they felt comfortable with him, and that they were afraid that Sinclair would destroy their way of life. They had a few people who would say that they were for Sinclair. There was a Black person, I could not hear what he was saying in the film, but he was obviously not put there to help Sinclair’s cause. There was a man with a thick Russian accent who said that Sinclair’s policies were working very well in Russia, so they could be good here. They were all plants, and this was the progenitor of Trumpian fake news. These were made into phony newsreels purporting to be news, not propaganda.

They worked, of course. The bookies had Sinclair as the favorite, but after this onslaught, he became the underdog, and lost by over 200,000 votes. In the movie, Mayer referred to him as “a Bolshevik.” Hearst and his business cronies were thrilled to keep California in Republican control, where it had been for almost all of its statehood, and continued to be, until finally Edmund G. Brown was elected as a Democratic governor in 1958.

To me, this was the most memorable part of the film, though certainly it was all engrossing. The methods by which big corporations wield power, and the way in which their control of the media plays a major part in that, is chilling. And now they just have more modernized equipment: there are not just newspapers (some of which were independently owned and rather liberal), there are media conglomerates. There is 24-hour cable news. Doctored videos. Lies and made up news stories incessantly running all over the social media.

There were people back in 1934 who started saying that after reading and hearing all of this, they did not know what to believe. That is familiar. Now it has almost gotten to where many people are fixed in their beliefs fed to them by the radical right sites, the conspiracy mongers full of vitriol and hate. This aspect was certainly not the whole of the movie “Mank,” but it had to be a part of why David Fincher made it now, though I am not sure if this part was in the script written by his father. It does add a resonance to the movie. It takes place long ago in modern years, but not so very much so, after all. It is well worth seeing, in my opinion, even if it does not win any major Academy Award, though it did get ten nominations

“Citizen Kane” got nine Oscar nominations, and only won one, for Best Screenplay. Hearst had his mouthpieces such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons attack it, and the Hearst papers relentlessly attacked Welles. It is considered that this movie not winning the Best Picture Award was one of the biggest surprises in Oscar history, the award went to “How Green Was My Valley.” Hearst did such a job in essentially blacklisting the movie, that it almost faded into obscurity, until various French critics revived it; and since then, it has been listed by many sources as the greatest picture of all time, though supplanted for at least the ten-year period of the current AFI rankings, by one of my all-time favorites, “Vertigo.”

“Mank” has been nominated for ten Academy Awards, though it likely will not win any of the major ones. “Nomadland” will win Best Picture, Chloe Zhao, the director of “Nomadland,” will win Best Director, over Fincher. “Mank” was somehow not nominated either for Best Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay. History repeats, though this is likely not due to political bias, but the fact that old-fashioned films with almost all dialogue, no action sequences, and no cultural diversity in either the acting or directing, almost never win now. I am glad that the movie was made, as we may not see many more like it, in theme or aspect. It is a story that deserved to be told.

Stories for Final Four Saturday

For those who have an interest in this, today is the semifinals of the NCAA College Basketball Tournament, with four teams left, out of the 68 teams which were part of the field, including one, Virginia Commonwealth University, which was forced to forfeit its opening round game because of some positive Covid 19 tests. It has been a tightrope-walking year for the sport, and all the tourney games have been played in Indianapolis, to minimize travel risks.

Despite all of this, it has been an exciting tournament. This actually is the first year in tournament history that the Final Four teams are all from west of the MIssissippi, a bit of trivia. They are Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston, and UCLA. Yes, UCLA, my alma mater, the school with the most basketball titles, eleven, though we have not won one since 1995. And it has been quite amazing, since UCLA was a play-in eleventh seed, thus anywhere from the 65th to the 68th team invited. We were behind by eleven points or so in our first game to a favored Michigan State team but rallied, and won in overtime. Then we beat favored BYU. Then we sort of got lucky that Abilene Christian beat Texas for their first tournament win in history, and we were better than this small but admirable team, and we won easily. Then we beat Alabama, seeded #2 in the South Regional, in overtime, and then we beat #1 seeded Michigan by two points in the Regional Final.

However, now we must play Gonzaga, the #1 seed in the entire tournament, which has not lost a game this year, and is a big favorite over the Bruins. I will be stunned if we win this game. It was still exciting to get this far, though we used to always say, “At UCLA, we do not hang Final Four banners, only championship banners.” I do not think that we have much chance to hang a title banner this year; things are not the same, and we do not have the greatest coach of any sport in history, John Wooden, on the bench for us.

When I was a boy, and followed the games very closely with my father, and I would greatly worry about this or that game, because the Sports Illustrated magazine which my parents had gotten me a subscription to, would tout some other powerful team whose games I could not see, because few college games were on TV then, he would say, “We’ve got Wooden.” And it was true, and we beat them all, almost every single time. Wooden’s teams won ten national titles in twelve years, and he retired on the eve of the last one, in 1975, and we have won one title in 46 years since.

So it will be with a mix of nostalgia for those times, with a sense of basketball pride, that I will watch and hope that we at least make a game of it, and wish that my parents were here to share it with me.

I wrote a post a couple of months ago, “Bad Beats and Arduous Wins,” about the travails of sports betting. These were not necessarily so amusing at the time, but in retrospect, they are good stories; and I fortunately won more than I lost, so it is fun to remember them. There was one story I did not fit in that post, and I wanted to tell it, so I will do so now. It might come under the heading of, “One just can never seem to win any bet easily.” This story is unusual even in that context.

For four years or so, I would spend the weekends of the football season at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, because they had the best sportsbook. I would leave the law firm early on Friday afternoon, come home and briefly pack, then drive to the airport and fly in. I would get there early Friday evening, and then spend the night not gambling or doing anything around the town, but sitting in my hotel room, studying the games. Then up very early on Saturday, then spend all day at the sportsbook, then dinner, and back to my room to study the Sunday games Then I would fly home Sunday night, unless I could stay for the Monday Night football game. So it was pretty arduous, but fun, and I made a few friends with whom I shared the ups and downs of a football weekend.

One season, there were a few weeks where I was struggling, lost some games; started to lose some confidence, and really could have used a good win. I think this was late in the NFL season, when they played a few games on Saturday. The early game was the New York Giants vs. some team I am not certain of, I think it was Cleveland. In football betting you can bet the pointspread margin, which is essentially how many points the favorite wins by, or if the underdog will actually win. Or you can bet on how many points are scored, which is known as the “over/under.” Say that the number is 45, you can bet on whether the total scored by both teams is over or under that. You can also bet on the total for the first or second half.

I rarely if ever bet on totals, I have no great ability to pick those. But on this day, I decided to bet the second half total, over the 18.5 points of the line. Why I did this, was that Cleveland was substantially ahead, and the game just seemed like it would have more touchdowns scored. I needed three TDs in the second half, or less likely, two TDs and two field goals. The major problem was that the day was very snowy, and that is usually not conducive to much offense.

I actually made a fairly sizeable bet on this “over” And two more touchdowns were scored by Cleveland, which was up something like 31-0 at this point. Early in the fourth quarter, Cleveland was driving for what would have been another TD, winning my bet. But they turned the ball over deep in Giants territory. Now I was worried, because the game result was determined; and NYG could not move the ball, and Cleveland did not need to. I got up from my seat and started walking nervously around for a while. But then NY threw a pass, and it was intercepted and run in for a touchdown. I had won!

I don’t usually do this, but I came back to my seat pumping my fist in the air. Now, it is impossible to lose an “over” bet, when the teams have scored more than the total. They do not subtract points. So I could of course actually relax for the rest of the game? Well, no.

Because the field and stands had turned icy. The notorious New York fans, at least some of them, decided to take out their displeasure, by breaking off large chunks of ice stuck to the seats or ground, and hurling them on the field. They did this to the extent that suddenly the officials waved the players and coaches off the field, and stopped the game.

Immediately some of the sportsbook bettors began shouting, “Forfeit!” The officials could easily have decided that for safety reasons, they would just call the game with about five and a half minutes left. Cleveland would be the winner; but for betting purposes, I believe that all bets would be canceled. I am not positive, but I think that even “over” bets which had won, would count as no bets.

So that would mean that I had not won this sure win after all. I had never seen an NFL game called, but this could well be the one. I sat there just staring at the TV screen; you couldn’t hear the announcers, because they usually turned that off because of the noise in the sportsbook. This went on for what seemed a very long time; and the longer it went, the more likely that they would just call the game. But finally, I saw that they were sending the teams back out on the field. Apparently they had removed most of the fans who were throwing the blocks of ice. Then I had to wait until the game got played long enough to make it official. And it finally did, and I won the bet, but not after going through all of this.

So the lessons are: sometimes you can not even be sure of winning when you have categorically won. Or, do not bet at all, do something else with your time. 🙂 Well, I thought that you might vicariously enjoy this story, even if you have no interest in sports, and even less in pointspreads. Oh, and none of this was good for my social life, spending all the weekends at the sportsbook. So after four straight seasons of doing this, and because I was also worn out from it all, I stopped, and had more normal weekends, though I still watched many of the games. Go, Bruins.

Postscript: UCLA played a great game, against an undefeated team which was a 15 point favorite. We could certainly have won the game. But we won two other games in the tourney in overtime, and another game by two points. This time we came as close as you can to winning, with the potential last shot in regulation, called a charging foul. And fhen Gonzaga banks in a three-point shot from 35 feet to win it in overtime. The difficulty with college basketball is that you cannot expect to be in the same spot next year. Players leave early, other teams get great freshmen. Getting here is very hard, unless you are one of those programs which gets great talent every year, which we have not been doing, but maybe this game will help. These kinds of games stay with one, but it is a lot better than having middling seasons.