Film, Writing

Partisan Cinema: MANK (2020) – Citizens of Ideology

In a new, recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

One senses the frustrations of writer Upton Sinclair, erstwhile Democratic nominee for the Governorship of California in 1934 and open socialist, might not have featured so prominently had Mank been made, as planned, in the late 1990s.

The story of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed here in wonderfully shambolic form by Gary Oldman) as he furiously raced to complete the screenplay of Orson Welles’ future masterpiece Citizen Kane, was penned originally in the ‘90s by the late Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. His son, renowned auteur David Fincher, planned to make the film after 1997’s The Game with Kevin Spacey (remember him?) in the titular role, before Fincher’s own seminal masterpiece Fight Club beckoned, but the stars refused to align. Fincher, after a cinematic break of six years following his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, has finally—thanks to Netflix—provided viewers with his father’s legacy at the tail end of a year where audiences have been starved of prominent cinema.

Yet Mank, arriving at the end of 2020, has not just fallen in what we might dare to hope are the impending final months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also twelve months of sweeping social and cultural unrest.

This might well be the biopic of a long-dead man in a now near-mythic cinematic age, revolving around the creation of what many have considered for decades to be the greatest film ever made, but Mank’s politics feel heightened for modern audiences. Fincher, borrowing Citizen Kane’s then-revolutionary non-linear structure, flashes back in episodic fashion from 1940 to deeper back into the 1930s and sees his lead character unconsciously crafting the elements of his Oscar-winning script from powerful, influential figures, and political movements, of the previous decade.

Mank positions the brilliance of its protagonist, and the work of genius he creates, within the tussle of polarised political ideologies in a manner that, intentionally or not, reflects the America of 2020.
Continue reading “Partisan Cinema: MANK (2020) – Citizens of Ideology”

2000 in Film, Film, Reviews

WONDER BOYS: Classy but listless existential privilege (2000 in Film #8)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of February 25th, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys

Nobody went to see Wonder Boys. Granted, it was the top earning box office movie of its opening weekend but the competition was slim, truly only up against John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, a picture which itself should probably have fared better given the talent involved – Ben Affleck, a rising Charlize Theron. Wonder Boys did so poorly that Paramount re-released the film later in the year. The results were much the same.

Part of the reason analysts suggested Wonder Boys bombed was because Paramount simply had no idea how to market Curtis Hanson’s film. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested the poster made Michael Douglas look like Elmer Fudd; others suggested Bonnie & Clyde’s portly Michael J. Pollard and Hanson himself plumbed for Robin Williams, still a major box office draw at this period. Douglas, however, was not known to audiences as the middle-aged, middle-class literature professor Grady Tripp, filled out with a little middle-aged spread and a semi-nihilistic sense of creative block. Dashing heroes as in Romancing the Stone, corporate snakes a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or sexually compromised detectives in the neo-noir stylistics of Basic Instinct, sure, but this saw Douglas wandering into waters plumbed to great acclaim by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey in the Oscar-winning American Beauty a year earlier.

A cynic might suggest Wonder Boys is cashing in on the existential malaise of the privileged white male at a point of powerful social and cultural change, a new millennium that, as Fight Club too in 1999 suggested, offered no easy choices for the rage and sadness built into the masculine American psyche. And, arguably, Wonder Boys no doubt benefited from the success of these aforementioned pictures and helped get Hanson’s film the green light, but Wonder Boys comes from prestigious source material; the second novel of Pulizter Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, front-lined by a household name, crewed out with strong young and old character actors, and propped up by a director fresh off L.A. Confidential, one of the best films of the previous decade.

So why did Wonder Boys not capture a great deal of cinematic wonder?

Continue reading “WONDER BOYS: Classy but listless existential privilege (2000 in Film #8)”
Essays, TV

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: Can we separate Art from the Artist?

By now you no doubt have heard about how the Season 5 launch of Arrested Development has been a bit of a ‘fustercluck’ all-round.

The accusations of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour against star Jeffrey Tambor which led to his firing from Transparent, a questionable interview with the New York Times which landed Jason Bateman in particular in hot water, and now presumably trying to head off any more corrosive media troubles, Netflix have cancelled the U.K. press tour ahead of the Season 5 premiere on Tuesday.

It’s all just a bit of a mess all round, tinged with the whiff of scandal concerning the key issue rocking the entertainment industry this year – inappropriate behaviour of male actors against their female co-stars, in a variety of ways. It does, however, lead to an important question we haven’t yet achieved the distance to answer.

Does the personal fall of artists compromise the art they have worked on itself?

Continue reading “ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: Can we separate Art from the Artist?”
Essays, TV

THE X-FILES: Chris Carter, Misogyny, and Agenda Fandom

Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, is apparently a misogynist. It’s an opinion which has been circulating for some years in certain corners of X-Files fandom, of which I consider myself a part given my contributions to the podcasting sphere with The X-Cast.

I’ve been writing a lot about fandom recently because it currently seems to be operating at its most pervasive and toxic on social media – whether in the case of Star Wars fans calling for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi to be struck from very canon because it dares to try new approaches, or in this case a Reddit AMA in advance of the premiere of My Struggle III, the opening episode of The X-Files Season 11, in which Chris Carter opened himself up to questions from fans about the new season and became, once again, the victim of a different strand of online toxicity: agenda fandom.

In this case a core, collected, organised group of fans who targeted Carter with questions deliberately designed to establish his misogynist credentials. As some commentators on social media subsequently opined, Carter didn’t disappoint, in their eyes.

This piece isn’t going to see me defend Carter in terms of this apparent misogyny. My opinion on this, simply, is that he isn’t sexist. That a man who helped devise a character like Dana Scully, an empowered, rational, scientist and doctor who has subsequently inspired at least one generation of young women to follow career and life paths which are hugely beneficial to diversity, being described as a misogynist seems antithetical to common sense. That’s where I stand. What interests me more is the rise, increasingly, of militant agenda fandom. Of a collectivisation of fans who come together not to help build up the property they love, but instead tear it down.

Continue reading “THE X-FILES: Chris Carter, Misogyny, and Agenda Fandom”