The Lost World

The mark of Kane

I’ve seen the advance work on Mank, David Fincher's movie about Herman J. Mankiewicz opening today, and it arouses all kinds of feelings in me, including keen interest and seething resentment. Which is a good sign! I will enjoy the movie one way or another: Either it will win me over or I’ll happily exhaust my brain fighting with it.

To quickly recap, in the ‘30s and ‘40s Mankiewicz wrote bits and pieces of movies of varying quality, and also co-wrote Citizen Kane — credit for which, for reasons obvious to anyone who has seen three or more Orson Welles movies, has tended to go to his more famous collaborator.

The role in Kane of Mankiewicz, mainly known in his Hollywood career as a talented kibbitzer, has been one of the more interesting anomalies in cinema history, which Pauline Kael famously addressed in her The Citizen Kane Book, a clever film-crit incursion into the mass market that included the screenplay of the movie and Kael’s long anti-auteurist essay about how Mankiewicz deserved at least equal credit for the accomplishment with Welles.

I don’t have a copy of that book handy and I’m not going to fetch one to refer to, because it’s not really meaningful to this discussion, except to note that the short shrift HJM got in history has been noted and chewed over on the high street well before this issue came up again in 2020.

(I will add that as an Andrew Sarris devotee practically from boyhood, I sided with him on matters of auteurism and on the pro-Welles argument against Kael’s anti-auteurist position. I still love Kael’s prose, and have re-read her essay many times — I can recall with admiration to this day, from her acknowledgement of other HJM scripts’ inferiority, “the title, ‘As The Twig Is Bent,’ tells too hoary much.” But she always seemed to me frivolous and dismissive, an attitude I as a pretentious artist deeply disliked, as opposed to Sarris’ gloomy, ruminative grail-seeking.)

Anyway lately Fincher has been doing pre-release publicity and has baited this bear by talking smack about Welles:

...while Fincher is quick to applaud Welles for the clear talent the filmmaker had, the “Mank” director believes that Welles “was above all a showman and a juggler with this immense talent.”

“Well, I think Orson Welles’s tragedy lies in the mix between monumental talent and filthy immaturity,” explained Fincher. “Sure, there is genius in ‘Citizen Kane,’ who could argue? But when Welles says, ‘It only takes an afternoon to learn everything there is to know about cinematography,’ pfff… Let’s say that this is the remark of someone who has been lucky to have Gregg Toland around him to prepare the next shot… Gregg Toland, damn it, an insane genius!”

First of all, fuck you. Second of all, it was Toland who told Welles that “it only takes an afternoon to learn everything there is to know about cinematography.” Third, Toland, like composer Bernard Herrmann and editor Robert Wise, showed his chops independent of Welles elsewhere as least as successfully as Mankiewicz. Fourth, Chimes at Midnight The Magnificent Ambersons Touch of Evil The Immortal Story The Lady from Shanghai F for Fake... Fifth, fuck you.

But I understand. Fincher’s got a movie to sell. He certainly got my attention.

And it’s always good to be reminded of Kane, which retains its death-grip on the American imagination. The current contretemps puts me in mind of an element of Kane that, insofar as I can tell, very seldom gets mentioned: the provenance of the name.

I’ve seen the connection between Kane and the Biblical Cain noted many times, but never with any convincing explanation as to why Welles (or for that matter Mankiewicz) might have chosen it. It’s as if the allusion by itself were weighty enough to serve just by being noted — like one more piece of catalogued cultural bric-a-brac among the piles fed into the furnace at the end of the movie.

Cain was brother to Abel, and both were sons of Adam and Eve. From the KJV:

2 ...And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.

4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

6 And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?

7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

If we go looking, we can find broad hints of meaning for Citizen Kane there, but the analogy isn’t East-of-Eden perfect. Charles Foster Kane is famously unfulfilled by his wealth, but he is a high-minded trust-fund baby and nothing like a killer of sheep — indeed, his futility comes mainly from a corrupted idea of love and what it takes to win it. (“He married for love,” his old friend Jed Leland says. “That’s why he did everything.”)

There isn’t really an Abel that Kane slew, either, unless everyone whom Kane in his frustration lashes out at — Leland, Thatcher, Susan Alexander, and finally the world at large against which Kane threw up the walls of Xanadu — qualifies as his victim.

Maybe the connection is in Cain’s complaint to God — “every one that findeth me shall slay me” — which inspires God to signal him with the mark of Cain, “lest any finding him should kill him.” Maybe Kane’s relationship to Cain is not primal murder, but eternal separation from the rest of humanity.

What could be more American than that? You might say Kane’s was the original American exceptionalism. (The original title of Citizen Kane was American.)

The authors — the auteurs — are long dead, and anyway could never have been trusted to tell the truth about what they meant. (One of the great pleasures of Henry Jaglom’s reminiscence, Lunches with Orson, is how wonderful but also untrustworthy Welles’ stories were. F for Fake!) All we can be sure of is the feeling we get from the story they told.

And I can tell you that, as a boy sitting alone watching that movie on a small black-and-white TV years ago, knowing only its reputation for greatness and barely anything else, I was affected in many ways by the spectacular images and the energy of its invention — though, being a boy, I missed a lot about the relationships and the effects on them of time; I was thrilled, for example, by the breakthrough old-age makeup and ocular prostheses years before I could comprehend what was so wonderful about the story elderly Bernstein tells about the girl on the ferry — let alone, when his interlocutor says, “It’s hardly likely, Mr. Bernstein, that Mr. Kane could have met some girl casually and then fifty years later on his deathbed…” the heartbreaking poignance of Bernstein’s remark: “Well, you’re pretty young, Mister Thompson.”

But young and dumb as I was, I can remember to depth of my follicles how my hair stood on end at the end of the movie, when Rosebud burned in a pitiless close-up as the strings screamed a childish melody, and Welles cut to the outside of the great building and showed the twisting pillar of black smoke of what even then I knew was Kane’s rejected sacrifice.

I guess it is possible to be affected like that by a written description or stage direction — but I have to say that the way I was struck by that sequence of images, and still am struck every time I see it, is something different from what might be seen in a script. And that’s what Welles, 26 years old, orchestrated, though he had brilliant people to work with, including “Mank.” I mean, imagine Ron Howard’s version of the end of Citizen Kane. (Probably heartwarming!)

Good weekend, all.