Tag Archives: 2021 Reviews

Paging Upton Sinclair: Mank (***½) & Martin Eden (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2021)

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Herman J. Mankiewicz: Irving [Thalberg], you are a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty. […]

Mankiewicz [In a later scene, referring to his dinner host William Randolph Hearst] …he’s EXACTLY what our Don used to be! An idealist, ya get it? And not only that, his nemesis [gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair] is the same guy who once predicted that our Quixote would one day preside over a socialist revolution. Our Quixote looks into the mirror of his youth and decides to break this glass, a maddening reminder of who he once was. [Pointing at fellow dinner guest Louis B. Mayer] Assisted by his faithful Sancho.

from Mank, screenplay by Jack Fincher

Russ Brissenden: I’m warning you, Martin…don’t waste time. How many people do you see starve to death or go to jail because they are nothing else but wretches, stupid and ignorant slaves? Fight for them, Martin. Fight for socialism.

Martin Eden: You and I have nothing to do with socialists! Yet you insist on spending time with them!

Russ Brissenden: Socialism is inevitable. The slaves have now become too many. Anything is preferable to the pigs that govern now. Socialism will give a sense to your writing, Martin. It might be the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that’s approaching.

Martin Eden: What disappointment? [End scene]

– from Martin Eden, screenplay by Maurizio Brariucci & Pietro Marcello

It is tempting to suggest that, aside from the fact that David Fincher’s Mank and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden are films about writers (the former a real-life figure and the latter a fictional character), they are also both “about” socialism. But they are not really, at least not in any didactic way. I will venture to suggest that they do merge in a tangential way, with a minor fender-bender at the intersection of Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

I came to this ‘epiphany’ in my usual bumbling fashion. Being a lazy bastard, I have been putting off writing a review of Mank (which has been available on Netflix since early December). This time of year, less screener links come my way than usual (even publicists need a holiday break, I suppose), so with nothing new to cover this week I went for the low-hanging fruit, planning to devote this post to Mank. Murphy’s Law being what it is, I was offered a crack at Martin Eden, a film I had already been intrigued to see.

Martin Eden is based on Jack London’s eponymous novel. I admit I have never read it, which may have worked in my favor, as I went into it with no expectations and an open mind. Good thing too, as I gather that some London purists are upset that the director and co-writer Maurizio Braucci transposed a tale originally set in early 1900s America to an unspecified (mid to latter?) 20th-Century period in Italy, chockablock with anachronisms.

When we are introduced to the strapping Martin (Luca Marinelli) he’s a drunken sailor pulling an all-night pub crawl, boning and grogging his way down the waterfront and sleeping it off al fresco. When he awakens, he espies a slightly built young man getting bullied by a goon and springs to his rescue. The grateful Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) invites Martin to have breakfast with his family, who turn out to be well to-do. This is where Martin meets Arturo’s pretty sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) who will be the love of his life.

The directionless (and penniless) Martin is enthralled and fascinated not only by Elena’s loveliness, but her education and refinement. Intuiting that his uneducated proletarian upbringing puts him out of her league, he decides then and there to become a man of letters, come hell or high water. Initially, Elena’s interest does not lean toward amour, but she is not immune to Martin’s innate charm. She also senses his natural intelligence; so, she begins to tutor him, encouraging him to expand his intellect (not unlike My Fair Lady, except in this scenario…Elena is Professor Higgins, and Martin is Eliza Doolittle).

Martin begins to write in earnest. At a soiree hosted by Elena’s family, Martin recites one of his poems, to polite applause. One of the guests is Russ Brissenden, an older gentleman of mysterious means. The straight-talking Brissenden tells Martin his poem had substance and was not appreciated by the bourgeoisie guests. Brissenden, a Socialist and writer himself, becomes a mentor, encouraging Martin to write about what he knows.

Eventually Martin and Elena’s relationship does develop into full-blown romance. However, when Martin tells her that he has decided to pursue writing as a living, he is puzzled and hurt when she tells him that the subjects that he chooses to write about are too “raw” and “real” and do not offer enough “hope” to people. She implies that if he does not find a trade to fall back on, she is afraid they will never be able to get married.

Martin goes to Brissenden for counseling. When Brissenden tells him that he needs to forget about pleasing Elena (bluntly referring to her as an “idiot”) and reset his priorities to focus solely on finding his voice as a writer, Martin sees red and physically attacks Brissenden. He immediately apologizes, as he now sees that Elena’s harsh appraisal of his work was not constructive criticism, so much as it was her outing herself as a classist.

In a narrative jump 2/3 of the way through, Martin has not only found his voice as a writer, essayist, and poet, but fame and fortune as such. He is also cynical, apolitical, and indifferent to success. He’s given most of his money away; mostly to those who helped him when he was struggling. At a public event, he sneeringly refers to himself as a “hoodlum and a sailor” to adoring fans. We get a sketch of Martin’s wilderness years between his breakup with Elena and achieving world acclaim, but with no explanation given for his apparent descent into a chronic state of existential malaise and self-loathing.

For the final third of the film, Martin tap-dances willy-nilly around the edges of the time-space continuum like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. In one scene, he watches a group of Fascist black shirts enjoying recreation at the beach. There are references to an imminent “war” involving Italy during what appears to be the late 70s…but then we see a vintage newsreel of a Nazi book burning in the 1930s. It is artfully constructed, which I suppose injects lyricism into Marcello’s film, but it somehow feels like window dressing.

Then again, if I may jump ahead and steal a line from Mank: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave an impression of one.” On the plus side, despite its overreaching themes Martin Eden is a pleasing throwback to class struggle dramas from the 60s and 70s like Visconti’s The Leopard and Bertolucci’s 1900.

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Regarding Upton Sinclair. He and Jack London were not only contemporaries, but mutual admirers of each other’s writings. Before he wrote The Jungle, the 1906 novel that put him on the map, Sinclair (who had over 90 books to his credit by his death in 1968 at the age of 90) is said to have been greatly influenced by People of the Abyss, London’s 1903 book about the slums of London’s East End. And here’s what London said of The Jungle:

“Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.”

That sounds awfully close to the kind of book that the (fictional) Socialist Russ Brissenden would love to see his (fictional) protégé Martin Eden write. Not a stretch, considering London was a Socialist. In fact, he and Sinclair were charter members of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Founded in 1905, the I.S.S. had a stated purpose to “throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism.”

But what’s most interesting about Martin Eden (commonly assumed to be a semi-autobiographical work), is that its protagonist rejects Socialism outright. According to Wiki, in the copy of the novel which he inscribed for Upton Sinclair, London wrote, “One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism (in the person of the hero). I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it.” And so it goes.

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For a guy who has been dead for 53 years, Upton Sinclair sure gets around a lot these days. Admittedly he has but a spectral “presence” in the margins of Martin Eden (as I explained above) but he gets a cameo and maybe a quarter-page of dialog in David Fincher’s Mank. Well, “he” as in a reasonable facsimile, in the person of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nye portrays Sinclair delivering a speech in his iteration as a politician, when he ran for Governor of California in 1934 (he ran as a Democrat and lost the race).

However, the focus of David Fincher’s Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz – Hollywood screenwriter, inveterate gambler, world-class inebriate, and born tummler. More specifically, it is a (more-or-less accurate) chronicle of the part he played in the creation of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Which reminds me of a funny story.

Back in 2007, I published a review of a film wherein I innocuously referenced to The Princess Bride as “Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.” At the time, Hullabaloo readers were able to comment on posts. Man, did I ever release the Kraken with that one. To say that I was beset upon is understatement. “ROB REINER’S The Princess Bride?! Ingrate! Philistine! Aren’t you aware that William Goldman wrote the screenplay?!” Yes, I was.

This sparked a lively discussion on “whose” film it was. Call me madcap, but I’m sure I’ve read and heard the phrase “Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause” many more times than the phrase “Stewart Stern’s Rebel Without a Cause” (as in never!). Of course I realize there’s no film without a screenwriter. And I’m also aware there are films written and directed by the same person. I just never got the memo about these shorthand “rules”.

So is it “Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane”? Or is it “Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane”?

In his ambitious attempt to answer that million-dollar question in just over two hours, Fincher, armed with a sharp and literate screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher (who passed away in 2003; I’d hazard that this project was in development for a spell) has layered his biopic with enough Hollywood meta to make even Quentin Tarantino plotz.

The story opens in 1940, by which time Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has burned his bridges in Tinseltown, thanks to his sharp tongue and love of the bottle. Despite this (or perhaps he is attracted by Mank’s budget-friendly mix of writing prowess and financial desperation), Welles (Tom Burke) recruits him to write a screenplay for his first film. Welles, with a commanding and formidable presence that belied his 24 years, was a hard man to say “no” to. He had already made a splash in radio and theater and had just signed an unprecedented contract with RKO which gave him full creative control of his projects.

Mank is convalescing from an auto accident that has left him bedridden with a broken leg. Welles has set him up at an isolated ranch house in Victorville, California, where Mank dictates his screenplay to his British secretary (Lily Collins). In a slightly cruel but pragmatic move, Wells has also provided Mank with a cabinet full of liquor (surreptitiously laced with Seconal) at the foot of the bed…out of reach. This dangles a carrot for motivation to heal up and focus on writing, but also (sort of) guarantees rationing.

Welles enlists his producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to make house calls to keep tabs on Mank’s progress with the script (which eventually tops 300 pages, much to Houseman’s chagrin). As Mank toils on his tome, flashbacks to the 1930s are cleverly interwoven to tell both the story of Mank’s mercurial career in the Hollywood studio system, as well as illustrate how his equally mercurial acquaintanceship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s lover, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) provided the grist for creating the characters in Citizen Kane. (in the event Citizen Kane remains unchecked on your bucket list, that would be the one where “Charles Foster Kane” unquestionably rhymes with “William Randolph Hearst”).

Film buffs who have given Citizen Kane a spin will enjoy playing “spot the visual quote”, as Fincher has festooned them throughout (nice B&W photography by Erik Messerschmidt adds to the verisimilitude). The elder Fincher’s script gives the characters much to chew on, particularly Oldman, who merrily fires off Mank’s droll barbs with deadly accuracy. Fine work by a large cast that includes Ferdinand Kingsley (as Irving Thalberg), Arless Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (as Mank’s brother Joseph) and Tuppence Middleton playing Mank’s long-suffering but devoted wife Sara.

As far as resolving “whose” film Citizen Kane is…here’s one take, from a recent BFI essay by the always insightful Farran Smith Nehme (who blogs as the Self-Styled Siren):

Herman had a wealth of pent-up ideas – about lonely boyhoods, about newspapermen, about loyalty and hubris. Over the course of his stay in Victorville, Mankiewicz poured it all into 325 pages of a script called ‘American’, the extravagant title seeming to confirm that there was too much material for one movie to contain. In Mank, brother Joe tells him: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” and for Herman, the confirmation is already superfluous.

Mank shows that Herman had signed a contract and accepted a bonus on the condition that Welles would get sole credit, but once the work is done, Herman reneges. The movie implies that in this instance, it was Welles punching up the script: “I’ll just run it through my typewriter,” he tells Herman.

People who revere Citizen Kane can choose whether or not to accept this scenario. Those who have read scholars such as Robert Carringer and Harlan Lebo excavating the surviving scripts and records at RKO, or essays by Joseph McBride or Jonathan Rosenbaum on the topic, almost certainly won’t.

In his 1978 biography, also titled Mank, Richard Meryman estimated Herman’s contribution to the final Kane script at 60 per cent, plus revisions he contributed later. Critic Pauline Kael, in her essay “Raising Kane”, put it at virtually 100 per cent, which even John Houseman said went too far. Houseman added, more to the point, that Citizen Kane “is Orson’s picture just as Stagecoach is John Ford’s picture, even though Dudley Nichols wrote it”.

Rule of thumb? Give credit where credit is due…when practical. Welles summed it up best when he said: “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.”

Who needs the Peace Corps: Zappa (****) & White Riot (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2021)

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“A lot of what [The Mothers of Invention] do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don’t feel their environment – they don’t worry about it – they’re not going to do anything to change it and something’s gotta be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”

– Zappa, on Zappa…from Zappa

Directed by actor Alex Winter (yes…”Bill” as in “Bill & Ted”), Zappa (****) is the best film portrait of composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa I’ve seen to date (and I’ve seen a lot of ’em). Intimate and moving, it covers all aspects of his career, but it’s the first doc to (rightfully) position him as one of our greatest modern composers (not just a “rock star”).

While there are brief performance clips, this is not a Zappa performance film (there are plenty of those already) but rather a unique attempt to get inside his head; to understand what inspired him, what pissed him off, but mostly what drove a Picasso-like need to create up until the end (which came much too soon when he died of prostate cancer in 1993, just weeks before his 53rd birthday).

In a recent IndieWire interview, Winter expounded on his decision to take an intimate approach:

“I came up in the entertainment industry, where you’re surrounded with mythologizing and so much bullshit. It’s so hard to tear those things down and find human beings there or retain your own humanity. So I think there was an aspect of my own interest in Zappa, how he retained his humanity and the consequences he faced for living the life that he did that compelled me all the way through.”

Winter was given unprecedented access to the family archives, so he had his work cut out for him:

“For me, the gold in his vault was hours and hours and hours of him shooting the shit. The stuff that we made narration out of was literally him on his easy chair in the basement talking to Matt Groening or talking to a musician or a pundit. We just cut all the other people out and made a narrative. Then we chopped the narrative up, so he would start his prison story in ’68, he would keep it going in ’85, and he would end it in ’92. We’d use all of that in one sentence. So, we were very aware of the idea of trying to demystify yourself while you re-mythologize yourself which was something Zappa did himself.”

One prevalent theme in Winter’s portrait is that Zappa was an artist with intense creative focus (the one time I got to see him perform in Troy, New York in 1976 I remember marveling how he was able to sing, play and conduct the band…all while chain-smoking through the entire set). His perfectionism and 3-dimensional chess mindset (as Winter appears to be implying) could have contributed to Zappa’s reputation as a brusque and manipulative “boss” with some of his players.

That said, there is also a well-chosen roster of former band members (Ruth Underwood, Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, Steve Vai, et.al.) and creative collaborators on hand to parse his strengths and weaknesses from a first-hand view, and offer illuminating insight into the blood, sweat, and toil that went into producing such an impressive body of work (over 60 albums released in Zappa’s lifetime, plus uncounted hours of live and studio tapes spanning 30 years that languish in the family vaults). Some of them do acknowledge that Zappa could be cold and dismissive…well, an asshole.

But as The Burning Sensations sang: Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Winter’s main thrust isn’t about the traumas and psychodramas. It is about the creative process of an iconoclast who (by his own admission), worked day and night composing the music that he wanted to listen to, simply because no one else was. And if other people happened to like it…he was cool with that.

“Zappa” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

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As a musician, Eric Clapton has rarely played off-key…but he really hit a sour note with music fans attending a 1976 concert in Birmingham, England. During the performance, Clapton launched into a shocking, racial epithet-laden anti-immigrant harangue, essentially parroting the tenets of the fascistic, far-right National Front organization that was gaining substantial political power and declaring his glowing admiration for former Conservative MP-turned demagogue Enoch Powell.

Clapton wasn’t the only U.K. rock luminary at the time who sounded like he was ready for the white room with no windows or distractions. David Bowie infamously stated in one interview “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.”  (Bowie would later blame it on the drugs, laughing off the comments as “theatrical observations”). Rod Stewart made the unfortunate comment “…immigrants should be sent home.”

Something else was trending in the U.K. music scene circa 1976-the burgeoning punk movement. In addition to its prime directive to shake up the rock establishment that included the likes of Messrs. Clapton, Bowie and Stewart, there was an anti-fascist political ethos streaking through the punk ranks.

Granted, there was a certain segment of the “skinhead” subculture that became synonymous with National Front rhetoric…but not all skinheads were NF sympathizers. In short, it wasn’t simply Mods vs. Rockers anymore. The U.K. music scene had become …complicated.

In her documentary White Riot (***), Rubika Shaw takes a valiant stab at sorting all that out in 80 minutes; specifically through the lens of the “Rock Against Racism” movement that was ignited (in part) by Clapton’s ill-advised foray into spoken word performance in 1976, and culminated in a game-changing 1978 rally/music festival in London’s Victoria Park headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band that was attended by an estimated 100,000.

Shaw mixes archival clips and interviews with present day ruminations from some of RAR’s movers and shakers, primarily represented by photographer/political activist David “Red” Saunders. Sanders, whose background ran the gamut from underground theater player and war photojournalist to doing professional photography for ad agencies, periodicals, and album covers, was the co-founder of Temporary Hoarding, the punk fanzine that became the “voice” of RAR.

In the film, Saunders recalls how he kick-started RAR with this letter to the U.K. music press:

When I read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, I nearly puked. What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. So you’re going to stand for MP and you think we’re being colonised by black people. Come on… you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B? You’ve got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their chequebooks and plastic crap. Rock was and still can be a real progressive culture, not a package mail-order stick-on nightmare of mediocre garbage. We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music – we urge support – all those interested please write to:

ROCK AGAINST RACISM,

Box M, 8 Cotton Gardens, London E2 8DN

P. S. ‘Who shot the Sheriff’, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

[Signed] Peter Bruno, Angela Follett, Red Saunders, Jo Wreford, Dave Courts, Roger Huddle, Mike Stadler, etc.

Now there is a mission statement that says: “Let’s kill it before it grows.”

And it was growing; “it” being the influence of the National Front. Initially flitting about the fringes of British politics as a coalition of radical right-wing groups in the 60s, the organization had a more centralized platform by the end of the decade. They had found a “champion” of sorts in Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party politician who gave an inflammatory address in 1968 dubbed the “Rivers of Blood speech”.

The speech was a populist appeal against non-white immigration into Britain, advocating (among other things) a repatriation program. While not as radical as the NF’s stand on immigrants (basically “round ’em up and send ’em all back”) it gave them a sense of empowerment to have a high-profile government official as an ideological ally (sound familiar?).

Stand back and stand by…there’s more.

There are a number of items that “sound familiar” in Shaw’s film, particularly in the recounting of an August 1977 clash in the streets between members of the National Front (who had organized an anti-immigrant march) and counter demonstrators. There was a strong police presence; the day would come to mark the first time they used riot shields on mainland Britain.

A number of the Bobbies also let their white slips show by demonstrating a marked preference for using strong arm tactics against the counter-demonstrators (many of whom were people of color), while coddling the NF marchers (August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin…anyone?).

Modern parallels resonate well outside the Colonies. From an April 2020 Guardian article:

Contemporary Britain is battling far-right rhetoric similar to that which divided the country in the 1970s, with the Brexit debate revealing how politicians continue to stoke racial tension, according to the director of a film about the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR).

Rubika Shah, the director of a new documentary about the lead up to RAR’s march and concert in east London’s on 30 April 1978, says the UK is still struggling to counter the far-right populism that made the National Front a force in the 1970s.

“There are so many similarities,” Shah said. “I hope people look at some of the stuff that was happening in the late 70s and think: ‘Wow, this is actually happening now.’” […]

Shah said she deliberately included National Front slogans such as “It’s our country, let’s win it back” to show their echoes in modern campaigning, such as Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” mantra that was used during the Brexit referendum. “It’s scary how that language creeps back in,” she said.

The director said she was shocked to hear Boris Johnson use the term “invisible mugger” to describe the Coronavirus, as “mugger” was a word used by the National Front and right-wing media to describe black people in the 1970s.

Make America Great Again!

Shaw’s film is engaging, fast-paced, and infused with a cheeky “D.I.Y.” attitude. Considering all the angles she covers, it may be a little too fast-paced; political junkies might find themselves craving a deeper dive into backstory and context. Music fans may be disappointed that despite the film’s title (taken from the eponymous Clash song), the film is not exclusively “about” the punk scene (tiny snippets of performance footage is the best you’ll get).

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of sociopolitical history, and an uplifting reminder that even in the darkest of times, a righteous confluence of art and politics can affect real and positive change.

“White Riot” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms