Out of the Ether

Out of the Ether

On Mank, Let Them All Talk, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Minari, and more films from the end of 2020.

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What’s that floating along the televisual stream to comfort and amuse us, as this brutal year flows toward its end? A much-touted exposé of old-time Hollywood, shot with an old-Hollywood look by David Fincher; a Steven Soderbergh fable about the literary life, with a Queen Mary 2 setting as posh as the cast and writer; an adaptation of an August Wilson play, ushered onto the screen with all due ceremony by George C. Wolfe. If prestigious credentials were the same thing as entertainment, we should all be chortling like 5-year-olds tearing at wrapping paper.

I’ll get to these fictions—Mank, Let Them All Talk, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—and also to Minari, a Korean American memory film that’s all the more worthy for its modesty. But before I do, here are notes about two year-end documentaries that truly felt like gifts, even though they’re about a Norwegian sow and the utter corruption of Romania.

Let’s begin with Romania. In late 2015, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv killed 27 young people, leading to protests that brought down the government. It was a small matter of the city’s having allowed the club to operate with only one exit and no authorization from the fire department. But that was just the first cause of the outrage. As the days passed, dozens of survivors died in Bucharest’s sole burn ward, not from fire-related trauma but bacterial infections. The patients’ families wanted them sent out of Romania, but somehow the transfer orders weren’t processed, while the Ministry of Health went on assuring everyone that the hospital’s standard of care was “as good as in Germany.”

This is the situation at the start of Collective, directed and photographed by Alexander Nanau and cowritten by him and Antoaneta Opris: a film that brings to mind those abysmal medical cases in which the biopsy of a lesion leads to the discovery of stage-four cancer. Using an observational style almost as strict as Frederick Wiseman’s, Collective follows the investigation conducted by journalist Catalin Tolontan and his colleagues at Gazeta Sporturilor—yes, it took a daily sports newspaper to uncover the truth—as they dig into the rate of in-hospital infections and progressively lay bare massive industrial crime, offshore financial chicanery, the sudden death of a prime suspect in murky circumstances, networks of bribes and kickbacks throughout the medical system, and at last the guiding hand of Romania’s political establishment.

Bad spirals down toward a seemingly bottomless worse, while you, appalled moviegoer, get to watch this helix of death from a front-row seat—two of them, actually. A startlingly candid new official, Vlad Voiculescu, takes over the Ministry of Health while Tolontan is still reporting, and in an astonishing turn of events he too permits the filmmakers to shadow him. It’s as if a documentary crew had been operating in Chicago in the early 1930s, and Eliot Ness had allowed it to tag along.

Now imagine that Al Capone had won, and you’ll intuit the force of Collective—a film rescued from despair only by the resoluteness of its truth-seekers, Nanau and his team included.

Documentaries are of course constructions, not naturally occurring formations; but an impression of naturalness, and even truth, can be rigged into a film if the means of expression are properly restrained. In Gunda, a remarkably fine meat-is-murder documentary, director Victor Kossakovsky studiously avoids color, music, and quick editing and so pulls you into a world that seems found rather than made—never mind that the cinematography, although black-and-white, is exquisite, the sound, though ambient, is cranked up until it’s tactile, and the shots, though patiently held, are chosen so cunningly that a simple change of viewpoint on a rooster can hit you like a plot reversal.

Filmed at sites in Norway, Spain, and the UK where animals are free to roam, Gunda devotes most of its running time to its eponymous sow and her litter, who are first seen, still glistening from the womb, as they tumble one after the other through the doorway of the rough-planked sty where their mother lies grunting. Kossakovsky devotes a quarter of an hour to an interlude in which roosters stride out of their cage and patrol a woodland, and about 10 minutes to the pasturing of a small herd of fly-pestered cattle. All the rest is a slow, rapt unfolding of the life of Gunda as she roots in the dirt, wallows, and pushes along the growing piglets with her snout, occasionally plopping over to let them scramble for her teats.

The shots are for the most part taken at ground level. (I imagine Kossakovsky must have abdominal abrasions from all that sliding over the terrain.) The attitude is wholly without sentimentality. You might try to project human emotions onto these animals, but Kossakovsky won’t let you, insisting by his close observation that you recognize their otherness. Roosters set down their feet at a pace that suits them, not you; cows address the troublesome flies by standing side by side and head to rear, as you and a friend would not, to switch each other’s faces with their tails; and Gunda ignores your idea of maternal care by stepping forward and indifferently crushing a newborn under her trotter.

This isn’t to say that Gunda is without feelings. At the film’s climax, humans enter the picture for the first time—still unseen, as are Kossakovsky and his crew, but made manifest by their machinery—after which Gunda is left alone to walk in circles. Is she puzzled, desperate, bereft, baffled, anguished? By this point, you should know better than to fantasize that you understand her. All you can be sure about is that this pig’s emotions are as real as yours and persist minute after minute—as yours do, too, with Kossakovsky’s camera silently following her around the deserted yard, and around and around.

I learned from The New York Times Magazine that in the early 1990s, around the time that David Fincher directed Alien3, he suggested that his father, Jack, try writing a movie about Herman J. Mankiewicz and his work on Citizen Kane. The elder Fincher, a journalist and film buff, had retired and wanted to turn his hand to screenwriting. The younger Fincher encouraged him to reread Pauline Kael’s two-part essay “Raising Kane,” published in The New Yorker in 1971, which famously, or notoriously, sought to prove that Mankiewicz wrote virtually the whole of Citizen Kane and that Orson Welles had unjustly grabbed credit as co-author. According to Jonah Weiner in the Times Magazine, Fincher asked his father, “Is there a movie in Mankiewicz pulling this thing out of the ether and laying it out for this movie brat to make?”

Evidently there was a movie in it, because Fincher’s Mank is now in release. Why he didn’t go all the way and call it Mank! I don’t know, but I find the backstory curious. By 1992, the year of Alien3, Kael’s essay had been so thoroughly debunked that Jonathan Rosenbaum could devote an entire section of his editor’s notes in This Is Orson Welles to a summary of the evidence. By 1995, Welles’s most exhausting biographer, Simon Callow, had dutifully accepted in The Road to Xanadu the ample record of Welles’s writing on Citizen Kane. Yet in 2003, when Jack Fincher died, he was still plugging away at the one-author theory in Mank—then in its eighth draft, Weiner says—and it’s obvious that still more script writing has been done since, without David Fincher’s having backed away from the false premise.

None of this would matter, of course, except that a theme of political lies and mass media is at the heart of Mank. While the movie’s present-tense story takes place in 1940 in the high desert town of Victorville, Calif., where Mankiewicz is holed up writing the Kane screenplay, numerous scrambled flashbacks return the action to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s, and especially to the propaganda campaign that movie studio bosses and William Randolph Hearst mounted against Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial candidacy. It is a fact that MGM produced and distributed fake newsreels to undermine Sinclair. I don’t know that Mankiewicz, in his nonstop cynical flippancy, was the source of this idea, as Mank would have you believe, nor am I aware of his having been chastened by its success, saying to a colleague, as Fincher has it, that filmmakers “have a huge responsibility.” Very little in Mankiewicz’s biography paints him as the responsible type. But Fincher has already made one movie about the power of media to shape public life, The Social Network (2010), and I see no reason why he shouldn’t make another, especially after the ascendancy of Trump and his reign of “alternative facts.” I just don’t think Fincher should tackle this theme by propagating yet another lie.

Not that his image-making powers are so formidable this time. Although he gives Mank a handsome period look (more of that exquisite black-and-white cinematography) and adds a you-are-there thrill by occasionally superimposing typewriter characters over the picture, as if you were seeing a screenplay come to life, the most notable trait of the movie is its corniness. Witness the early scene where Mankiewicz and a gaggle of Paramount writers are summoned to a production conference and cover up for their lack of work by making up a story on the spot, relay style. It’s a gag that was old when the Bowery Boys used to pull it, winking at each other and the audience while the supposedly dumb stiffs (in this case, David Selznick and Jo Sternberg) helplessly fumfer. Or consider the moment when Mankiewicz’s German nurse, charged with keeping the hopeless drunk from dying of liver failure before he completes Kane, reveals that this supposedly heartless man has paid for an entire village to escape the Third Reich. Again, there’s a kernel of truth. Despite a spotty anti-Fascist record (nowhere near as solid as Welles’s, for what that’s worth), Mankiewicz did help to settle refugees—but did Fincher need to halt the movie and have somebody make a set speech about it, straight to the camera?

In the role of Mankiewicz, a great-bellied Gary Oldman rumbles and shambles to order, mouthing famous wisecracks and playing up the wounded-genius bathos, while Fincher cuts back and forth between time periods in increasingly short increments. The rhythm pushes an artificial urgency; the performance hits all the marks, without being called to deliver the depth and ingenuity with which Oldman can imbue even Gotham’s Commissioner Gordon. Granted, it all looks marvelous, and Amanda Seyfried is appropriately lovely, charming, and sad as Marion Davies. But questions remain: Why was this vaporous stuff pulled out of the ether in the first place, and which movie brat’s interests does it really serve?

A shipboard romance between a distinguished American writer and her self-regard, Let Them All Talk stars Meryl Streep as a novelist sailing to England on the Queen Mary 2 to accept a rare and important literary award, accompanied only by a beloved nephew, two friends summoned after a lapse of many years, an agonizing work-in-progress, and a dark secret. Other flirtations are in progress as well: between the nephew (Lucas Hedges) and the writer’s agent, who is in a sense a stowaway; the openly inimical old friend (Candice Bergen) and any man on board who might have money; and Steven Soderbergh’s camera and the ship’s decor, which provides as lavish a playground as he’s had since the casinos of the Oceans movies. Add a screenplay by Deborah Eisenberg, herself a distinguished American writer, to structure the proceedings and give Streep’s character enough sensitivity to make your teeth ache, and you’ve almost got a movie.

I held on through thick but mostly thin for the fun of watching Streep and Hedges play busily off each other (like a tennis match between two many-armed Hindu gods) and for Dianne Wiest’s imperturbable performance as the surer, more simmering friend. And then, just in time, came the closing epiphanies, one after another. Were they a bit too short-storyish? Sure—but if, in retrospect, they didn’t requite the love of Streep’s character for herself, they let me yield her some love of my own.

Giving what has proved to be his posthumous performance, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chadwick Boseman looks shockingly thin and performs with electric vitality, bobbing, weaving, sometimes even pirouetting through the role of Levee, an ambitious, forward-looking cornet player raging to break loose from the country roots and “jug band” feeling of his job accompanying the queen of the blues. Boseman’s got the tragic lead and is running with it for all his magnificent skills are worth, though it’s Viola Davis who plays the formidable title role, decked out in a fatsuit while using enough of her own awe-inspiring gravity to bend the passing light of stars. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. I just wish George C. Wolfe had directed with a visual flair to match.

More satisfying than any of the above is Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, the autobiographical tale of a 1980s Korean family living in a trailer dropped into a field in Arkansas. Dad (Steven Yeun), despairing of wage labor in chicken hatcheries, has dragged everyone to this improbable spot because he’s determined to win independence as a farmer. Mom (Yeri Han) hates her newfound isolation and wants to return to California. Grandma (the raucously entertaining Yuh-jung Youn) comes to help and be helped but, lacking conventional grandmotherly skills, mostly contributes her saltiness. That leaves 7-year-old David (Alan S. Kim), the point-of-view character, and his sister (Noel Cho) to fling paper airplanes inscribed in crayon “Don’t Fight” at their parents, and hope for the best.

“The best” is not what they get. The outcome, after difficulties that are not wholly predictable, is simply a life with one another—grounded, caring, and also open to surprise. That’s how I’d describe Chung’s filmmaking as well. Out of an experience that’s as alien for his characters as it is for you, he quietly builds something that can serve as home.

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