Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Anti-social network

Most of the conversation swirling around The Social Network (2010) concerns the question as to whether it is "true." This is absurd to begin with, as the "truth" of human interactions is ultimately undiscoverable. There is no unbiased data. There is no science here, to be tested in double blind procedures. All we have is "he said", "he said." True, there are bits of what we laughingly call objective reality which are omitted, combined, reordered and, at times, invented in order to tell "lies like truth." Which leads us to the only answerable question: "Is it a good story well told?"

Yes, if you like Aaron Sorkin's brand of fast funny patter, often doubling back on itself, leaping forward and occasionally slamming characters with juvenile but effective sarcasm. The first scene is as effective an announcement of style as I've ever seen. It says, "wake up and keep up. This is going to go quickly and we're not going to repeat it." Movie theater snack bars should be pushing caffeine drinks to get audiences up to speed.

Oddly, the scene may or may not state the theme of the film. In it, protagonist Zuckerberg is obsessing about admission to Harvard final clubs, a near-impossible feat for a Jew, even in 2004 (according to this film--again, I am not going to go into what is or is not true about Harvard. Being an Amherst grad, I will naturally assume the worst.) So the film seems to announce itself to be about class and or ethnicity systems.

But soon the film shifts ground from race/class rivalries to those of technological expertise. (Let me point out that the expertise here is of the engineering variety. There are no genuine scientific breakthroughs involved in this story--merely the intersection between marketing and code writing.) Then the rivalry shifts to the question of monetization, capitalization and overall business acumen (and the male aggression encoded therein). Only over time is the true theme of the movie revealed--the ever-evolving methods of measuring relative status. It moves from social status, to mental skill to money skill, but finally all are surrogates for macho. (At one point, Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster asks the waitress for the check, and I turned to my wife and said, "and a tape measure, please, as long as we've taken them out.")

The screenplay also reflects the subjective nature of the facts, framed as it is by the depositions pursuant to two lawsuits. (Applause for the filmmakers who recognize that most lawsuits are determined in their discovery phase, eschewing the dramatic trial scenes which never happened.) This seems appropriate, for while the actual framework is not taken the book on which the film is based is, it is in a sense a product of one of the lawsuits, being told solely from the viewpoint of one plaintiff who claimed to have been squeezed out of Facebook. (It the lack of access to Zuckerberg is a source of contention around the film, as Zuckerberg comes off as a jerk, but not quite as big a jerk as everyone else.)

What is truly surprising about the film is that it is directly so self-effacingly by David Fincher, the super-stylist of Aliens, 7even, and Fight Club, the film that may have defined a generation as thoroughly as Catcher In The Rye defined its generation. Aaron Sorkin is one of the few brand-name writers to the public, thanks primarily to Sports Night and The West Wing. His only predecessors may be writers Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling (all three created by television), who could receive more attention in press and marketing materials than the directors of their films (and even possessory credits at times). Paddy Chayefsky was usually served by theater-oriented directors such as Arthur Hiller and Sidney Lumet, who were unafraid of smart people making fast smart talk for long periods of time. But Chayefsky came a cropper when Ken Russell was engaged to direct Altered States. It's hard to understand how this happened. Russell had never shown much respect for texts, and Altered States was no exception. The script was so mangled in Chayefsky's opinion that he had his name removed from the film.

Fincher is a great visual stylist, but he does not seem to have declared war on writers, and indeed, he lets Sorkin have at least the first half of the film to himself, restricting his signature to dark, backlit scenes and some very crisp cutting. Interestingly, when the first sunlit scene arrives, one of a crew match on the Thames, Sorkin and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth take the bit in their teeth and turn this somewhat pastoral sport into a grinding, eye-gouging affair. Soon thereafter the film dissolves into alternating scenes of decadence and law offices, and we are back to all talk all the time. One must assume that Fincher took his brief as maintaining the pace and the dark atmosphere and dialing down the self-pity that seems to flow around so many of the real-life characters. All praise to Fincher as the main who knows when his special talents are required and to what degree.

Presumably Mr. Fincher also hired Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross for the extremely original and appropriately twitchy movie score. It would be interesting to know who came up with the nervous scratchy sounds that accompany Zuckerberg's trip across campus at the beginning of the second sequence of the film; in any case it is exciting to hear, more than 80 years into the history of sound-synchronized film, people moving past the lush orchestras and pop pap in order to find new ways to use sound to enhance story-telling.

Clearly we now have two contenders for best screenplay in next year's Oscar ceremony, Inception and The Social Network. Both are sources for huge amounts of internet buzz, even more than is usual for new films. Maybe they should just count up who has the most "Like"s on Facebook.

UPDATE: Three great posts by Jim Emerson on The Social Network here, here and here. I especially like the third, where he looks at the visual code of Social Network. You should be reading his blog, Scanners, regularly anyway.

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