Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network is less a scandal-mongering "dark biopic" as it is a through-a-frosted-glass of New England cold and business venture frostbite, that, if not too darkly, is definitely opaque with the chilly paradoxes and dalliances of seeing life through hegemonic paths to happiness. A youth ethos picture through and through, the film begins in the hallowed halls of higher education - that paragon of both merit-based social climbing and peer-to-peer pecking order - then works up from there, in one ostensible sense presenting to the Generation Y viewer some certified paths to being the cream of the crop. But what actually plays out is a mutual geek-jock-player psychoneurotic nightmare drama for each involved, one that happens to play out over financial districts coast-to-coast and involve high-stakes civil lawsuit. Yet despite the large dollar figures being bandied about, the whole affair is marked by an all-consuming triviality, finishing off with characters monetarily recompensed yet beaten down traumatically by blows to their erstwhile blue-blood promise. At the core of many things and presumably serious matters, we prove ourselves just children.

The film's central frosty (and fragile) glasswork, Mark Zuckerberg (played as an impressionable yet stunningly self-possessed specimen of mental acumen by Jesse Eisenberg), presides over the film in the same way he does his own deposition in the film: passively, yet never in denial of the tale of folly being meted out. The film is unconventional in its structure, the story told in flashbacks from the present-time testimony of Facebook co-founder and now lawsuit claimant Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), while his words, and assorted peanut gallery interjections (from their representing lawyers to Zuckerberg, to the also-prosecuting Winklevoss twins), interrupt the narrative in starts and stutters. The whirlwind events the film depicts play out freely, while the rhetorical color is provided by the fact Zuckerberg never dictates the narrative himself.

Mark Zuckerberg, of course, is Aaron Sorkin's supposition on the real-life Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg - founder and ongoing CEO of his programming brainchild and now social networking phenomenon, Facebook. How much of a supposition is the film's characterization, I am not sure, but with scandal, and the brazenness of any respectable enfant terrible, comes a film to embellish their headline-making missteps of past. With all due respect to the real Mark Zuckerberg, though, the existence of the thoroughly unauthorized The Social Network is fully justified by the unabashedly exhilarating picture that has resulted, a down-to-the-bone excoriation of the pitiless realm of society sport and business sport, the petty realm of hegemonic drive, and an even-handed, appropriately murky, surprisingly sympathetic look at achingly brainy yet socially constipated genius.

Fincher's Zuckerberg is drawn with the insistence that he is an enigma, plain and simple. As much as he runs his mouth, he's always keeping an amazing amount to himself throughout the film, due to his schizophrenic self-image issues and his characteristically high-functioning awareness that even he himself hardly can predict his whims. If Zuckerberg seems an impenetrable mixture of impressionability and hard-headedness, it is sharply fitted to the film's painting of Zuckerberg as someone who, being a genius and social misfit, simply doesn't live and navigate life the way most people do. Another film, dealing with a more normal rendering of Zuckerberg, would address the Break-Up Myth the film concocts and begins itself with by exploring normal-Zuckerberg's love life and his susceptibility to emotions. Instead, in this film we have a seeming asexuality foisted upon him for the entire running length, as well as a number of malicious acts the character of Zuckerberg never allows himself to apologize for, defend, or even explain in much way at all (and this is because he doesn't feel he is capable, or deserves this right, to do these things that a normal, socially functional person can do). The screenplay aims for the opposite of cause-and-effect: duplicity doesn't lead to apology, remorse to reconciliation, emotions felt to communication skills. This is not to make Zuckerberg more and more alien to us, or more risible, but to make him especially true-to-life, burdened incurably by the flaws that come hand-in-hand with his uncannily percipient mind and technological brilliance. His stoicism is the emotion he denies himself, so geeky and socially useless as he sees himself. His callousness is not greed, but a resignation to the only role he sees himself fit: computer genius - not best friend or best boyfriend. It is the overriding pragmatism of a resignedly realistic mind, or the curse of a very fatalistic, insecurity-driven sensitivity to the cutting psychology of the social. After all, he creates this desired tool of social connection only after he comes to drunk-hurt epiphanies about the commonness of debased interpersonal relationships: how social satisfaction comes at the expense of the self-defined integrity of a single person's personal being; how a person's self-defining integrity can be hacked into, pilfered into a vast electronic trough, and diminished through a continuously calculating hot-or-not algorithm. This integrity is something he only half-succeeds in destroying for his ex-girlfriend that same frigid drunken night, after she uses it to break up with him and rightly call him out - neurotic nerd or not - for being an asshole (the mostly-fictional girlfriend character Erica Albright is played to a disarming degree of Average Girl dignity and speech pattern by Rooney Mara). This integrity surely lies at the root of Zuckerberg's sentimental attachment to her (just as the other woman who calls him an asshole, a sympathetic observing law intern at his interrogation played by Rashida Jones, also receives some of his scant sentimental side).

Even after he has seemingly vanquished Erica Albright through sheer will of Internet-powered objectification and Internet Age wizardry, her reappearances throughout the movie serve to depict Zuckerberg's inability to prove himself to her. A major arc/running-joke of the film is Zuckerberg's ridiculous physical inability to apologize to anyone, from Erica to Eduardo. At least twice we find him on the brink of uttering that all-too-important "s" word, but always he cuts himself off short with his mile-a-minute brain pattern. While Zuckerberg's final gesture at the end of the film (requesting Erica as a friend) can be seen as indecorous and impotent, only serving as a pompous pat-on-the-back, it can also be seen as the opposite of that, in light of Zuckerberg's inept-but-not-unaware mentality: it is an action that is very aware of its probable ineffectualness. A white-flag raised, the great Mark Zuckerberg's way of hitting rock-bottom (using, in such a way, the frivolous social web-toy he created) and kowtowing to the girl he initially condescended to, then spent the rest of the film not-apologizing to, happily distracted by all his new-found success.

Sorkin's regard of genius is that it is something hard to pin down, especially with our normal sense of social interaction. Even if Zuckerberg and former-best friend, present-plaintiff Saverin never reconcile, Zuckerberg's silent responses to Saverin's testimony show a residual fondness and respect for the hurt bubbling beneath his estranged comrade, as long as hurt laid down in complete justice to the niggling facts (niggling, but nevertheless the essence of importance in such a case of hurt feelings). If Zuckerberg never wallows in remorse, it is because he knows actions cannot be undone and that the most he can do for himself is regard as bygone the pettiness of whims (or the whims of pettiness...) that have brought them to such blows. Zuckerberg, even with the awareness that he did others the most wrong, is never made to deal dishonestly, and made only to insist on what he knows or believes is true. It is these two bits of characterization that make up Zuckerberg during-deposition, and they speak to his enigmatic, "evolved" state in the film's current-time framing segment - a mixture of wizened, self-imposed impassivity and sassy-stoical tit-for-tat with presumptuous lawyers, picking at the wounds and stoking the embers of all their mistakes.

But the film isn't nearly as hard on Zuckerberg and his fast-fingered libertarianism as people make it out to be. Despite the Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood-like downfall story, those films are much more laborious morality tales with their protagonists and their political and capitalist lust (this is just Facebook, after all, and these are just spoiled parvenus, Harvard brats, and a geek unlocking the key to social validity for himself and for all). His personality is a clearly-defined symptom of nerd inadequacy, not really anything nearing misanthropy or conquistadorial mania. He is pathologically, but not ruthlessly, unsentimental. His wish to become popular at Harvard and get in their exclusive clubs becomes an afterthought after he gets caught up in the newest, now most pragmatic objective of start-up. The fact is he is just the opposite of stupid. He knows what he's good at and where he belongs, which is not the Harvard social elite he once coveted, but as CEO of a billion dollar website. He accepts the solid fact of those who just don't belong in his California party, as well - even if it is his longest friend. His specialness is a beleaguering, beguiling mixture of passive-aggressive pragmatism and self-loathing, impressionability and utter adaptability (his reaction to Sean Parker's partnership-destroying cocaine boo-boo is nothing less than professional, in that awkward way of his), meekness and realism (one wonders how much he debated with himself on whether to just continue deflecting the bigger, somewhat-threatening Winklevosses as he does), and, for those inclined like Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig, the pioneering brilliance of a genius who sees the technological age for the liberalizing, self-entrepreneuring goldmine it is.

This is all to say, the film, for one, never lets him off the hook for what he did that one drunken night, and his non-fulfillment at the end of the film comes to represent the happiness we can't find by commanding social orders to your specially-skilled desire. Yet it also marvels at this social misfit extraordinaire: one who cannot fix his own emotional void, toils to expose and cater to others' (which he thinks will fix his own - at that point, he is still itching for campus popularity), and, as a result of those previous two, has spent countless intimate hours with both - that is, loneliness and drive - and so comes to understand and accept their deep, deadening underbelly better than most.

Charges of triviality are often lobbied at the film, but triviality consists the film's very motif. It is embodied in everything from the Winklevoss twins's crybaby allegations to the esteem-threatening need to win their major crew meet; in the brutal anti-loyalism capable of contracts, to the kinky game of sponsorship-courting (as well as Eduardo Saverin's uptight and dyspeptic aversion to such fancy expansion stratagem); in the cloistral college environment the film blossoms from (from Harvard Final Clubs to University book of code). Finally, triviality in both the party lifestyle (which - lo and behold! - isn't what Zuckerberg is looking for!) and the self-made business life, the former which makes up the life-made-meaningful shortfall that afflicts the film's defamation/characterization of Napster-founder, former-Facebook-partner Sean Parker (casted stuntly and played ably by Justin Timberlake), the latter which entails a life of consuming and ongoing cultivating without the prerequisite happiness.

The truth behind all of those things, though, labeled as "trivial" in context of one's dependence on them, is that they still can mean so much to these people, shown in the film no more incisively than in the straw-breaking blow that is the Winklevoss twins's loss on the Thames, the closeness of the game no comfort to the supercilious elite around them and their increasingly cemented status as the film's ironically hapless all-around losers. Fincher's The Man With a Movie Camera, Soviet propoganda-like race sequence is a wonder of execution and concept, brilliant in making the wryest of points: that the vigor of idealized, socialistic, robust and broad-shouldered social orders can and will be upstaged by new notions of superiority.

The pitfall of a Facebook film is Facebook's ubiquity and usage. A film that purports to be about a reality audiences are too familiar is bound to be called over-dramatized or to some extent trite or fraudulent. But The Social Network is a supposition on Mark Zuckerberg, like I'm Not There. and Bob Dylan. The supposition takes events, within some reasonable doubt, and explores philosophical points it finds contained within them. Some may scoff at the film's sure enough fabrication, but Zuckerberg didn't create Facebook because he was not a computer genius, not perceptive to what the social experience is, not responsible for hacking Harvard net and creating the questionable Facesmash, and, as circumstantial evidence goes, not a morally lapsing ball of social tactlessness. This is the moral essence of Zuckerberg and modern social values the film supposes from, and tackles with wit, nuance, and exactitude.

'The Social Network' - 8/10

Kino Obscura on The Social Network


David L. said...

Appreciate the linkback - this is a wonderful review of the film. The analogy to "I'm Not There" is interesting food for thought.

JR said...

My pleasure, I love your review - least of all for the only other Soviet cinema reference I've come across.

Thank you kindly, keep up the good work at Kino Obscura!