Five More Thoughts on The Social Network
6. Three things strike me as peculiar about the film's version of the Winklevosses. First, by digitally doubling the same actor, Fincher goes out of his way for a special effect where he doesn't need one, because this is who he wants to film. Second, rather than entice the kind of reviews that would follow behind any actor who managed to etch two completely distinct personalities, Armie Hammer plays both roles in such a shrewd but low-key way that his own work and the effects artists' work draw even less attention to themselves. Third, though the Winklevii clearly stand in for a register of moneyed, heavily laureled Ivy League culture that Zuckerberg cannot stand, neither the actor nor the film makes us particularly dubious about them. In creating Tyler and Cameron out of the same person, Fincher is doing something ornate with technology not because he needs to but because he can, which the film simultaneously boasts as a near-seamless effects achievement and makes so very seamless that you almost don't notice. We aren't far, then, from Zuckerberg's own relation to technology: the eccentric innovator, pushing at limits for his own inscrutable reasons, making things harder for himself for almost no reason, loudly declaiming his glory while giving away the bonanza of rewards that accrue to him. I appreciate that the Winklevosses have different mentalities, especially in the way they get angered by different things: getting snowed by a contract employee vs. seeing the Harvard Student Handbook flouted. Still, neither is made a stooge, and I like that Zuckerberg's spirit of meticulous construction for its own sake gets embedded in the film in an unexpected place. Also, neither "Old Money" nor "New Money" gets painted with any kind of broad brush in The Social Network. The distrusts, the opportunities, and the imprecations are always based on something else.
7. Meticulousness, though, isn't always an asset to this movie. I almost always love the geometry of Fincher's frames and the choreography of movement inside them. Even in scenes full of people talking, there is usually a great deal going on in several shots beyond the talk. The scale of visual depth and the abundance or suppression of movement in Fincher's shots often bear an important dramatic relation to what's going on in the scene. At the same time, the lighting of The Social Network, however impeccable, often feels a bit more portentous and solemnizing than I suspect it really needs to. That dark palette of browns, ambers, burgundies, grays, and greens that has been a Fincher trademark since Alien³ sometimes seems to be here because it's what he and his D.P.s default to, and sometimes to lend the invention of Facebook an ominous visual heaviness that the stakes of the events don't always live up to. The film is so sober, so deliberately handsome, that The Social Network occasionally feels like a state funeral for the family cat. The explosion in social networking, the coining of a 26-year-old billionaire: I agree that these deserve a weighty reckoning, and it probably helps the movie to risk taking itself too seriously rather than seeming embarrassed about its subject matter, as if nervous that the audience will think Facebook is really not a big deal. But I'm not on Facebook, and the jury's still out to me about how big a deal it really is. I occasionally want the movie to let in a little oxygen from the world outside itself. Some of the shots look just like the ones where Morgan and Brad find the bodies in Seven. You're watching a film about a friendship busting up and a dot-com going boom, and visually, you're thinking, "Who died? Is everyone gonna die?" Framing and blocking participate in this misgiving. Maybe it's just personal taste, but I like Fincher's monomaniacs best when his wide, wide frames reveal that what counts as Everything to these fixated zealots is not necessarily Everything to us, or to everyone else on screen. Jake pores obsessively over his Zodiac paraphernalia in a newsroom that stretches seemingly for miles, where a lot else is going on. The police headquarters in Seven brim with people who worry just as much about whatever it is they worry about as Brad worries about his case, and as Morgan worries about our bankruptcy as a species. The Social Network seems too full, too many times, only of people who are obsessed with Facebook, or Harvard, or Napster, or appletinis. Almost every time Zuckerberg steps outside, the world is empty, especially on the campus. The Social Network might be making a point there, but it feels like a bit self-serving, overly credulous point.
8. But then, just when you're getting aggravated by all the hermetic enclosure, Fincher disarms you with a quick, beautiful detail that he refuses to vulgarize with a close-up, as when Eduardo and Mark repair to Mark's suite to have the conversation that eventually gets torqued by Eduardo's discovery of the Cease and Desist letter. You learn a lot about these guys from their reactions to that letter and from their responses to each other's reactions. But you learn just as much when they walk into the room, Eduardo reflexively grabs two beers out of Mark's fridge, then Mark grabs his own. Mark never notices that his friend's automatic impulse was to grab something for both of them. Eduardo does notice, right as he's about to pass one bottle to Mark. Andrew Garfield, who gives such a good performance, shows us a split second of Eduardo's feelings being hurt by the fact that his best friend is not only someone who doesn't notice him, but someone who does not in any way expect to be taken care of. Eduardo clearly craves a form of friendship that involves at least some mutual solicitude. Judging from Garfield's face, he takes this silent moment harder than the ones where he gives Mark tricky information ("I just got punched by the Phoenix!"), and Mark responds with something both congratulatory and withering ("It probably is a diversity thing"). Eduardo already has his guard up for that. It hurts more when his guard is down, which is certainly proven again in the last act. I love Fincher when he allows himself the kind of soft touch necessary for these muted but rich details of performance.
9. In a strange way, The Social Network is entirely suffused with conflict and seems not to have much of it. In the two tracks of legal deposition, it's kind of remarkable how rarely the various plaintiffs and defendants are actually disagreeing about facts, and how the outcome of the film-long litigations is deferred to postscript captions. The structure and premise of the case is bitterly contestatory, but there's a lot more aching than shouting in The Social Network. The Winklevosses and Narendra look like they'll need a while to recover from the fact that "Connect U" obviously was junior varsity compared to what Zuckerberg concocted from their rudimentary ingredients. They look shell-shocked by the fact that they hadn't even seen all the way to the bottom of the glass they poured for themselves (as Zuckerberg did, almost instantly). Eduardo and Mark look like they're in a divorce hearing, the kind where there's anger, but heartbreak wrapped around all of the anger, despite how Eduardo's Piglet-ish self-effacements and Zuckerberg's porcupiney semi-autism make it hard to associate either of them with a melodramatic word like "heartbreak." Even the big High Noon climax is between Eduardo and Sean, who never got along anyway, not Eduardo and Markthough Garfield lifting Eisenberg's laptop to smash it on the desk is a surprisingly dismaying image of aggression. All the major characters seem palpably wounded by what has happened, in ways that are rarely if ever the subject of their voiced regrets, even though the film is full of voiced regrets. You never hear: I never took my talents for granted, but I thought they stretched further than they do. I should never have stayed friends with someone who doesn't know how to have a friend. I, as much as Sean, was too hard on Eduardo. I've had the biggest idea I'll ever have, maybe bigger than anyone will ever have, and I'll never stop being asked to apologize for it.
10. I'm leaving the tenth idea open, because I feel like I haven't had it yet. Is it about the weirdly perfunctory, finally truncated and witchy handling of Brenda Song's character? My feeling sure that these guys, and maybe these girls, would not have rushed sex in adjacent bathroom stalls, dankly lit to look like sewage-storage units? The debt Jesse Eisenberg owes to Jeff Cronenweth for making sure no light ever reaches his irises? My curiosity about how long my own students will collectively cite this as their favorite movie, as they did about Fight Club (but not till after DVD), and how long it will take them to move on to something else? My joy at seeing that being a geek, in itself, is never seen as The Problem these characters face, which is as refreshing as seeing that being plus-sized and lanky-haired is, praise God, not The Problem that Lena Dunham faces in Tiny Furniture? My delirious happiness that Hollywood can grow an American story within an American studio using American talent and take this much stylistic and thematic care with it, and that American audiences actually lined up to see it?
I'm not sure what my final thought about The Social Network is, because that's just where the movie leaves me. For all that I appreciate and admire in it, even for all that I second-guess in it, I still don't feel very much about it, and there's something vaguely disheartening about seeing it trounce all comers as the year's critical darling. I don't think it's cold or heartless or smug. I don't have the big reservations about it that I hear being voiced by some more forceful detractors. But I don't actually feel connected to it, even after two viewings. I would teach it in a class about directorial technique, I think it's terrific for Hollywood that it exists, and, rarely among movies I admire this much, I don't know if I'd miss it if it hadn't been made. Films like The Town or Animal Kingdom or How to Train Your Dragon feel so much more modest and familiar about what they're trying to do, via their own impressive proficiencies. But I left each of those movies wondering when I'd see them again. Aside from what I've written above, I left The Social Network thinkingwell, I don't really remember what. There's something missing in the middle of my relation to the film, if not in the middle of the film itself. If I were actually on Facebook, and The Social Network sent me a Friend Request, I don't know how I'd answer, or if I would. Why is that? I still don't know.