Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Five More Thoughts on The Social Network

Click here for my first five thoughts...)

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 Mark—though 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 thinking—well, 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.

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15 Comments:

Blogger James T said...

Delicious!

Garfield, indeed, did great things with this role. I also like how he seemed to feel guilty about "going to phase two" or however he expressed it and trying to not be upset that Mark used his money and then told him about it.

I hadn't understood what you meant with your tweet about the movie kind of living in its own world (I'm paraphrasing, obviously) but now I got it and I think it's a great observation. It didn't feel like a problem to me but I think that I really would have preferred it the way you suggest.

I'm not sure whether I agree with you one the "don't pretend it's such a big deal" issue. I use facebook a lot and it has influenced (not clear in my head in what ways exactly) my relationship with my friends and people I casually know but I'm not sure that it made a big difference. After all, we all relate to each other in the way we choose to relate. Telephone, facebook, MSN etc can't really force themselves on us.

But that's not what I'm trying to say. I think that to believe the facts matter that much is to see the story as the creators and many people see it which is something bigger than facebook etc. You've surely heard the arguments. Personally, I saw it as what it was on the surface and any deeper thoughts it evoked in me were subconscious, I guess.

Kinda funny trivia: Yesterday I was reading a bit regarding Lidgate in Middlemarch and he kind of reminded me of Zuckerberg which probably means he (Mark) is more of an archetype and not so much a trully unusual individual just because he is the only person who invented facebook. People have created or invented things since forever and many of them share some of his characteristics. But I think Lidgate and Z also have in common that, for me, illusion that they're not only brilliant but also quite concerned with humans, whereas, in fact, they can't really feel close to people. This opinion is probably exaggerated and not only have I not gone far enough into the book but also realise I shouldn't make this kind of assumptions about a real person. But I do think there is a basis in my idea.

Detail: Alien3, not 33 ;)

PS: I hope there is time left in your days to do something else in addition to reading my random thoughts post after post. Stop being so inspiring!

10:46 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger Dr. S said...

It is not a sign of anything about you that my first response to this brilliant post is "You're not on Facebook EITHER? Hooray!"

Or maybe it is a sign of something about you, which is that you are important to me!

:)

More from me soon.

11:31 AM, December 14, 2010  
OpenID okinawaassault said...

"The film is so sober, so deliberately handsome, that The Social Network occasionally feels like a state funeral for the family cat."

I would never have had the confidence to conjure and/or write a sentence like this.

And that there are pics floating around of the real Zuckerberg in his dorm room that actually has ample lighting. I'm at a loss of words about the movie in general or even the cinematographic fiction that Fincher and his crew creates. If anything, the technical aspects of the film is the second for third best thing about it, and that if award cabals continually recognize the film for its little brushstrokes instead of bigger ones in other films, I admire them for that.

But that said, I don't think the movie's as perfect as everyone says it is.

3:52 PM, December 14, 2010  
Anonymous Evanderholy said...

Really enjoying these "Thoughts on..." posts. They're definitely making me think in new ways about the movies in the instances when I'm not agreeing with you.

One thing I completely agree with is that "The Social Network" is hard to LOVE no matter how technically impressive and well acted and good for Hollywood it is. It seems most people I've talked to feel the same way too. It's certainly a good movie and I enjoyed it, but it's more than a little surprising to see it on its way to becoming the most acclaimed movie of the year. The award season is always a mystery to me though. It seems it's often more about momentum and timing than anything.

I also really was impressed by Garfield. I went in to the movie hearing about Eisenberg and Timberlake (and I thought both were good, although I think your thoughts on Timberlake were dead on), but walked away from it thinking about Garfield. Eduardo to me was the soul of the movie in the same way Jedediah Leland is in "Citizen Kane".

And speaking of "Kane" I also think that the whole Erica as rosebud thing was a little silly and oversimplified.

Lastly, I was also going to single out the "state funeral for the family cat" line until I saw I was beaten to the punch. Hilariously put!

4:21 PM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Oh, Nick. Not to sound like a sycophant, but you're brilliant.

So, five more great thoughts (and they're even better than the first five).

I agree with you and disagree with you on #7, I don't know if it makes me easy to please or pretentious but I do like the uncessarily sombre palette, it sort of reminds me of The Ghost Writer and how irreverent it seems even though sometimes it seems Polanski DOES want us to take it seriously. And I have a feeling that I'm more receptive to The Social Network because it parades itself around with an air of something funereal.

#8, is my favourite point of the entire five, especially because I think that the movie is less about FACEBOOK and more about the dissolution of the friendship which I think is Fincher and Sorkin's ace in the hole, because they do a fine job of tracing the small tics in a friendhsip and it's a theme that old, but still handled in a way that seems fresh,

. I love the moment you cite, the moment I always remember is more obvious. When Mark breaks up with his girlfriend at the beginning and Eduardo comes in when Mark says, “I need you,” and Eduardo responds – “I’m here for you.” And Eisenberg so glibly replies, “No, I need your algorithm.” Garfield’s response there is such a blink and you’ll miss it one, and right there we have the foreshadowing of that relationship going to hell.

4:38 PM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

PS. You don’t like Cattrall in THE GHOST WRITER? Yikes, I think I might like her even more than Cattrall, for me Brosnan was just an incredibly sore thumb sticking out (I don’t know, I just kept imagining Liam Neeson in the role for some odd reason).

Any chance of a 5 points on that one?

(Apologies for clogging up your comments' sections.)

4:52 PM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger Helena said...

@ James T - crikey, Lydgate has anything in common with 'Zuckerberg'? Apart from natural arrogance? If anything, his wife Rosie is a Zuckerberg. How far into the book are you, by the way?

5:17 PM, December 14, 2010  
Anonymous GlenH said...

I don't think the film is at all kind to the Winkelvii and old money. They start out as supremely, albeit charmingly arrogant, (the "did he offend our girlfriends moment is funny but I think it's intended to be cutting too).

As soon as things start to go wrong their big moments are all ones in which they get smacked down for abusing their privileged status or expecting things to go their own way. There is precious little sympathy afforded to them in the meeting scene. They are shown as happy to use their connections to pull strings while simultaneously denying that they are afforded any privileges at all. And their claim is ridiculed in much the same way as Zuckerberg will later attack it (the "If you invented it you would have invented it" argument).Indeed the only difference is that they are also presented as naive for thinking that the Student's Code might actually be invoked.

Similarly the last word on the Winkelvii is given Zuckerberg and it cuts to the core of what the film has been telling us about them: when things don't go their way they get petulant because their privilege has led them to expect that things ought to go their way and they feel the need to restore what they see as their rightful place in the world.

5:43 PM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger Dr. S said...

(Or rather I should have said, earlier, that it's not a sign of anything about *your post* that the thing that I gravitated toward is that I have you for company in the non-FB world. Clearly I'm losing my words!)

11:01 PM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Ha - That final paragraph sums up precisely how I feel about the film. I can see the strengths, I can see the weaknesses - the strengths significantly overwhelm the weaknesses and the latter aren't the kind of weaknesses that make me keep my distance from a film. But I still feel very distant from this one.

I don't necessarily demand that a movie has to engage me emotionally as well as intellectually (intellectually is plenty in itself), but something bugs me about the fact that this particular movie didn't make me feel anything. Apparently it's supposed to be the definitive portrait of my own generation, and it's supposed to make me feel some sort of nostalgia for the present, but I'm still not sure why. And apparently this movie is meant to be the fundamental proof that David Fincher's is the largest and sturdiest penis in all Hollywood, but the prospect of the next Fincher joint still doesn't excite me a tenth as much as the next Coen Bros, or Lynch, or Denis, or hell, even the next Ben Affleck.

I think all in all, maybe I'd feel much much warmer towards The Social Network if people and awards bodies weren't orgasming over it left and right. Maybe if I wasn't constantly wondering what I missed out on I might in fact appreciate the movie more for what I did enjoy. But at the same time, if everybody still wasn't going on about it and awarding it, it's entirely likely that I would never think of it again.

5:21 AM, December 15, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love reading your blog Nick. I think with your ten thoughts, you have a full review of the Social Network..

6:46 PM, December 17, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:53 AM, December 18, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

well put Tim. We're in the same camp here, both in what you've written and in praise of what Nick's written and how that might actually be points in the movie's favor, it's narrow fields of understanding and disconnect.

9:42 AM, December 18, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

(typos fixed, and thanks Nat!)

Must second (or fifth, or eighteenth) all the praise here for what is riveting criticism even by your standards. That said, my relationship to the movie is almost the inverse of yours: I was out in the cold through much of the first viewing, computer-generated breath and all, but have found it seeping in quite unexpectedly. The loneliness of it lingers. Your points about everyone else in Fincher's frames going about their equally intense tasks are quite brilliant, but it's the way he isolates his protags against these backdrops of bustle and worry that always impresses me most. They tune everything else out -- and here, the movie does too. I've gone back and forth on whether I'm glad it's this hermetic, but I've decided that I kind of am, because I think it gains a distinctively nightmarish, tunnel-vision aspect from doing this. It's almost like a Roy Andersson movie in this (if only this) respect, as a kind of apocalyptic vision of human (non)interaction, and I think if Fincher was going to choose one movie to lock up like this, excluding all draught, the one about the facebook founder with no friends was pretty much the right choice. Sure, he could have let a bit more air in, a bit of contrast. It's far from perfect. The Brenda Song business is pretty ghastly. I'm not on the "flawless" train.

But, if you don't mind me saying so, I can't see what's especially disheartening about it winning all these awards, in the context of everything you and I admire about it. Is it that you think other critics and viewers are admiring the wrong things? Is your distance from the movie not actually rather fascinating (it fascinates me, the way you've put it, and I think it may be close to what I respond to most in it)? I think the Facebook movie whose friend request you would instantly accept would not have had anything very interesting to say about Facebook, or people, or what Facebook says about people. The one you doubt, that holds you oddly at a remove, keeps digitising itself almost unnecessarily, and gives you a chilly feeling of inhabiting a stunted and semi-autistic world... that's the one for me. It's kept me off Facebook for months.

12:18 PM, December 18, 2010  
Blogger Robert said...

It's been awhile so I just wanted to wish you a wonderful Christmas and a splendid New Year and to thank you for continuing to provide such essential and illuminating insights on so many subjects. All good wishes to you!

12:12 PM, December 25, 2010  

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