Monday, December 13, 2010

Five Thoughts on The Social Network

1. I graduated from Harvard three years before Mark Zuckerberg started, and only a summer before "the movie star" enrolled, so getting critical distance on The Social Network was a little tricky at first, both because of the movie's intense overlap with places, structures, and phrases that used to be daily vocab for me (Ad Board, Kirkland House, etc.), and because it's in many ways a completely different world than the one I remember. No one reading will be surprised to know that I was nowhere near the final club ecosystem, though I did go in one once, and I did not observe any strip poker, Olympic rowers, or popped collars first-hand. Here's my closest connection: in Massachusetts Hall, where the Winklevii meet with Larry Summers (and one of the few locations where The Social Network actually uses a real location shot of a Harvard exterior), the third and fourth floors above the President's suite of offices serve as first-year dormitory space, and I was the weekly janitor for the bathrooms in those dorms for my whole first year. Ka-ching! Where's my movie? Meanwhile, just as context, when I graduated in 1999, every upper-class house had its own "Facebook" with names and photos, as did the entire freshman class, but except in one case, all of the Facebooks were still hard-copy, Kinko's-type paperbacks. They were endlessly swapped around at parties and "study" sessions, while everyone played informal versions of "Hot or Not?" It's just incredible to me to contrast these memories with the internet-immersed, 2002-03 campus of The Social Network and realize that in many ways the "online revolution" really spiked in the space of a few short years. Corroborating points: the first version of my website, on a fas.harvard.edu URL, made me one of three or four people I knew, tops, who had any individual web-presence at all as an undergraduate. It was still seen as more of an unusual hobby than anything, somewhere between a marketable skill and a Dungeons & Dragons obsession. When I was applying to graduate school in the fall of 1998, only about half of the programs to which I applied, including Ivy League schools, had any apparatus for applying online, or even requesting an application online. To the extent that The Social Network is a period film, it's a very, very specific period, hugely changed from how a 1998-set film would work, but already palpably alien from our vantage of 2010. (Last annoying Harvard reference: I met Rashida Jones there once, when I was working with her roommate on a group project for our Divinity School class. She was awesome, very funny and very observant, and though her role in The Social Network is small, I'm sure she was a big help to the filmmakers in "getting" the social vibe of the campus.)

2. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are the deposition scenes. Maybe my favorite performance in the film, especially if you compare what's in the script to the deftly shaded personality on the screen, is Denise Grayson's as Gretchen, the lawyer for Eduardo Saverin. She balances disdain for Mark and exasperation with his obstinacy with a kind of subliminal excitement at the challenge he poses to her sharp, canny interrogatory strategies. She furnishes shades, too, of admiration for Mark's feistiness, sympathy for but also doctor-patient detachment from Eduardo, astonishment at the stakes and details of these friends' mutual falling out, fatigue with the whole affair, and an obvious, gendered pleasure in having called Mark on the carpet for his Facemash- and Erica-related sexism. She gets even this into the performance, without the screenplay allowing her to recite any of Erica's testimony in an actual scene. Way to go, Denise Grayson, and David Selby, too, who is super as the older lawyer trying, somewhat in vain, to command Zuckerberg's attention.

3. The larger point to make here is that the depositions play a larger role in the film than a lot of reviews admit. Fredric Jameson ingeniously argued that Dog Day Afternoon, so colorfully staged as a standoff between Al Pacino's showboating bank robber and Charles Durning's frustrated local cop, is actually a shrewdly veiled platform for evoking the quietest but most trenchant figure in the movie: the faceless feds, hiding behind their reflective sunglasses, absolutely laconic in speech and movement and attitude, who barely try to "hold" the screen but most assuredly decide Sonny's fate. They represent to Jameson an era-specific image of a new form of power: no personality, neutral voice, lethal anonymity. Hugo Weaving in The Matrix, 25 years ahead of time. I see The Social Network as doing something similar. If you look past the Zuckerberg-Saverin-Parker-Winklevoss-Narendra pentagon of vivid recrimination, there's a pretty fascinating snapshot of America as a purgatory of legal arbitration that's all but decided in advance. (As even Jones's character knows, of course they're going to wind up settling.) Facebook is described endlessly in and around the movie as a "game changer" in terms of how we all relate to each other, as both a venue for expressing personality and a monolith for crushing and homogenizing personality. But look at the warring lawyers, who yield only sidelong impressions of individuality while serving functional positions within a convoluted series of highly rhetorical, probably unwinnable arguments. Despite Zadie Smith, whose essay on The Social Network I admire enormously, it's not clear to me that we weren't already "People 2.0" well before "the" Facebook ever arrived. Zuckerberg, Saverin, and their ilk in one way represent a new social creature, and in another way look very much like the logical offspring of the elders who "represent" them, in more than one sense.

4. One last comment on the depositions, this time related to the film's structure. Normally, I'd be irritated by such constant flashback/frame oscillations, especially since the depositions carry such a heavy expository burden (even if, as I hope I've made clear, I think they serve the movie in infinitely richer ways). Whenever, for instance, Milk or the more recent Howl kept hustling us back and forth to scenes of retroactive narration and context, I felt dramaturgically cheated. But something else The Social Network manages is a deeply Web-conditioned, hyperlinking structure wherein I, as a viewer, feel like I am constantly "clicking" between past and present episodes trying to get at the bottom of what, if anything, is the root of the collective web of grievances. That this is achieved without dumbly straightforward Citizen Kane homages is itself cause for celebration. Granted, I feel like The Social Network stumbles a few times in trying to trace its way backward to the first seeds of discord. Erica-as-Rosebud feels too neat. I suspect the film is airbrushing the extent of the intellectual property claim of the Winklevosses and Narendra, since I don't see how the on-screen details would yield a $65 million payday. And the details of Saverin's assassination-via-legalism get kind of rushed through, on the way to the more emotionally showy but more dramatically superficial personality standoff with Sean. That said, I like that the film seems more driven by the nervous, uncertain, acrimonious "surfing" of the conglomerated problem of Facebook than by an impulse to settle or to crystallize these disputes. Structurally, the movie feels almost the same way it would feel if you got on Google, or Wikipedia, and tried to research the legal and personal history of who wronged whom in the creation of Facebook: hundreds of page views, lots of facts, many but not all of them disputed by various parties, but no clear "answer" at the end of all that. In this way, it is very much a Zodiac companion piece, without the glory or the tedium of that film's even more dogged commitment to illustrating a hopeless, boggy, monomaniacal fact-finding mission.

5. The movie steers largely clear of moralism, though not entirely. A great badge of credit in this direction is the characterization of Erica Albright, played with terrific focus and intelligence by Rooney Mara, who wins our sympathy without begging for it, or needing to. Somehow, despite giving Erica two full scenes plus one, furious, silent, moist-eyed reaction shot to clarify just how grossly Mark has used her and how much more ethically conditioned she is than he, The Social Network is scripted, acted, shot, and edited so as to avoid a kind of easy-pickings TKO of its own main character. The dialogue, the camera placement, and the utter unflappability of Eisenberg in the opening scene make it feel like an exciting square-off, even though in every moral way, Erica trounces him in straight sets. The movie is generous enough to make the programming of Facemash, the going-live of Facebook, and the boys' first tastes of peer approval feel genuinely exciting and more or less ingenious, rather than reducing these to melodramatic, Faustian moments where Zuckerberg sells his soul. Erica strikes me as correct in everything she ever says, but her being right is not allowed to feel like the only point of The Social Network, and Mara's performance isn't infected by seeming smugly self-conscious of her character's victories. By contrast, Justin Timberlake, who gave smart, differently charismatic performances in Alpha Dog, Black Snake Moan, and Southland Tales, is the only actor in The Social Network who seems to play to the audience's impressions rather than to the core of what his character thinks and says. You can see the cocky walk and flamboyant gestures he has worked out for Sean Parker, just as you see and hear the extra arrogance he needlessly injects into his already-arrogant dialogue about lacquered pork, moving to California, billion-dollar paydays, et al. The movie joins him in ganging up on Sean Parker, who is triply embarrassed as the finale approaches: flinching from Eduardo and pathetically lying to the cops and making an absurdly paranoid phone call from a holding cell. It's not that I'm eager to see Parker recuperated, but the movie's willingness to maintain multiple points of view within a highly contested situation is one of its biggest credits. In acting and scripting, the handling of Parker falls short.

This post is already too long. Five more thoughts to follow, in due course.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

An great read (as per usual), I really ended up liking this one after thinking that I wasn't, I agree that the deposition scenes are strongest - since I also think that that's where Eisenberg shines brightest...slightly overbearing and yet sympathetic in a weird way.

...seeing that you touched on Rashida, I'll continue. I'm probably in the vast minority, but behind Eisenberg and Garfield she gives my favourite performance of the movie. I can't even put my finger on something specific, but way after it ended I was thinking about her character.

I love the point you make about Howl, which I thought was C/C+ territory (but I still feel it's a film that should be watched even if it's not entirely successful in what it aims to do)

PS. I think you mean flinching from Eduardo in the fifth line from the bottom.

4:36 PM, December 13, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks, Andrew! I agree that Eisenberg is terrific in these deposition scenes, too. More on him in my five additional thoughts, probably.

We agree in every sense about Howl. And thanks for the typographical correction!

4:41 PM, December 13, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

Your thoughts are always so much more compelling than mine! I felt that the deposition scenes, both in their internal arguments and structuring relationship to the rest of the movie, were the baldest passages of Sorkin's script -- to give a simple example, the way he has to stress that Mark and Eduardo only "used to be" friends, where every other detail of the scene is already telling us this; and the fact that he does use those scenes to insert timelines and chronology for us in a slightly crowbarred fashion, so that it's not quite such a random browsing experience as it could ideally be.

But I certainly appreciated the way they were shot and played, particularly second time round, and love all your points about the lawyers. (I'm glad you've put a name to those actors, who I hadn't looked up, I must confess.) In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the quality of Fincher's direction (and the casting) shines through in those scenes more brightly than almost anywhere else in the movie, because so much more is being supplied, often around the edges (and including Jones, whom I join Andrew loving in that part) than the almost overly-methodical scripting approach might have dictated.

And to give Sorkin his due, it's not like the script is bad in those scenes, and it yields plenty of acidly memorable moments. "If you were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook", &c &c.

Looking forward to the next five!

5:34 PM, December 13, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

I was hoping you'd write something on this film eventually so thanks :) To Derek, too :p

I would say it's weird that I like hearing/reading bad things about it when I actually liked it, but I know it's because of all the "best dialogue of the last ten years". I was thinking about saying that I enjoyed the dialogue in Basic Instinct more (as shallower as it obviously is) but I was scared. Oops, I said it :p

I'm afraid I really let myself get harsh on the film. I kept noticing its weaknesses and let its strengths go by.

Your no3 is really interesting but I have to read it again more carefully to really grasp it.

I agree about the handling of Sean Parker and that last scene between him and Garfield was ludicrous. We're supposed to hate Parker and then feel a little good that Soverin makes him look like a little man or something like that, we get it. Not really important but as I said I tend to nitpick.

And it's official. I'm rhe only one who thought Rooney Mara was bad. There were times when she used her eyes intensely for the sake of intensity and her "I'm sorry you're not impressed by my education" felt so fake. She got some things right but I don't think those things were that hard. But I'm an as**ole and I'm not just trying to be one ;)

I just saw that you have posted new thoughts so I'll continue my rambling in the new post :p

6:01 PM, December 13, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

one correction: this post is not already too long. I could read 20 more thoughts!

6:04 PM, December 13, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

Um, no. I was confused by your tweet :p

But I'll wait before saying more nasty things about this movie that I enjoyed :)

6:04 PM, December 13, 2010  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

Great post, Nick. As per your first point, I think it's really interesting that the film is a period piece about such a specific era. I graduated from college in 2003, so the film's depiction of college life and its online extensions certainly resonates with me a great deal. By that time Facebook hadn't yet become the dominant force it would soon become. Napster was more the program that defined my college years, and though MySpace was around it didn't seem ubiquitous at the time the way social networking does now. The film's makes the 2002-2003 Internet seem kind of quaint; it's almost nostalgic for a time before Facebook had spread. By choosing such a specific era to chronicle, the film winds up being in part about the rapid (but maybe superficial) changes in online culture wrought by these kinds of Internet shake-ups.

I also agree that Facebook, for all the hype about it, hasn't changed very much about people or the way they interact, and I think the film in some ways makes the same point. Facebook really just gives Zuckerberg a new hi-tech venue for the assholism and sexism that he already practices offline. It suggests that Zuckerberg was the perfect guy to create a new social networking hub because he acts in real life the way Internet trolls act online.

10:27 PM, December 13, 2010  
Anonymous SVG said...

I like your point 5- I've been trying to pin down what annoyed me about those 2 characters! I completely agree with you about Justin Timberlake. I liked Rooney Mara's performance and her scenes but I didn't like the way her character was used to frame the actions of the film. The last scene (where Eisenberg checks her facebook) just felt very glib.

I did like the film though and I'm happy that Jesse Eisenberg is getting awards for his performance.

7:08 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger PIPER said...

Nick,

Great post.

A point about the Strip Poker and maybe it has been discussed here and elsewhere - but don't you think that that was more of a dream sequence in Zuckerberg's head, than reality? I've seen the movie 3 times and I've always gone back to that. It's so "music video" that it seems as if it's a fantasy.

1:03 PM, December 15, 2010  

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