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.

Labels: , , ,

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.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ten Thoughts on Inception

1. My second viewing only intensifies my biggest misgiving from the first viewing: has any film since Lady in the Water spent this much laborious time reciting the rules of its own game, which constantly change anyway, and thus become subject to new, gregarious articulations of mutable "rules"? At the 1 hour, 59 minute mark, Leonardo DiCaprio says to Ellen Page, "There's something you ought to know about inception," and I'm thinking, "Jesus, how much exposition does one film need?"

2. Partly for being drowsy and partly for my own inadequacies, I was one of the people who didn't follow Inception all that well the first time out. So, when I would read in reviews, "Anyone complaining that Inception is impossible to follow has just given up on any willingness to think at the movies," etc., I was both sheepish and defensive about feeling, "Well, I love thinking at the movies, and I was frigging lost." I don't know if I was more awake this time, or just had so much more of a leg up having seen it once, but the plot didn't feel any tougher to follow than, say, last year's twisty caper comedy Duplicity. Just without any of that film's delicious fizziness.

3. I still think way too much of Inception is given over to shoot-outs, explosions, and rote, Greengrassy chases through mazelike cities, when the script is going to such ambitious and laudable lengths, however tortuous, to stake out a new form of intellectual thriller.

4. God bless costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. I loved the duds the first time out, but they are just as natty and pleasurable the second time out. Excepting the fact that Ellen Page is just never going to look comfortable in a short-skirted business suit, high heels, and a French twist, every single "look" in this movie is a grabber without being a show-offy spectacle.

5. God bless cinematographer Wally Pfister and his team of camera operators. No question a Pfister-Nolan visual style is starting to feel a mite too predictable. Still, there are moments where (for example) just by making a sudden, jittery, handheld circle around Marion Cotillard, as she and Ken Watanabe advance toward a huge mahogany table, the image itself quivers with tensile, nightmarish energy that feels more "dreamlike" than do many of the ornate spectacles in the film.

6. It still feels profoundly naïve of the film to pretend that planting an idea in someone's head, even with the added task of making them feel it's their own idea, is actually harder than removing an idea that already resides in someone's head. Anyone who teaches already knows the reverse to be true: exterminating a misconception or a prior belief is much tougher than introducing a new thought. If any doubt remained, the 30% of Americans who still claim that Obama is not a U.S. citizen live and breathe so as to prove how ideas can be externally implanted but privately cultivated as if based on autonomous inspiration and real knowledge, rather than propagandistically induced, and experienced very much as one's "own" conviction. Hilariously, the same film that tells us how hard it is to import a single idea into someone else's head nonetheless depends on our accepting that someone else's brain will recognize an entire, city-sized mindscape, boutique-designed by Ellen Page, as a plausible product of its own subconscious.

7. I think the film might have worked better if we spent the first while in Leo and Marion's shared dream state, which she's still enjoying and which he's starting to feel itchy about inhabiting indefinitely. Watching him attempt his first, duplicitous act of inception—so as to trick her into thinking the world isn't real, and that suicide is necessary—would provide a story-driven rather than a fussily expository means of explaining how inception actually works. It would also start us distrusting or disliking Leo and feeling sorry for Marion, so that the turning of those identificatory tables felt more complex over the rest of the film. As it is, he's way too much the self-pitying hero, and she's way too much the evil, recriminating haint. The revelation of how he made her that way comes far too late, and is structured too much like the rest of this hyper-edited film, to land the immense moral and psychological blow that it's probably meant to.

8. The exploding-café scene between Leo and Ellen, which looked weirdly fake and unfinished in the cinema, still looks weirdly fake and unfinished on DVD. Both actors look like they've been uncomfortably forced to sit in front of a green screen, while being assured that something digital and awesome will be happening around them. The CGI here is way too shoddy, too Tempestesque, and neither of them looks remotely sold on the moment. But then, even in the hurtling van, Leo falls well short of, say, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the simple act of looking plausibly asleep. Leo just looks like he has his eyes closed and is waiting for someone to say "cut."

9. Part of what confused me about Inception the first time was understanding exactly whose "dream" we are in during the interstate-chase, the zero-gravity, and the Antarctic sequences. I am the first to concede, this doesn't seem quite so difficult now. Still, I have a hard time seeing the first or third of those realms as anything Ariadne would design—there's no linking stamp of personality between her characterization and her work, and she gives up much too easily and quickly on the elaborate conceits of her first, Paris-as-origami experiments. Her brilliance and her impetuousness are the first things we learn about her (she can't say no to this assignment, even when her ethics and reason tell her she should), so Ellen Page's soft-spoken playing of the character already feels like a bit of a letdown. More than that, though, such a free-thinking upstart would never have designed that boring Antarctic planet or the snowbound fortress therein, which are no easier to connect with Eames, the dapper, muscular, puckish, effetely virile "forger." The links between dreamer and dream-state, or architect and dream-state, are entirely notions of the script, without enough substantiating hooks into personality.

10. Still, Inception tries to do a lot, and takes a big risk on the cognitive stamina of its audience, which I ought to have appreciated more than I did the first time out. I still find the film heartless and overthought, with almost chillingly stock images of romantic, filial, and parental love, but I can at least work up a bit more enthusiasm for its palimpsestic gambits and its elegant visual surfaces than I did last July.

Revised Grade: C– to C+

Labels: , , , , , , ,