[Warning -- This post contains massive spoilers.]
Apropos of the film's subject matter, The Social Network has inevitably resulted in an Internet firestorm, prompting various discussions about its themes, what great work to compare it to (I've fallen in line with the consensus with Kane and threw out The Godfather Part II, Jason Bellamy ingeniously traced Mark Zuckerberg to Daniel Plainview) and the inevitable argument that accompanies David Fincher's work, the question of what side the director takes with his characters.
The blogosphere, an incestuous love pit at the best of times, went into a cross-posting frenzy, and a number of my favorite bloggers did me the kindness of mentioning my own review. In an attempt to express my gratitude without devolving into the sort of back-patting that makes linkage such an empty gesture at times, I've decided to use these other reviews to aid my own desire to examine the film further, as it's yet to slip my mind.
I've now seen the film twice, and I've also gotten access to the screenplay and the soundtrack -- both of which, incidentally, I found through my friends' links on Facebook. With Sorkin's script at my side and some more vivid memories of visual touches, I'd like to focus on several aspects of the film that make it one of a gifted director's finest achievements and the most memorable mainstream film since Inglourious Basterds. Let's start at the top, shall we?
What is this film about?
It is the height of reductive pointlessness to say that The Social Network is a movie about Facebook, especially when that simplification is used as justification to avoid the picture. As Jim Emerson so masterfully put it, "What commenters think they mean when they say it's 'about Facebook' is not precisely clear. Is that like saying you don't want to see Chinatown because it's about public utilities?"
The Social Network is not about the "how," nor even, to be honest, the "why," but the "what." It is about Facebook itself, about its effects on the world via the microcosm of individual and group usage. Aaron Sorkin cares not for the accuracy of the founding of Facebook, almost certainly a mundane story even with the controversy that surrounded the site then and now. Instead, he uses a broadly fictionalized vision of Mark Zuckerberg to get at the heart of social networking. Mark is the brain behind Facebook, and Sorkin makes him into the soul of it as well, and what a rotten thing it is.
The real Zuckerberg does not, by any account, seem as single-minded and obsessive as his big-screen counterpart, but the two share a certain apathy for privacy rights. Zuckerberg continues to be plagued by privacy issues, and we see Eisenberg's Mark casually hacking into the photo databases of Harvard's dorms to create the precursor to Facebook. Sorkin's playwright style leads him to create a circularly charted movie, with the first major action of the film being a woman calling Mark an "asshole" and the final line coming back to that to say that Mark isn't one but is "just trying so hard to be one." It's a clunky move on Sorkin's part and not even Fincher can inject cinema into it, but the message underneath is relevant. As we've seen throughout the film, everyone's conflicting perspective has one common trait: Mark is the problem.
Social Parameters: A Digital Sheen on Old Codes
That Facebook created a social revolution is undeniable, having reached the 500 million user plateau this year in just over five years. Yet as Jim Emerson argues, The Social Network does not show how Facebook changes people so much as it simply gives them a new avenue to pursue old social and legal codes. Emerson's essay approaches the film from this perspective by starting on a line of dialogue in the initial flurry between Mark and Erica Albright. At one point, Erica desperately tries to steer the conversation out of the dark realm of Mark's insecurity and misreadings by saying "I'm not speaking in code!" Mark does not understand this because he always speaks in code, whether literally doing so as he describes programming Facemash and Facebook or attempting to navigate the social norms he cannot master. Erica speaks honestly with Mark, but he's trapped in a mode of conversation he thinks will impress, even when it clearly doesn't. Mark tries to project an alpha male mentality, mixing sexual supremacy and career ambition in a way that males have done for decades, if not centuries -- imagine a young Julius Caesar telling his first consort, Cornelia, that he was going to conquer the world someday to get an "in" with the people. When he fails, he creates an online world where he writes the codes, the codes that make the site work and the codes that dictate socializing.
Compounding this thread, the film revolves around two concurrent lawsuits, bringing legal codes into the narrative. Without even diving into the myriad of privacy laws Facebook has at least tested, if not outright violated, the intellectual property theft Mark uses against the "Winklevii" and the twisting, treacherous legalese he uses to force out his best and only friend structure the film's language in complicated jargon. One almost sympathizes with Mark when he arrogantly mocks phrases like "answer in the affirmative" and the spoken-aloud addition of simple figures meant to drive a point home.
To complicate matters even further, most of the action occurs in Harvard University, one of the oldest institutions in the country. Cameron Winklevoss understands and appreciates that legacy, and he initially refuses to let his brother and their business partner, Divya Narendra, sue Mark in court or smear him in the Harvard student paper. Yet he does exploit the almost aristocratic entitlement of his father's connections to win an audience with the Harvard president. "This building is 100 years older than the country it's in," warns a secretary before the twins walk in to a president who proves how well-suited he is to his job when he instantly dismisses their sense of self-importance. As the Winklevii play on monetary social codes to get their way, the president taps into Harvard's history to demonstrate how offensive it is for students to burden him and the people who run the school with minor squabbles.
Mark is right when he notes that the Winklevii are incensed less because their similar idea was appropriated and expanded into something far greater than they are indignant that they didn't get their way. At the same time, the twins are right to feel offended and wronged, and their legal action is justified even if the sum they seek borders on the absurd. But that action also leads to the amusing scenario of old men with decades of legal experience representing twentysomethings who use these depositions as means to sling crap at each other. They're not unlike the investors Mark offends so much that they end up being impressed by them. As much as all these young men like to consider themselves game-changers, they fit neatly into the expectations of the elders who cannot understand them. Mark Zuckerberg could buy out the Winklevoss' father and shut down daddy's pro bono work, so the lawyers have to treat a pissing match as a matter of court record. The investors, on the other hand, know that the real geniuses are the ones who, like Mark dress and act without any regard for social propriety; by showing up 20 minutes late to meet with Mark, Sean Parker convinces our protagonist that he's the real deal, and Mark's own lateness and rudeness to billionaire investment firms wins him serious backing.
Then, there's the matter of Facebook itself. Returning to Emerson's point, is the site "just one more (online) face that we display to our social network of contacts, family, friends and 'friends'"? The final addition Mark makes to the code of TheFacebook is the display of "relationship status" and "interested in." This makes researching any crush object easy, but as Mark notes, people have always tried to figure out whether people they like are taken. If college students pick their classes and seating arrangements to try to be closer to people they do not know, can Facebook really be blamed as a stalking enabler?
Regarding the darker side of Facebook as a tool for torment-- evidenced recently in the horrible case of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi -- older social codes can also be seen as the motivating factor in cyberbullying. Mark's drunken blog about Erica's breast size has boys coming to her dorm to mock, but the only difference between this an an analogue harassment is that Mark can be back at Harvard instead of gossiping among B.U. students.
Cyberbullying runs on rumor, which doesn't need the Internet to spread like wildfire. Look at the way the Harvard Crimson sparks discussion even as everything that makes the student paper is old news because it involves online events. In the film's oddest and cleverest subplot, Eduardo inadvertently embarrasses Facebook when he must care for a chicken to get into an exclusive final club. In the ultimate display of the dissonance in knowledge between generations, Eduardo is a business and math whiz but never bothers to figure out what chicken eat, so he feeds his bird tiny pieces of fried chicken, leading to charges of "forced cannibalism." That article later comes back as evidence in the suit between Eduardo and Mark, leading Eduardo to wonder if the story was planted, first suspecting the Winklevii and in retrospect fearing Mark. Late in the film, Parker and some Facebook interns are arrested for cocaine possession the night of a PR bonanza for the site, and a coked-out Sean tries to blame Eduardo for somehow alerting the cops.
Even if Sorkin himself doesn't spotlight it in his crabby old man mode, the clear implication of The Social Network is that Mark Zuckerberg never succeeded in doing anything more than he dreamed: he put socialization online, and in the process he made it possible for us to conceive just how terrible and conniving even the average, unassuming person can be. When Mark breathlessly tells Eduardo, "We don't know what [Facebook] can be," he's absolutely right, but that's because it fulfills its purpose so well that it must always evolve. For some, it's a way to extend conversation with friends; for others (including the movie's version of Mark), it is a way to re-frame reality on a more manageable level.
Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg's Tyler Durden
David Fincher loves doppelgängers, a natural outgrowth from his tendency to break his plots down into their parts and rearranging them back in order. John Doe provides an emotional foil for Detective Mills -- Doe is the embodiment of the lack of control bubbling underneath the detective -- and a moral contrast for Somerset, reacting to the same sense of nihilism by destroying the world Somerset seeks to save in spite of himself. The three characters who most pursue the Zodiac killer also play off each other, Graysmith's Eagle Scout attitude colliding with Avery's alcoholic disconnect and Toschi's exasperation. Benjamin Button is seen in the various people he meets in his travels, all of them providing glimpses of normalcy that seems so fantastical when seen through the eyes of an extraordinary man. And do I really need to go into the doppelgänger structure of Fight Club?
In The Social Network, the Mark's natural intelligence and earned wealth is contrasted with the Winklevii's "natural" wealth and earned intelligence. He envies their athleticism and physical attractiveness, but he knows that he can do things on a computer they cannot fathom. When he says under oath that he never used the basic code the Winklevii provided him, we sense he swears this not because he's trying to avoid being caught out but because he would sully himself with their feeble attempt at trying to indirectly compete with him on an intellectual level after besting him on a physical one. Fincher also pits Mark against Eduardo, who at least pretends to be more professional despite his own frat boy attitudes. Eduardo is gifted, but he's also a generation behind in his thinking and doesn't understand how sites work in the way that Mark does. Thus, when Sean Parker arrives to take the place of the tiny devil on Mark's shoulder, he successfully plies Zuckerberg by (accurately) pointing out Eduardo's flawed business plan.
The fundamental contrast in the film, however, is between site and creator. Facebook is Mark's Tyler Durden, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Mark Zuckerberg, indeed anyone who uses the site, is Facebook's foil. In restructuring society for the Internet, Facebook makes us define ourselves, and it adapts to the trends and shared interests that grow as more users join. And for everything we put on Facebook that isn't a completely accurate representation of ourselves -- even something as innocuous as "Liking" something you only marginally enjoy because someone you like is a fan -- the simulacrum of Facebook adjusts to the simulacra we feed into it, separating it further from reality even as the site's influence spreads to the real world. When "Facebook me" enters the lexicon, the symbiosis is complete. Old social codes inform Facebook, are then exaggerated by being online and return to reality stretched and distorted. It's almost like downsampling caused when one routinely rips mp3 files from CDs and then burns CDs from the lower-quality mp3 files than the original disc: each iteration makes a proper, physical copy from a digital compression, which is then blown back up in an inferior form. If Facebook has any real impact on social codes, it's that: it rerecords the tape so much that eventually all you hear is static and hiss.
Besides the doppelgängers within the film, Mark has already drawn comparisons to other figures. I've already discussed Charles Foster Kane in my original post and I would direct you to the Jason Bellamy piece I posted earlier to get a good sense of the Plainview comparisons. My new favorite comparison, though, is Jay Gatsby, not only because it allows one an even more tangible link to Fincher's previous film, the Fitzgerald adaptation, but because it's just so fantastically accurate. F. Scott Fitzgerald had a gift for digging under the partying side of society to show the rotting soul and aching loneliness belief. I was actually converted to liberalism by two things: the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, and The Great Gatsby. His literature survives today because we continue to labor under the false image of prosperity given off by the rich while class gaps widen and average income plummets. The situation of his Jazz Age resurfaced in the '80s and it's here again, evidenced here by the incessant partying of the young elite that only just outpaces their sense of emptiness.
In The Social Network, Fitzgerald's influence can be seen as plainly as it is in the actual movie based on the author's work. Mark walks around in a hoodie and sandals, even to meetings with billionaires, and life is just one frat house social for him as the economy slouches toward Bethlehem in the film's timeframe. He ends up the youngest billionaire in the world, but his final act in the movie is to try to reconnect with the woman he never got over. But does that make Erica his Daisy? That brings us neatly to the following:
Is The Social Network sexist?
I had not originally planned to talk about this, but a significant outgrowth of discussion of the film has centered on the role of women. Jezebel, a magnificent feminist site, ran an almost embarrassingly reductive review that focused entirely on the subject. It charges the film with painting women as saints or whores and then shifts gears to become a much more readable and thought-out piece on the film's accuracy. I do not think the review is reductive because I don't agree: I just cannot fathom how they decided the film agrees with the male view of these women.
The review is entirely fair in objecting to besmirching Zuckerberg's name by painting him as a misogynist, but the film version is so vile that you cannot sympathize with his or any other man's view of ladies. Fincher and Sorkin emphasize that we're not supposed to pity Mark because he's a nerd, not only with Erica's scathing line at the end of the opening scene but with the magnificently edited piece that juxtaposes Mark coding Facemash in a drunken, misogynistic tear to one of the final clubs hosting a disgusting party-cum-orgy in which women are literally bused in to strip and screw. These men are all entitled and arrogant, and they all view women as the ultimate sign of their status, and Mark's violation of their privacy is no different than whatever violation might occur in a backroom of a frat house.
Let's focus on Erica for a moment. She doesn't fit the "saint" role because she's not in the film enough to be its moral compass. She's simply the splash of water to the face that comes along whenever we might start rooting for Mark. Interestingly, sex isn't as big a priority for Mark as it is for others, though he's certainly not above exploiting them. When two groupies take him and Eduardo into bathroom stalls, the camera stays with Eduardo, which A) shows that Saverin isn't a goody two-shoes either and B) allows Fincher to show Mark's mental state, especially when paired with the next scene. Outside the bathroom, Eduardo sports a shit-eating grin, but Mark sees Erica with some friends and moves to talk to her. He prioritizes her over the blowjob he just received.
I believe he does this less because he has a romantic or even sexual fixation on Erica but because he's dumped all of his insecurities into her. He always fears being inadequate, yet everyone treats him with reverence. For God's sake, lawyers have to answer to him. The Winklevii he feels so threatened by greet him initially with respect, only turning on him after he betrays them. But Erica is the one person we see to accurately see who he really is before he makes her miserable. Saverin and the Winklevii don't hate him until further down the road. And where Mark can convince himself -- with some truth -- that Eduardo and the Winklevii are just jealous, he has nothing to pin on Erica, no way to diminish the thought of her rejection. He certainly tries, and the fact that she's a woman allows him to vent his sexism, but she's no more the motivation for Facebook than Rosebud is the raison d'être of Kane's unhappiness. She, like Rosebud, is just the encapsulation of everything nagging the protagonist, the key not to the puzzle but the puzzle pieces.
What I find disappointing about the line of criticism from Jezebel and like-minded writers is how their arguments throw out so much context and analysis of the film itself. I think Jezebel is a fantastic site, and one that is desperately needed in the rank misogyny of the blogosphere, and this was a rare miss. Worse than their reaction, though, is the reaction to that reaction. I've seen the word "shrill" tossed around so many times I wonder if there's enough vomit in the world to convey my nausea over the sexist defenses of the film's non-sexism. In fact, I went to see the film again partially to re-examine the role of women in the movie because I was so embarrassed to even be tangentially related to the defenders. Even a second time, I could not see the women as any more flawed than the men, and while there are certainly gold diggers, that's only because these men seek out those women to prop up as trophies. As for Eduardo's girlfriend, she represents the dangerous side of putting relationships online, and her behavior brought nervous laughs of recognition from male and female audience members who either know couples engaged in this kind of behavior or have been in relationships that squabbled over similar matters related solely to Facebook and what significant others posted.
I will say that sexual dynamics are easily the least complex side of the film's script, and I do think that it's quite easy for incredibly intelligent and analytical writers to fall into the big hole Sorkin left that implies that everything in the film can be tied to sexual frustration. Ed Howard, one of my favorite film writers, argued for this reading, and I think it's valid even if I clearly disagree. I also think that Jezebel's argument -- that inventing misogynists out of seemingly nice men to vilify that misogyny is unfair to those men and potentially simplifying of the women involved -- is also an intriguing line of inquiry. I just find a lot of the arguments made to support it too simple and void of deeper readings of the movie. Were the defense stronger, I could quite easily throw at least partial support around the actual thrust of the argument. There is certainly sexism in the movie, but that's an outgrowth of the male characters, not a projection of the writer.
Man, those performances are really good, huh?
Moving away from the subtextual readings for a time, I'd also like to say that, with two viewings under my belt, even the surface elements of The Social Network are more enticing than they were the first time. My opinion of Jesse Eisenberg dramatically rose when I revisited Adventureland late last year, but his turn here is wildly unexpected even though he's shown a darker side before. As much as I loved his performance the first time, I needed to see it again to make sure Fincher wasn't doing the work for him. To be sure, Fincher helps Eisenberg's cold stares by shadowing his eyes when showing Mark at his most contemptuous, but Eisenberg's eyes cut through the shadow by being even blacker, as if his pupils emitted the darkness. I stand by my opinion that the film suggests Mark has Asperger's, because "suggests" is just a kind of saying "does everything but come right out and definitely 'answer in the affirmative,'" but there's something more sinister here. Eisenberg displays a remarkable ability to walk that line between an elitist asshole with pure contempt for everyone he considers his intellectual inferior (so, everyone, basically) and a softer, more regretful side of a man who, when he lets his guard down, looks as if he really doesn't want to be that jerk.
Mara, recently tapped to play the lead in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has a believable fire entirely separate from the spark Sorkin wrote in Erica. I've seen her in movies before but not focused on her, yet I was as transfixed in a way by her brief appearances here as Mark was. I still can't get over how much Andrew Garfield looks like a mid-1960s Jean-Pierre Léaud, but this time I focused on his brilliant naïveté. Craig Simpson mentioned Garfield had already showed this talent in the Red Riding Trilogy, but I was amazed by how well he got across not knowing what was going on without resorting to playing Saverin like a bumbling fool. Garfield instead focuses on what is almost a generation gap between two men of the same age, and he stresses how obsolete even the young can be in this new world. Armie Hammer might pick up an Oscar nod for flawlessly playing two characters (Fincher clearly retained a few things about digitally inserting heads that he'd used for Ben Button), but he'll have to face off against Timberlake's mesmerizing performance as Parker. Never before has Timberlake used his innate charisma in such a way that I was glad I couldn't take my eyes off him. He has Eduardo's charm and Mark's savvy, allowing him to seduce Mark more completely than any woman every could. The only time I ever truly felt sorry for Mark comes at the end when Sean gets busted for possession. As much as Mark was silly to let Sean manipulate him, you feel bad when Sean turns out to be the creep you know he is but still want to have around.
That score is pretty swell, also.
I have always enjoyed the "idea" of Trent Reznor more than his output. For a supposed perfectionist, Reznor's work with Nine Inch Nails has always been remarkably inconsistent, filled with intriguing sonic arrangement and occasionally irresistible pop sensibilities but also meandering and the kind of lyrics that an adult man should really have outgrown.
Yet Reznor was the perfect choice to score the film, not only because his ambient, post-industrial material is well-suited to the atmosphere of the film (and even narrative touches like coding) but because of his own status as a pioneer of social networking and music distribution with his fans ties him to the subject matter. I don't have much to add to my original thoughts of his and Atticus Ross' phenomenal work, only to say that my appreciation has deepened considerably after playing it for nearly a week. If nothing else, it delivers on the unfulfilled promise of Ghosts I-IV, Reznor's ambient project, cutting the waffle and developing all those interesting musical strands that never followed through to satisfying, full arrangements. But it does a great deal more than work as a Nine Inch Nails album: Mark's life revolves around Facebook, around code, and the bubbling electronic hums could be the sound of his synapses firing, or the music of his electronic soul. So many ambient scores are, in cases good and bad, sparse, but what's most entertaining about Reznor and Ross' score is how busy it remains even when it fades back and lets the dialogue and visuals work.
The Social Network: Fincher in a nutshell
The yellow-green palette is certainly nothing new in Fincher's canon, but The Social Network softens the image just enough to allow for ambiguity. Fincher's other films are more meticulous, more analytical of the evils he captures in sick clarity. He's no less probing here, but the matters of intellectual property are much more vague than murder or fascism, so the film looks hazier than any other Fincher movie. The disconnect, however, remains. Fincher isolates characters in the frame even as he typically places multiple characters along the same plane. They're all in the same position, essentially, yet they're still so separated.
Strangely enough, his minimalism makes for a compelling and, most importantly, cinematic realization of Sorkin's stage-oriented writing. Fincher's a gifted enough stylist that he can streamline Sorkin even as he steps aside and lets the fantastic dialogue do its part. He flawlessly navigates the Rashomon-like structure, pointing out the inconsistencies of each perspective and never presenting one as the likely reading. He lets the Winklevii's petulance implicate them, Saverin's shame regarding his disappointed father taint his own testimony and Mark's ignorance of the world call into question anything he says not directly related to coding.
I was also amused to see how the occasional flash of color can stand out so sharply from the dulled palettes of Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography. Like those bright blue Aqua Velvas in Zodiac, the fluorescent green of the appletinis Parker orders for everyone make you snap to attention just to listen to drunken business talk. It's a lovely bit of mischief, which can be seen in all its naked glory in the rowing scene. In the comments of my first review, Craig Simpson referenced another writer who compared the sequence to one of Kubrick's own sense of peevish delight. Indeed, the electronic version of "Hall of the Mountain King" recalls the warping of classical music in A Clockwork Orange, and the sequence is brazenly unnecessary even as it's the most fun moment of the movie. Plus, it gives us one more chance to laugh at the Winklevii, which is always welcome.
- Someone told me that in the shot where Mark puts up art photos on a Facebook account to cheat on an exam, he does so under a profile for "Tyler Durden." I tried to spot it the second time but missed the moment.
- I seriously love the scene with the Harvard president. At one point, he responds to a question of his business sense by pointing out that he was the Secretary of the Treasury, and I couldn't help but wish this guy took his job back from Tim Geithner.
-One of my oldest friends went to see the movie with her dad, who's currently working on his MBA and was interested in the film's depiction of entrepreneurship. While the film provides a pretty clear example of how not to behave ethically as a businessman, I too was interested to see how Facebook succeeded by avoiding traditional advertising for as long as possible and exploring newer options tailored directly to the web. With so many sites essentially being run out of pocket, and as someone who will enter a field currently in extreme flux because of the Internet, I wonder if other sites could follow Facebook's strategy and turn even a fraction of the profit.
I have my eye on some foreign films that will probably be my favorite of the year -- Certified Copy, Carlos, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives -- but The Social Network is easily one of the best mainstream American films in years. I worry about the overhyping, which I do believe has befallen the film even as I no doubt contribute to it. Do I for example, think it's on the level of Citizen Kane? No, you silly person. I simply see the narrative and thematic threads between the two and am curious to see how the social communication has changed. (It's no Gatsby, either). But I enjoyed the film even more a second time, both with the shaggy-dog thriller narrative and the more complex elements. Zodiac stands as Fincher's crowning achievement as a film artist, and Fight Club is his most thematically bountiful, but The Social Network strikes the balance between the two, of minimalistic visual analysis and thought-provoking subject matter. Not many directors could take a concept widely derided as a joke when announced and silence nearly all his critics, and Fincher's growth continues to excite and impress me.