Monday, February 7, 2011

The Social Network

Dir. David Fincher

It’s difficult to write about The Social Network for a variety of reasons. First and most superficial is that in the age of digital immediacy (spurred at least in part by the film’s subject) writing a review of a major Hollywood film that was released over four months ago is basically a cultural crime. Given the timing, not nearly close enough to be relevant to the massive discourse that surrounded the film (though with the approach of the Oscars, chatter about the film has once again picked up) and not nearly far enough away to be considered retrospective, this review is admittedly out of place. But that is beside the point. Yet another obstacle standing in the way of an insightful, centrist review of The Social Network is the dominating ubiquity of the film’s subject: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Yet, to the credit of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the greatest challenged faced in reviewing this film is the not my timing, nor the film’s subject but rather the characterization of that subject. In a film that establishes the result of its own narrative twists and turns before we have even settled into its world, The Social Network shifts the responsibilities of the narrative from telling an engaging story (which it largely does) to illustrating a greater internal conflict of desires and prejudices.

Much has been made of Fincher’s auteurist interest in the loner. While he has evolved from the puerile heavy-handedness of Fight Club, Fincher remains unapologetically infatuated with those who exist on the margins of society’s concept of normality. Yet, rather than make his protagonists into heroic archetypes, he endows them with double edged faults that also function as strengths in their near pathological drive toward discovery. In Mark Zuckerberg, David Fincher found his narrative soul mate, or at least very malleable character clay. Fincher derives pleasure in creating characters whose own impulsive drives to discover truth inhibit their ability to function in the real world. They cause the setbacks to their quest. Whereas Fight Club abandoned the realms of reality, Zodiac on the other hand found an unnerving obsessive tendency in those caught up in a serial murder investigation. In that film we watched as individual worlds came apart in the face of a towering, seductive mystery. That theme is reprised in The Social Network.

What we know immediately is that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants acceptance. What we realize only later is that, due to his anti-social personality type, he is largely incapable of making this happen for himself naturally and is forced to seek alternative means. In doing so he is already beginning to upset the nature social order, which is represented paradigmatically in the landscape of Harvard University and the elite social institution, Final Clubs. Yet, it is not until Zuckerberg’s first meeting with the Winklevoss twins (both are played by Armie Hammer) and their Joe Peschi-esque sidekick Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) that the ideological subtext of the film is first introduced. The brothers and their “business partner” need a programmer to help them establish an elite, Harvard only, online social network. Midway through their explanation of Zuckerberg’s duties, he cuts them off stating that he will work with them. Yet, we already have the impression of what we know will come to be. To throw it in the face of the Winklevi and all they represent, Zuckerberg will secretly undermine the whole system of elitism and privilege that Harvard (allegedly) stands for by ensuring that his online social network (Thefacebook) is spread as far as possible. Though some might argue that the character of Zuckerberg initially never had any intention of spreading Thefacebook, as that would deteriorate its usefulness in establishing who is “cool” and who is not, I would in turn suggest that Zuckerberg, as someone who gives the finger to authority and social convention, saw in that moment a chance to stick it to the exclusive attitude that rules not only Harvard but the entire Capitalist system. It was not an opportunity that he was ever capable of turning down.

In a way this is all conjecture. Aaron Sorkin bravely resists exposition (with exception of a briefly stilted moment where Zuckerberg lays out the goals of Thefacebook to a freezing Eduardo), which leaves a lot to be decided by the viewer. The kind of minute characterization I described is not beyond understanding but implies a kind of rigorous psychological strategizing that the film betrays at times. Take for example the characterization of the Winklevi. They are comic parodies at best, a ridiculous Ying-Yang pair that spend so much time offsetting one another that they forget to actually prohibit Zuckerberg from adopting their original idea. So too do we run into problems with Zuckerberg’s “best friend” Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who is portrayed as weak minded and unnaturally loyal to the slippery Zuckerberg, even as their company grows exponentially and Mark becomes increasingly reclusive. The inclusion of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake makes a fine turn here) seeks to further increase cultural credo. While his influence on Zuckerberg is explicit throughout, his ultimate exit, as the paranoid pseudo-schizophrenic he is suggested to be, feels lazy and mythologizing. Yet, it is a testament to the strength of the story (or the collective weakness of the audience) that we brush these flaws to the side. We become as pathological and isolated as our protagonist. What we want is to understand Mark.

That understanding is tidily wrapped up in the denouement of The Social Network, which leaves a stale taste in one’s mouth. Assistant prosecutor Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones) delivers a monolog that is, at its start, culturally incisive (any good prosecutor is capable of making Mark look like a perpetrator because he has done nothing to victimize himself), equating a personal sense of dignity or perhaps unwavering self-admiration to a confession of megalomaniacal vices that no jury will ever see past. Zuckerberg has defended himself throughout the film and lied through his teeth about various incidents, yet he exudes a strange form of personal honor (or maybe psychological detachment) that keeps him from ever doing anything that does not feel right to him, even if those actions are wrong in the greater scheme of social morality. Yet, it is the case of his diluting of Eduardo’s shares (another instance of Zuckerberg’s contempt for elitism: he punishes Eduardo for being selected by a Final Club) that prompts Delpy to suggest that Zuckerberg is not an asshole but rather someone who is trying hard to be an asshole. Zuckerberg buys it and the film concludes with him sending a friend request to his ex, which is as good as a real apology nowadays, I guess.

But why? Without editorializing too much, Zuckerberg looks like, acts like, and talks like an asshole. Why is it necessary to assure him and the audience, in the end, that he is in fact a good guy? Zuckerberg’s opposing desire for acceptance and hatred of elitism are surely interrelated but a conclusion that posits these characteristics not as byproducts of a cultural system that constantly screws the underprivileged (a dangerous word to use in relation to a white kid from Harvard, but no less apt in this circumstance) anti-socialite but as a form of personal weakness is insulting and ideologically incoherent, especially considering the speech that preceded it where Delpy reminds Zuckerberg that he is fucked precisely because he wears “fuck you” flip flops. This failure to follow through is the film’s ultimate weakness yet it is inevitably excusable. We understand how the system works. Sorkin and Fincher deliver the neatly packaged ending and relinquish the strain of ambiguity. Hollywood does not like ambiguity because audiences, by and large, do not like ambiguity.

Many have suggested that “the next big thing” will ultimately usurp Facebook, as it did to Myspace and Friendster. Yet, to hear Zuckerberg explain it in the movie, equating online social networking to fashion by suggesting that Facebook will never be finished but will instead evolve over time, makes one wonder if Facebook hasn’t in fact added a new strain to the history of communication but rather taken a step in its evolution. It is a heady suggestion about a medium that came into existence so that college students could get laid easier. Yet, to doubt its historical and cultural relevance is to admit either Ludditism or total cultural illiteracy. And that’s coming from the guy who just saw the Facebook movie.

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