Monday, December 20, 2010

The face-off over Facebook and the post-social network

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg.
I've been meaning to write about The Social Network for some time, as I saw it months ago - but perhaps now's as good a time as any to ponder this strange, eventful movie - and its even stranger critical success.  Awards season is cranking up, and David Fincher's and Aaron Sorkin's poison-pen valentine to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has already taken a few early critical prizes, including awards from our own Boston Society of Film Critics for best film, actor, director, screenplay, and even score.

But in a word - why? Or rather why, why, why, why, and why?

Of course, you have to consider the source of this praise. Certainly The Social Network is better than The Departed, which also swept the BSFC a few years ago; perhaps, like politics, all film criticism is local. And perhaps just as the supposed reputation of The Departed quickly, um, departed once its usefulness as a local promotional tool had declined, so the current cachet of The Social Network will probably prove short-lived.

Again, you ask - why? Well, because - uh - to put it bluntly, The Social Network isn't all that good. Or rather what's "good" about it only illuminates, X-ray-like, what's wrong with Hollywood these days and why truly "good" movies have so much trouble being made. And, of course, why critics wind up throwing awards to over-crafted, yet ultimately mediocre, movies year after year. (Other big winners at BSFC this year included the generic The Fighter - set in Lowell, surprise surprise - and the wacky Black Swan, featuring another Harvard grad, the blandly doe-eyed - but this time bonkers! - Natalie Portman.)

But back to the movie at hand. What strikes you first about The Social Network is its dialogue - by the famous Aaron Sorkin, he of the "How-many-SAT-words-can-I-fit-into-10-seconds?" school of screenwriting. Okay, that's not quite fair - Sorkin's dialogue is clever and quick and you have to work to keep up with it. But it's also a known quantity - it's cable (and even network) TV fodder. So what's touching about that BSFC award for the film's screenplay is its tacit admission that, "Yes!! Movies have finally caught up to TV!!  We ROCK!!"

You can't say more than that, though, about Sorkin's writing - much of his work for the stage has failed, in fact, because beneath all his streamlined craft it's hard to hear anything like a real voice. And his hyper-competitive, I'm-always-one-step-ahead-of-you banter blands out after an hour or so (the length of a typical West Wing episode). Indeed, Sorkin's style seems slightly autonomic, and denuded of individualized feature; he's unable to control his logorrhea, to shape it to different characters and their personalities. Yes, he captures something of Mark Zuckerberg's rapid-fire conversational assault - but he doesn't capture it exactly, and at any rate half the people in the movie talk much the same way. And it goes without saying there's no charm to Sorkin's style, no real wit, and nothing like emotional color; indeed, we recognize the dialogue as having the character of Sorkin precisely because it has no character.

You'd think, therefore, the screenwriter would be halfway home to nailing Zuckerberg's well-known affect.  For Zuckerberg is a notoriously unsettling blank in person - so affect-less and unblinking that he seems stuck in what robotics developers call "the uncanny valley" - the weird zone in which robots designed to ape human behavior only get creepier the closer they come to the real thing.

Although I have to point out the movie itself is stuck in a kind of "uncanny valley" in its evocation of Harvard - perhaps because the filmmakers weren't allowed to shoot on campus, so much of the university had to be conjured digitally in San Fernando Valley, or Palo Alto, or Skywalker Ranch, or wherever these things are done in California. Thus in the long shots the campus cupolas and steeples are elegantly placed, but not in quite the right places, and the Weeks Footbridge seems to have swung over to lead right into Eliot House - it's as if Harvard had been reconstructed in Second Life by somebody who'd never actually been there.

But then again, I also got the impression this was part of the point (insofar as the movie has a point). Director David Fincher is a more insightful artist than Sorkin, and at times he seemed to be hinting his entire movie (and perhaps even the social consciousness in which it was embedded) was operating at some kind of strange, distant remove - because the digital simulation didn't stop at the scenery. Fincher also cast a single actor as Zuckerberg's double-headed nemesis, the lantern-jawed Winklevoss Twins, using digital trickery to "double" his single person. And in the movie's one real moment of resonance, the director decided to film a crew race (featuring those jocky Winklevi, below) using what are called "tilt-shift" techniques - which turn life-sized views into toy landscapes inhabited by tiny, bustling, insect-like humans (more uncanniness!).

Reportedly they're smarter than they look.
The net effect was a persistent insinuation that our engagement with the film and its characters (and by extension one another), was operating without the sense of identification we used to expect of movies and plays.  We aren't really human anymore, Fincher seemed to whisper, because we live outside our own lives, looking in.  We're in a post-social network, inhabiting simulated "identities"while gazing down at them, and at millennial Harvard, in much the same way Harry Lime looked down at the tiny humans in The Third Man, and wondered what it would matter if one of them were crushed.

This, it seemed to me, was a fairly interesting thing for Hollywood to say, or even hint; but I'm afraid Aaron Sorkin wasn't on the same page (web or otherwise) - although it's hard to pin down exactly what page Sorkin was on, for his script lurched from one pre-fab premise to another.  First The Social Network seems to be about a lonely nerd whose arrogance costs him the girl; then it seems to be about that old Hollywood stand-by, the Nerds vs. the Jocks; then it seems to be about the Jews vs. the WASPs; then it heads west, for a revival of an even hoarier Hollywood cliche about itself  - Californication destroys the soul!  By the end of The Social Network you feel like you've just left a marathon of consecutive script meetings, in which the development executives all wanted different things.

To paste all this into a plot, however, Sorkin had to jettison most of the facts about Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Just about everybody from the millennial Harvard scene is on record saying the movie doesn't feel accurate in the least - and even an outsider can see they're quite right; merely looking over the public record, you perceive Sorkin simply has made up all kinds of stuff wholesale to keep his movie afloat.  And it's one thing for a film to conflate characters and stretch the truth here and there for dramatic effect; it's quite another when its theme is false, when it couldn't exist without its dishonesty - and when the actual facts of the case are quite well known, to boot.

Indeed, it's hard to think of much about Sorkin's version of Zuckberg that rings true (aside from the fact that he's very bright and very driven).  The movie posits that he's an isolated figure, who loses the only girl he ever cared for (it even closes with him forlornly trying to "friend" her over Facebook).  But of course everyone knows that Zuckerberg has been in a stable relationship with a smart, pretty girl named Priscilla Chan for years and years.  Sorkin likewise depicts Zuckerberg as dazzled by the increasing amounts of money his growing venture attracts - but again, the opposite is true: Zuckerberg has always spurned offers to cash out of his various projects.  Sorkin also seems to have mis-characterized the influence that billionaire bad boy (and Napster has-been) Sean Parker had over Zuckerberg in California; yes, Parker was President of Facebook (briefly), but the movie seems most interested in his supposedly dragging Zuckerberg down a rabbit hole stuffed with drugs and under-aged girls, a descent which again, everyone knows didn't actually happen.  (And Parker even got off the hook from the arrest that ends the movie.)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg hang out in not-quite Harvard Yard.
A few things in the movie, of course, did happen.  Zuckerberg was sued by the Winklevoss twins for "stealing" their idea (for a social site called "Harvard Connection").  Contrary to what the movie would seem to insinuate, however, the Winklevi (unappealing, pompous jocks as they may be) probably had a point - or at any rate, a point strong enough to win a settlement that made them much richer than they'd been before (while the movie portrays them as scions of Old Money, they're definitely New Money, btw).  The movie glosses over, or omits, other issues about the complicated genesis of Facebook, and only glances at the deeper question of what kind of "invention" Zuckerberg's site really is.  After all, not just its animating idea but even its name was borrowed from elsewhere ("The Facebook" was the nickname for the student directory - and website - at Phillips Exeter, where Zuckerberg went to prep school).

That's right - like Bill Gates before him, Mark Zuckerberg is one of those Harvard "inventors" who didn't really "invent" anything; he merely tweaked, massaged (and maybe ripped off) what others had invented before him (it's worth noting this supposed prodigy-genius hasn't contributed anything original to the field of computer science).  Indeed, the genuine, if unspoken, irony about The Social Network is its obliviousness to the fact that it was the old-school social network that made Zuckerberg's "invention" dominant.  The movie seems to imagine there's something "revolutionary" about the Facebook site, something that allowed Zuckerberg and his nerdy Jewish frat-pals to take on the Establishment and like, win!  (Quick, cue the theme from Rocky!)  And in the meantime, needy, nasty Mark lost his soul!  (Awww . . .)  But honestly, how could anyone believe such tripe for a second?  Facebook was inspired by a prep school site and gestated at Harvard - somehow I don't think it was designed for the proletariat.  And Zuckerberg's not some desolate, angry gearhead - he's happy as a clam, with billions in his pocket, and a pretty girl on his arm.

As it meanders on, you do begin to wonder why, exactly, The Social Network can't engage with, or even state aloud, its real subject - or rather the strange emptiness at the heart of its subject.  Part of the problem, of course, is that Sorkin was cut off from the oracle himself - instead, his main source was Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires, and Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's one-time partner and CFO (played by Andrew Garfield, above, in the movie) who wound up all but written out of the burgeoning Facebook fortune.  Don't shed any tears for Saverin, though - the stock percentage he was left with is still rumored to be worth around $1 billion, a point the movie omits to mention - but then such large numbers wouldn't fit well with its final melodramatic arc.  It's hard, after all, to work up much sympathy for either the villains or the victims of the Zuckerberg story, when basically everyone is walking away with either tens or hundreds of millions of dollars - for a product that's basically Harvard's version of MySpace!

In the end, The Social Network can't, or won't, grapple with the real questions surrounding Facebook and Zuckerberg because that would require something like insight into the way we live now (and that's not a story Hollywood ever likes to tell).  For the truth is that Facebook doesn't attack or subvert the social network - instead it simply imports it, wholesale, into cyberspace.  That is the secret of its success; it's a prep school directory for the whole world. And while screenwriter Sorkin tries to style his anti-hero as an angry young man, a social have-not attacking the complacent haves, a lonely kid who's somehow attempting, in his angrily backhanded way, to win the girl - none of these gambits can pan out because they're simply false - and thus nothing in the movie resonates.  Sorkin's screenwriting tricks play as a substitute story, an imposition of Hollywood soap onto something that seems familiar on its surface, but which at its core is inscrutable and undefined.

Because the real scoop on Zuckerberg is so much stranger, and perhaps so much more disturbing, than anything in Jesse Eisenberg's pissy portrayal.  The real Zuckerberg is so much more calmly, even coldly, assured, so much more determined than the movie gives him credit for.  He knows us better than we know him, and perhaps better than we know ourselves.  So it's no surprise his "invention" is so utterly banal and yet so creepily addictive.  Whether that's a good thing or not is something The Social Network only ponders in the most superficial and synthetic way; it wants us to imagine that somewhere, somehow, Mark Zuckerberg is still really lonely.  If only!  The actual problem is that he's not lonely, that he's at the center of the post-social network, not at its fringe.  Meanwhile we know that Twitter and Google and Facebook are literally reshaping our brains; thanks to people like Zuckerberg, we're not human the way we were a generation ago.  David Fincher's images let us know that.  But Aaron Sorkin's screenplay seems determined not to look.

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