Monday, October 4, 2010
On the KPBS Film Club of teh Air the critics discuss The Social Network.
“The Social Network” (opened October 1 throughout San Diego) speculates on how a socially inept but brilliant college student created a billion-dollar social media empire. You can also listen to our Film Club of the Air discussion.
“The Social Network” is not a biography of Mark Zuckerberg, and it's probably better taken as a work of narrative fiction. That being said, the film is based on the true story of how Facebook came to be. But since most of the participants have signed nondisclosure agreements in order to collect their multi-million dollar lawsuit settlements no one involved is really talking. And that’s kind of the whole point of David Fincher’s film: people are losing the ability to interact in a real, face-to-face, intimate manner.
The film begins with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) having a drink with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). He’s obsessed with getting into the right clubs at Harvard and she can’t understand his obsession. She’s also having a hard time dealing with his ego, his smug superiority, and his inability to focus on anything she’s saying. So by the end of the night she has decided to break up with him. This prompts Zuckerberg to post some nasty comments about her on his blog and then to come up with a site where guys can rate girls from the local sororities on who’s hottest. This sparks the interest of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Armie Hammer with a little help from Josh Pence). The towering blond crewing twins are from one of Harvard’s elite houses and they want to enlist nerdy Zuckerberg to help them launch their own site, one that will hopefully hook them up with hot chicks. With a little money from his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and some slick bravado from Napster’s Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), Zuckerberg eventually creates Facebook and turns it into a billion dollar business.
The press materials spin this as a tale of a visionary who changed the world, and a look at the moment of creation from a series of warring perspectives. Okay, I can buy that. You can find those things in the movie if that's what you want to look for. But I think director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of “The West Wing” fame) are interested in looking at the irony of how a socially inept young man created a site all about social networking. This is a film in which the impersonal, virtual social networking replaces real connect between human beings. This is a film in which people do not connect or connect badly.
Fincher makes dark films so there was no way this was going to be a success story or a celebration of Zuckerberg’s achievement and status as the world’s youngest billionaire. What Fincher finds is a group of people who obsess over being in the right fraternity or belonging to the right clubs, and placing all value on superficial things. Zuckerberg's synapses seem to be firing a mile a second and he seems so at ease at a computer that it's doubtful anything involving zeroes and ones could ever baffle him. Yet he still agonizes over what organizations or clubs want him. Fincher isn't breaking new ground by suggesting that these nerdy young men desire some kind of relationship with the opposite sex but often seem baffled at how to achieve this. The underlying message in the films seems to be that if these guys just got laid more often we would never have had innovations like Napster and Facebook – both of which are depicted in the film as the actions taken -- or reaction -- to overcome some unrequited love or failed relationship.
Everything leading up to the launch of Facebook and it’s subsequent success reveal a failure of these people to communicate effectively. When Zuckerberg is angry at his girlfriend, he vents online rather than to a friend or calling her because it’s easier for him to express himself in a virtual world than in a real one. Later, Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses meet but then resort to the more impersonal emails and texts. Saverin, after feeling betrayed, refuses to speak to his former friend Zuckerberg except through lawyers. All of this adds up to a group of people who rarely engage in face-to-face conversations. This film may be driven by Sorkin’s acerbic dialogue but it's rare that we get people really talking to each other or engaging in any intimate, interpersonal interaction. There are deposition scenes, a school hearing, meetings with lawyers, and even a visit to the head of Harvard. But these are all controlled or clearly defined kinds of interaction. But genuine, intimate interactions between people in this film are rare. So Fincher appreciates the irony of someone who has trouble interacting socially with others being the person who designs a social network that perfectly taps into how people want to connect. But maybe that’s precisely the type of person who could create this. If you don’t know how to talk to a girl than yes it’s great to have a site that tells you if that girl is single and what her likes and dislikes are. It cuts down on the need for small talk and gets right to the salient points of interest. Throw in a profile pic and then you can also decide if she's hot enough to merit your attention.
“The Social Network” spends very little time on Facebook itself. It’s not really interested in what Facebook is or has become. It’s only interested in all the shenanigans surrounding its creation and what that says about society today. We live in a litigious society and one where people are losing the ability to converse face to face. In a way, the film is not judgmental. Nobody comes across as likable but then Fincher doesn’t seem to condemn anyone for their behavior either. They're like little kids who haven't been taught the social skills to play nicely together and treat each other with respect. Fincher just presents them as by products of their environment, and they all seem to deserve each other. Yet "The Social Network" may make some people reconsider their use of Facebook for two reasons: one you may not want to use something that puts money into Zuckerberg’s already overflowing pockets, and two, you may feel embarrassed to be so accurately pegged by Zuckerberg in terms of what you want from social media.
“The Social Network” (rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language) is dark and cold in tone. It's hard to make a warm film when the characters fail to develop any intimacy or emotional connections with each other. And yet these young billionaires also seem a sad lot from Fincher's point of view. Maybe that’s sour grapes on Fincher’s part because he’s not a young billionaire like them or maybe he’s just using them as symbols of where he fears we’re heading. Either way, Fincher and Sorkin make “The Social Network” a fast-paced, slickly packaged tale. It's not the best film of the year but it may creeep up into my ten best list depending on what the rest of the year has in store.
Companion viewing: “Catfish,” “Se7en,” "Starup.com," "Shattered Glass," "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"