I got to see The Social Network on Saturday night, a film I had wanted to see for some time. It begins with a character returning home (well, home on campus) after a night out and venting his frustration via the internet. After the movie, I wanted to do the same. A couple of days later, the impulse to get out what I want to say and the opposing one not to spend time and space simply being negative about something are still battling, and are in fact proving a distraction, so I am just going to make a few observations, which make no claim to completeness or balance, so that I can get them out of my system! My points are reactions partly to the movie, and partly to positive things that have been asserted or suggested concerning the movie in its reviews (see David Denby's piece in The New Yorker for the piece where praise multiplied by prestige of outlet is highest).
In the case of The Social Network, jumping back and forth in time does not add to the movie's complexity, but consistently and intentionally works against it. Having characters discuss what happened in a legal setting just before/after we cut to the events in question removes any ambiguity concerning i) what is going on as the original story unfolds and ii) how we ought to evaluate the truthfulness of the subsequent testimony that we hear. The two strands are mutually reinforcing and defining, and leave little room for speculation concerning character psychology or factual veracity (I am talking here about the 'truth' offered by the movie, not its adequacy or otherwise as a record of 'what actually happened', something which could not be determined by examination of the work alone, and which I am not interested in here). The Social Network seems to me to be a film devoid of mysteries.
The screwball connection
The most galling thing about the movie's reception is to read repeated comparisons with the dialogue of screwball comedy. Roger Ebert writes that 'in an age when movie dialogue is dumbed and slowed down to suit slow-wits in the audience, the dialogue here has the velocity and snap of a screwball comedy' (see also Denby). Again: I cannot think of a single plot point, inconsequential or otherwise, that is not relayed redundantly to the audience in this movie. (As well as the back-and-forth timeframe, think of the voiceover, motivated by blog writing, that accompanies the protagonist's first frenzied night of creation, in which he repeatedly tells us that he is hacking into campus networks to access photos; in the unlikely event that we have failed to grasp this, we get an on-campus trial afterwards where it is explained to us again. Think also of the scene with Bill Gates, after which we are told 'that was Bill Gates'.) The dialogue does indeed have 'velocity', and also has 'snap' - in the sense that it is brittle, which the best screwball dialogue never was. Listening to the dialogue in the famously fast-tongued opening sequence, I may as well have been reading it on the page - which, again, is something that one would never say of screwball dialogue. The characters speak in strict alternation. They interrogate one another's language, but at the level of vocabulary. It does not really matter how what is said is said (apart from it being fast and descending into acrimony): there is no play with tone, or really (in this peculiarly joyless movie) with anything else. This might be seen to speak to what has been termed as the slight 'autism' of the Zuckerberg character when it comes to social interaction, and to the fraughtness of contemporary communication more generally. These may be achievements of the movie (at whatever cost such achievements are bought), but they are far from the achievements of screwball comedy. And instead of the whole-body performances of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn et al, who keep us interested and make us laugh with their actions, which support and counterpoint their lines, in The Social Network our two characters are rooted to their chairs and framed in medium close-up.
Screwball comedy interrogated and worked to redefine gender roles and break down bourgeois heterosexual gender roles. What about The Social Network?
Women in The Social Network
The movie begins with an exchange between Zuckerberg and Erica that leads to the former taking revenge and in the process sowing the seeds for Facebook. It ends with Zuckerberg, at the end of a long day of legal wrangling, staying behind in the office and compulsively refreshing Erica's Facebook page just after he has sent her a friend request, to see if she accepts. (A comparison with Citizen Kane has repeatedly been drawn in reviews, one which I can see the structural logic of, but which is still irritating because it mainly stops at the level of namechecking and so serves as an indicator of mutual esteem between reviewer and suitably informed reader, rather than as a means of saying much of interest about The Social Network itself.) So a woman can be a muse to the male creator figure in the movie. An interning lawyer can also deliver a verdict on Mark which echoes Erica's and is given the further structural significance of providing (I'm pretty sure) the movie's final line. So a woman can have insight into male creator figures. What else can women do in the movie? They can strip to their underwear and dance on tables, as happens in the opening passage - whilst our creator figure furiously works away at his computer elsewhere. They can obligingly walk around in pants with 'Stanford' written on the back, with their rear to the camera, as a means of enlivening the introduction of the movie's second male creator figure, Sean Parker. They can (in another joyless scene) be 'groupies', and take Mark and his then-business partner Saverin to the bathroom and perform fellatio. But look out, because one of them might be a possessive psychopath who puts a burning bin on your bed whilst you try and conduct manly business on the phone. They can attract the attention and praise of Mark for their good work, but then be 'shamed' and evacuated from the narrative in the next scene because of their drug use, which might compromise the cleanliness of the male's pristine creation.
After watching The Social Network, I find myself wanting to say similar things about it to what I said after seeing Zodiac. In Se7en, Fincher's noirish lighting and brooding Reznor soundtrack were a good fit with the movie's plot, setting, and themes. Seeing the same features in The Social Network, it seems that style has been unmoored from meaning. Am I missing something?
The month of June was spent preparing for, and then leading, the second installment of our NEH-funded workshop, Scholarship in Sound and Image, a.k.a. “vid...