Monday, 8 November 2010

The Social Network

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?


  1. Maybe there are a couple of small mysteries. For example, did Mark plant the chicken story? But I'd maintain that this is of relatively minor consequence when it comes to our understanding of his character.

  2. Good points all. Although I enjoyed the film more than you, I felt that there were problems with Fincher's direction throughout. These came to a head for me with the boat race sequence, which (like the overhead taxi scene you pointed to in your alt take on Zodiac) has been praised in a number of reviews I've read. Is there any good reason for the sequence being shot like it was (other than it looking cool)? It feels almost like a short film unto itself.

    However, while it stands out, it also seems the most obvious representation of a clash I felt throughout the movie between the material and the way it was being presented. Fincher doesn't present this essentially very small-scale drama about people as if it were about people at all, preferring to get his effects from elements of style and cuteness (the amped-up score, pounding intercutting scenes of debauchery with Zuckerburg on the computer, some overly-stressed line readings). Though Fincher is less overtly stylized here than in some other films, he nonetheless still seems less interested in people and the intricacies of human interaction than is needed for a script like this, which I would say does require a more toned-down and character-centred approach. I'm not asking for the moon here, just enough interest in human interaction to produce something like Seven, which I think may be his most convincing film in terms of believable human relationships (Pitt and Paltrow, Pitt and Freeman). After only one viewing I can't get too detailed on this - it's just a sense I have.

    It seems to me, though, that, faced with a scene focused on physicality like the boat race, Fincher just goes all-out stylistically simply because the ostensible subject matter of the scene means that he CAN - and it feels like a tension going on in smaller ways throughout the film: an over-interest in pace, tone and posture rather than people, places, and rounded social interactions. Take the scarf-burning scene: with different emphasis in the direction and performances this could have convinced, but as it stands it just felt like an awkward and bewildering sequence, because we know nothing of what these people's relationship might actually be like. This to me felt like the outcome of a director having more interest in effects (what a crazy situation!) than in human action (what a complex relationship). You didn't necessarily need loads of new stuff in the script to make that scene feel real and more rounded - you just needed a director who could make a crazy situation feel (through mood, handling of performances, etc.) like it stems from a complex relationship. This is also, as you say, indicative of the film's lack of interest in women. I presume you've read The Feminist Spectator on this?

    In the boat-race scene Fincher reverts to a kind of stylisation that excludes the human focus entirely, instead using close-ups, fast cutting and bleached colouration to create a disjointed view of the physical effects and pace of a situation that could just as easily be about human emotion. I've heard that he was under time constraints while shooting that scene on location. However, under similar conditions of pressed-time, another director might have made the sequence's focus purely the feelings of the rowers (say, long-ish takes of them in the boat, their frustrations). Fincher is much less interested in that sort of thing, and this sequence just stands as a particularly extreme example of that lack of interest.

  3. Cheers James.

    Well put. Yes, when then the boat race sequence came on, I leaned over to Louise and asked if we'd cut to a commercial break. It is very much its own thing. You're also reminding me of the arch business with the aged doorknob (characters shot from chest to knees) and the pleased-with-itself playing on the chicken in the cage.

    I haven't read Feminist Spectator. I did skim through some of my subscriptions in search of commentary, but missed that one (the blogs have been piling up of late). I'll go over there now...

  4. I haven't seen the film, but I was interested to see your review of Zodiac, which I thought was very weak but felt like I was possibly the only person that thought so (other than the 2 people I saw it with) - very much an emperors new clothes situation, as you say. It was the first film for a while that I almost felt like walking out of, and had that horrible thing when you think its ended but it hasn't (ah, the disappointment!). That experience has largely put me off being interested in The Social Network. I'm really not sure how I feel about Fincher...despite the good things about 7even and Fight Club (to a lesser degree - feels overrated to me know, despite excellent performances and certain scenes), i think I remain unconvinced by him as a director.

  5. Thanks for your comment Lucy, and for reading. Ah yes, false endings! Return of the King is my most abiding memory of that phenomenon. I like Edward Buscombe's discussion of Stagecoach's double ending in his BFI Classics book on the movie. Not that Stagecoach is a movie I'm happy to see the end of!

  6. I'll have to check Buscombe out - thanks for the recommendation. Return of the King is definitely some kind of pinnacle for the delayed ending - even more so when you watch the extended version. Sigh. I watched all 3 in their extended versions in August, it was like having my teeth pulled, really really slowly. They really do not stand the test of time (not that I thought they were that wonderful to begin with).