Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Social Network

I like David Fincher a lot, but I finally got around to seeing his The Social Network, and... I was underwhelmed, even bored by it. I can imagine someone liking TSN more than me, but I fail to see how anyone could think that the film's a complete triumph. I therefore simply don't believe (or believe that anyone else really believes) that TSN's losing the big Oscars this year resembles situations like Raging Bull losing to Ordinary People, Goodfellas losing to Dances with Wolves, or Pulp Fiction being Gump-ed.[1]

One caveat: I did spoil a lot of TSN's best lines for myself by reading reviews and paying close attention to ads, etc.. Still, TSN struck me as silly and superficial enough that I doubt that virgin ears for 4 or 5 key lines would have made that much difference. Indeed, I'm sufficiently unimpressed with TSN that it in fact hardly feels worth the effort it would take to figure out what's really wrong with it. Nonetheless, this note is a quick first stab in that direction.

TSN is at bottom a surprisingly by-the-numbers biopic (including beginning with an allegedly psychologically probative flashback that gets called back to repeatedly but most annoyingly with a pat quasi-moral at the end), albeit it's somewhat unusually focused on just a year or two of relatively young lives. For that to work at all, we need the cluster of young people the film focuses on to be incredibly interesting or attractive (recent films that do this sort of thing relatively well, albeit often with considerably less biopic-y baggage, include Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, Boogie Nights, and Good Will Hunting; a more classical example is The Paper Chase). But the characters of TSN aren't especially interesting people - as the film itself seems to realize - there's lots of unattractive whining in TSN (!) and there's precious little in the way of interesting creativity or insight on display (as opposed to shark-like pursuit of main chances).[2] But then why are we watching the film?

The answer seems to be that the film relies upon on us being titillated by Harvard, fast-money-making, maybe hype about social media, and the like. But if you're immune to all that (as I am) then the film falls surprisingly flat, and fails to address even the most prominent lacunae in its own story-telling. E.g., we're led to believe that one of Zuckerberg's key insights (not to mention his own lizard-brain-level motivation) is that the (vaguely Groucho Marxian) exclusivity of clubs matters: that the most desirable of social networks are those that are hard to get into, that might on another day of the week not have you as a member. But while Facebook began with that sort of exclusiveness in mind (you had to go to an Ivy or Ivy-wannabe to be on it, etc.), it very quickly became entirely open and in fact all about scale and inclusiveness and network effects and 'building the user-base without worrying about how to make money off it' - all ideas that are pure .com/Web 1.0, etc.. The movie shows this change happening, but doesn't really draw attention to it or explain its significance, presumably because doing so would (i) undermine the film's narrative about what drives Zuck. (and what his key special insight was), and (ii) constitute an unhelpful-to-the-film narrative of Facebook as conceptually indistinguishable from what other people were doing at the same the time. If the difference with Facebook was just execution/timeliness etc., which is to say a completely standard, business success story, then again there's nothing movie-worthily interesting here.[3]

There's also a kind of meta-moral to be drawn from my last two paragaphs: the showing and telling in TSN is everywhere out of whack. At the level of character we're told stuff that we need to just see, and at the level of ideas (about company development, etc.), where we need to be told stuff so that what we're shown can then be meaningful, the allegedly great script is silent.

After seeing TSN's superb trailer ('...and the Oscar for Best film at failing to live up to its own trailer goes to....' presented by Spike Jonze) I anticipated that rather than a simple (and, as I've explained, somewhat misguided) bio-pic, that TSN would be in addition an ambitious, generally skeptical look at (or x-ray of) 'how we live now', esp. at the new forms of sociality that Web 2.0 tech has enabled and the older forms it is destroying. But there's almost nothing of that in the film, hence TSN feels minor compared to what it could have been (and to what its promotional materials suggested it would be). Too bad.[4]

Moreover, neither the script nor the score for which TSN won Oscars struck me as especially remarkable. Both felt like stuff I'd heard before and better from their respective authors. Indeed, Reznor's score builds so directly on his previous work, including large chunks of The Slip and of Ghosts I-IV that I don't quite see how it retained eligibility as original material, given how strict AMPAS has been about that in recent years. Deep down, too, it's a bummer that, say, Paul Thomas Anderson and Clint Mansell don't have writing and music Oscars respectively while Sorkin and Reznor do (not that I've got anything against the latter two guys, I'm a fan of both, but seriously....).

Nice acting tho', esp. from Andrew Garfield, who appears to me to be the real deal after seeing him play two very different characters in TSN and in Red Riding 1974.

I've still yet to see True Grit, Black Swan, or King's Speech, but of the Best Picture nominees that I have seen I'd definitely take Toy Story 3 and Winter's Bone over TSN. Finally, too, TSN isn't nearly as compelling to me as Zodiac was (in 2007, unfortunately for Fincher one of the greatest years in movie history).

[1] I take no position about King's Speech, my point is just that the analogies break down because TSN is no RB/G/PF. Indeed, in my view, TSN is more Gump than Pulp Fiction when you get down right down to it. Let's hope that this and Benj. Button don't represent a trend in this regard for Mr Fincher.

[2] In one scene Zuck. hails his own and his team's intellectual and creative capacities compared to those of his accusers. But too much tell not enough show! By that point I certainly hadn't seen anything that looked so amazingly creative or intellectually explosive. I mean, one could imagine a film about the amazing rise and reign of Pixar and the interaction of Lasseter, Doctor, Bird, et al., frickin' geniuses all I'm prepared to believe, but then show that genius and what they got and can do that their competitors didn't and can't, OK? Or if you want to make a movie about loopy Grigory Perelman and his proof of the Poincare Conjecture then you're well advised to give us a sense of how his mind works (so that he could solve problems that no one else could solve), and you're probably going to have to devise ways of cannily representing holes in space to do that. If you don't do that then you'll just be asking us to take the 'genius' stuff on trust, which will pall. And, for especially positive instances, think of what a great job fashion documentaries from Unzipped through to The September Issue do of just showing the audience that Mizrahi, Wintour, et al. really are extraordinarily gifted, as well as being superhumanly hard-workers.

[3] Compare too with cases in which something in science became a pure horse-race, so that the only questions to be resolved are (i) who gets the prizes and (ii) who was prepared to bend the rules to make sure that they do: think Venter vs. the NIH over sequencing the human genome, or Watson, Crick, and Wilkins stealing Rosalind Franklin's x-rays to pip Pauling on DNA. The spectacle of street-fighter, animal cunning being decisive even in this most esoteric, rarefied, intellectual, supposedly bloodless environment is inherently amusing and dramatic. Still, in my view, if you want to make a successful movie about any of these cases, you do well to either explore the underlying content and its importance in detail, or have some specific gripping personal angle in mind so that it's not just the horse-race we're focusing on (or both). We discussed content a lot in fn. 2. For examples of 'gripping personal angles', consider Franklin, sexism, her tragic early death and non-Nobel in the DNA case; and consider the overkill, Randian/Teddy Roosevelt-ish swagger of Venter in the genome case. For me, then, TSN neither went deep enough into content nor developed characters that were vivid enough, that had enough at stake really, to make for a strong film.

[4] See this piece by Tom Ewing, talking en passant about Google and Facebook as providing competing objective and subjective prisms/vortices, for more interesting thought about Facebook and its place in the modern informational ecosystem than anything TSN manages. Vaguely relatedly, note how odd it is that Google is never mentioned in TSN. Indeed, the film kinda, sorta insinuates that Facebook/Zuck. is the successor to Microsoft/Gates, and that nothing and no one of note happened between them in computer software, which is laughable. That said, there's evidently a case to be made that Facebook is the new Microsoft in that, like MS, it makes software that's genuinely irritating, indifferent-to-poor in many ways, but that network effects nonetheless force everyone (quite resentfully) to deal with as the borderline dysfunctional standard.

No comments: