The Social Network (2011) - Essay



The Social Network (2011)
David Fincher

Aaron Sorkin's character Mark Zuckerberg is a shaman. I'm sure scholarly papers are already being written detailing the subject. But there are two key moments in The Social Network that make me think that Sorkin's primary attraction to the character is the possibility that Zuckerberg is a super-artist. A creative force that can and does completely control the execution of a system, project, art-piece (whatever you want to call Facebook) at a pace faster than ever before possible. The story rolls at an exhausting speed from moment one. Fincher obviously takes a hint from Sorkin's own directorial strategy and makes the actors speak more quickly than is natural to cram more words into a smaller time frame. The story logic is nice and weird: a break up leads to a drunken hacking / blogging spree to generate a hot-or-not kind of impromptu website which is so popular it shuts the Harvard network down which then gets Zuckerberg in trouble with the board but also brings him to the attention of a couple of rower / entrepreneurs who then give him the nugget of an idea for a social networking site which Zuckerberg then maybe steals to create Facebook but only with the key logarithm and funding from his best friend Eduardo.

And then, take a breath, the site goes live. I think this is the most moving scene Sorkin has ever put on paper, and it only lasts ten seconds. Maybe twenty. Mark closes his eyes, falls into a trance and rocks back and forth in his computer chair. Or maybe he comes out of a trance. What else could you call the myopic sprint to the finish line that he just went through? Is this the only time we see Mark without his guard up or is he completely guarded here, protected by the birth of his own creation? I do not know if he is totally alone or completely open at this moment, and I think that Sorkin would agree that saying "both" would be a copout. It's more complicated than that. He's moving in an out of systems that only he himself knows. And he is a super-artist. He created, from idea to execution, a world-changing system in the course of a couple months. Sorkin the writer surely knows the unfathomable energy this must take, and he puts it on the page perfectly.

Full disclosure: I love Aaron Sorkin. I've watched everything he's ever done since "Sports Night" started rerunning on Comedy Central in the '90's, and I appreciate his writer-ness. The pilot script to "Studio 60" is a polished stone of television bliss. Watching his TV shows and films is like watching a circus. I write this and realize the only reason I associate his scripts with circuses is that they always feel like I'm watching people jump through hoops. Verbal acrobatics: this is a much more apt simile. And so the thing that most interests me, and the thing I'm most pleased with, is the script of "Social Network." 

Fincher is a more complicated guy. On one hand, he makes movies I hate. On the other, he's proven with "Zodiac" and "Social Network" that his peculiar way of mixing digital and analogue filmmaking really works to crazy effect. I've seen "Social" twice, once on 35mm projection and once on digital projection, and on film the effects are amazing. I was shocked that the Winklevii were actually one guy. And I was pissed / pleased whenever Fincher's camera would slyly move through a wall or a hand railing because I couldn't tell they were fake. I would practically throw my hands up in the air in surrender when this stuff happened. It's audacious, and I like that a lot. The movie won't win for cinematography, though. The digital projection at the Academy theater looked comparatively awful: fake breath was made more apparent, snow, falling leaves, and even some camera-blur shots involving the Winkelvii. Bummer, because if they played it on 35mm I bet it would win. (For a quick comparison: while "King's Speech" was shown on 35mm, I could tell from the first scene that there were fake shadows on the wall behind Colin Firth). 

More important than any of the digitial icing is the conflict between Fincher's directorial style and Sorkin's writing. As a TV director, Sorkin is known for his long walk-and-talks. Think of the strolls through the office of "Sports Night" or the sprints through the White House corridors on "The West Wing." He'd overscript the scene, tell the actors to talk fast because they'd need to start here end there and finish on time, all in one take. It's TV, remember. Time is of the essence. Fincher is more cutty. It feels like an action movie at times, the editing is so fast. And I think this kind of points toward the main problem with the film. Not that the editing is bad or the directing is bad, but that the whole thing is over-dramatized. Not a lot happens. Or rather, it seems like a lot happens, but when you look at it from a distance it is a movie about Facebook, after all. Ryan pointed this out to me, and I remember feeling the same way when I first saw the trailer. Like, come on. Seriously? (It also ends on the legal drama cliche of "what happened then" text on the screen, which I could take or leave).

I would take the other side of the argument, though. I love movies about people who invest their whole lives into something tiny and ridiculous. In fact, there's this mule celebration in central California that happens every year, someone should really go film that. Hm. It just happens that Facebook blew up. And the combination of Trent Reznor's score and Fincher's directorial choices accentuate that self-important feeling well. The film is probably worth a third viewing just to see how its edited. Upon second viewing, the first scene actually plays much more slowly than I initially thought, and the takes are longer. When Eduardo shows up in Palo Alto and speaks to Mark in the hallway, everything plays out in one take as well. The whole thing just seems a hell of a lot faster than anything else I've seen Sorkin write.

I'm an Eisenberg fan. I love "Squid and the Whale." I think he killed it here, really did something he's never done and I don't think a lot of people expected he could do. At first I felt like he was doing a stone face Buster Keaton kind of thing, then I thought he was doing a Hannibal Lecter do nothing (but really do a bunch with your eyes) kind of thing, but it's neither. The eyes do help a lot: a constant inquisitive harshness that breaks into sadness around Eduardo, adoration around Sean, anger around lawyers. That smirk of his is really sad, but I think my favorite moment of his isn't even on screen: his weirdo, tittering laugh from the bathroom stall from Eduardo's point of view is hilarious. He runs circles around everyone around him, to the point where he runs circles around himself. And that's the second shamanic moment of the film, and my second favorite moment.

He builds Facebook in a sense to get back at his ex-girlfriend, then by the end of the film not only has it become gigantic but it has also ensnared said girlfriend. She's on Facebook. He hesitates, sends her a friend request. He hits refresh over and over waiting for her response. He's built his creative web, trapped her in it, then trapped himself in it. The super-artist has made his open system and then entered it himself and must play by its rules. A nice conclusion to a film with three present tenses.