“Every origin story has to have a devil”
by Jack Kentala
What’s unexpected from The Social Network: That, even in the midst of everything, and once the smoke clears, Zuckerberg comes out clean. He’s not some megalomaniac asshole – that role is convenientally filled by Justin Timberlake’s Sean “Napster” Parker – or straightjacketed in a ward for paranoid schizophrenics. He’s a brain in a vat that was put into a human body. He has no inner censor, and having that perceived total lack of empathy ends up ruining more than one relationship. Saying he’s not very social is the understatement of the day. It’s more like he’s this little bubble floating through society and very, very rarely interacting on any more than a superficial level.
And yes, it’s a movie about people, and it’s far more a movie about Facebook than all this nonsense, left-field Oscar buzz (who the fuck started that?) would have you believe. I don’t think anyone over forty would get this movie the same way us hip kids do. I still get chastised at work if my boss catches me on Facebook, even if I’m computing something work-related in the background.
Zuckerberg, clearly at the movie’s center, acutely speaks about this generation gap. During his multiple depositions, he’s adrift, aloof, but probably thinking about a way to improve Facebook. There are some choice lines during such scenes – such as whether or not a lawyer has Zuckberg’s full attention, of which he clearly does not – that were spoiled in the trailers. But during all this lawyering, all these depositions, all these cease-and-desists and workarounds about IP law is a bunch of garbage – implied by Zuckerberg – when really he just seized on an idea at the right time and bet on the right horse. (Well, he built the horse.) It’s like those people who correct you when you say Bell invented the phone and they say nuh-uh it was some Italian guy. In the movie, when defending his Facebook, Zuckerberg says, “If you build a chair you don’t go out and pay everyone who’s ever made a chair before.”
Everyone knows the story of Facebook and Harvard Connect / ConnectU. What’s unfortunate about that is the beefy brothers who tried to start the latter end up as total buffoons, and only when they wield the cudgel of the justice system do they actually have to get down in the dirt and figure out what was Zuckerberg, what was Harvard Connect, and what was just floating out in the ether, ready to be snatched.
That’s a lot of the first part of the film: like how Zuckerberg marries the idea of separate dorm house facebooks into one giant facebook; or how a friend asking if Zuckerberg knows whether or not a girl is dating somewhere jumpstarts the whole idea of adding relationship status onto profiles.
There are a lot of scenes of Zuckerberg running, usually to his room to hammer out some new code. It also serves as a pretty blatant visual metaphor: Zuckerberg always, always running past throngs of people and students, all socializing, showing that he’s the lone genius, the loneliest man atop the mountain. And that’s part of the allure of his character. That’s why we’re drawn to reclusive or troubled or eccentric or socially-stunted geniuses; why we’re fascinated with J.D. Salinger, Terrence Malick, Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, and, in an extreme form of the latter, the real-life Rain Man.
Being a writer/director myself, I definitely know that feeling of catching lightning in a bottle, of having this absolutely genius idea and greedily knowing it’s all yours. It’s bliss. It’s intoxicating. But at some point you have to release it into the wild, and sometimes it’s not ready. And it’s usually terrifying when you uncork that bottle.
A bit about the direction. From Alien 3 through Zodiac, Fincher dealt only with action or thrillers. Then with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button it seems he made the career move to only make Prestige films. This ties in with my earlier assessment that The Social Network was, first, scoffed at; second, thought Too Soon in the vein of Stone’s W.; third, buzzed as Pretty Good; then magically, considered in a horse race for Best Picture. But anyhow, what I wanted to say is, with just two films, Fincher has become a chameleon; he could make any kind of film short of a costume drama or musical. Other than looking at his filmography, it’s totally unpredictable what he’ll do next. It’s his mid-stage renaissance of sorts, sort of like Darren Aronofsky coming back after three heady, heavy films and making The Wrestler.
As for the writing, it’s perfectly apt that the basis for The Social Network was a book titled The Accidental Billionaires. I’m not sure where the line is blurred between the two, but it’s pretty obvious that Aaron Sorkin penned the screenplay. He’s always been dialog-heavy in his vast swath of TV stuff like Sports Night and The West Wing. While there isn’t much walking-and-talking, there’s as much spoken dialog in the first ten minutes than in entire Kubrick films. It’s not wholly self-serving, though, given that Zuckerberg, to put it lightly, has a tendency to ramble. It’s unnerving to the point that I can’t watch the man speak. He’s either on or off: total motormouth, or a brick wall. (The latter of which is masterfully captured by Jesse Eisenberg’s absolutely intense scowl. And, oh yeah, he was really good in this. He’s no longer the poor man’s Michael Cera [see also: Zombieland, e.g. a role written for Cera but given to Eisenberg].)
A bone to pick with Cronenweth’s cinematography: It continues the tired tradition of The Ivy League Mystique. Nearly every goddamn shot of exteriors takes place at night, and all those columns and all that old-ness is played up like Zuckerberg lives in a haunted village. Again, it loosely ties into the idea of the generation gap, and also a school with a rich history that Zuckerberg doesn’t give a shit about…
…except when it comes to the potential of exclusive clubs, killer parties, and meeting girls. I read some study somewhere – you were expecting me to cite it? – and it explained, in pretty basic anthropology, that human males are hardwired to try to make a masterpiece or some great invention between the ages of 18 and 26 for the primary purpose to attract females. In our generation, it’s been the Computer Kids. In the 70s, it was the first generation of film school grads (Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin, Spielberg, Lucas). In the second half of the movie – dominated by Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, inventor of Napster, who’s played as Timberlake playing an asshole version of Timberlake in an egregiously-miscast role – just being connected to Facebook has VIP status. “We have groupies” one of Zuckerberg’s friends announces after they score two girls based on Facebook-creation recognition.
It’s actually this aspect that makes the film come full circle. The first scene is Zuckerberg and his then-girlfriend having drinks, in which it’s pretty quickly revealed that Zuckerberg usually holds about four conversations at one, all with the same person; like language existing in four dimensions. She breaks up with him because of varying shades of his own self-obsession and complete lack of self-awareness to the point of being an asshole. And at the end of the movie, he hasn’t spoken to her in some while, and over some screen text about the various legal settlements, it shows Zuckerberg in a room, alone, friend-requesting his ex and hitting the refresh key every ten seconds.
So it’s a message as old as Citizen Kane: It’s lonely at the top. Though Charles Foster Kane wasn’t worth $7 billion.