Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: The Social Network

David Fincher's The Social Network, from an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of "The Accidental Billionaires," Ben Mezrich's 2009 account of the contested founding of Facebook, resolves itself by insisting that Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg is not in fact an "ass-hole," in spite of a cold open that provides seemingly incontrovertible (and indeed explicit) evidence to the contrary, and a storyline that does little to dispel the impression.  Rather, Zuckerberg is assured that he is "just trying so hard to be" the aforesaid, having adopted the posture first in an Anglo-Saxon Harvard world in which his Hebraic origins are a social deficiency, and thereafter in his pursuit of a billion-dollar valuation, following the lead of hard-partying Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Mark's character failings and in particular his willingness to double-cross his friends and associates is linked finally to his lack of official social acceptance in one of Harvard's "final clubs," while the impetus for the multi-billion dollar company itself continues to the film's end to possess a romantic dimension, with Mark sending ex Erica (Rooney Mara) a friend request (which he monitors by frequently refreshing his site) following one of his legal depositions.  Fincher and Sorkin's The Social Network therefore provides an explanation for Zuckerberg's behavior, the question of his asshole-ness, rooted entirely in the traumas of his early Harvard years.  As Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane finally pines for his lost youth in Citizen Kane (1941), for a time before his great wealth and monumental ambitions, so does Zuckerberg thirst for his lost love, from a similar juncture situated before his rise.  

That Fincher identifies a single object of romantic longing at the core of his male protagonist's experience insures that The Social Network shares at least some common ground with the director's previous The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).  However, it is much less his strategies in Benjamin Button than those of his superior Zodiac (2007) to which Fincher is returning in The Social Network.  As with Zodiac, Fincher's latest provides a real-life variation on an earlier, fictionalized cinematic source: for the 2007 film, it was Don Siegel's fully fictional transcription of the "zodiac" killings, Dirty Harry (1971), which the director revises in light of the known facts of the same case, while for The Social Network, it is Welles's veiled treatment of the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst that provides a point of embarkation for examining that of the latter-day, on-line impresario Zuckerberg.  In both Fincher films, each based on a work of recent non-fiction, the director restricts himself to the recounted histories of his real-life subjects, depicting only those killings on screen for which there were witnesses in Zodiac, and sketching Zuckerberg's life through the deposition testimonies that enable the film's flashbacks.  (It is for this reason that the often uncommunicative Zuckerberg - when he is not dressing-down his countless intellectual inferiors, that is - begins to recede from his own biography.)  Each film attempts to produce a reasonable solution to an open question: who is the Zodiac and what was Zuckerberg's malfeasance?                

Where the two films diverge foremost is in their respective relationships to their sources.  Whereas Zodiac seeks to critique the vigilante premise of its Dirty Harry source in elevating due process over the questions of victim's rights and public safety, and by highlighting the epistemological uncertainty endemic in treating an unsolved case, The Social Network more or less refreshes Kane, adopting that film's shuffled chronology in its recounting of Facebook's contested history. For his latest, Fincher structures his narrative through a pair of parallel depositions, comparable to Citizen Kane's archive and interview prompts, which in the former, as in the latter, seek in some sense to clarify the film's opening: why or is Zuckerberg an "ass-hole?"  What is "Rosebud?"  Though he is undoubtedly responding to richer material with the (still somewhat over-valued) Welles than he is with the (still somewhat under-appreciated) Siegel, the fact that he and Sorkin opt for the same virgin, comprehensive explanation for The Social Network that Welles did for Kane suggests the 2010 film's comparative limitation (versus the revisionist Zodiac).  Where The Social Network could have truly shown some film historical ambition in challenging Welles's slightly pat solution to the Kane/Hearst paradox, it offers instead the same all-encompassing answer.  In any case, Fincher reveals the same small-'r' romanticism that he showcased in Benjamin Button.

In additional auteurist terms, The Social Network again highlights the centrality of lighting (particularly of an overhead, neon variety) that is visible in the director's oeuvre from Se7en (1995) onward.  In contrast to a Welles, for example, whose spaces often organically disclose his narrative's themes - much more than for its subject, Citizen Kane's greatness originates in the meaning that Welles introduces into Gregg Toland's deep focus compositions through his organization of figures - in Fincher, disbursement of bodies in space often seems to be of only secondary importance, with a very classical shot/reverse-shot decoupage predominating.  Instead, the director secures his mimetic effects largely through his choices of illumination, often favoring sickly green or warm yellow filters that inflect his mise-en-scène with a particular mood, while also commenting on aspects of the psychology of his characters.  That the director would favor the creation of meaning in visual tone rather than in the organization of a spatial field recalls Fincher's start as music video artist, where that form's conventional aversion to the long-take militates against the sorts of spaces in which Welles reveled.  Of course, Trent Reznor's participation (in collaboration with Atticus Ross) as the creator of the film's soundtrack likewise reaffirms Fincher's music video past, not only on a filmographic level, but also for the manner in which meaning is conveyed through the film's scoring: to take just one example, Eisenberg's post-breakup, anguished cross-campus flight, through seductively elegant Ivy League surroundings, is suitably mimicked by Reznor and Ross's simultaneous inclusion of a melodic piano theme and overlaid discordant soundscaping.  Sound and image act in complete concert, in other words.  This is the total art of the music video artist.

The Social Network accordingly represents both the latest iteration in Fincher's perpetually more impressive career body of work - upon a first viewing, this writer would rate the film a shade below Zodiac perhaps, but the equal certainly of anything else the director has done to date - and a work that benefits greatly from its collaborators.  (Again Citizen Kane is not an altogether unfruitful point of comparison.)  Most notable among these are Sorkin, particularly for his perceptive, rapid-fire dialogue; Reznor and Ross once again, not only for their thematically organic, multi-layered scoring, but for their occasional sense of humor; Armie Hammer as twin Aryan specimens, the Winklevoss's; and finally Eisenberg himself who brings far more in his caustic embodiment of Zuckerberg for instance than Brad Pitt did previously as Benjamin Button's eponymous cipher.  Even when hunched over or staring blankly out at a sudden rain - and thus only fractionally engaged with the world around him, which Mark admits to being in one of the film's sharpest edged exchanges - Eisenberg exudes a sense of the ass-hole (or wanna be ass-hole) at the center of Fincher's real-world biopic.

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