Friday, February 25, 2011
They Don't Have Roads
The world turns, the weeks go by in a flash, you wake up and things are changing. Things always change. I don’t buy when people pretentiously declare they’re not interested in the Facebook thing, the Twitter thing, the internet thing like they’re above it all somehow. They want to live that way, fine. It doesn’t mean that anyone else who chooses to take part in these things is discounted. Someone in the world probably still uses a rotary phone. Doesn’t mean that everyone should. And I’m saying all this speaking as a guy who knows how much he sometimes feels overwhelmed by these new additions to the world, who sometimes wonders about how much things have really changed for the better because of them. And I’m also admittedly someone who wishes that the use of celluloid to make movies wasn’t in such jeopardy at the moment and yet here I am praising to the sky as the best of the year a movie filmed using the Red digital camera and directed by one of the most tech-savvy filmmakers of our time. You think I’m going to win that argument? You think I’m going to convince him not to make his movie that way? And why should I really care what kind of camera he uses? Of course, it’s the way you use those tools that matters and sometimes it’s that undeniable display of true craft in the making of a film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the smart from the silly, the ones who look to the future from the ones who talk about the way things used to be and nothing else. And sometimes the forward-looking ones really are the assholes but even as they brood on those particular women they still pause for a second and remember how she has a nice face. Which may really be what it’s all about in the end, anyway. “This film is written to go like a streak,” was what William Goldman apparently wrote at the top of early drafts of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and the same could certainly be said about the pure speed of David Fincher’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, a hugely entertaining film which also tells the story of recent events which have impacted our world. And like his own ZODIAC (alas, one which still hasn’t received the acclaim it deserves) it’s quickly become one of those films I’ve gotten in the habit of putting in the DVD again and again to rewatch just a few scenes then before I know it I’m sitting through the whole damn thing once again. Seriously, I’ve become addicted to it. Of course, this alone doesn’t make something a great film. But the film has plenty more to it than just that.
As scripted by Aaron Sorkin, THE SOCIAL NETWORK of course tells the story of the creation of Facebook by Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in the wake of his breakup with girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) and his dispute over how this happened with friend Eduardo Sanchez (Andrew Garfield) as well as twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both essentially played by Armie Hammer), who had their own social networking idea they attempted to bring Zuckerberg in on. And, yes, I’m very aware that the narrative it presents apparently diverges from what really went on in ’03-’04 in any number of ways. I don’t know all of them. I haven’t bothered to read the source book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich so I couldn’t say very much about that and I should probably state right up front that whenever any of them are mentioned here I’m referring to them as characters in this film, not the real people. What I do know is the rush I felt from seeing the film on opening day and it’s the same rush I continue to feel as I look at certain sequences over and over. What seems clear more than anything is that in structuring the script Aaron Sorkin sat down, looked over what he had to work with, found his themes and went from there. And even those concepts are subjects that he’s broached in the past, restated here for the new milieu. SPORTS NIGHT, his office place sitcom which ran from 1998-2000, is possibly no longer his greatest accomplishment but it may always be the purest expression of those themes, the I Ching of Sorkin if you will in its exploration of men, women and the way things should really be in this crazy modern world and the variation on those themes continue to this days in every scene of THE SOCIAL NETWORK. “It's for the same reason anybody does anything: to impress women,” goes the final line of one SPORTS NIGHT (sounds about right to me, frankly), something which seems to be the primary driving force of Mark Zuckerberg only as presented here he seems to be coming at this point of creativity in the birth of his landmark website in the complete wrong way.
The language of Aaron Sorkin dialogue (“Sorkinese” has kind of entered the lexicon) can be a little like a particular kind of jazz, a precise form whose rhythms were seemingly perfected once he teamed up with Thomas Schlamme for both SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING when they first aired in the late 90s. Looking at the films he wrote that were directed by Rob Reiner—namely, A FEW GOOD MEN and THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT—they haven’t aged so well not just because Reiner’s directorial style has become all the more sour and milquetoast as the years have gone on but due to how since the language of Sorkin has been heard in its seemingly perfect form by now looking at them again the way the words flow in those earlier films seems, well, off. Not quite right. The nature of how those speeches should spill out from the actor’s mouths out can be very tricky and even the man himself doesn’t always find the right way. Several years after it mercifully ended after one season the wipeout of STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP still stings for me a little, not only because of the high standard he set for himself but because I had read the pilot script, maybe one of the best I’ve ever read, months beforehand so I had a glimpse at how that good that could have been. Something was just simply lost in translation as the show developed and it became not just overly bitter in its display of whatever he wanted to say at the time but little about it ever made much sense even on its own hyped-up level. I don’t know if it’s at all accurate to call THE SOCIAL NETWORK a revitalization of Sorkin’s use of his own language, of his approach to examining the inner-workings of screwed-up smart people, but scene after scene feels sharp, right on, absolutely what it should be in every possible way in how it takes what seems at first glance seems like a story about people sitting writing code and making it not only constantly gripping but on occasion hysterically funny–in context, “punch me in the face” was without a doubt one of the biggest laughs I had in a theater all last year and it’s nice to see that the man still loves his asides like a stuffy British guy making a disparaging crack about French literature. Certain Sorkin phrasings may be familiar to those who have been paying close attention through the years and countless viewings of various things have made me aware of how his style sounds to the point that I can spot them a mile away (“I'm not sure you can get AIDS by burning down your house, but I get your point,” mutters Warren Beatty to a speechifying Paul Sorvino in BULWORTH, a film he’s not credited on but clearly a line that couldn’t be written by anybody else). Writing out a full list of how this kind of syntax turns up in THE SOCIAL NETWORK would be lengthy, not to mention extremely dull to read, but one line in particular did stick out for me--speaking as somebody from Scarsdale I can’t help but notice that this film written by Scarsdale High School graduate Aaron Sorkin included a line disparaging an email address that includes the word Jabberwock as using "the world's most obvious Lewis Carroll reference”. I still can’t help but wonder if this writer had a bad experience at the school literary magazine, which has long been named Jabberwocky, and this is just his own inner Zuckerberg making a cameo appearance in the dialogue, getting a small sliver of revenge.
As brilliant as he is, David Fincher may not have been my first pick to handle all this very specific dialogue but he seems to understand every single cadence and how they should go together. He doesn’t dial down his expected visual approach so much as he finds a way to get it to flawlessly work for the film, occasionally taking a moment to linger from one beat to the next like Eduardo dancing across the room at Caribbean night towards Mark or letting the Ivy League atmosphere seep into us during the opening credits. But for the most part he directs his scenes dead ahead, always finding ways to frame those close-ups, reveling in the words that are being said, finding ways to keep Mark Zuckerberg apart from everyone else, always observing, never letting anyone in right from that remarkable opening scene racing through the dialogue at a speed that Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht would have approved of. The rare director these days who seems to know how to make actors talking seems totally cinematic without falling back on tricks like lame handheld nonsense to make it more “real”, his approach is light years more intelligent than that and the preciseness he delivers to each shot seems to matter every step of the way. And just as at times Sorkin decides to sit back and enjoy himself as he does what he does like a duck in water (which is maybe the best way to describe the introduction of Sean Parker as played by Justin Timberlake) the much-discussed Henley Royal Regatta sequence is Fincher taking one chance in this film to do his thing, framing it all in a style that places it all in this miniaturized insular world that still hasn’t been affected by the way the world changing, content to “stay in one place” just as the Winklevoss twins do in everything they do, representing the old school of the country club world of Bush I, not realizing anything has happened until it’s happened. Fincher does a beautifully assured job of directing the movie down to every last shot (hard not to notice that this film marks the second time he’s used a timelapse shot of the Transamerica tower) and the combination of what the two men bring to it all truly does allow the film to go like a streak. All of these elements, to say nothing of that exhilarating score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross that has had steady play on my ipod for the past several months, make it all a thrill to watch every single moment on each new viewing.
I’ve sometimes thought that maybe what Aaron Sorkin did best simply didn’t fit into the post-9/11 world. The infectious optimism found in the best of SPORTS NIGHT may not have worked at all if that show was still on the air several years later and the upbeat, peppy spirit of the early days of THE WEST WING, no doubt a carryover from the Clinton days when he first started researching THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, certainly didn’t continue past a certain point. A darkness descended on THE WEST WING as the third season began in the Fall of ‘01 which was sometimes effective, sometimes not and whatever backstage goings-on happened as a result it ended in Sorkin’s ousting from the show in 2003 in a space of time that seemed to happen in less time than it takes to have a meal at The Palm. By the point of STUDIO 60’s premiere in 2006 the bitterness became just too unwieldy to qualify as compelling or entertaining television and that was a show that seemed to have about four or five possible approaches that it never chose from. The dialogue in THE SOCIAL NETWORK is familiar and so is the non-linear approach which he first did back in those WEST WING days but unlike many of those earlier films these characters don’t spend much time focusing on all the good that will result of what they do, all of the higher aspirations to bringing the world together through the internet. I wanted to be those people and I may not want to be anyone in this movie but they’re at least proactive which can certainly be admirable in spite of everything else. And not always as right as they think they are, like in how Eduardo seems like a smart guy but a bad businessman, although he does make the suggestion to expand to Palo Alto which of course leads to—well, that’s sometimes how life works.
Some of the drama keeps things on the surface in how it doesn’t necessarily examine much of their intent and probably because it’s the way the characters view it, the concept of privacy being broken down is pretty much taken as a given. But they’re young. Instead of the high & mighty employees of CSC and the White House, these techno geeks aren’t looking to be the best them they can be but simply to get ahead. They’re not breaking down the walls of social structure for anyone but themselves, to get into the places they won’t be allowed, to climb over the heads of the massive guys who row crew and make it to the top. Not for the betterment of anything in particular and in Mark’s case certainly not for the money—at least, not simply for the money but to prove how cool they are. And, yes, for the women. The characters of SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING were people who truly aspired, demanded, to be better in how they continually seemed to say how this is the way things should be. The arrogant tech geeks of THE SOCIAL NETWORK instead say this is the way it’s going to be. Like it or not. The future is coming. The future is here. And something that occurred to me while once again watching Erica Albright dump Mark Zuckerberg in the first scene how much it strangely resembles the opening restaurant breakup of Albert Brooks’ near-brilliant 1981 comedy MODERN ROMANCE. For that matter, both films are also about the subsequent fallout that occurs as a result of that opening scene and it could be argued that MODERN ROMANCE wouldn’t be all that inappropriate an alternate title for THE SOCIAL NETWORK—the breakdown of Mark’s close friendship with Eduardo, his longing from afar for Erica, his own relationship with himself. And his relationship with a world that changed since Facebook emerged. I know it changed for me. Hell, if it wasn’t for Facebook I wouldn’t have seen the movie about Facebook with the girl I saw it with. And I’m sitting here wondering about her, too.
That non-linear structure which flows out effortlessly from the page, bracketing the main drama of the site’s rise with the dual depositions of the two lawsuits, is nothing new for Sorkin or any number of films and TV shows by now but of course sometimes the effect it has is greater than others--one example that comes to mind in particular is a two-part WEST WING that came early in that third season entitled “Manchester” (incidentally written and filmed pre-9/11, aired post 9/11) which alternated the hours immediately after President Bartlet’s MS announcement with the kickoff of his reelection campaign several weeks later. It’s one of those cases where the approach, which was more overtly experimental in those days, doesn’t come off as entirely successful and even watching it now I’m still not entirely certain what the purpose of the device is, with it even coming off as a little confusing at times. The conclusion of the “before” portion in that two-parter seems to drift off into a non-ending, not entirely unlike how the concluding moments of THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s narrative showing Mark Zuckerberg gazing at that business card after Sean Parker gets busted at an underage party in the wake of the break with Eduardo for reasons we never fully understand may not be it’s most satisfying element, so it’s clear that while I could go on for hours about my love of his work but he’s definitely not infallible. Maybe it’s all an offshoot of the rush I get from his work, from how it’s presented in this film that causes me to gloss over such points but they are there and may possibly account for the lack of emotional impact some feel from the film, whatever that emotion would be. And it may very well be a valid question to ask if the movie is ultimately confused as to whether the narrative focus should be Mark/Eduardo or Mark/Erica. Maybe, ultimately, it’s just Mark/Mark. As I’ve learned in life we never find out a lot of things about the people we think we know, even when our lives are put on the internet for all to see. For Aaron Sorkin, the end result of THE SOCIAL NETWORK is like he’s finally figured out the algorithm on his own window of how to get this all to work, to make his style this seamless, to make every single moment feel like the adrenaline rush that it does and he makes it seem easy. “Shit,” says Mark Zuckerberg in wonder when Sean Parker tells him to drop the “the”, discovering that sometimes in life it really is that simple.
And adding to the mystery of it all is the glaring face of Jesse Eisenberg playing the ultimate Jesse Eisenberg role, finding an inner life to the enigma that is Mark Zuckerberg as every single line of dialogue flows seamlessly out of him, making this guy (Prick? Genius? Asshole? Someone who just wants to be an asshole?) absolutely human, always compelling. He deservedly received a Best Actor nomination but you could easily say that several of his co-stars deserved similar recognition in the supporting categories, particularly in the desperation of Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo, Justin Timberlake’s star-in-his-own-world Sean Parker and Armie Hammer as the bickering Winklevoss twins, drowning as the self-confidence which has made up their entire being erodes. John Getz, Denise Grayson and particularly David Selby ace their attorney roles with every bit the precise demeanor needed—when Selby appeared recently at the New Beverly for a showing of THE SUPER COPS part of me really wanted to ask him to say “Do you think I deserve your full attention?” I also have to mention the hysterically funny Douglas Urbanski, not really an actor, with his dead-on perfect timing as Harvard president Larry Summers, the spitfire Brenda Song as the slightly crazy Christy, Joseph Mazzello who gets me laughing with every twitchy move he makes as Dustin Moskovitz while Rashida Jones’ mostly silent presence as one of Mark’s attorneys pays off hugely as she lowers the boom at the end. And as far as I’m concerned, if Beatrice Straight got an Oscar for less than six minutes in NETWORK then the amazing Rooney Mara (soon to be seen in Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance as Erica Albright whose part is mostly confined to the pre-credit breakup but it still feels like her face is superimposed on the frame in every scene that comes after, which is really the way it should be.
Whether or not it’s the best picture of 2010 (and, what the hell, I say it is) it’s still a film that in it’s own small way is a piece of this time, something that makes me think about what this world has become, makes me think about the various reasons a person does things. Of what happens to friends, what happens to those women we know, or think we know. We can find out the answer to that a little easier now thanks to every single new thing that appears on the internet, but does it really matter in the end? Does it have anything to do with the price of rice? THE SOCIAL NETWORK is bracketed by two clearly-smarter-than-we-get-to-see women passing judgment on the guy who is responsible for all this but in the end he’s still just left with his own Rosebud and nothing to do but obsess over that. I can’t fully say what makes the Mark Zuckerberg shown in this film tick any more than I’ve been able to figure out certain things in my own life but as I watch this film yet again, continually thinking about all those final clubs (not finals clubs) in the world that I’m aiming for in my own way I’m reminded about how THE SOCIAL NETWORK captures a small piece of the madness of what’s happening right now. Of why I’m doing certain things. Of what’s happened with certain people I’ve known. Since there are so many films made nowadays that seem to do everything possible not to say anything about anything in the slightest, the film seems to matter that much more. And years from now, I think it will continue to.