Monday, December 6, 2010

Life on the Internet: The Social Network review (***1/2/****)

Winter's Bone and Inception finally have some competition for my favorite movie of 2010. For anyone who hasn't seen The Social Network yet, you really must. Let me count the ways:
  1. Aaron Sorkin script that assumes, nay, demands intelligence and attention to keep up.
  2. Excellent direction by David Fincher, that master of alienation.
  3. Oscar-worthy performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake. Yes, Justin Timberlake.
  4. Trent Reznor wrote the buzzing, menacing score, which I am listening to right now. It's available for download at the price of $5. (Also, anyone who wants to catch the strange, lovely cover of "Creep" that was featured in the trailer, it was done by Scala.)
  5. A prophecy of our modern lives, as provided by Timberlake's character Sean Parker, the erstwhile founder of Napster: "We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're gonna live on the internet!"
Sorkin and Fincher build their whole movie around that line, bending some facts to fit their thesis of how one little website has changed our world forever. Beginning in 2003, the film opens with Mark Zuckerberg getting dumped by his (fictional) girlfriend Erica. Spurned by her and the Harvard fraternities both, he seeks some way of re-inventing himself and winds up inventing Facebook instead. Along the way he gets pounded with lawsuits by fellow students, the Winklevoss twins, who claim that he stole the idea of a social-networking website from them, and his former best friend and first CFO Eduardo Saverin, who alleges that Mark shafted him out of his 30% share and co-founder status.

Obviously the great irony here is that the world's biggest social network was built by a completely socially inept misanthrope who severed his own personal bonds one by one on the path to that illustrious 500 million "friends." Jesse Eisenberg is fantastic as that misanthrope, all tics and blankness and motor-mouthed insults, with just the faintest quiver of sorrow underneath. He can see the relationships around him unraveling but is so swept up in his own genius that he can't figure out how to stop.

The film leaves ambiguous just how much validity lies in the lawsuits, or in the suits who are pressing them. Zuckerberg might have led on "the Winklevii" (as he dubs them) in order to develop his own website before theirs got off the ground; but then again, as Mark himself puts it in the film, "If somebody makes a chair he does not owe money to everyone in the history of the world who made a chair." The Saverin lawsuit is more one-sided: recently leaked emails and IMs show that not only did Zuckerberg and Parker shaft Saverin, the real-life version of events was even more cold-blooded than the movie depicts. Saverin eventually settled for an undisclosed sum, 5% of the company shares, and has been re-instated on the site as the co-founder.

Despite that victory it's hard not to feel for Eduardo, especially as played by the British-born Garfield. He has an innate likeability and humanity to him that, as the film progresses, actually becomes a burden. Eduardo never had a chance to understand or keep up with Facebook: he was too human. Facebook--and most social networking websites--have forever changed the way we relate to other human beings. It has brought the world closer together and made us more alone than ever before. Sorkin himself commented on Facebook in an interview: “I feel like social networking is to socializing what reality TV is to reality. In a way we’re performing for each other.”

That's what Mark was looking for: a way to present himself as something better, someone who could keep a girlfriend and make it into fraternities. Someone desirable. Sean Parker understood Facebook better than Mark himself; he's a walking performance, all self-invention and narcissism. But Eduardo, with his nice-but-not-too-nice suits, gentlemanly manners, and slightly-pathetic desire for an emotional connection with Mark (pathetic only in how impossible that wish turns out to be), is squarely a city-dweller in the land of the Internetites. He exists outside of the machine. He is just himself.

Which makes his betrayal all the much more effective and poignant. When he finally flips out, the first thing he does is smash Mark's laptop, forcing him to disconnect and--finally and possibly for the last time in Mark's life--have a real-life human interaction. Eduardo's anger is our anger, because there is that tiny, betrayed part in all of us who hungers for something that no blinking cursor can give us.

I would be remiss in my duties as a feminist if I did not mention the depiction of women in this film, or the lack thereof. Other than Erica, effectively played with intelligence and strength by Rooney Mara in the 5 minutes of screentime that she gets, the female characters are all one-dimensional, either there as (mostly Asian) arm candy or as lawyerly exposition devices. Other reviews have commented on this already, and Sorkin has defended himself in the media by saying that it accurately reflects the misogyny in tech culture.
I am actually inclined to accept Sorkin's defense, especially given his decent track record with female characters. (David Fincher is another story, but he wasn't the one writing the script.) Sorkin may have bent the truth, but there's only so much bending one can do in a culture of angry nerd boys who extoll the virtues of beautiful Asian women as the ultimate girlfriend, as Saverin does in the movie and Zuckerberg does in real life.

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