RIORI Vol 3, Installment 39: David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010)


The Social Network


The Players…

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Tyler Pence and Max Minghella, with Brenda Song, Rashida Jones and Rooney Mara.


The Story…

Harvard sophomore and computer wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg almost single-handedly creates social media with his revolutionary FaceBook program and all the responsibilities and woes that entails.

That’s basically it, folks.


The Rant…

I have a love/hate relationship (status) with FaceBook. Maybe you do, too.

Like the rest of y’all, I use FaceBook for chatting with friends, news feeds, pop culture pap, promoting blogs and reassurance that I am not alone in this cold, cruel world without having to actually interact with human beings. That and nurturing a low-level feeling of narcissism. Like the rest of y’all.

I logged on as a FaceBook member back in 2009, two years after its launch, which is a century in a tech savvy game of catch-up. Did my research first, though. At first I was dubious about the new program. I had my times with MySpace and found it no better than anonymous catalog mailings and highway billboards: sh*t in my face I would rather ignore. Where’s the chicks? My sister indirectly wound me into the web. Email suggestion. Checked it out, met Tom and signed up.

And here my troubles began.

Little sis was—and still is—a Facebook junkie. Posting stuff seemingly every five minutes, of things grand and mundane by whatever standard she follows. From what I’ve seen, a lot of FaceBook friends (okay, all of them) can’t discern the difference between noteworthy events in their lives and meaningless dreck. Here’s an example I cooked up years ago when FaceBook was in its infancy, and its users were all so enraptured by the idea they could share every-bloody-thing about themselves and smear it all over the Web, whether you wanted to know or not:

Say you happened upon a really good sandwich shop. Chances are you’d tell your buddies all about it and recommend the ham on rye. Normal. Using FaceBook as extension of this common, casual interaction with others, if you would regale every single person you knew—and didn’t know—with your find where to get the ultimate Reuben, you’d be regarded as a nutjob. I enjoy sandwiches as much as the next guy, but I don’t need you on my lap telling me how to do so.

FaceBook is an open forum. People tend to forget this. Doubtless you’ve come across someone’s post about something you did not want to know about, like multiple videos of them getting that neck goiter incised. Or some guy dressed as a chicken, drunk and singing Rick Astley tunes. Or some heartbroken doof confessing—probably also drunk—their hatred of the opposite sex and how they’ll never get their original pressings of the entire Nickelback catalogue on Edison coil back from their evil, evil ex. We don’t want to see this sh*t (okay, maybe the chicken guy), yet we do—like or unlike, leaving comments as warranted—and inadvertently encourage our “friends” in being attention-starved narcissists that won’t quit poking people or posting funny cat videos. The ones with the goiters. You’ve seen it; you can’t un-see it.

It’s the Warhol theory in action, only 15 minutes isn’t enough. Thanks to FaceBook, users need perceived fame fed into their collective egos 24/7. The feeds have interrupted—some may say corrupted—how people have traditionally communicated for millennia: verbally. The intelligentsia has been bemoaning the death of conversation forever. With FaceBook, such concerns have accelerated into almost self-parody. Many of my FaceBook friends I have had to cut loose. Why? There’s a rather big difference between a post about someone’s new baby and…well, that Reuben sandwich.

FaceBook isn’t exactly an even give-and-take between users. It’s become more of a pissing contest with who has the “cooler” story, which memes are the most amusing and how many friends one can accrue online. Or at the end of the day merely a sounding board, in which the user really doesn’t give a f*ck about who is listening. Maybe it comes down to just some sort of desperate popularity contest. Listen, there is no way you can have 4,000 friends unless you’re the focal point of a major religion, like Moses or Elvis. It’s all malign self-importance unchained. At the end of the day, whenever that comes.

It’s really a shame though, since there are some very good, very practical things about FaceBook. Its network has allowed people to catch up with old friends and distant family members, too far away to visit (think about soldiers overseas). Infinite hits to expand your sphere of knowledge (good and bad). Breaking news customized to your concerns. Chickens singing “Never Wanna Give You Up.” All vital things this in our cyber global village. But all these links gets me to wonder: what are long term ramifications going to be regarding America’s ability to communicate freely under a constant spotlight? Privacy is at a premium lately. How much do you really want to give away? And what exactly would that stuff be?

I don’t think FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg fully considered the human factor when creating his social medium. Then again, maybe he did. All too well. After all, FaceBook was borne out of revenge; drunk dialing for the Internet generation. Hacking the Net to smear a girl is the ultimate form of: look at what this bitch did to me, America (or at least Harvard)! Like? Unlike? Comments?

Be careful which computer nerd you spurn in this day and age, ladies…


Harvard University, 2003.

Computer science sophomore and hacking wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) has been having trouble with his girlfriend, Erica (Mara). She can’t stand him anymore. He’s smug. He’s condescending. He thinks his genius is being undermined by the college community. That and he’s practicing a nice, little drinking problem. She dumps his ass.

And so begins the greatest form of mass communication since Gutenberg’s moveable type. From such humble origins. legacies are borne.

In a fit of drunken pique, Mark cracks into Harvard’s network and proceeds to rearrange the chess pieces to smear Erica all over the campus. It was a simple algorithm, Mark’s his roomie Eduardo (Garfield) happen upon his buddy’s malfeasance, and is immediately taken with the potential of Mark’s duct tape and baling wire hack. If Mark’s “Facemash” can unite the campus’ thirst for dirt, then what about airing laundry at other schools? And why stop at schools? Ed comes from not only a family with deep pockets, but also a business acumen that rivals any average student at Harvard. This includes the ridiculously affluent Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss (Spence and Hammer, respectively), who claim that they were the ones who suggested Mark’s new social media experiment as theirs. Well, only when nerdy Zuckerberg starts making some capital with his hacking.

No matter this. With Ed’s business smarts, Mark being a prodigy (with a keen though misguided grasp on the social sways towards your average college kid) and later lessons learned by a smarmy, once-keys-to-the-kingdom Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake), their social network will become too big to fail.

So forget the green-eyed Winklevoss’. Forget Harvard’s reqs and regs regarding Internet protocol. Forget your best buddy all hesitant in his understanding how to keep a fledgling Internet startup afloat. Forget you’re schmoozing with the first big file-sharing success story with the first big fail. Forget all that.

Harness your ego and especially forget Erica. She’s already forgotten you.

Unlike


Okay. Here’s a sort of companion piece to the whole “sandwich example” from above. It’s how the human factor gets ignored by the “men in the white coats.” And I ain’t talkin’ Bellevue bound here. Then again, I may be.

Many years past, I had a job in tech support for a mobile phone company. This was in the early aughts, when the first gen smartphones came on the market. Basic gizmos these; talk, text, web. That was it. No apps to speak of, let alone the concept of what an “app” was. I was a go-to guy to crack the hard nuts only the most affluent of customers demanded. It was a real latchkey operation back then. New tech rolling out faster than the tech guys—like me—could absorb and apply to the paying public.

The big new thing—only big when these new smartphone doohickies had actual keypads, not tap 3 three times to get F—was texting. It was more private than a phone call. When you place a call, half of the conversation might be heard by an inappropriate audience. Texts were quiet, and a bit more polite than an actual phone call when the recipient might’ve been in a place where chatting on a cell would be considered rude. Like in a movie theatre, or even in a surgical theatre for that matter.

Learned that one of the primary reasons for texting (it was called SMS then. Short messengering service) was to make cell phones accessible for the deaf. Can’t hear? No big. Just fire off an SMS and boom, target acquired. Clever, if not brilliant. Those dinosaur, brick, actual cell phones couldn’t accomplish that, let alone hold battery power beyond an hour. All hail technology.

That being said, here’s where the “men in white coats” theory comes into speculative practice. Some uber-smart dorks in lab coats reflecting on their work:

“Hey. Y’know, this SMS for the deaf is great. Now folks who can’t hear can utilize the mobile phone tech we devised. It’s all good.”

“…Well. I’m not so sure.”

“What’s that?”

“You know, people can abuse technology, as well meaning as our intentions.”

“What are you saying?”

“I mean, this SMS program is great, but what about cell phone users who can hear?”

“You’re losing me.”

“It might be quicker, and less intrusive, for anyone to fire off a text to communicate rather than place a call.”

“Your point?”

“My point is this: what if some people decide to send a text at an inappropriate time?”

“Like how?”

“Say, while driving. They feel the need to send a text while driving.”

“Oh, come on! Who’d be so stupid to use SMS while driving? You don’t see people reading the Times behind the wheel, do you?”

Splat.

The guys in the white coats forget the human factor; they forget the rest of mongrel America isn’t as smart as they are. That we have to put red octagon magnets on our bumpers to remind other drivers to STOP TEXTING. By the way, that cup of McDonald’s coffee you have between your thighs is mighty hot.

What’s my point? I feel that most movers and shakers (especially in the tech biz) fail to consider the human factor and how the average joe thinks and reacts. Sure, Robert Goddard just wanted to demonstrate rocket science as a valid endeavor. I don’t think he anticipated Werner von Braun’s efforts with taking large chunks out of London.

A bit harsh maybe, and probably something of a stretch, but I don’t think Zuckerberg was fully aware of what beast he unchained when FaceBook went public back in 2007. How could he? He’s waaaaay smarter than the rest of we unwashed masses. He had no time for f*cking around with Skyrim on the PS3. There were worlds to build. Here, have a smoothie.

I did say fully aware, however. The film repeatedly points out—at least as far as the script read—that Zuckerberg and his cronies knew what kind of dirt their peers wanted dished out online. Booze, babes and silly cat videos. Maybe chickens, too. Almost a decade on and it looks like those geeks were spot on; thumbs on the pulses of a million mouse shuffling hands. So not all dangerously intelligent computer dorks are very far out of the loop. Sometimes it pays to leave the D&D once in while.

This back and forth dynamic—a push and pull—of how those who create and understand the tech between those who use it (with limited to little regard of its potential) drives much of the plot in The Social Network. That, and piercing character study of the cast’s mindsets and motives; immaturity and hubris braced against being driven to succeed and profit. It’s the classic argument of new science in action: could we versus should we. And then what could we do next? When people are this creative and intelligent, they tend to forget how ignorant the general public is.

But maybe not this time out. Consider Zuckerberg’s muse. Girl trouble. And booze. In bersabee* veritas.

What I like most about David Fincher’s films is their deliberate, calculated, almost clinical style. It’s his signature. From Se7en to Zodiac to Fight Club, everything is precise, clean and well-paced without feeling rushed.  There’s a rhythm, a momentum. His execution is an even flow of urgency, always dusted with a little dark comedy to unnerve you back to reality, if only for a moment. Network is no different, yet it does have a different timbre than that of the director’s other works.

Network might be the first “straight” film in Fincher’s oeuvre. A surreal air always hangs over the man’s movies like a mist. There’s a haunted feeling in watching, say, The Game or Panic Room, as if something is always going to go horribly wrong (and often does) in the next scene. That Hitchcock air is mostly absent in Network, but not The Master’s skills channeled by Fincher; the movie is cold, menacing and exciting, cut with a very deliberate sense of purpose. Yet it still feels like something is going to fall off the hinges at the fringe of each scene. The deft tension is still there. It’s definitely a Fincher flick, but the rules have changed. Not to mention the subject matter. Strange things are afoot at Harvard, but it’s not about serial killers lurking in the shadows. Not this time.

So what’s going on with this change-up? First, Network‘s a biopic. This stuff really happened, albeit gussied up with some Hollywood flair and Fincher’s sense of vision. The film was based on a book, after all, and a far cry from a Fitzgerald novella. The whole docudrama aspect could be applied to Zodiac, Fincher’s other esteemed true crime drama. However the differences between that film and Network are Zodiac was scary and highly stylized. Network is a legal caper punctuated with the thrill of discovery against genius run amok. It’s a lot of other things, too, somewhat removed from Fincher’s established comfort zone, but I’ll get to that later. Stay logged in.

The second bit is that we have a legal drama on our hands. One buttered with psychological overtones aplenty, to be sure, but huge wads of Network‘s story revolves around FaceBook’s ownership, intellectual property rights and copyright law. Uh, kinda boring off the set of Law And Order: Wall Street (da-dum). Not here. Snappy dialogue and pacing correct any yawns produced by “who did what now?” and “why did they do what now?” The many scenes that bookend the tech stuff and the human factor are brightly lit, confining rooms where the powers that be try to outmaneuver the power that is, namely Zuckerberg’s shrewdness, smarts and savviness. It’s sorta like an underdog theme, but not like with The Replacements. Sure, the implied underdog is Zuckerberg, but all the legal probing and deliberation only makes Mark looking like he holds all the cards. And he does.

None of that sh*t above would’ve been easy to digest without Eisenberg’s brilliant performance as Mark. I mean, scant few of us know the guy personally (one jillion friends online or no), but our lead’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is terribly convincing of being the man himself. I’ll admit I’m not in loop about Zuckerberg’s personal life, despite his public image, but Eisenberg’s approach to the character is spot on in us knowing a guy like Mark; a person who’s your typical computer geek (mercifully avoiding the stereotype), too smart for his own good and possesses that impetuousness of youth. C’mon, we all know a guy like Mark, and despite how odious his behavior can be throughout the film, his quirks make the character relatable.

Quirks like Eisenberg’s clipped, punctuated speech. It’s akin to programming code, reflecting his whole identity. That identity is also insecurity personified, only redeemed by his work, which never ends. He has to constantly announce his genius, onto to have it rebuked by authority and peers alike. The guy is driven, you bet, but driven by what? Ego? Greed? A need to prove something? Maybe all three. Guess one has to be a bit Madoff to pull off his antics. It’s Eisenberg’s nervous and swift delivery that keeps the story chugging along at a brisk pace, an extension of Fincher’s craft.

Our other two leads don’t fare as well. Garfield and Timberlake are capable actors (I know. I’m as shocked as you are), but they don’t seem to have the verve as Eisenberg does. It’s not that they’re characters aren’t dynamic (which they are), it’s just they seem muted and a bit incongruent paired against Eisenberg’s Mark. Maybe this was done on purpose. In fact, I’m certain of it. We got the id/ego/superego dynamic going on. We dig that Mark’s the ego part already. Fine. Eduardo is the pinion on which the moral compass spins. The voice of reason. Mr Spock. Sean’s idful, and even though I fail to buy that the real Parker was that reckless, it was actually kinda fun watching Timberlake all loose and insinuating, leading a naive Mark down the trail to ruin. His Sean was like a smarmy Johnny Cochrane (is that redundant?), all fast talk and a prime example of the man on the white horse. Even though JT was a cipher (as was Garfield), he did a much better job in Network than he did with In Time. That thing’s kicking around here somewhere. Don’t watch it.

In addition to the psychological/legal drama Network is also a cautionary tale. No duh, and not just about what happens when unrivaled greed has no checks and balances. That and mucking about on the Web stealing virtual panties. It’s the human factor again, unpredictable and unchecked when the latest, shiny thingamawhatsit comes down the pike. Network showed very pointedly the possible future of a disconnected social media culture. Like now. Disconnected as far as actual human interaction goes these days. The whole “Fashmash” deal in the first act is prescient of all the psychological damage FaceBook can cause. It’s a cool foreshadowing, but chilling as well.

Network is perhaps the first mainstream film about programming that doesn’t dumb down nor mystify the impact of hacking within the Web. That being said, I cannot wait for the day when Hollywood finally puts the whole “computer hackers as gods” motif/fallacy to bed. Until then, which may never come, we can thank Fincher for his clinical, almost “coded” examination of the human factor nipping at the edges of too much smarts meeting too much tech revo too damned fast. Network isn’t The Matrix, but it does share a similar scope: tech as religion, and its acolytes. The movie is almost the origin story of a religion; look how quickly the students of Harvard and later elsewhere took “the facebook” to heart and it virtually single-handedly became gospel.

Christ, now I’m sounding preachy, and using too many religious metaphors in rapid succession. Good Lord.

I’m willing to wager that in 100 years FaceBook will be regarded as much as the Dutch East India Company is today: world-owning, too big to fail and its crown usurped by the never-ending march of (techno) progress. In the meantime, thanks to Mark and this movie we probably have a better idea where all this social media is headed. FaceBook has drastically altered the world’s way in which we communicate. Correctly, unambiguous and self-serving as it may be.

Well, at least no one’s crashed a car commenting on a singing chicken meme.

Just now.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Network is a very interesting flick, and not your usual Fincher flavor either, which all helps in the end. I understand that “interesting” doesn’t necessarily jibe with “exciting,” but when the only action scene in the film involves rowing, and you still find the rest exciting, for Pete’s sake like it.

Get it? Ha-ha. Who wants a smoothie?


Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t want friends.”
  • Eisenberg’s delivery reminds me of Clu’s in the original Tron.
  • “It was Caribbean Night.”
  • Song’s come a long way from the Disney Channel, man.
  • “This is not spam.” Yet.
  • Is this the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy? Maybe, because it actually happened.
  • “We have groupies.” Hmm. Foreshadowing?
  • The Winklevoss’ meeting with the prez was f*cking hilarious. Fincher’s knack for dark comedy doesn’t fail him.
  • “Fashion is never finished.”
  • Keen use of the club music. It’s almost like a supporting character.
  • “I’m 6’5″, 220 and there’s two of me.”
  • Is Zuckerberg borderline autistic?
  • “I remember something about a trombone.”
  • The soundtrack is great, courtesy of Trent “Nine Inch Nails” Reznor. He won an Oscar for his work here, so I guess not everything about the Academy’s standards is stodgy.
  • “I don’t torture chickens.” Alice Cooper must be relieved.
  • And yet Erica is still unimpressed with Mark’s smarts. Maybe not the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy after all.
  • “I’ll send flowers.”
  • *Latin for beer. Get it? I love being funny and clever.

Next Installment…

Dr Hanninal “The Cannibal” Lecter (before the fava beans) reluctantly lends his intellect to help the FBI nab the serial killer known only as “The Tooth Fairy.”

Ahem, waitaminnit. I mean: “…the great Red Dragon.

Yeah. That sounds cooler.


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