Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Second look: The Social Network

Writer: Aaron Sorkin, based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich
Director: David Fincher
Producer: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Cean Chaffin
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Josh Pence, Rooney Mara, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones
Talkie drama
2 hours

Up until this weekend's stunning upset victory by The King's Speech at the PGA Awards, the frontrunner and presumed lock to win every major awards event including the Oscars had been The Social Network. But so far, all the awards have been overwhelmingly critics' awards, including the Golden Globes. Critics everywhere deemed it to be edgy, relevant and current -- so much so that you'd think it was without question one of the greatest films of all time.  But film critics have a different way of watching films than general viewers and filmmakers themselves. Critics have the advantage of seeing way more films than most because it's their job; however, they tend to watch films more for content rather than for either easy enjoyment or for artistry and technique.

Now along come the industry awards, and the PGA's preference for The King's Speech indicates that filmmakers are less enamoured of The Social Network's cinematic qualities. Although many are brushing it off as a quirk of the preferential ballot that the PGA and the Oscars use for the 10 Best Film options, they actually made the smart, correct choice. If you really look closely at The Social Network as a film, there's simply not much going on.

That's not to say that it's bad -- it's a good film, perhaps very good, but just not great. And certainly not the "best."

It isn't Armond White-esque contrarianism to point this out. Nobody's always wrong, and White was spot-on with his observation that this was a television movie. Others agree such as Patrick Goldstein from the LA Times, though he uses the comparison to television much more flatteringly.

What everyone considers its greatest asset turns out to be its greatest flaw: its vast dialogue. Critics love it because most of them (even broadcast critics) are wordsmiths themselves. But they mistake quantity for quality. Far too much of it is sound and fury, signifying nothing. The movie just ends up being scene after scene with people bickering at breakneck speed until the movie just ends.

To start with the script is far too long for a two-hour movie (you can find the screenplay here). Filmmakers go by the rough guide that a page of script equals a page of running-time. This is only approximate, since it doesn't take into account actors' delivery, editing, deleted scenes, credits, and so forth. Usually if anything the running time is greater than the script length. For example, the screenplay for Avatar is 151 pages long for a 162-minute film.

But the script for The Social Network is a jaw-dropping 163 pages. On top of this, the script pages are dense with dialogue and have very little narrative description, which directors and producers know typically makes each page last much longer than a minute. So the script really has over 3 hours worth of dialogue.

David Fincher, though, didn't have full directorial control with this film. If he did, he should have worked with Sorkin to refine the script to make it more cinematic. But Sorkin comes from the TV world where the writer is king and the directors are interchangeable. On this film, I'd have to guess that Sorkin outranked Fincher and thus the words couldn't be touched.

Fincher did the next-best thing, which was to have all the actors deliver the lines as fast as humanly possible so that they could cram those three hours of dialogue into two. To his credit, it worked. But everything else suffers as a result. The acting, editing, music -- everything else is overwhelmed by the dialogue.

Now many people love dialogue, and those people love this film. But it's an overrated aspect of screenwriting. For stage plays, dialogue is everything. For film, you can change locations, use editing,  close-ups and so forth so that the characters don't have to explain everything -- the viewer can tell just by watching. That's why I myself am sometimes ambivalent about similarly dialogue-driven writers like David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino. They are interesting to be sure, but only to a point. They have a distinctive voice, but all of their characters use it and so everyone sounds the same and behaves the same way. As a result, their films can become tiresome.

The Writers Guild of America agrees and when arbitrating which writers will receive credit on a project, they give much more weight to things like plot and character. Dialogue doesn't count for much. Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman wrote about how dialogue is always the last thing that he works on.  Filmmakers are taught that you should be able to follow a movie even if you turn the sound off.

If you look beyond the dialogue of The Social Network, however, what's left?

There's no plot, really. The characters have no depth, no motivation or arc. Every scene is two or three people sitting in a room and zinging each other with clever put-downs until someone gets in a whopper and leaves. There are no stakes. There's no structure, no emotion, and certainly no climax. The film just ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

In interviews, Sorkin oversold the film as "Rashomon-like" but anyone who has seen that Kurosawa classic knows they're nothing alike. Rashomon tells a story where each of the four witnesses to a crime has a very different recollection. The Social Network has no such contradicting perspectives of the same moment. Really, it's just the story of two lawsuits that spring out of the creation of Facebook. But the two plots don't interact in any way (compare that to the way the manifold plots from Paul Haggis' unfairly-maligned Crash all interact with each other). There are no differing perspectives, just spoiled college kids fighting over millions and millions of dollars.

What motivations the characters do have are factually inaccurate and not terribly interesting; e.g. Mark Zuckerberg had a girlfriend (Priscilla Chan) throughout the events of the film, but Sorkin creates a fictional character Erica Albright who dumps him to make heartbreak a driving force. Zuckerberg has also said he had no interest in final clubs, but the film makes that a sore point between him and Eduardo Saverin.

As for the supposedly brilliant dialogue, it's witty but one-dimensional. Sure there are some great one-liners but they don't add up to much. When people aren't delivering the one-liners, they're conveniently setting up others to deliver theirs. Everything is said perfectly, precisely and on-the-nose. It all happens at such a breathless pace that it sounds smarter than it is. Yes it's exhilarating, but it's also exhausting and kind of monotonous.

Nonetheless, everything else in the film is a slave to that dialogue. Fincher's direction is pretty straightforward. It would seem his greatest task was to crack the whip and make sure the actors said their words quickly and cleanly. The actors don't show much emotion (with the exception of Garfield as Saverin) because there's too much dialogue to get through.

The editing is done in a TV style, with the cut happening just before the next person speaks. Real film editing doesn't just focus on the speaker but often shows the listener, since there is a lot of subtle but great emotional acting to be found in the reaction shots. But again, this is all about the words.

Although the Golden Globes saw fit to award Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross the award for Best Score, the music is entirely unremarkable. Most of it isn't score but diegetic music, ie. the characters in the movie can hear it such as when they're in a club. Although I am myself a fan of Nine Inch Nails, the sound they create for those scenes is dated and not really ideal. There are only three moments where the music stands on its own, where there isn't wall-to-wall dialogue. The superfluous boat race is scored with an abridged arrangement of Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt. The bit just as the film ends has the on-the-nose choice of the Beatles' “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.”

So the only place where the composers get to show their stuff is in the opening credits. Here's what they do. They have a six-note piano theme dah-di-daaaaah dah-di-daaaaah. This plays over an electonically effected string tremolo on D.

The six-note theme plays again with a tiny variation. Then all twelve notes are repeated. Pleasant enough, but I fail to see anything great in it. Take a listen yourself. 

One could point out many other issues with the film: some claim it to be misogynistic; it misrepresents Harvard and universities as whites, Jews and the occasional Asian woman; it glosses over Mark Zuckerberg's many gay friends; it has the racially insensitive casting of Max Minghella (son of the late Scottish/Italian Anthony Minghella) as Divya Narendra, the East Indian partner of the Winklevoss twins.

I just don't see anything exceptional about the film. If I were a voting member of the Academy, I'd find myself unable to vote it as best in any category, including writing. For me, the best Adapted Screenplay this year has been 127 Hours. If you asked someone to write a movie about a guy trapped by himself for days, no one would be able to do it. Even the real-life Aron Ralston who wrote the account of his experience didn't believe it could be done as a regular movie and thought it should be a documentary. But not only did Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy manage to pull it off, they knocked it out of the park. There's not a dull moment in it, a spectacular feat. I shudder to think of the Sorkin adaptation, where Ralston just talks to himself rapid-fire and non-stop for days on end.

As far as its much-discussed relevance and capturing of the present zeitgeist, that too is overblown. Facebook is already on the way out, as they keep undermining the privacy control that made it so popular in the first place. Computer companies come and go. It probably won't be too long before The Social Network ends up being about as current and relevant as You've Got Mail.

So let's get a grip and just enjoy it for the light entertainment that it is. That's all Fincher himself expects of us.
“I hate the awards part of the moviemaking process,” he continued. “And besides, on Social Network, I didn’t really agree with the critics’ praise. It interested me that Social Network was about friendships that dissolved through this thing that promised friendships, but I didn’t think we were ripping the lid off anything. The movie is true to a time and a kind of person, but I was never trying to turn a mirror on a generation.”

It was hard to know whether Fincher was saying this to be, as is his way, intentionally provocative, or if he was sincere. “Probably both,” Scott Rudin, the producer of The Social Network, explained to me later. Rudin, who sent the script for The Social Network to Fincher and who is also producing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, finds Fincher to be intrinsically, rigorously contrary. “He has a giant brain,” Rudin said. “And he can have 19 conversations simultaneously in his brain and he doesn’t miss anything. He’s capable of taking any point of view and dismantling it until he comes to the conclusion that, for him, makes perfect sense. I thought of David for Social Network because, fundamentally, Social Network is a portrait of an anarchist, and I think David is an anarchist. Besides being brilliant, David has the same fuck-off arrogance as Mark Zuckerberg. David is hardwired to question authority and existing structures. And he likes nothing better than to blow them up.”

Fincher divides his work between “movies” and “films”—by his definition, a movie is overtly commercial, engineered for the sole pleasure of the audience. A film is conceived for the public and filmmakers: It is more audacious, more daring. By his reckoning, Fight Club and, especially, Zodiac (neither of which were box office successes) are films, while The Social Network (which is a box office smash—close to $100 million in America alone) is simply a movie.

“It’s a little glib to be a film,” Fincher maintained. “Let’s hope we strove to get at something interesting, but Social Network is not earth-shattering. Zodiac was about murders that changed America. After the Zodiac killings in California, the Summer of Love was over. Suddenly, there was no more weed or pussy. People were hog-tied and died. No one died during the creation of Facebook. By my estimation, the person who made out the worst in the creation of Facebook still made more than 30 million dollars. And no one was killed.”


  1. "Fincher did the next-best thing, which was to have all the actors deliver the lines as fast as humanly possible so that they could cram those three hours of dialogue into two. To his credit, it worked."

    You really shouldn't give Fincher credit for this, either. The RAT-A-TAT style of furious dialogue has been Sorkin's modus operandi for years.

  2. The article lost a lot of credibility as soon as it called Crash "unfairly-maligned".

  3. It only loses credibility if you're inclined to unfairly malign Crash yourself.

    I pointed to one of the accomplishments of Crash, that it intricately weaves together a large number of plots, while The Social Network does nothing with its two plots. Even if you hate Crash (as I obviously know many do) you cannot deny that the design of Crash is far more accomplished.

    And if Crash is really that bad, what does that make The Social Network?

  4. Exellent well-made points. I liked it too but couldn't understand why all the critics were falling over themselves. Maybe that hurt the movie especially with them saying ti defines a whole generation.

  5. I would ask if you actually watched the movie, except you included so many details that it becomes apparent that you have somehow achieved the dubious honor of paying too much and absolutely no attention to a movie at the same time. There is no plot? The characters have no motivations? That a non-Indian guy tanned to the point where he did look legitimately Indian was playing a real life Indian guy somehow actively impacts the quality of this movie? Facebook was popular because, of all things, its privacy settings? Seriously, The Social Network is not perfect, and like any film, there are legitimate complaints about it, but hell if any of them actually showed up in this nitpicking, shortsighted whinny bitch of a blog post.

  6. No need to be unpleasant, just because of a difference of opinion. I look forward to your more insightful exegesis of the strengths and weaknesses of this film, and will happily publish it or link to it. Also let me know if and when you find a real Indian who's okay with someone in blackface or "tanned to the point where he did look legitimately Indian."

  7. Don't mind that last commenter. Social Network fanboys are like Twihards. They don't like hearing that the emperor has no clothes. Thanks for laying bare how ordinary this movie actually is.

  8. I agree with you on almost everything. But the music was sensational and really changed the movie. Without the music and Fincher's direction, this movie would have been a disaster. Those 2 factors made the first 20-30 minutes of the movie absolutely captivating.. after that it trails off significantly

    The Fincher quote was particularly insightful. I think it's absurd that the critics love Social Network so much, but disliked Fight Club. That was the groundbreaking Fincher film.