Saturday, October 02, 2010

I Am Mark's Smirking Revenge: David Fincher's Nerd Revolution

The first scene of David Fincher’s The Social Network features future Facebook kingpin Mark Zuckerberg and his soon to be ex-girlfriend in a bar, arguing about their relationship…or, rather, features Zuckerberg waxing rhapsodic about how his potential entry into one of Harvard’s elite Final Clubs will allow him to introduce his soon to be ex-girlfriend to social levels far beyond her lowly Boston University background…or, rather, features Zuckerberg raining down abuse on his soon to be ex-girlfriend for digging vapid crew rowers and for supposedly sleeping with the schlubby doorman…or, rather, features Zuckerberg’s girlfriend trying to have a normal conversation while he brags about his 1600 SAT scores….or, rather, features all of the above, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, part screwball comedy, part fencing match.  It’s a bold opening salvo, one that automatically throws the audience off kilter and forces us to recalibrate our expectations for “that Facebook movie”.

Sorkin has long utilized this type of snappy dialogue, almost to parodic effect in some of his more recent efforts.  But this rapid fire verbiage is perfect for Social Network, which plunges us into the lives of young men whose only defense against the moneyed, the good looking, hell, the entire system itself is their steel trap brains and verbal assaults.  Burroughs’s theory of the word virus comes to mind as Zuckerberg and, later, Napster rock star Sean Parker mow down their various opponents with their intelligence, wit, arrogance and insouciance.  During Zuckerberg’s meetings with two sets of lawyers, he slices through their small talk and attempts at clever questioning with blunt answers and confrontational volleys.  He’s physically smaller than almost everyone in the room, and he’s dressed like a schlub in his tie and hoodie, but his mental intensity makes him a figurative giant. 

Credit here must be given to Jesse Eisenberg, who gives a burn down the building performance of a lifetime as the Facebook founder.  His Zuckerberg is a jumble of nerves, an inquisitive and condescending look forever plastered on his face.  His maintenance of that aforementioned physical weakness and timidity makes his incredibly aggressive and trenchant verbal missives all the more effective and damaging, like a flyweight boxer with a killer jab.  It’s a brilliant turn that is alternately inspiring and repellent.  Fincher plays the scenes where Zuckerberg verbally annihilates his enemies as riffs on classic payback scenes of the cinematic past, but they’re almost always followed by episodes of cruelty and betrayal.

The dialogue turns a film that largely takes place in sit down meetings into an incredibly violent affair.  But that shouldn’t be that big of a surprise, because Fincher has trod this ground before.


“You’re Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jackass!”
-Marla Singer, Fight Club

“You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be one.”
-Marylin Delpy, The Social Network

In effect, The Social Network is a remake and remix of Fincher’s end of the millennium classic Fight Club.  Both films deal with societal minions striking back against the system.  In Fight Club, it’s the waiters, the mechanics and the corporate drones who rediscover their lost lives before corrupting society with its own means.  Zuckerberg and most of his pals can’t get into the debauched high life of the Final Clubs, so they use their programming skills and savvy to create Face Mash, a fly by night site that invites all of Harvard to be judges in an elimination tournament for the crown of hottest girl on campus.  Like a combination of Fight Club and Project Mayhem, it’s a seemingly goofy prank that leads to the creation of a much bigger, much more revolutionary clique.  And like Napster before it, Facebook proves to be a covert revolution, spreading virally throughout the world and quickly assembling an international army of devotees.  Ultimately, everyone is looking for a cause; Fight Club and Facebook are there to fill that need.  Indeed, at several points in the film, various characters refer to Zuckerberg having a chance to reinvent his life through each version of the project, much as Edward Norton’s Narrator reinvents himself through Fight Club.  (It should be noted that Fincher plays a similar trick with Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith, a somewhat timid and not altogether likeable character who reinvents his life via his obsession with the Zodiac killer.)

Justin Timberlake is nearly the devil incarnate as the slick talking and amoral Sean Parker, but you could just cut to the chase and call him Tyler Durden.  Parker is everything that Zuckerberg wants to be, or as Durden so memorably puts it “I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”  Sure, Parker is a real person, but it’s surely no coincidence that his first appearance in the film occurs shortly after Zuckerberg first creates Facebook…and it’s surely no coincidence that he appears post-coitus, halfway across the country with a Stanford co-ed, about to check his e-mail.  Social Network adds one intriguing twist in that the Winklevoss twins almost fill Tyler’s alpha male role better than Parker.  But if this film deals with the revenge of the repressed, it would make sense that Zuckerberg, frustrated with the knowledge that will never be “6’’ 5’ and 220 pounds” or as socially accepted as the twins, would create his own version of them…at least, metaphorically.

Timberlake is fantastic in the role.  Like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, he uses his good looks and natural charisma as a means to completely subvert them; you’re simultaneously drawn to and repelled by his non-stop patter and sly grin.  It comes as no surprise when Parker’s long hinted-at sexcapades and drug adventures catch up with him at the end of the film, much like Tyler’s radical Nietzschean ethos catches up to him when Fight Club’s Narrator reigns them in.  At the conclusion of the latter film, the Narrator finally assimilates Tyler into his own psyche, the future unclear; in a similar manner, the last mention of Parker in Social Network is Zuckerberg’s icy and cryptic admission that he still owns 6% of Facebook’s stock.  Mark has essentially internalized Sean, appropriated his cutthroat manner and web of industry connections.  The future?  Well...  

Like Fight Club, Social Network is dominated by male bravado and testosterone-fueled angst, while still acknowledging their homoerotic side.  The Winklevoss twins bicker like an old married couple, or (perhaps more appropriately, considering how most of their screen time is spent with each other) like a couple of veteran queens.  But the stronger corollary is with the triangle that forms between Parker, Zuckerberg and Facebook co-founder Eduardro Saverin.  Much like the Narrator/Tyler/Marla love triangle in Fight Club, Zuckerberg and Saverin see their relationship torn apart by the former’s adoration of Parker.  Although this comparison is not strictly of the A-B variety, it must be noted that Saverin is definitely the most of feminine of the three, and that Zuckerberg’s jealousy over Saverin’s prospective Final Club induction mirrors the Narrator’s jealousy over Marla’s advanced ease with her support group tourist life.  In a film about people working on a communications system who are torn apart by their inability to communicate with each other, it’s entirely appropriate.

After the gorgeous, yet ultimately hackneyed Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I began to lose a bit of faith in the David Fincher whose previous films had so entranced me, and when I heard about his upcoming Facebook project my enthusiasm waned even further.  But The Social Network marks a triumphant return to form for him.  It’s a stunning, haunting portrayal of the opening of a modern Pandora’s Box and the devastation wrought upon the lives of all involved.

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