In Cinemas

Introduction to The Social Network

November 4, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in In Cinemas, Introductions with 0 Comments

Here’s the text of a talk I gave at Derby QUAD, 3rd November 2010.

Tonight’s film, The Social Network, is about the creation of Facebook. Its director, David Fincher, is Hollywood’s poet of urban unease, a chronicler of serial killers, fight clubs and panic rooms. Why would this angriest of Hollywood movie-makers be attracted to making a movie about a website?

The answer isn’t hard to find. Fincher makes films about people out of sync with their time and place, battling their environment with unique, and usually unhinged, worldviews. Se7en’s John Doe is a Biblical prophet seeing sin and despair everywhere he looks. Fight Club’s unnamed narrator dreams of breaking free from his consumerist prison and embarks on an odyssey of destruction with soulmate Tyler Durden.

The Social Network is yet another variation on this theme, charting the desperate attempts by geeky, socially maladjusted student Mark Zuckerberg to gain a foothold in the higher echelons of Harvard society. For him, Facebook is as much a weapon as John Doe’s elaborate killings or Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem. Zuckerberg remains the archetypal Fincher obsessive; only the medium has changed.

It’s easy to see why Fincher identifies with his protagonists, because he’s a maverick himself. He began his career at special effects house Industrial Light and Magic – he worked on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – before he grabbed a camera to become one of the leading music video directors of the late 80s and early 90s. His work for Madonna, especially Vogue, remains amongst the best-known and most-imitated promos ever made.

Hollywood took notice, and Fincher was one of the first of the MTV generation to be fast-tracked to directing movies while still in his twenties… Ironically, he probably had the toughest gig of any debutant director: Alien 3, not only the follow-up to two of sci-fi’s most beloved movies, but a project already mired in behind-the-scenes intrigue.

The shoot was a notorious fiasco, the released film significantly flawed… but what has emerged in the years since is that Fincher proved not to be the safe, malleable pair of hands that perhaps the studio was expecting, but a budding artist intent on stamping his personality on the material. While the director has disowned his debut, his pre-release cut has been made available on Blu-ray to reveal a more challenging film than anybody gave him credit for.

A lesser man might have given up. Instead, Fincher sought out the most provocative screenplay he could find – and boy did he find it. Se7en is one of the 1990s’ great calling cards, a thoroughly modern horror that dove inexorably into the abyss thanks to a handful of killer twists. The studios baulked at the unhappy ending; Fincher – a child of the 1970s raised on that decade’s downbeat movies – was having none of it.

Se7en was a hit, making Fincher the go-to guy for dark, edgy but mainstream thrillers, with The Game and Panic Room confirming his vision of modern life as a cruel, chaotic place. In between, he made Fight Club, Hollywood’s ultimate study of pre-millennial tension. Many expected a knuckle-headed action flick; they should have known better. This was a battering ram of a movie, assaulting the audience with stylised effects, subliminal cuts, and twisted black comedy to provide an uncomfortable state of the nation address. It duly bombed at the box office. Culturally, however, it proved a slow-burner, becoming essential cult viewing and, eventually, a mainstay in lists of the greatest films ever made.

Like so many directors, Fincher was at a crossroads: critical acclaim or commercial success. Initially, at least, he took the second option, via Panic Room’s sleek entertainment. He rationalised this by pointing out that some movies are more so than others, calling them “movie-movies.” The implication was clear: don’t expect them all be intense and personal dramas.

And then: a lengthy gap of five years, which heralded a new maturity to Fincher: no longer the angry young man but an equally angry middle-aged man, able to channel his obsessions into new directions. For the first time in his career, time itself became Fincher’s subject. Zodiac showed the inability of police and journalists to hunt down a real-life serial killer in the 60s and 70s, simply because modern-day technology and resources weren’t available to them. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button went one further, showing a man forever trapped in the moment because he ages in reverse. Stylistically, the films were marked by a newfound restraint: slower, sadder, less attention-grabbing in style and granting more space to the actors to provide the existential angst.

Which brings us to The Social Network – a return to the here and now, but through the prism of Fincher’s recent work. Effectively, although it documents events that only took place a few years ago, it’s a period piece – and Fincher treats it as such, downplaying his visual flair to let the words do the talking, thanks to a script by West Wing genius Aaron Sorkin. An expert in translating complex talk into rat-a-tat wisecracks, Sorkin provides the motor for a film that makes legal arguments about intellectual property theft sound as exciting as Presidential policy.

Similarly, while Fincher remains most famous for his collaborations with Brad Pitt, here he’s confident enough to make a film populated by up-and-comers…although anybody who’s been following the careers of Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield knows they’ve been threatening this breakthrough for years. Eisenberg is a natural choice to play Mark Zuckerberg, having majored in geek chic in indie hits Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland en route to his first mainstream hit in last year’s Zombieland. Anglo-American actor Garfield, meanwhile, has gone from his BAFTA-winning performance as a child killer in Channel 4’s Boy A to being the new Spiderman, a versatile range for the pivotal role of Facebook’s co-founder Eduardo Saverin. Ironically, the most famous person on screen is a pop star, Justin Timberlake. Admittedly he’s no slouch as an actor, but it’s Timberlake’s celebrity that makes him such an apt choice to play Napster founder Sean Parker, a superstar amongst website creators.

If all this talk of the script and performances does a disservice to Fincher, make no mistake that he’s still in charge. He’s stepped back, but only to provide a better vantage point from which to judge the action. It’s worth noting that Fincher’s favourite films include Watergate expose All the President’s Men, a film that transformed docudrama into thriller via claustrophobic compositions and dynamic use of light and shade. As in Zodiac – also unmistakably influenced by All the President’s Men – Fincher can make long scenes of people talking into riveting cinema.

Is Facebook as grand or as worthy a subject as Watergate? Many would say that it’s a sign of society dumbing down for Fincher even to consider making a film about it. But nobody complained when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby – and Fincher’s film has been compared to that novel, in the way its study of over-privileged partygoers provides a snapshot of a moment in time. Fincher makes films about the here and now, and there’s no doubt that Facebook is central to the world we live in.

More importantly, a landscape where it’s possible to have hundreds of friends and yet never physically see them is a very Fincher-esque idea. Until now, the director has been obsessed with showing the psychological ramifications of that kind of disconnection, he’s exploring how it happens in the first place – a creation myth for his movies, and a springboard into a fascinating future for one of Hollywood’s most questioning and capable directors.

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