Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One of the Beautiful People

I've been trying to avoid sitting down and writing out my thoughts on The Social Network since I finally saw the film a few weeks ago. It was not something that I felt a driving urge to sit down and write about in and of itself - spoiler alert, I didn't think it was very good. At all. The fact that so many people did like, and turned the film into the year's critical darling cause célèbre, is somewhat - no, scratch that - is very mystifying, and therefore fascinating to me. It was by any reasonable stretch of the imagination a deeply mediocre film, and yet it received almost universal praise. So much so that the praise itself became a kind of marketing gimmick:

I put that image plenty big so you could make out the plaudits, if you haven't already seen the DVD box before. Notice how all these great critical notes are stacked on top of each other like status updates on a Facebook wall? Wow, is that clever or what?

Watching the film, though, the thought that kept recurring to me was, what the hell happened to David Fincher?

Fincher used to be a fantastic filmmaker, full stop. There's a reason why Se7en and Fight Club became decade-defining cult classics. Both of these films profited from lavish attention in the early days of the DVD format - if you were around back then and buying movies, you will also remember a time when the super-deluxe two-disc sets for both movies were pretty much the gold standard of the then-young format. Everyone had them on their shelves back in the 2000s. I still regret that my ex-wife got the Fincher DVDs in the split. (She loved Se7en to distraction.) They are good films that hold up well despite the kind of lavish cult attention that would have wilted a lesser movie.

In the same period Fincher also produced the profoundly underrated Alien 3 - one of the grimiest sci-fi movies ever - and The Game. Situated between Se7en and Fight Club, The Game has been almost completely forgotten, despite it being every bit as good a film as the other two. The problem, perhaps, is that The Game isn't particularly a young man's movie - it's a surreal adventure thriller, yes, but the protagonist (Michael Douglas) is clearly on the wrong side of middle age and the overriding themes of the film are those of maturity and aging. Fight Club is about youth in revolt and rebellion and all that good stuff, but The Game is about growing old. Not perhaps the stuff that taps into the frat-boy zeitgeist in the same way as "I want you to hit me as hard as you can!" but it's a great film nonetheless.

So what happened to the David Fincher who made all these delightfully off-kilter latter-day grindhouse classics? He grew up and decided he wanted to win an Oscar. Is that flip? I don't know: Benjamin Button was such an unabashedly awful and cynical film that the bad taste has lingered in my mouth ever since. Far be it from me to impute the artistic motivations of a grand artiste, but . . . there's a certain type of film a filmmaker makes when said filmmaker wants to start winning awards, and Benjamin Button is definitely that kind of film. There's a stereotype of Academy voters as either firebrand liberals or fainthearted septuagenarians - it doesn't seem to me that the two images are at all mutually contradictory. People who win Oscars learn how to pander to this audience: the Weinstein Brothers have built their careers on manufacturing "prestigious" "issue" films that pander to awards voters like curvy brunettes pander to Eliot Spitzer.

It's not even that Oscars are even political - invariably, the films that win awards are the films that figure out the most ingenious way to pander to their intended audiences. Crash won over Brokeback Mountain because the voters were chickenshit, yes, but the fact that the film that won was itself a self-righteous paean to white-liberal guilt and "tolerance" is no small irony. Yeah, the Academy Awards are the biggest joke on the planet to anyone with half a brain, but if you work in Hollywood you still lust after the damn things with a fiery passion. And you don't win an award for doing the "best" anything, elsewise the last decade would have seen Werner Herzog, Fatih Akin and Pixar trading Best Picture like a relay baton. You win it by convincing all your peers in your field to vote for you, and you do not always do that by being a technical virtuoso or shocking visionary - you sometimes win by showing your peers the most anodyne and unobjectionable vision of their profession possible.

Fun fact - between then, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Akira Kurosawa won precisely 0 - zero - Best Director statues. (A few of these men received other awards, but no Best Director statue.) No one wants to be the guy winning the Honorary Lifetime Achievement when they're 85 - AKA, We Fucked Up When You Were Actually Doing Good Work And Voted For The Fucking Sting Oops Our Bad So Here's A Consolation Prize. And although it's better than nothing, no one wants to be Martin Scorcese, accepting the award finally for a very good but by no means great cop drama when, you know, Raging Bull lost to Ordinary People. So fuck doing anything interesting: let's just go balls-deep into creative bankruptcy and make a movie where Brad Pitt turns into an old man Forrest Gump - and hey, we're still gonna lose to some feel-good dalitsploitation flick directed by the guy who did Trainspotting. I can just imagine Fincher's thought process: Jesus, I sold every ounce of credibility I had to make the most meretricious piece of octogenarian-fellating three-hanky Forrest Gump slash English Patient tripe ever conceived - and stepped over the rotting gin-soaked corpse of a canonical American author in the process - and I couldn't even win a fucking Golden Globe for my trouble?

But now that he has crossed the threshold from interesting "juvenilia" into "serious" filmmaker, he is an Important Artist Who Can Say Important Things About Our Lives And TImes. Do you see where I'm going with this? Let's pick a story, any story, it doesn't even matter if it's dramaturgically interesting, or if we have to bend over backwards to try and convince the audience that there is any drama whatsoever in the unfolding of a slow-motion car wreck of dueling sociopathies - let's gussy it up as An American Tragedy and make sure the audience - those who care - get the serious Citizen Kane vibe. Because, you know, blowing the lid off Facebook is totally just like sticking it to WIlliam Randolph Hearst.

There just isn't anything interesting at the heart of The Social Network. It is as empty as the era that spawned it - if by that you mean it "defines the dark irony of the past decade" then yes, I'll sign onto that sentiment, Mr. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. It is "darkly ironic" in its inescapable vapidity. We're supposed to buy Mark Zuckerberg as not just Charles Foster Kane but Jay Gatsby, too. In our degraded modern lexicon, the image of Zuckerberg feverishly refreshing his Facebook page, trying to see if his ex-girlfriend has "friended" him, is the solitary green light flashing across the expanse of Long Island Sound. But he'll be waiting forever, because she doesn't "friend" him! Oh wow!

Sick burn, dawg!

Actually, that's probably the best part of the movie - and I mean that with complete sincerity. The very last scene, with Zuckerberg refreshing his Facebook page while the Beatles' great, underrated deep cut "Baby, You're A Rich Man" kicks in on the speakers, that's a great scene. (An aside: is it even possible for the Beatles to have deep cuts? That's always been one of my very favorite Beatles tunes, because it's nasty and funky, two modes with which the Beatles sometimes struggled.) It's a great moment because it encapsulates the film in one perfect set-piece: the whole thing is about stupid little shits boiling with class anxiety who get rich and become sociopaths. And you're nodding your head and saying, OK, yeah, that's the movie, what's the problem? The problem is that I just spent two hours watching a movie devoted to the premise that Capitalism Breeds Sociopaths, which is A) something I already knew and B) watching slimy little shits stab each other in the back is hardly the stuff great tragedy. I didn't find in Fincher & Sorkin's fictionalized Zuckerberg any sort of great figure or fascinating enigma - just an absolute shit-heel whose behavior, as presented, belongs somewhere along the autism spectrum. The great epic story of our times is just no story at all, really - no great tragedy, unless you mean the tragedy of our times that these people are given by our contemporary neo-liberal capitalistic regime the means to fling shit at each other to their hearts' content while consuming a disproportionate percentage of our national consciousness in the process.

It's not just that the story itself is poor - and really, the movie works about as well as you might expect a popular business history book to read on screen - but that the story is actively insulting. I don't want to know these people, or to spend even two hours in a darkened theater with these people. While I realize perfectly well that we're not exactly supposed to "identify" with Zuckerberg, I find the fact that the center of this multi-billion dollar world-changing industry is a complete cipher - distinguished only for his relentless devotion to pissant behavior - is no great revelatory irony, just depressing. Really fucking depressing. Are we supposed to feel "good" that one of the richest men alive is a socially retarded jerk? At the end of the day he's still a billionaire and I still have unpaid credit card bills. Unless the film ends with Slajoj Žižek bursting into the Facebook offices and blowing Zuckerberg's head off with an AK-47, it's safe to say that no ending the film can provide will ever be at all satisfying for us lowly teeming billions without the privilege of an Ivy League education as a launchpad to enact our fantasies of petit-bourgeois ressentiment.

Now, it's not as if The Social Network doesn't put a number of ideas on the table - I think I've touched bases on a number of interesting concepts that the filmmakers were obviously intended to lay out in the film. It does try. But just because there are ideas in the movie doesn't mean that these ideas are conveyed well or that the ideas themselves couldn't be more effectively communicated by other means. Sorkin's script is extremely methodical, by which I mean positively schematic. Sorkin seems like the kind of writer who plots everything out with Post-It notes, hitting every dramatic beat and thematic nudge with absolute precision, moving his little yellow sticky pads around to suit the narrative's expertly crafted dialogic rhythm. Paired with Fincher's sluggish, rote directing, the result is a bit like taking a batch of quaalude brownies, only - at least! - without the possibility of date rape.

So what happened to the man who made Fight Club and The Game? Is he dead now? One of the reasons The Social Network was such a crushing disappointment for me was that it was boring. There was no life in the damn thing - all these great ideas, all these angry notions running through my head as the movie played, and I just felt a crushing sense of disappoint that the man who put Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a cardboard box couldn't jazz it up even just a little bit. Sorkin's script hums along with the precision of a Swiss watch but any movie whose narrative backbone consists of a legal deposition is by definition going to have serious pacing problems. If Benjamin Button was a naked stab at awards show glory, The Social Network was an attempt to claim the mantle of "relevancy" - another great strategy for winning lots of awards. It just so happens that the subject matter he decided upon for his big "relevant" picture is one that the bulk of Academy voters probably don't even understand. (Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer sure didn't.) Too bad. I hope your next film makes a lot of money since you've been slumming with these "prestige" pictures - oh snap, I don't think that's going to be a problem.

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