Dir. David Fincher. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer
There is a sadness at the heart of The Social Network which is attractive to me because so much of it is self-inflicted. When we recall the movie, we will no doubt remember the warmly lit but definitely dour boardrooms where the depositions take place, and we will certainly think about Justin Timberlake enveloping Eisenberg, Garfield, and Brenda Song in his charm like it’s still 1999. But to me, two scenes will always stick out.
The first is the scene where Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg), who has just been broken up with by his too-good-for-him-even-if-she-goes-to-Boston-University girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), walk-runs back to his dorm room. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ theme – those six repeated notes, simple and yet longing, at first a little bit hopeful and then suddenly very dark – hang over his commute back to his dorm room. He’s wearing his lame clothes, ignoring the other signs of life in the indigo night spotlighted with the dirty highlighter fluorescent of streetlamps. I was sure he would trip over his slides as he went upstairs. If he’s upset, then he’s got good reason to be; he was insulting, needlessly jealous, arrogant. But it turns out he’s upset because he was broken up with, not because he deserved to be. He lacks self-awareness; his is the self-righteous ignorance which characterizes undergraduates and which comes in the mail with the acceptance letter from Ivy League schools. And so he goes on to his LiveJournal (his LiveJournal!) and posts some cranky, weird stuff about Erica while throwing back a beer and bathing in the self-pity. (Later on, Erica will tell him, “…you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd…It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”) There’s a lyricism to his sadness, even when it’s mopey and pathetic, even when those lyrics are vapid and tasteless, as long as he’s lit by Jeff Cronenwerth’s exteriors. The interiors are bound to their whitelight of a laptop screen, a light which has never flattered anyone. In front of his computer – attached to his most powerful weapon – his ugliness shines through. The second scene which depicts that sadness is “Caribbean Night,” a party which even by the standards of a middle school dance is a little weak. It’s not that the music is the sound of stereotyped steel drums, or that Eduardo (Garfield) shuffles over dancing as badly as possible while wearing a comically sized hat, or even that they’re projecting Niagara Falls on the screen. It’s that these people don’t have a choice. They can either go to this party or no party at all, and they have sucked it up, turned the lights to “Family living room, 8:45 p.m.,” and borrowed a boombox. Mark literally removes Eduardo from this terrible little party to bring him into what will become the height of cool, and yet that lame shindig has something that Eduardo will find is missing from the machinations of Facebook: warmth. Even if the nerds of Harvard recognize that they’ll never be the popular kids, that living room lighting is at least humanizing. Garfield, who’s made an awful lot of money off of being endearing, is just that when he shakes his narrow hips at Eisenberg. Even in the midst of all that friendliness, the lack of spice can create a longing, a yearning for something that’s more glamorous and noticeable. Even if the kids at the Phoenix Club or the Porcellian are tawdry and base, they’re the tawdry and base kids people will literally line up to party with. And later on, when Eduardo has frozen the Facebook account in the hopes of forcing Mark to pay attention to something other than the hyped world of Silicon Valley, Mark’s breakdown ends with an ultimatum: “I am not going back to Caribbean Night at A-E-Pi!”
I’m always interested at how movies age over time, and how our opinions of them change as they get older. Sometimes it’s worth reassessing a movie because it was ahead of the rest of us on a certain issue, and The Social Network put its finger on Silicon Valley before most of the rest of us got there. The magic of Silicon Valley, and the way that all magic is eventually proved in time to be sleight of hand, is central to the telling of the story. A huge chunk of the film is devoted to Mark’s move to Silicon Valley, the way that Sean Parker capitalizes on that move without Eduardo to anchor Mark to normal human behavior, and how that ends the friendship that Facebook was built on. Mark finds Silicon Valley intoxicating. Part of it is doubtless the endless freedom that comes with being a kid renting a house; Sean finds Mark because a zipline into the pool conspicuously pulls down the chimney. Some of it is the glitz. What’s arguably the best monologue in the movie is the now-famous pep talk parable about Victoria’s Secret, sort of the fire and brimstone version of “What’s cooler than a million dollars?” What makes it sink in for Mark (even more than the connection to Erica, which he makes to Sean’s consternation) has to be the ridiculous club setting that Sean has to scream the words above. And then no small part of it is finally being the coolest kid in the room. Participating in an elaborate revenge fantasy on behalf of Sean, printing “I’m CEO, Bitch” business cards, and setting up a larger, fawning team of young staffers in the shadow of Stanford is intoxicating for Mark. Silicon Valley looks fun at first – it’s the place where you can take a bottle of beer out of the fridge and toss it at your guests! where you can do cocaine off the stomachs of underage girls! – and slowly proves to be a place where souls go to die. Mark had an edge to him the whole time, but manages to preserve being a forgivable guy even when he does something petty, like being nasty to Erica or planting the chicken story. (The chicken story is so funny, and Garfield’s despairing wail of “The marlins! And the trout!” is so back-breakingly hysterical that I can almost forgive Aaron Sorkin for giving Larry Summers anything to do in this movie besides jump off the Zakim Bridge.) Silicon Valley manages to destroy a friendship between Mark and Eduardo that Harvard couldn’t destroy, and I can think of no more damning indictment of a place than that.
College movies go out of their way to show you what it’s like to have a good time; typically this message is not left alone to simply be fun, but is problematized as, “Here’s why your youthful exuberance is actually a problem and an opportunity to teach you a lesson about yourself.” Mercifully, The Social Network waits until our friends have left the confines of Harvard to make its points about morality. Mark learns a lesson about “who your real friends are” only after Facebook has hit a milestone, only after he has screwed Eduardo out of a fortune, only after he realizes he based his business strategy on the words of a man in Sean Parker who is every bit as paranoid and reckless as Eduardo warned him he would be. The blocking in the scene where Eduardo discovers that his shares have been diluted, essentially removing him from the company and eliminating his income from it, is great. It’s not just that Eduardo fakes a swing at Sean, who (bless Justin Timberlake) falls away from him like he just had a gun pulled on him. It’s that during all of this, Mark is removed from the action. He’s slouching in his chair while Sean does the talking and the flinching. There’s something like life going on in front of him and he doesn’t come anywhere close to it. Fantasy – the fantasy of being able to go online and live out a life which has only as many tendrils connecting it to reality as you like it to – has taken over his own existence, aided and abetted by someone who’s been living his own paranoiac dream for years already. And in that moment, and later on as Mark looks wearily at those ill-conceived business cards, the sadness from his walk back to his dorm in the first minutes of the film comes back again. In this case, it’s a sadness which has a corollary in (deep breath) Citizen Kane. Kane is older than Mark when he loses his Jiminy Cricket due to his own pigheadedness, but the message is much the same, and in some ways even more tragic. Kane had Rosebud, a reminder that in the past he had lived joyfully. At the end of the movie, after being advised by one of the lawyers he’s paying (Rashida Jones) to settle with Eduardo and the Winklevosses, Mark refreshes Erica’s Facebook page over and over again in the hopes that she’ll have responded to his friend request. Mark’s Rosebud is not a reminder of anything so pure in his own past; it’s a reminder of how he leveraged being an awful human being into becoming both awful and rich.