Film: David Fincher: The Social Network (2010)

At the very top of his game, David Fincher handles film rhythm as well as anyone working in popular cinema, very often while juggling tricky dialogue scenes that play in tandem with his style. You’re meant to notice both at once, the story and the way he tells it, and asked to look in the gap between them for something deeper. Zodiac is a masterful exercise, so carefully modulated as a narrative and so artfully executed as a work of cinema craft, that from the tiny visual grace notes in the corners of the frame to the consistency of its dark, ambiguous mood, you feel a petrifying relentlessness, an odd wear and tear on your psyche that you can’t evade any more than his characters can. Time seems so specific and events so immediate that both bear down on you with the weight of compounded anxiety. That James Vanderbilt’s script eventually feels careening and overambitious actually seems, in retrospect, the most articulate way to emphasize – albeit in its heavy-handed way – the crushing myopia of obsessive, self-imposed pressure; when we’re fixated, we just can’t see the whole picture.

For a director so given to the precision of the moment, Fincher has a bewildering gift for seeing his films from above, in their entirety. We forgive a lot of roughness in films when their makers give us things we can chew on (too many half-baked, overwrought scenes fill Black Swan before Aronofsky unleashes his skin-crawlingly ecstatic final half hour), but we don’t get a lot from Fincher that doesn’t seem to be a sharply conceived piece of the mechanism (whatever you feel the mechanism actually accomplishes). They’re so controlled that his films run a high risk of steely calculation, and some of them succumb – The Game and Panic Room abandon coarse human frailty for mathematical dramatic impact. But even Fincher’s failures are imbued with such a complete mood, flawless in visual elocution and cloaked in thick, rich soundscapes. I’d be the first to question his power as a cinematic artist, but as a grubby-hands manipulator of audiovisual effect, he has only equals.

It’s possible, though, that he’s getting a little too good for his own good. Since Zodiac, his films have felt disturbingly familiar, less visually inventive and more grounded in editing effect built on performance beats (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has the same gimmicky trick up its sleeve for well over two hours; it’s running on expressive autopilot from the first scene on). This shouldn’t be a criticism, but what was exciting about Fincher in the ’90s was his unpredictability, the sense that his camera knew no kinetic bounds and therefore had the imminent capacity to jolt you out of complacency. This was also the source of his comparative silliness, for until Zodiac, I don’t think he took the force of his talents all that seriously. Se7en is clever, mischievous, and curiously in love with the evil at its core – Fincher doesn’t plumb it for resonance so much as hand you your own chilled soul on the way out by virtue of having gone there; the film contains not a trace of optimism. It took me years to appreciate Fight Club‘s blood-slick black comedy – but that had more to do with my letting go (a bit) of my pretensions of Tarkovskian grandeur than recognizing depth in Fincher’s tomfoolery. I was right the first time; I could like it anyway later. But with Zodiac, Fincher became a complete filmmaker, marrying his storytelling skills with a mature cinematic expression that lent the film overwhelming accumulative weight.

The Social Network had an off-putting ring to it for me before it even came out; its conception as shown in ads and trailers seemed rooted in the same self-aware austerity that made Button something of a slog – a quietly moving one at times, but a slog nonetheless. What’s clear about it from the start is that Fincher knows exactly how to frame his actors in conventional dramatic style, and he punches up the works this time with an aggressive editing strategy predicated on action within the frame; The Social Network is a frenzy of juxtapositional uppercuts, smacking you through scenes as behaviorally stylized as Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. It’s a fairly ingenious way to convey Sorkin’s implication that this is the way young people communicate: in staccato stabs, with information pared down to its most pungent essentials. It’s Fincher’s equivalent of checking Facebook status, or Tweeting – how are you now, and now, and now – and leaving out the moments in between. The texture of The Social Network is entirely punctuation; that it holds up as a cogent narrative as well is a testament to Fincher’s astonishing commitment to building physical performances with his actors almost purely for the sake of film form.

And for all its Sorkian wordlove – which grows tiresome to my ears, but it’s definitely a worldview, or at least a consistent affect – there are sequences in The Social Network that Fincher executes with a film purist’s elegance: Mark Zuckerberg’s opening-sequence huddle-jog across campus; the Henley Boat Race on the Thames, shot with a perversely shallow depth of field that gives the sequence the appearance of a miniature (underscoring, perhaps, its unsatisfactory taint for the Winklevoss twins). As always, Fincher reveals his gorgeous taste in sound and music, letting Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score lend a discordant hum to the proceedings; the music feels particularly right for a film about social reconstitution, which neither Fincher nor his composers sentimentalize. All this stuff is pretty wonderful, reminding us that Fincher perfected his craft on short-form music videos; the trench warfare undone by the clock running in reverse, in Benjamin Button, has the same wistful beauty, and shows a warmer side of Fincher that Alien3 and Se7en never predicted. He’s a much older man now – he will turn 50 next year – and seems drawn these days to material that rhapsodizes, in one form or another, on time. Not a lot of American filmmakers bother. I find it to be one of Fincher’s more endearing qualities.

He’s thought his way through Sorkin’s script, and gets pitch-perfect Finchery performances out of Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield as his business associate Eduardo Saverin, and Justin Timberlake as Saverin’s superstar replacement – but if the film leaves a strange aftertaste, the Timberlake element seems to be a clue. In that character, played by that pop phenom, lies The Social Network’s limitations – perhaps not as a film (quite), but as the subject for a Hollywood film. The film chronicles the numbing popularity of a social hypocrite’s technological Noah’s Ark: come with us, earthly beings, into the future, where friendship has nothing to do with personal connection and everything to do with our fail-safe server. Your God is your laptop, and ours the billions in revenue your willful hive mentality shall bestow on us. I think Fincher’s drawn to the gap in personal relationships Zuckerberg’s creation encourages – he throws the clothing brand on Zuckerberg in the opening sequence, and simultaneously raises the second issue at the heart of The Social Network: that it’s all about identifying with pop iconography. Timberlake is not just an actor in the film; he’s a presence we align with as a character, but he’s freighted to the brim with his own personal popness, lending a persona to Sean Parker no other actor could have brought.

I’m certain Fincher knows this, but I’m less certain he’s thought beyond it, that as a moral creature he’s made an assessment of The Social Network and felt willing to suggest the degree to which virtual innovation has supplanted our connectivity as humans. He seems rather to identify with Zuckerberg, and stops at the legal battles between Zuckerberg and Saverin. To be sure, he raids the depositions for their emotional cache, but I don’t sense Fincher thudding up against the inexorable decline of personal exchange. He seems to feel Facebook legitimately self-justifies as a business enterprise, and the casualties include the wimps whose sense of dejection stems directly their inability to keep up. This is the new world order, bummer or not. It may be nothing more than a difference of temperament, but I can’t stop at that. We used to have to work a little harder to commune, and it kept us on the hook to maintain our relationships. Facebook encourages keeping in touch but curtails our social role as individuals, asking us to be ourselves but requiring us to present our uniqueness as total conformity: not who are you, but what groups do you belong to, who do you like too – and can I be your virtual friend? It’s obvious that, as a commercial filmmaker (Hollywood being another locus of social networking), Fincher’s bound to an economic code of ethics that discourages reflexive self-criticism. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that the man who traversed such a canyon of interpersonal atrophy in Zodiac, regarding it with the kind of clean objectivity that let oxygen into the story’s latent epic breadth, doesn’t see the same symptoms in the insatiable obsessiveness of social networking. I think he’s left a dimension out of The Social Network that might have made it overwhelmingly hard to take.

That he’s made the film the way he has, then, and that it’s garnered so much attention as a commentary on our social status, seems to say a great deal about the direction Fincher’s headed as a filmmaker. He nearly won an Oscar for directing Benjamin Button, a comparatively lazy but more broadly appealing follow-up to Zodiac, and will all but surely be up for another this year. The Social Network strikes a balance between his exacting nature as a director (he does dozens of takes of relatively simple setups) and his obvious commercial bent as an industry figure, and Fincher’s halt just shy of implicating the film’s own genesis in the subtle but tangible degradation of many things personal hints at a complacency I’d hoped he’d transcend. It’s a harsh judgment, I know, but at a certain point three years ago David Fincher looked like a wrecking ball in pop filmmaking, threatening to smash so many of its trend-setting pretensions, even the ones he’d contributed to early on in his career. Jake Gyllenhaal and a few wayward scenes aside, Zodiac had tremendous guts to be about an untrendy, unsexy, uncomforting human truth: that our responses to pressure over time can change us in ways we can’t foresee, to a degree we can’t reconcile, and with aftershocks we’ll just have to make the best of. Zodiac was haunting. The Social Network is merely pleasing, and Fincher’s next film will be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – a remake of a 2009 Swedish adaptation of a novel that’s become an American bestseller. No pop demands there.

2 Responses to “Film: David Fincher: The Social Network (2010)”

  1. Barry Nelson Says:

    You’re wrong, lol.

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