The Mannion guys voted to screen The Social Network as the feature for Family Movie Night tonight, so…
From October 5, 2010.
The Social Network is the near flawlessly well-told story of a sad and lonely social misfit who doesn’t like himself very much and dreams and schemes his way to becoming someone he thinks he’ll like much better.
At this point it’s tempting to write something along the lines of “Ironically, the thing he invents to make his dreams come true is a digital version of the kind of social networking he’s temperamentally incapable of navigating in the analog world” but actually Facebook, for what it is and what it does, doesn’t turn out to actually matter to the story.
Our sad and lonely social misfit might as well have been a chemical engineer who devises a method for extracting unobtanium and in a movie made in another day and age he would have been and we’d still have the same story with same moral, Money and fame won’t buy happiness.
Despite being about the founding of one of the newest next big things of our very modern moment, The Social Network is a rather old-fashioned piece of moviemaking. It’s about its characters as people with feelings not as avatars of the dawn of the 21st Century and it just wants to tell their story and not the story of their and our times. The title is a something of a quiet joke on anyone in the audience who is there to learn something cool about Facebook as a cultural, technological, or even money-making phenomenon. The social network is the network of feelings that bind people together in the analog world.
I don’t know if the real Mark Zuckerberg is a sad and lonely social misfit who would give up everything he’s achieved in the last seven years if by doing so he could undo the mean and rotten thing he did that in a twist of fate turned out to lead to the founding of Facebook. From what I’ve seen of him in the news lately, celebrating his tremendous gift to the Newark school system, he seems to be a man at peace with himself and his wealth and his fame. But who knows what sins and self-doubts he’s confessing to online in anonymous blog posts supposedly written by a middle-aged accountant in Topeka.
It is hard, though, to imagine the movie’s Mark Zuckerberg enjoying anything, let alone his fame and fortune and the sense of having done some social good by giving away huge amounts of cash. It’s hard to imagine him giving any of his money away except as an attempt to do penance for a sin he still doesn’t quite understand how he committed or why it’s a sin.
As conceived by director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and played by star Jesse Eisenberg, the movie’s Mark Zuckerberg is about as close to an android as a human being can be. He has no background, no family, no personal history dating back than more than a few weeks before the movie begins and he might as well have been built from a kit five minutes before that as born the usual way nineteen years earlier.
His frames of reference throughout the movie don’t extend back to any time before the movie’s opening scene and even in that scene he is hyper-focused on the present to the point that you wonder if he remembers how he happened to arrive at the restaurant he and his soon to be ex-girlfriend are not eating in because he can’t move on to the point of ordering dinner. As far as he seems to know he winked into existence in that chair at that table, already supplied with a girlfriend he has apparently no clue how to talk to and with a set of problems that need an immediately solution.
Actually, it’s more the case that he appears to himself as a problem that’s been handed to him out of the blue and without context and with no connection or relevance to anything outside itself. In short, like a problem in a textbook he’s opened to a random page. And he sets to work solving it in the way he solves all textbook problems, by trying to write the perfect computer program.
It’s a weird moment as his girlfriend keeps trying to talk to him through his thinking out loud. It’s almost as if she’s testing a Turing Machine or being tested by one and she, and we, begin to wonder if she is dealing with a human being or a very clever piece of software.
Mark does seem to be running a program that mimics life rather than responding to life as it’s actually being lived. It’s as if he has been programmed---by another teenaged android---rather than taught or nurtured by loving human parents. His software includes information on how human beings act and interact but vital code about how to complete those actions and achieve those interactions are missing or full of bugs.
The IF x THEN y ELSE z sequences in his logic routinely lead him to jump to the wrong next step and he self-sabotages the simplest social situations. He has only two normally functioning human emotions---envy and regret. But he has no concept of cause and effect. He can’t foresee that he will regret what he’s about to say or do, and apparently can’t make associations between past and present and future. He can’t predict that repeating a behavior that caused him regret in the past will cause him regret in the future. This seems especially true when he is motivated by envy.
This Mark Zuckerberg is at the mercy of his buggy programming and consequently he often comes across as a mean little shit. But he has several redeeming traits or lines of code. He is programmed to know that hard work and brilliance can make up for a lot of personal shortcomings and he works hard and is brilliant in a disciplined way that is almost virtuous. And, although he knows it’s important to make money and that making lots of money can make up for even more personal shortcomings, he isn’t programmed to like or want money. Unfortunately, he isn’t programmed to understand how it works either. This turns out to be another flaw in his ability to get along with human beings. The Social Network may be the first movie in history in which the disdain for money is a root of all evil.
When the movie opens, Mark has only two friends. One of them is his girlfriend Emily and he insults, alienates and humiliates her and makes her an enemy for life within the first fifteen minutes. The other is a good-natured and too forgiving dorm mate, an economics major named Eduardo Saverin, who becomes Mark’s partner in the launch of the venture now known as Facebook, and Mark spends most of the movie insulting, alienating, and embarrassing if not humiliating Eduardo and working towards making him an enemy for life.
The android and computer programming stuff above---Zuckerberg as a Sim---is metaphor-making on my part. I have no idea if the makers of the movie worked from the same metaphor as their model. If I had to bet I’d bet that Fincher and Sorkin drew on stuff they’ve read about Asperger’s Syndrome for their conception of Mark. If they did, they know enough about Apserger’s to understand that Asperger’s is not destiny. Someone with Asperger’s is still responsible for what kind of person he is. While one of the main and most emotionally trying traits of Asperger’s is trouble reading social cues leading to misinterpretation of any given situation at the moment with hurt feelings being the usual result, having Asperger’s doesn’t mean you don’t know that other people have feelings or that you are incapable of caring about their feelings. And while someone with Asperger’s can be oblivious to how he is coming across to other people, at the moment, it doesn’t mean he is incapable of self-reflection or cut off from the kind of self-knowledge that leads to remorse, contrition, and redemption.
In other words, a person with Asperger’s still has a conscience and the ability to tell right from wrong along with the power and therefore the responsibility to do the right thing.
Nowhere in the movie is the word Apserger’s applied to Mark. It’s clear that he has Asperger’s-like tendencies and shortcomings that make him practically hopeless in social situations, and we’re meant to sympathize with him because of that. But we’re not meant to forgive him when he fails socially because he’s being a mean and arrogant little shit.
He should and does know better. He knows right from wrong and often when he appears unable to understand another person’s point of view it isn’t because he can’t, it’s because he refuses to because their point of view is that he shouldn’t do what he wants to do.
Mark knows that envy is not a virtue, but he still allows himself to be driven by envy to point of suffering a severe case of Groucho’s “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member” syndrome.
As I said, Mark understands that other people are impressed by money but he believes that they are more impressed by “cool” and the one thing he knows for certain about himself is that he is not cool. As a corollary to this rather limited and limiting bit of self-knowledge he’s convinced himself that anybody that likes and approves of him can’t be cool either, and he wants nothing to do with anything or anybody that is not cool, not his girlfriend, not his friends, not Harvard University---how cool a school can Harvard be if it let Mark Zuckerberg in?
The Social Network gives us one of the most cinematographically gorgeous presentations of Harvard in movie history and yet whenever we see Mark on campus he is running through the grounds with his head down as if determined to get through there and out of there as fast as he can without having to waste a moment looking at the place or his fellow students. It’s the perfect symbol of his refusal to appreciate anything that tries to suggest that Mark Zuckerberg as he is is worth appreciating. And by the end of the movie this self-loathing seems to extend even to Facebook.
How cool can Facebook be anyway if it was invented by Mark Zuckerberg?
Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is merciless and relentless. Eisenberg has perfected one of the most expressive deadpans since Buster Keaton and without a twitch of a facial muscle he gets us to see all sorts of emotions play themselves out within Mark---within him, not without. He doesn’t let them out.---but it’s most expressive when it is at its deadest, when there is no way to read what he’s feeling because there is no feeling to read.
Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg has mastered the art of not letting his face betray his feelings because he’s learned from sad experience that whatever feelings he lets show are usually the wrong feelings for the situation. We see this in the rare scenes when Eisenberg allows Mark a smile.
Those smiles are never humorous, never a response to pleasure or joy, never friendly, never pleasant. They are crafty, sardonic, craven, and mean.
It’s no wonder Mark has learned to keep his face totally still. When he lets it move it’s likely to invite a punch in the snoot.
But from time to time the deadpan expression isn’t a result of self-control. It’s the warning of the shutting down of self. Nothing’s going on on his face or in his eyes because nothing’s going on behind them. Overwhelmed either by the situation, his problems, or other people’s feelings and their demands on his feelings, he has simply ceased to respond. To get back to the android metaphor, the software he’s running has frozen and he needs to reboot. In those moments, Mark isn’t only without a thought in his head. He is a man without anything like a soul. He is a machine that has quit functioning.
Another less courageous actor might have used those moments when Mark is overwhelmed to make a play for our sympathy. He’d have let us see Mark’s bafflement or his pain or his sense of helplessness at being lost. Eisenberg makes us see nothing but Mark’s emptiness.
It’s horrifying. And repulsive. Or it ought to be repulsive. How are we to stand a main character whose moments of intense feeling are moments of undisguised envy and moments of complete non-feeling, moments in which emotion is implied by its utter absence?
We stand him because Eduardo, his one and only friend, stands him.
As played by Andrew Garfield, Eduardo is practically the patron saint of friendship. One of the movie’s themes is how hard it is to defriend someone in the analog world if that someone is steadfast, loyal, decent, and determined to love you despite yourself and your own efforts to be unlovable.
Garfield’s performance is soulful and loving but not without irritation, anger, awareness, or even hatred when it comes to Mark. And he is not self-effacing nor does he act with no thought of self-interest. He has reasons for maintaining his partnership with Mark that cause him to forgive or at least ignore Mark’s worst behavior when mere feelings of friendship aren’t enough. He wants to make back the money he has put up to get Facebook off the ground, he wants his investment to make him rich, but more than that he wants it to make him cool. Eduardo is in his way as much of an outsider as Mark and he is driven by the same sort of envy based on self-loathing that drives Mark, although not as powerfully or as irresistibly.
Eduardo is in the position that could have been occupied by the movie’s hero. But Garfield, and Fincher and Sorkin, recognize that Eduardo is too young, too naive, too callow, and too weak to be a hero. Most of his weakness is due to his being young and in over his head. But it is also due to his being a little too much like Mark in wanting not to be what he is. It’s just that Mark wants to get away from himself while Eduardo wants to get ahead of himself.
Both of them are easy marks for someone who knows how to manipulate their self-loathing.
The Social Network is a movie without a hero but it is not a movie without a villain.
“Every creation story needs a devil,” a character tells Mark at one point when he is baffled that so many strangers seem determined to hate him. The implication is that whatever the facts are there will be people who will set out to portray Mark Zuckerberg as the bad guy in the story of the founding of Facebook. Those people, however, do not include the makers of this movie. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin have another villain in mind.
The Social Network presents Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, as the true founder of Facebook as a business and a cultural phenomenon. As the movie has it, Mark Zuckerberg invented it but really had no idea what he had invented. Parker is the one who saw the possibilities and knew how to realize them. What makes him the villain of Sorkin and Fincher’s story is that Parker has no power to bring things about on his own. His power resides in his talent for manipulating the greed and vanities of people like Mark Zuckerberg. He gets them to do things they want to do but whose consciences or inhibitions or senses of self-preservation are preventing them from doing.
Which is how the devil operates, and as played by Justin Timberlake Paker is the personification of unholy, pretty much Satanic, combination of charisma and charm.
Parker enters the story at a point when are sympathies for Mark at pretty low and he arrives in a scene befitting another sort of movie’s hero, a roguish hero, but still a hero. We meet him literally charming the pants off a girl he has already literally charmed the pants off the night before. She is charming herself and, apparently, nice, and also, not incidentally very smart, yet here she is falling for Parker’s act twice, although we don’t know right away that it is an act, just as this girl, smart as she is, may never figure out that it was one. And she probably won’t figure it out because she won’t let herswelf. It would be too much of a blow to her vanity.
Charm is not a virtue. It’s a talent for manipulating other people’s vanity. The charmer can do that for no other reason than to make those people like the charmer, but he can also do it to make them like themselves. It’s easier to enjoy someone else’s company if you’re enjoying your own, so the point of charming people can be simply to help everyone enjoy each other’s company, at least for the moment. But the point---the purpose---can be to manipulate people into doing what you want them to.
If we never saw Parker in the movie again we’d think he was there to be the anti-Mark. He is just as smart, more successful, at least at the time, Napster having had its moment of web glory as the internet phenomenon Facebook was only on its way to becoming, but he is wittier, self-aware and self-effacing, or at least self-mocking, less driven, more appreciative, and he appears to be nicer, kinder, and more interested in other people and far, far, far more concerned about their feelings.
Of course the movie can’t leave him there, and it isn’t long before we learn that the reason Parker is interested in other people and concerned about their feelings is that he understands that he needs to be in order to manipulate them, which as far as he’s concerned is what they’re for, to be manipulated for his own ends.
The social network, the web of feeling that binds people together, exists for Sean Parker to use to aggrandize himself.
As I said, Sorkin and Fincher aren’t interested in making a commentary on Facebook as saying something about the culture of our specific moment in time or about Facebook itself as a phenomenon. But to the degree they do take a critical look at it either way it is through Parker and his manipulation of the analog social network.
There is this fact about Facebook.
It was invented in order to connect people with other people in order to use them for self-interested ends.
The point was advancement within Harvard’s elitist social structure, that is, when it wasn’t about getting laid.
As it expanded a point was still social and professional advancement, that is, again, when it wasn’t about getting laid.
Whether or not it’s why you are on Facebook, or even whether or not it’s why most people are on Facebook, it’s implicit, at least as a temptation, the idea that the social network exists as a means to self-aggrandizement and other people are there to be used for self-interested ends.
Of course, that’s not Facebook.
That’s human nature.
How many friends do you have and how cool are they and what have they done for you lately?