Anti-Social? The Classic Aesthetic of The Social Network

October 14, 2010
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The biggest fiction in the popular press about the film dubbed “the Facebook movie” is that it is, in fact, about Facebook. The Social Network, the newest film from Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, may be one of the few to take social media as its subject, but its success lies in its adherence to traditional film values. It is a very well crafted traditional film drama about an isolated genius’ innovation and his struggle to create a cultural phenomenon while navigating a social and political landscape he doesn’t fully understand and while engaging in some cut-throat tactics in pursuit of his goal. Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is a tragic hero, a promethean figure who brings fire (or Facebook) to the masses but at great personal cost.

Much of the popular press discourse on the film seems to have taken up the notion of a “real” Facebook origin story or the “real” Mark Zuckerberg as the yardstick with which to measure the film. The Wiklevoss twins have claimed on CNN that the film was accurate; Zuckerberg predictably claimed that it wasn’t. A Washington Post story argued that the film’s greatest liberties were not taken with Zuckerberg’s character, although such changes as making him a loner when he has been with the same girlfriend since 2003 were made, but with the realities of Facebook’s innovation which the article argues was not a work of sole genius but part of the more complex nexus of culture that is really behind any invention. Sorkin himself is at least partially culpable for this narrative of truth or fiction that has surrounded the film since he has stoked it in his own press appearances. On the Colbert Report Sorkin insisted that it was a “non-fiction” film that shows multiple perspectives and possible “truths” of the history of Facebook’s origin and the lawsuits brought against its founder.

However, focusing on whether or not The Social Network has the veracity of a documentary or is as “non-fiction” as an Oliver Stone bio-pic largely encourages a focus on the idea of the movie, rather than on the movie itself and the significant influence that authorial imprint has on the final product. A New York Times article on the film claims that viewer response to the film divides generationally. Older people, it claims, will see “a cautionary tale about a callous young man,” while younger viewers “will applaud someone who saw his chance and seized it.” From the generation that not only brought us Gordon Gecko but seized upon his mantra “greed is good,” such a supposed generation gap is astonishing. Ultimately, it also misses the point.

The Zuckerberg of The Social Network is a callous, or at the very least socially oblivious, young innovator who prioritizes the future he sees for his creation over relationships and fairness. He is also an entrepreneur who takes a kernel of an idea and improves on it to create a website whose cultural significance is undeniable. He is other things too: an acerbic wit whose tongue and mind is just a little bit quicker then everyone else’s, making him appear rude and blunt to the point of cruelty. He also, in the film, appears oddly easily influenced by those he perceives as his equals, making it unclear how much the origins of the film’s most heinous acts can be traced to Sean Parker (played here by Justin Timberlake).

This Zuckerberg is, for all protestations to the contrary, an Aaron Sorkin character: morally complex, subject to idealistic passions and personal failures, sharp-tongued, and ultimately ruled by public triumphs and private indignities. One of the film’s most powerful images is Zuckerberg sitting in an empty conference room sending a friend request to the girl whose rejection started it all and pressing refresh again and again to see if she has accepted. This mournful final image can be traced easily to Charlie Wilson staring into his drink or Leo in The West Wing in the hallway of an empty house after he is left by his wife. So too does a look at the other artist that crafted the film fill in some apparent gaps. Zuckerberg in real life may have a long term girlfriend and not live a socially removed life, but this is a David Fincher film. Fincher, with Fight Club and Zodiac to his name, is a master of conflicted, isolated masculinity, and to see these logics inscribed on The Social Network should come as no surprise. Since the film is in part an adaptation of a book, whose primary source was a former Facebook founder, a large number of authorial hands have taken part in the shaping of the narrative in The Social Network.

Perhaps it is here that we finally come to our link to Facebook itself. As a Facebook profile is a carefully crafted version of identity, The Social Network is an authorially crafted version of reality. However, as much as I might like to leave off on such a neat analogy, it remains beside the point. The Social Network is not a great film about Facebook; it’s a great film. There may have been a way for the film’s structure or visual aesthetic to have been put in conversation with the new media on which it was based. However, Aaron Sorkin neither uses or likes Facebook … and it shows. What also shows is the talent and skill of the creative team behind the film. No matter how much we might like for old media texts about new media to demonstrate formal innovation in response to their sources, $#*! My Dad Says and The Social Network have proven that they will rise and fall according to how well they succeed at being well crafted examples of their own forms, not in their relationship to the new forms they mine for inspiration.


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One Response to “ Anti-Social? The Classic Aesthetic of The Social Network

  1. Matt on October 16, 2010 at 6:22 AM

    I concur with your assessment of the film. The current media discourse seems to define THE SOCIAL NETWORK as merely another element in the mythology of FACEBOOK. However, the undiscriminating fixation upon the film’s historical accuracy, a narrow form of film criticism, relegates the film to the status of a document, thereby discounting both its artistry and the tradition it situates itself in.
    I agree with your evaluation that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is primarily a great film which is not at all reliant on the external socio-cultural context it examines. It may be read as a reaction to FACEBOOK as a cultural phenomenon, but certainly not as a replica. In spite of the obvious links to the new media, the film adheres to classicist cinematic techniques, a well-defined story with a poignant conflict and compelling characters embedded in an elaborate narrative structure and a set of traditional rhetorical devices, i.e. pointed use of shallow and deep focus, crosscutting, shot-reverse shot and two-plane compositions. THE SOCIAL NETWORK needs to be viewed as an excellent exercise in cinematic storytelling. It should not (at least exclusively) be discussed as a commentary on FACEBOOK. Neither the old nor the new media will benefit from this reductive approach.