Friday, April 08, 2011

I need you. I need your algorithm... The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network
It seems only befitting that a movie chronicling the ascent of a digital demigod, who many might consider christening, the chief instigator of urgency in the world of social networking, deserves as restless an opening sequence as is cinematically possible. I guess that might be the reason why director David Fincher’s most recent offering, The Social Network starts off in such a hurry.

At the heart of this tightly wound biopic-cum-complex legal drama, lies a procedural wrangle that founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, finds himself embroiled in. The embittered protagonist, played to perfection by poker face Jesse Eisenberg, stands defiant in the face of adversity, as he is sued by his best friend and collaborators on charges of everything from intellectual property theft to cheating and more. 


Fincher doesn't want to take a chance with the perpetually diminishing attention spans of his demographic – a majority of whom might be Facebook users. So the first frame of the film, crediting Columbia Pictures, instantly makes way for the first scene as Fincher trains his camera on a conversation taking place at the Scholar’s Pub between the protagonist, Mark Zuckerberg and a girl he’s dating, Erica Albright.
Date with a computer-person
But the date is headed for disaster– thanks to Mark’s misplaced sense of geeky superiority (he admits to having scored a perfect 1,600 on his SATs). As Mark’s social ineptitude and barely concealed contempt for Erica’s seemingly middle-class upbringing come to the fore, we are presented with a line of dialogue that serves to bookend the film.

Calling off the date, and their relationship, Erica admits that being with Mark is exhausting enough. And she goes on to add that the only reason he might end up being hated by women, is not because he’s a nerd, but because, he’s an asshole. The lightning strike of a screenplay, penned by Aaron Sorkin, leaves no room for a breather. And the end of this scene ushers in the opening credits, which gives audiences a glimpse of Harvard’s haloed chambers. It’s a joy to watch Fincher at work as he sets up his establishing shots.


As Mark jogs from the pub to his dorm, the ambient musical score, which will characterize the mood of the rest of the film, sets in. The soundtrack, a brilliant turn by the duo comprising Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, churns up a low-key piano piece that is astounding in its sparseness and ecstatic in its feel. Passing by numerous landmarks before reaching his destination, Mark is sometimes followed in extreme long shots and at times, in quick mid shots.

The whole sequence gives us an almost real time feel for his routine. And real-time defamation is what Mark’s in the mood for as he goes on to badmouth Erica on his blog with spite. But that’s barely enough damage done – he sets off on building Facemash, a program that allows users to rate female college students on the basis of attractiveness. This is also the program that eventually leads to the genesis of Facebook.

Here I need to emphasize the unbelievably snappy and complex editing style that Fincher opts for. His collaborators, editors extraordinaire Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter fill in every sequence with so many ‘in-between’ cuts, it’s hard to keep track of all the action on screen. But it serves the interest of the film by infusing elements into the narrative that strengthen its foundation.

Take for instance, that one scene at the beginning of the film, where Mark starts off on the Facemash portal. He’s huddled at his computer and hard at work – collecting hundreds of images of students by hacking into the databases of several universities. These scenes are deftly intercut with a sequence that depicts what the more elitist segment of the college is up to.

Outside the confines of the dorm, the camera moves in slow motion through the aisle of a bus as it tracks a bevy of beauties seated and just waiting to be unloaded, or rather, unleashed into a party hosted by what appears to be a bunch of uber rich frat boys. It’s a David Fincher staple – a gradual build-up of music culminating in a full-fledged, pulsating beat in the throes of decelerated time. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth supplements his frames with a sort of pristine quality that keep your eyes riveted to the screen.
The birth of Facemash
The sequence featuring Mark laboring over Facemash, while his equally bookworm-like roomie checks out an episode of Shark Hour is crosscut with the ongoing revelry in the hipper camp where the party-going sophomores indulge in everything from strip poker to ecstasy and coke to girl-on-girl action and recreational sex. It reminded me of that line in Trainspotting, where Ewan McGregor’s character Mark Renton remarks on ‘the haste with which the successful in the sexual sphere as in all others, segregated themselves from the failures.’

It showcases the contrast dividing those who can get the girls as opposed to those who can’t – the jocks versus the geeks. And what the geeks do to get as close to the feeling of being a jock as they possibly can. As Mark is in the final stages of polishing his program, he needs the help of one final ingredient – the algorithm that will make his program fly. 

Enter Eduardo Saverin, Mark’s best, and probably only friend as played by Andrew Garfield. When Mark tells Eduardo that he needs him, Eduardo responds by saying, ‘I’m here for you’. To which Mark retorts, ‘I need your algorithm’. It’s what you’d expect an icy mechanical android to say – and Mark just fits the bill – cold, calculating and remorseless to a fault.

If you’re scratching your heads as to why the first 15 minutes of the film merits this 1,000 or so odd words prologue, I’ll come clean. These initial minutes literally suck you into the rest of the film, which is structured within a delightfully fractured narrative, shuttling back and forth in time. It helps immensely in this case, like it did with Slumdog Millionaire and The Usual Suspects and many of its kind – giving the events a topical, real-time feel.

There are also instances of intentional misdirection in a few integral scenes. Like, near the beginning of the film, when Mark is faced with two back-to-back lawsuits taking place over two different points of time. While the two scenes played out on screen, I assumed they corresponded to the same lawsuit. But, I was able to make the distinction between the two cases only when I noticed Mark was wearing two different cardigans and seated in a different part of the room during each session in these consecutive scenes.

Of course, Mark does make a cheeky remark about forgetting some inane detail, blaming his amnesia on the two cases he’s simultaneously involved in, which should have clued me in on the dual nature of the edit. But such crackerjack revelations are what keep movie buffs coming back to scenes over and over again. And it’s well worth the price of admission in itself. Credit is due in no small measure to the editor duo’s crackling montages that keep the film moving at a spanking pace.

Just about now, I’d like to bring your attention to the work of Aaron Sorkin. You might remember him as the man who is credited with screenplay of A Few Good Men. That film is rife with such electrifying courtroom scenes that it single-handedly resurrected the oblivion-bound genre of legal thrillers. Yes, Aaron did write lines like, ‘You can’t handle the truth’. But his approach in The Social Network is artfully subtle. While his expertise in doling out the nitty gritties of legalities serves him well, it’s his brilliant writing coupled with some finely etched characters that transform this modern day meditation on entrepreneurship and friendship into something unforgettable and timeless.

The soundtrack of this film went on to win an Oscar this year. And with good reason too as every track underlines the scenes accompanying it, in both subtle and pronounced ways. Many scenes are worth revisiting purely on the strength of the soundtrack. Take for instance, the scene that preludes Eduardo’s initiation into the Phoenix Club. Shot in a low angle inside his dorm room, it shows Eduardo walking up to an envelope containing an invitation that has been slid under his door. The brilliant track accompanying the scene is the aptly titled Intriguing Possibilities, which sets up the tempo in such an anticipatory manner you know that the payoff will be great – both for Eduardo and the viewer.
Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker
Other instances include the Seanathon scene, which pits the founder of Napster (Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake) against Mark, Eduardo and his sexy girlfriend in an upmarket restaurant for their very first business meeting. The music in this scene sounds so atmospheric and muffled it’s almost like the industrial hum of an underwater facility. No two ways about it, this is Trent Reznor doing what he does best.

The execution of the aforementioned sequence and the Facemash night speak volumes about David Fincher as a director. He isn’t leaning on the power of scalpel sharp dialogue as a weapon of choice. He’s using editing and music to further his story – allowing us to improvise lines for the actors while they smile, drink and chat away in the backdrop of gorgeously pronounced and sometimes ambient music. It’s a marvel of filmmaking when mere gestures and pauses help audiences comprehend the progression of a scene.

What’s also delightful is the attention to detail that Fincher embeds into every single frame. One example is the Seanathon scene where Sean Parker makes a fashionably late entrance only to establish his alpha male stature among those waiting at the rendezvous point. Observe carefully the moment when Sean asks Eduardo’s stunning Asian girlfriend, what she’d like to drink. You better not blink at this point if you want to catch Eduardo putting his arm around Christy no sooner than Sean’s spoken to her.
Mark, Christy and Eduardo at the Seanathon
It’s a beautiful gesture because Eduardo has perpetually viewed Sean as an invader. And Eduardo’s primal gut instinct gets kicked into action as soon as Sean makes a subtle pass at Christy with his offer for a drink. Eduardo knows that the smooth talking Sean has a thing for women and Christy is a catch that even a blind man would vouch for. It’s these little Fincherian moments that help The Social Network leave such a major impression on your minds.

While it might be redundant to point out that the film is replete with sequences that will linger in your memories for days, or maybe weeks to come, there are a few personal favorites that merit mentioning. One of them is the Henley boat race sequence which is set against the track In the hall of the mountain king, as envisioned by Reznor and Ross. The scene is a spectacular tour de force blend of cinematography, editing, directing, and music. The buildup is heart pounding and the ensuing payoff is explosive to say the least.
My date's a Victoria's Secret model
Another outstanding scene is one shot at a nightclub that revolves around a conversation shared between Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker. The sequence has garnered considerable buzz among movie geeks as the ‘I am CEO, Bitch’ scene. And believe me when I say this, from the way it starts to the way it ends, it’s a segment that every filmmaker worth his salt might consider replicating in some or the other way in their films in the not so distant future.

You don’t need 3D to provide audiences with an immersive experience. A little bit of tweaking in the sound design department will ensure that moviegoers lean forward to absorb every line of dialogue uttered in the deafening ambiance of a nightclub where one might find it hard to order for a drink as the music overpowers every other sound.

While sequences such as this use sound to their best advantage, there are others that benefit from the very absence of it. One such scene involves Eduardo being invited for a big party to celebrate Facebook crossing a million users. The sense of foreboding that permeates the air in this scene is palpable to that of a thriller. What keeps you on the edge as a viewer is that you’re privy to the direction in which Mark and Eduardo’s friendship is headed.

You also wonder how an individual could betray someone as genuine as Eduardo. The scene is a potent parable for the nature of friendships in the real world as well. It reminded me of a book titled Masters of Doom which documented the rise of two computer gaming legends and how their friendship was torn apart in the course of their success.
Andrew Garfield's Eduardo Saverin is angry; very angry
Eduardo’s meltdown is depicted with dignity, as he tells Mark, “You better lawyer up, asshole – because I’m not coming back for 30 per cent, I’m coming back for everything.” The scene is bloody brilliant and the writing, spot on. Now, if you’ve read this far, you might remember me mentioning at the beginning of the article – how Erica Albright’s reference to Mark as an asshole tends to bookend the film. And somewhere close to the end of the film, Eduardo’s accusation of Mark being an asshole goes onto sandwich Mark’s character succinctly.

The tag line of the film couldn't have said it better – You don’t get to 500 million friends, without making a few enemies. I shall be looking forward to the day when David Fincher opens an account on Facebook. You can be rest assured, I’ll be sending him a friend request, whether he accepts it or not. You on the other hand, have no choice. The Social Network is essential viewing for every film goer – whether you’re on Facebook or not.

Footnotes: Comparisons to Fight Club – Anti-consumerism and Pro-capitalism
I wasn’t too keen on watching The Social Network, the first time around, when it was screened in theatres in Chennai. I was miffed with David Fincher for giving in to the temptation of making a film about Facebook. For one, I never thought that the maker of a website dedicated to making you feel miserable about your sad, socially inept little life, deserved a Hollywood flick to sear his name into your collective memories.

What annoyed me even more was that I remembered Fincher as the man, who changed the way I saw the world and responded to it – sans corporate branding. To this day, I hold him in high regard for every one of his films – right from Alien 3 to Seven to The Game to Panic Room to Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which I’m yet to see). A part of me was repulsed by the fact that Fincher actually went on to make a film that celebrated the culture of consumerism and the big social circus that networking had made us clowns of.

But soon, I realised I had no real reason for staying mad at David. All he did was document the truth about the new brood and he did it in such a grand manner. I shall remain forever indebted to Mr Fincher for his movies, which I think are, time capsules of the generation that I lived in, and blueprints for generations yet to come. Fincher, May thy kingdom come….


This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com