Adequately Socialized

Submitted by Andy on Sun, 10/10/2010 - 18:17

Angela and I went to see The Social Network a week ago and we might have been the oldest people in the theater, which is unusual for a movie getting so much Oscar buzz. I doubt it will snag many awards, if not the Academy's suspicion of David Fincher's body of work then for the lack of handwringing about Racism or Tragic Deaths or Something. This isn't to say that the movie doesn't have problematic elements, it's unavoidably misogynistic and Lawrence Lessig writes about how it misses the larger dissonance between new and old medias. But I've been thinking that a lot of the discomfort that people have about the movie is the ambivalence they feel toward its main character. While Jesse Eisenberg and Aaron Sorkin craft a pretty compelling antihero out of fake Mark Zuckerburg, it's Facebook itself that everybody wants to dance with.

I  haven't read The Accidental Billionaires and can't say I really have any plans to, but my impression when it came out was that it was a relatively pulpy telling of the story. Those readers I have left might find a comparison in Mozart in the Jungle without Blair Tindall's vomitous narcissism. And, you know, about Facebook rather than the oboe. What I do remember is that it caught everyone relatively off-guard what a pedigreed director and writer who ended up getting tasked with making the movie adaptation. Being a musicologist as well as a "rocker", I sat up straighter when Trent Reznor (with his Leporello, Atticus Ross) got involved to score the movie. All these high-powered guys for a movie about Facebook? It seems incredulous, it's been inspiring Leno-level jokes about the nerds having something to do on a Friday night.
I'll take it for granted that we're all being cynical and discounting the idea that maybe all these people want to get together because they are good at what they do and want to make a great movie. So it seems like they're giving the movie artificial gravity. Except think about those stats at the end of the movie (these are not spoilers): 500 million users, a $33 billion valuation. These are numbers that are utterly incomprehensible.  Compare this illustration of online communities from xkcd that's contemporaneous with the events of the movie, and then this current update. You are probably reading this on Facebook right now, and if you aren't you probably checked it in the past hour. Facebook has got some gravity, you guys. But that's not the way we want to see it. We want it to be a diversion, a distraction. Another way to take in cat pictures and how many of your friends are eating a sandwich, "I totally wasted my office hours dicking around on Facebook." So it's actually a pretty slick maneuver that Fincher, et al., manage to put the hulking behemoth in the background enough to not scare the bejeesus out of all of us. This leaves fake Zuckerberg as our focal point who is placed between two pending lawsuits. This extremely convenient historical situation sets him up as conflicted antihero, we want him to win the suit against the managerial Harvard douchebags but get taken to the cleaners by his former partner.
Reznor and Ross's score also takes this morality-neutral philosophy. The first time we encounter the music is underneath Zuckerberg's circuitous jog home after being dumped by his (alas, fictional) girlfriend. This number, the excellently named "Hand Covers Bruise", lacks any sort of markers to tell us whether the deserved yet still painful scene we just witnesses is meant to indicate a hero or a heel. The plaintive piano line, one of the few recognizable acoustic instruments on the soundtrack, has the feel of heartache but the scenes before and after this already tell us this. Rather than act as subliminal commentary, the score refuses to provide more emotion than an echo of the simple tension and release that happens in the story. I suppose this owes a lot to the scores of Philip Glass, but since it isn't process-based it avoids even the larger cyclical connotations that those soundtracks have. It will be interesting to see how that particular Oscar race goes, since it's an exceptionally incestuous race, even for the Oscars. You could practically call the soundtrack Ghosts V, and so they might try to weasel out that way a la Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood.
I think despite all the fretting and gleeful anticipation of mudslinging, the movie ends up being an interesting story with enough of a sense of artifice that it won't change anyone's opinion about actual people. This goes double for Justin Timberlake's paranoid opportunist reading of Sean Parker, which smacks heavily of the copyright industry's vengeance. But in the end Facebook is about as evil as hammers, which have been used to bludgeon people as well as build houses. However I wouldn't blame you if you decided to read the terms of service all the way to the end next time.