Like: The Social Network

October 2, 2010

What elevates a film?

What takes it from “good” to “pretty good”, or from that to “best of the year” status?

Does it start with having an interesting idea and resonate simply from that? Does it take the mere humble execution of excellent script? Is it how you imbue the most simplistic of scenes with tone and mood? Is it hanging your hat on a great performer? Is it maybe is simply having an engaging score? Is it…

Okay you get it.

Filmmaking is a lot of things coming together and somehow working in harmony. Those who doubt how difficult it is, should really try it one day. You’d be shocked by just how much is out of your control. You’d be shocked by how hard it is to see what a movie is going to be until your done editing it. Things you worried about actually flourish and things you thought you nailed can easily fall flat. Filmmaking is alchemy. It’s instinctual. You just hope for some good aspects to carry the piece through….

Luckily, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a near-flawless amalgamation of  many excellent aspects:

1. The idea – The founding of Facebook is a great story and not because there’s anything particular “movie-like” about it.  In fact, the movie engages the kinds of things we rarely see represented in culture these days: the base forms of genesis, inspiration, evolution of ideas, and even the surprising nature of our recent history.  It is largely a story about ego and how ego combines with the fear of rejection to invigorate change (both personal and cultural).

2. Aaron Sorkin – I give the man a lot of crap.  He’s obviously all sorts of brilliant, but his delight with himself often just seeps off the screen. This is not the ravings of someone who says things like that. That usually my least favorite comment in the world. The problem is in Sorkin’s case it’s just so obvious (he even admits it) that the man’s just typing with one hand. Worse, the way his characters converse as if they know what the next line is going to be sometimes means intelligence can come off *gulp* as twee(*). That’s not a good thing. It can so easily scream “manufactured!” But when he’s on point, he can soar. What works in this film is wonderfully he’s able to get into the mind of a character who is similarly solipsistic to himself: Sorkin’s found the perfect vehicle in Mark Zuckerberg. The young man is brilliant person who is more interested in being right, than being good. And Sorkin can write the shit out of righteousness. Better yet he shows that he not only understands Zuckerberg, but every character in this movie (more on that later). Sorkin beautifully uses the dialogue to excel every single character motive and never launches an off-topic diatribe. Now there are diatribes of course but they are all so inherently focused on the story/action at hand that really there was no better person to write this script. It’s the most focused work we’ve seen from him.

3. Naturally, David Fincher helps with all of that. The man is yet another absurdly talented figure in this production.  I tend to waffle around on my feelings with Fincher and readily admit that FIGHT CLUB is  his most definitive work. It tapped into the zeitgeist in a way many thought impossible at the time. Heck you could argue that movie went on to define the zeitgiest. My only problem with it is that even with its mature “grow the fuck” endgame, the majority of the hardcore fanbase didn’t’ get the movie whatsover. It was stunningly counterproductive and I can outright blame it on Fincher’s romanticizing of nihilism. But nowadays I think my favorite work of Fincher is ZODIAC. The movie is such a careful examination of journalism and the nature of truth. I love it wholly. Everything else he did? Technically audacious but they all have major, major problems at script level. Well, we already talked about THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s script from Sorkin and I can think of no one more suited for executing it. The tweeness gives way to Fincher’s unblinking, dour reality. His dark atmospheres. His sense of irony. A line that may be just” smart,” comes off as brutal in his hands. He raises the stakes. He makes Sorkin’s work cut to the bone. I walked out of the film still having a litany of perfect lines rattling around my brain: “If you want to stand on my shoulders…”

4. Then there is the matter of the score. There was a lot of curiosity regarding the hire of Trent Reznor, meaning there was also a lot of suspicion too. I imagine that many of these doubters were worried about it sounding like Reznor’s more popular industrial Nine Inch Nails tracks. I doubt that many of them had heard his work from  “Still,” which features haunting, ethereal tones mixed with piano, classical instrumentation and subtle percussive rhythm. “Still” is actually one of my favorite albums, period. As such, I have been aching for Reznor to get a real shot at a film score. And his work in THE SOCIAL NETWORK is absolute homerun. While perhaps being rather overt in some sections, it knows exactly how to walk up to the line of not-overwhelming-the-narrative without actually going over. I think everyone can point to the first “facemash” sequence as the part that stands out.

5. But even with all these stalwart aspects, the weight of the film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Jesse Eisenberg.  In some ways he’s the perfect mouthpiece for Sorkin: dry, matter of fact, fast-tongued. But what makes it him so much better than that is that Eisenberg has this wonderful ability to take Zuckerberg’s deeply introverted nature and make it appropriately ranged and functional. The Zuckerberg of the film is a terse young man, someone who constantly just have to frustratingly explain his own (and far more advanced) thought process. The frustration of being that bright makes him an inherently solitary creature. Eisenberg conveys it beautifully. He’s someone who barely wants to waste his words on things that aren’t worthy or interesting. Yes, he sympathizes and emotes with others, but often he’s speaking another language. What is amazing is how Eisenberg imbues that static detachment with a subtle emotional range. He uses the slightest change in inflection to show guilt (think of his hollow first attempt at apology to Erika in the opening scene), or to show enamor (his quiet delight when cool kid Sean Parker seconds his opinions).  It is not only a joy to watch, but I can’t wait to watch the performance a second time. It’s the work of the year so far.

6. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that every other actor in the film is a delight. Andrew Garfield plays his partner Eduardo as that guy who is at once the voice of reason and yet out of his league.  It’s heartbreaking and the emotional arc of the movie depends on his ability to be wounded and weary. Thankfully he nails it. Joseph Mazello continues his foray into older roles (check out his work in The Pacific) and he is a subtle joy in this film as the “I’m lucky to be here” guy. The biggest surprise is undoubtedly Justin Timberlake. What at first seems like obtuse casting is ultimately perfect; Sean Parker is the celebrity of their programming world and their revering of him completely works with Timberlake’s celebrity status. Beyond that, Timberlake really does play the role with such a great mix of nerdy-but-earned bravado, fear, and deeply rooted insecurity. I loved him and honestly believe this will change his career.   I also think it’s safe to say that the Winklevoss Twins are going to be a lot of people’s favorite part of the movie. They are hilarious, both intentionally and unintentionally. As for the interest in the actors who play them, I won’t necessarily spoil it, but let’s just say that Armie Hammer has big things in his future. Lastly, I have to mention Rooney Mara’s brief portrayal of Erika, which works as a convincing lynch pin of the film.

So…

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is not a flawless film. It runs out of steam before sweeping in with a poignant stopping point, but it never outright collapses either.

What really is important about the film is how it really manages to define a decade that has seen it’s society flock to the internet and recreate an idealized social representation of their own life.  It never goes into any of this as outright discussion of course. But it’s all there. It’s in details and moments that we extrapolate into a bigger meaning about why people drive to go on the internet. We look at Zuckerberg’s long, lonesome walks on the wintery campus. His dissatisfied contempt of social structures and people who “have it easy.” His belief in his own ability. His concern for what is right over what is kind (Okay, fuck being kind, he’s more concerned with being right than not being a total asshole). His jealousy of friends. His secrecy and duplicity. His desire to show who are and what we want right on our sleeves. To penetrate the difficulties of real society. These are all things we all deal with, but admittedly it is the plight of some more than others. The internet makes it easier to both engage and retreat. For the tepid person in all of us it is a revelation. One that will inexorably change us forever. But we can never forget that it has also made even the nicest of us be callous jerks (ahem.. i may have once right a feature about 5 people I’d like to punch). We iunwittingly become like Zuckerman just as he has unwittingly became the voice of the internet.

We are all Zuckerman.

And we are legion.

Endnote.

* Old timey movies are written like this, but I tend to be more accepting. In fact I often love sharp, unrealistic dialogue. The key is just to have characters who don’t seem to be aware they’re engaging in witty reparte. It’s what makes the first Ocean’s movie work. It’s what makes Sorkin’s CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR work. And it’s what makes THE SOCIAL NETWORK work.


I Write a Dumb Blog…

January 23, 2010

I write a dumb blog. The syntax of this statement is purposefully atrocious, but I embrace the grammatical horror with the same warmth that I embrace the concept of this blog itself. You see, even though I may want to be a writer, this blog does exemplify the merits (or even highlight the goals) of that desire. It instead serves a completely different function in my life: I tend to write compulsively, with constant ebb and flow throughout my day of work, emailing friends, or arguing sports, or posting lame observations. And rarely, if ever, is it because I want to tell people things. It is because the mere act is wholly satisfying. There is conversation going on constantly inside my head, one that seems of grave importance, but usually being about nothing more superfluous than surprising aptness of certain films or the lacking qualities of certain people. But if I do not share these things, they are somehow lost. An argument inside my head is nowhere for it to live. It should breath. It should be expressed and crafted. And maybe if it is lucky it should be ever so lucky as to be read by a single eyeball; because inherently the passing thoughts and notions inside one’s head are horribly lonesome things.

It’s not an alien notion. It is why people with absolutely no writing talent blog in various forms and why they share the most menial and useless details of their lives. The motive is not different from the most eloquent thoughts an essays of some of our great writers. When they think, or wonder, or develop a passing material fancy then one simply wants to feel like someone is coming with them. This is not to say this exercise is sad or pathetic, but just ultimately necessary. We tend to chastise those who share every detail of their lives as conversely having “no life” or probably lacking someone to share it with, but I find that to be a false appraisal. I have a wonderful significant other with which I share my life and hope to til the end of our days, but quite honestly, if I were to assault her with the daily pointless musings on “stuff” that pass through my head with alarming regularity, she would have long since obtained, loaded, and fired a shotgun directly into my person. And it would be wholly justified. Our significant others are there to enjoy the wonderful quiet and happy moments of our lives, not to listen to our needless crap, be our punching bags, or let us blow off steam. They are to be cherished. And so I write a dumb blog to bring people through the inherently lonesome and terrifying journey of trying to figure “stuff” out. Which I admit, makes it all the more strange that most of my arguments and theories are wholly declarative in nature. If I was really wondering or entertaining notions my blog would be far more nebulous and obtuse. It often reflects a cocksuredness that is completely absent from my actual mental dialogue. And such is a function of my own limitations.

And they are limited. I truly consider the quality of this blog to be substandard. I often rush out posts with one menial edit simply because it makes no sense spending infinite amounts of time crafting some thoughts that are wholly disposable. Which is not to say the thought or reasoning behind them is invalid, or that I’m not proud of some posts (the feminism one is rambling but I actually thing stands as pretty insightful. It certainly gets the most attention and emails to me). But I wholly assure you that all my best work sits in the litany of unfinished drafts that seem to outnumber the posts I already have on here. Mega Part 2’s that were promised, detailed analysis of tax policies, and the logical fallacies of a sub-standard health care system. It’s all my best work, yet all hopelessly half done and untimely (posts with some perceptive 2008 election coverage anyone?).

But the ultimate point is this: this blog is going to change. It’s going to become even more obtuse and superfluous. But only because I’ve already started, and going to start  another blog which will be far more serious and professional in its aims.

The first blog which has already started is called www.foodilikeandfoodidontlike.wordpress.com and it evaluates food, restaurants, and culinary philosophy with far more seriousness than is often found in there. I hope to make it informative and fun, but wholly admit it’s core audience will be foodies and those with mild food curiosity.

The second blog is going to something else entirely. Devoid of gimmick or pomp, there will be actual, serious journalism comprised of interviews, profiles, and long form non-trivial essays. And I’m determined to make it actually good.

I will continue to post on stuffilike for sure. And I hope it will be entertaining. For example, I’m currently planning a long reoccurring series about sexual icons of yesterday and today and why there has to be a way to talk about them with an apt social and totally-non-sexist context.

So why talk about this? Is it really important to announce a paradigm shift in philosophy for a stupid blog? Well sort of, because this blog is surprisingly popular. Not mega popular “did you hear about it on so and so?” kind of of way, but in the way that I have a decent amount of actual readers who are not my family (or even friends!) and hundreds of people coming in the form of float-in-traffic every day (side-note: the search engine terms people use to find this blog are absolutely fucking hilarious). And I really do appreciate those who take the time to read. I truly do.

So I just wanted to give a heads up. Hope to keep seeing you.

Thanks to all,

Mike


Like: Arrested Devlopment, Revisited (Part 1)

July 22, 2009

So me and the stuff-I-like gal have been going back and revisiting Arrested Development.

This is a good thing.

The show holds up absurdly well, not only terms of repeat viewings, but not feeling stale (yeah it’s only been like 5-6 years, but you’d be amazed how sensitive to that a lot of people can be).

And there’s nothing really to say about the show that hasn’t already been said, but who cares? I love it.

The writing is just so tight and focused. I can’t tell you enough how uncommon that is in a comedy. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of something AD was similar to; sure The Simpsons works only because that show was infinitely witty and can be compared favorably to just about anything. But the best direct comparison I can think of is old Preston Sturges movies. There’s the same cyclical focus, repetition, and interests in absurdist, selfish human behavior. Sometimes they even have the same run-on joke style. I’ve been really happy since I thought of this and am suddenly interested in digging out my old Sturges movies too.

More conclusions and stuff to come in a part 2.

But I just think everybody should keep revisiting Arrested Development if they have a chance. It may seem redundant, or not exactly cutting edge proclamation or anything. But it’s one of those truly great things. Maybe I feel bad cause I was letting it slip out of my consciousness a bit.

I mean COME ON.


Like: Miranda July

July 21, 2009

I know I’ve been on a huge “like” streak, but who cares? Life’s better if it’s a love train.

I’ve just started reading “‘No One Belongs Here More Than You.’ stories by Miranda July” And I’m loving it.

Truthfully, I feel a bit of a novice when it comes to July’s work. I saw ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW back when it came out and had a very strange experience. I had no idea what I was walking into and it was one of those films that grows with you, especially in the days after you see it and have time to digest. This is mostly due to the fact that it is just so vividly different. Sure, the film is technically linear nor is it really abstract or anything. But it’s a kind of floating, ambivalent narrative. You could use filmy type descriptions and fall back on phrases like ” it’s starkly beautiful” or something like that, but that’s not what makes it relevant or even good.  This film is emotionally adventurous. Characters just have moments where they’re floating through each others lives. And it goes into unexpected places. The sexuality can be sudden, abrupt, juvenile. Emotional reactions can be completely disarming. Every character is just a bit off. They have these moments and we feel like we fall into their brain, and we follow their logic or desire just a few steps past the well reasoned response and into a territory just a step beyond. It’s fascinating. The film seems like a grouping of short stories, but it’s also not; it’s a cohesive movie that just happens to be about brief moments with these people.

It makes sense that Miranda July is first and foremost, a performance artist. The main stake of performance art is cause and effect (AKA reactions). Thus all her art, writing, and even her film operate on a kind of momentary appropriation. Scenes and inclinations follow the will of the moment. It’s like all her characters possess varying kinds of monomania that rear their ugly, or perhaps beautiful head. Tonally, it’s absorbing.

The other neat realization is that this behavior of “following a momentary logic to it’s end” is one of the central definitions of being crazy. And thus I feel like much of her work is a series of explorations of what happens when someone desires and thoughts cross an accepted social norm.

Miranda even appears to be the perfect vehicle for this entire world she explores: there’s a slightness to her, a plain and natural beauty, but also a child-like cuteness displayed by her stark, wide eyes. They contain the perfect mix of innocence and an intrinsic sadness; she seems like the perennial adolescent.

I can’t wait to read some more.


Like: 500 Days of Summer / Don’t Like: The Guy Who Co-Wrote 500 Days of Summer

July 17, 2009

So every once and awhile I’m privy to one of those neat screening/Q+A things with the makers of a movie. They can be pretty fun. I don’t like going to them for big-fun-type movies as the audience for these things are usually pretty jaded. But I just recently got a chance to see 500 DAYS OF SUMMER in this aforementioned manner.

The film is actually pretty charming. It’s emotionally simplistic to a degree, but it wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve and while many of the creative devices have been done (or even done to death), it does them earnestly so, completely refraining from diving into an irony induced coma; which is admirable. The film has a particularly wonderful first 30 minutes or so, filled with all that good stuff one likes: humor, cleverness, bluntness, creativity, and perfectly paced cinematic devices (not to mention and excellent use of title cards). And then it’s not as if these qualities disappear from the film completely, but just that the sharpness and clarity of the intentions haze into a kind of murky area. It just falls into a pattern of redundant scenes where, I dunno, stuff happens. That sounds like a lazy statement on my part but I assure it’s not. Since we know where the whole relationship is going (it is declared so at the beginning) we just get a run on in juxtapositions, which again are very fun at first, but the transition game eventually wears out its welcome. Luckily the film ends aptly, and without any resolution-y hiccups. All in all, it’s good stuff.

Sure I had minor quibbles. The kind of stuff you overlook when being sufficiently charmed by a movie (which I was): The very admirable and talented Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the all too familiar lead of the blank slate generic sad sack of a man who gets wooed by the manic, tempestuous girl who doesn’t want anything serious or permanent in life. It’s a tale as old as time, yes, and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer is appropriately enchanting. But I didn’t sense there was a real understanding of her character, and what she wanted in life. Of course the film makes no bones about conveying that JGL’s character does not understand her either and that is much of the source of conflict. But shouldn’t the writer have some idea? The world of the movie itself? I dunno. If one thinks like that than in retrospect you kind of have a hollow feeling about 500 Days. True, JGL comes out understanding the most basic of lessons, but just barely so. It’s a very juvenile point in the love development path, but once again, the film was charming so I was ready to go to war of the sort of obviousness and juvenility that wasn’t apparent to the main character.

We almost left before the Q+A… In retrospect I wish I did.

(First off, in order to discuss this I must get spoilery. If you you want to see the movie and plan on enjoying it. Stop reading. Cause I’m about to be dispariging.)

The film has a great opening in which the author makes it clear he has some anger with the real-life surrogate of the titular female. It was a great thing on the screen and got big laughs. But I thought it was a comic exaggeration… you know… something for effect.

Boy was I wrong.

500 Days of summer is about a sad sack who falls in love with a girl who doesn’t love him the same way and can’t commit to him. Why does he? Cause we like the same music! She’s not a vapid whore! She actually talks to me! She validates my existence with her acknowledgment! It’s sad sack story for a reason; while most guys have been there at some point in their life, no doubting it, there’s still something very juvenile about it. There are so many real-life girl and people issues to get into without resorting back to the “girls just don’t like me” issue. It’s just a juvenile issue. I’m sorry it is. That doesn’t mean it’s not valid. But it’s, like, a high school thing… That’s not a love story for 30 year olds. And this is a film about 30 year olds.

So when I was there watching the co-writer speak… ugh… He was clearly very nervous and that’s fine, and he had some funny anecdotes and really seemed to mean well… but then things just kept becoming very apparent… I really hate speaking like this, but these are kind of inescapable conclusions the audience seemed to be coming to… and not to be crass, or judgmental, but… I have never seen or listened to someone who seemed like a nice, well-intentioned guy who was really so secretly angry, resentful, neurotic, self-pitying, self-centered, insecure, juvenile, and all in all kind of a general pre-occupied dick about his own state of life. It was as if the whole world was mean to him and that’s not fair! True, none of this was that overt, but it was practically oozing out of every word he said. The Stuff-I-Like-Gal came to the same exact conclusion and we made virtually no conversation or gesture or eye roll during the entire Q+A. And yet we came to the exact same conclusion. Terribly unfair of us? Possibly. But possibly obvious too: The guy angry little man.

And look, it’s not as if one can’t be an angry, resentful, neurotic writer and have angry, resentful, neurotic protagonists. But you have to display some clue about your own self-identity. Woody Allen was the master of this because he UNDERSTOOD that all the problems/conflicts in his oeuvre were ultimately of his own doing. And for decades, it was fascinating to watch. Lots of others writers did it before and lots have done it since to pretty entertaining results.

And this poor screenwriter… He didn’t get that it was all him. He really didn’t. You see 500 DAYS OF SUMMER was based on his real life. Almost to a T. And as he talked you realize, he didn’t get that it’s about the kinds of girls he was attracted to. In the film, JGL never acknowledges any of his own shortcomings. In fact his character has none. He’s the perfect nice guy. The world is too tough on him and he’s lonely and all he needs is a girl to reflect the love he shows her everything is perfect. But of  course the girls can’t do that. They’re flighty creatures. They break up with him so, Summer is the encapsulation heinous evil bitch who broke up with him. Really, even though they weren’t in those blunt words, he was outright saying this!

And watching this co-writer, coming to that realization… it sort of ruins 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. The film just wasn’t what I hoped it was when the credits rolled. I had hoped it was just a clever movie where a couple of writers crafted a great story with humor and drew on life experiences…

… Instead, it was the story of this asshat’s life with the lines he wished he said.

There is nothing worse in the writing world. Granted, it’s probably the best version of that kind of thing I’ve ever seen (funny, charming, whatnot). And I understand the inclination to write the story of your life. It’s something every writer sort of goes through when they first start writing. But eventually they realize just because “that’s the way it happened” doesn’t mean it has any sort of validity whatsoever with the realm of the screen, or page or whatever the medium of the writing (Todd Solandz’s first half of storytelling is about this very subject, and it’s an extraordinary film)… But this guy didn’t get it. Or who knows, maybe he did and couldn’t get over those hangups so he just barged ahead anyway. I’m not really sure. I just know the kinds of things he was saying:

He said the entire movie was based on two girlfriends who did the exact same thing to fuck him over.

He acknowledged that neither of these relationships lasted longer than 6 months (wow, what life changing time frames!).

He actually said the entire movie happened to him with the exception of a dance number and one other scene. He was bragging about this. He wanted us to feel bad for him. Like he got a raw deal. Again, screwed over by these bitches.

He bragged about being on set as an “authenticity” expert and being sure they got the details of how it really happened.

He talked about how the entire script was nothing but a way of dealing with the break up.

He talked about how insipid and self-involved the two girls who inspired Summer were. And that when they read the script they had no idea it was exactly about them and said they identified with JDL’s character. Then turned to us screaming about how “THAT’S SO YOU!” in shocking anger.

He admitted that the Summer character exists as an object.

He admitted that the two girls were not unlike all his other relationships too.

He admitted that the two girls were still the equivalent of clueless harpies who went on to find love after not wanting to commit to him.

He admitted that he doesn’t understand why the girls did any of what they did, but that’s “how it happened.”

He admitted that he doesn’t understand why girls keep “doing this to him.”

He admitted that the girls perspective doesn’t get any representation in this film.

He admitted that the hopeful ending isn’t real, that the new girl relationship ends just as badly, just something to convey a kind of hope to the audience.

And then it becomes obvious. The resonance of 500 DAYS OF SUMMER is in its detailed perceptions. Moments in which the audience perceives true moments because of the authentic voice. E.g. a real life anecdote being interesting, but not corresponding to a great context beyond the truth of the anecdote itself. Which means there is no real over-arching truth. No validity to the co-writer’s perspective. Which renders the entire scope aimless, unfeasible, and lacking credibility.

It is a story written by a guy who has no idea that he is the joke.

It’s a cruel statement. I’m aware. But in the end 500 DAYS is simply a tale of vengeance. A recreation of events to make them singularly sided. A self-edited history whose charm and guile may be the most upsetting things as all, because under that facade lies a film about women being basically evil. And not really getting that it’s about weak-willed men whose own insecurities betray their noble intentions. And it’s skewed to make a conclusions of the world where this kind of perspective is okay for men to have… where it is the truth… where it is good.

I’m sorry, I appreciate the will for stories to be honest as much as anyone… but no one wants to watch someone work out their psychosis at every one else’s 10 bucks.

… It’s a good thing it was a screening then.