Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 October 2010

The Facebook Movie(s)

There are people in the world who are not on facebook, I know, but I have to admit to being surprised every time that I meet one of them. "You're not on facebook? How do you keep in contact with people?" My indignation and confusion are justifiable. The ubiquity of facebook is not just my imagination. Take the poster for David Fincher's The Social Network as an example:
The poster recreates the blue facebook address bar and uses the facebook font for its title. The only other indication that this poster is for "the facebook movie" – as we were all calling it in the months before it came out – is the (newly redefined) word "friends" in the tagline. How, in fact, could anyone make 500 million friends without facebook.

I assume everyone has already seen The Social Network, so by now you know that "the facebook movie" is not so much about facebook as it is the story of the people who where there when facebook started and when facebook became the awesome juggernaut of a communication phenomenon that it is today. The Social Network is nominally a movie about the young men who designed and built facebook, the lawsuits that they have since filed against one another disputing each other's claim to facebook's invention, and Mark Zuckerberg himself, the world's youngest billionaire.

The Social Network is a very good movie. Beautifully directed, it has David Fincher's usual technologically marvelous touch: take the Winklevoss twins, who are played by a single actor (Armie Hammer, who is excellent). The movie boasts some great acting all around. Jesse Eisenberg gives one of my favorite performances of the year as Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield is great, Justin Timberlake is perfectly cast and does a stellar job, and the movie has a flawless supporting cast.

The real star of The Social Network is Aaron Sorkin, of course, and this is clear from the first few minutes of the film. Sorkin crafts an opening sequence that tells us almost all the movie's ever going to tell us about the inner workings of Mark Zuckerberg, and the scene moves so quickly and with such unadulterated joy (at moviemaking, at itself, at the flexibility of the English language) that one cannot help but grin watching it. The Social Network is excellent, there is no denying it, and yet, it left me a little cold. In this sense: I kept wanting to know more about Mark Zuckerberg, about what he was thinking, why he did the things he did, how friendship and business fit together for him. The Social Network does not tell us these things.

It is not as though Sorkin, Fincher, and company are not interested in Zuckerberg's inner workings. They deliberately obfuscate them. The film designs Zuckerberg as a mystery. We do not know what is going on in his head and the film makes it clear that we cannot, or that we are not supposed to, that what is inside Zuckerberg's head is going to stay there. The scene where Mark has his (apparently) first sexual experience (in a restaurant bathroom, no less) is representative of what I am talking about. Our main character is experiencing something life-altering, brand new, eminently pleasurable, and the camera never finds him. The camera stays on his friend in the next bathroom stall and we hear Zuckerberg and the young lady but never have access to how he feels about this very important experience in his life.

This is what The Social Network is, after all, about, of course: mystery, the failings of memory, the missed connections of friendship, the inability to get back to concrete truths, the difficulties of putting things in order, of saying what came before what, even a few days or weeks after things have happened. This is also a testament to how fast the world moves nowadays. Things get away from us. Before we know it, in The Social Network, so much has happened! Suddenly everyone has read your livejournal entry. Suddenly your website has 200,000 hits. Suddenly the man is a billionaire. It's a whole new world.

This world is further explored – and in a movie that I liked even more than Fincher's – in a documentary called Catfish by filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Catfish is flat-out brilliant and everyone needs to go see it as soon as you can.

The film follows Ariel Schulman's brother Nēv, a New York photographer, as he begins an internet relationship with a seven-year old girl who is a painter and who lives in Michigan. The correspondence with the seven-year-old transforms into a regular correspondence with the little girl's nineteen-year-old sister Meghan, who is a dancer and who plays guitar. They correspond regularly, and though they meet through facebook, they begin talking on the phone, texting, emailing, etc. Then the filmmakers follow Nēv to Michigan to meet Meghan.

Do not let anyone tell you what they find there before you watch this movie.

Every review of Catfish has danced around what the boys find when they get to Michigan, and I am not going to spoil it here. Part of the pleasure of the movie is the suspense that the movie builds. There are moments in Catfish when I was squirming in my seat I was so nervous about what they were going to find.

But Catfish is even more than a movie about great thrills and suspense. It (unlike The Social Network) is really a movie about how facebook has changed our real lives, and how the abilities to connect that facebook provides us have powerful impacts on us and how we see ourselves.

The final forty minutes of Catfish are a kind of double character study, exploring the power of the virtual, the real gravity of the imaginary – even when we know we are imagining it! Catfish figures out that there are real feelings in all of those online data, real emotions swept up in the pokes and the pictures and the tags and the status updates. Those projections – call them imaginary at your peril – affect us so profoundly, and they have become so much a part of who we are and how we understand ourselves, that to pretend that they are "just" words or "just" data or "just" pictures is not only foolish it is to fundamentally miss what it means to communicate in the twenty-first century.

I completely loved Catfish. Go see it. Take a friend. You will still be thinking about it weeks later. I promise.