The Social Network and Criticism

Mercer Finn has been published! Well, sort of. In a spangly digital magazine called M+. Boy is it pretty! Check it out here. My bit in it is a re-working of this post from the blog. While yr over the jump, look over fellow conspirator Tim Grundy's piece on webcomics, which has very effectively convinced me that there are better ways to waste my time on the internet. In fact, flip thru the whole thing and see what catches yr eye.

My article in the magazine is slightly edited for space (and probably for the better). I've only got the text I've sent over to the editor, which is what I'll post here. Call it the director's cut. Straight from the source:

The Social Network manages to achieve something quite rare in the film business: universal critical acclaim and controversy. Its numbers on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are eyebrow-raising (95% and 97% respectively), but it has come under fire from various quarters for its less-than-judicious treatment of its subject: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. To me, the mismatch represents two different ways of evaluating film, and art in general, which I shall herewith pompously entitle ‘technical’ and ‘moral’. Bare with me.

In technical terms -- as a film, as fiction -- The Social Network is brilliant. David Fincher keeps the talky-talky action, you know... ACTIVE. Which is pretty impressive, seeing as having people talking in rooms for two hours (as Aaron Sorkin describes his screenplay) is rarely conducive to entertaining cinema. The pace of Sorkin's dialogue is critical in giving the film propulsive power, but Fincher's montage sequences do just as much to keep things moving. I didn't know internet start-ups could be so exciting! Sorkin (who earns my never-ending admiration for creating The West Wing) is at his usual erudite blabber-mouth best. His comedic touches in particular deserve to be singled out. Look out for hilarious scenes with chickens and Harvard principles. And Jesse Eisenberg's shift from robotic nervousness to even more robotic confidence was captivating. He’ll sweep up awards this year, I’m sure of it.*

All good stuff, but let’s move to that grey area between the ‘technical’ and ‘moral’ analysis of art -- themes. Here, the film’s achievements are more shaky. Built around the irony of a creator of a networking site who cannot maintain friends of his own, The Social Network does a fine job of showing the full range of arseholery Zuckerberg is capable of. The descriptor 'asshole' bookends the film, delivered by two different ladies, and Zuckerberg goes from 'is' to 'trying to be'. Personally, I don’t really understand what Fincher and Sorkin are trying to say here. The next step, I guess, would be 'trying not to be', and the final image is both cruel and hopeful on that score.

This slightly fumbled ending leads me to suspect that the film might not be as clever as it appears to be. But even if I found it lacking, it remains impressive enough, from a technical viewpoint, to make the rave reviews understandable. But there is a bigger failure here, what I think can be described as an moral failure. The film is NOT fiction, or at least does not pretend to be. Before seeing it, I was aware of Sorkin’s insistence that his research was thorough, and that although he added drama, the story he was telling was factual. And I believed him! Only when I returned from the cinema to read around the subject did I find that the film’s ‘facts’ are, actually, seriously contested. Irin Carmon over at Jezebel (who was in the year above Zuckerberg at Harvard) notes that the decisions made by the film-makers about their story are pretty curious. Zuckerberg’s Facemash site compared men as well as women. He has had a serious girlfriend since 2003. The Social Network obscures and ignores these bits of biography. Carmon concludes that Fincher and Sorkin are “doing Zuckerberg himself a disservice to reduce his creativity and problem-solving to a sort of digital hate fuck”. The film is morally culpable.

Nathan Heller over at Slate, who was also at Harvard and knew Zuckerberg, points out that the film represented both in an extremely misleading way. Harvard was not a ‘citadel of old money’ with a ‘Jewish underclass’. The real Zuckerberg was “outwardly friendly, often smiling, confident”. Heller allows for the fact that the pressures of narrative can distort reality, but maintains that if the film’s ambition was to make sense of Facebook’s origin and success, The Social Network fails miserably. Facebook was not about getting dumped or getting into a fraternity, but grew out of a particular feeling of community that existed at Harvard. Zuckerberg was never “the best programmer around”, but he was a ‘canny and receptive cultural reader” who put those social bonds and that culture on the web. Heller reveals that there is a more interesting story here, and The Social Network did not tell it.

So we are left with a brilliant film that commits two serious ‘moral’ errors: against Zuckerberg specifically, and against the audience generally. Zuckerberg has been lied about and we have been deceived about him. Moreover, if we were led to expect a considered explication of Facebook’s origin and success, we have been rumbled. My question here is how to balance these ‘moral’ considerations with the +95% reviews the film received. I doubt whether review aggregator sites would include the articles by the two objectors mentioned above, because Carmon and Heller were writing commentaries, not reviews. They did not talk about cinematography or editing. However, they did talk about character and themes. From there they went on to critique the ideas the film was presenting as inadequate. My suspicion is that the +95% reviews have cut this last element out, and have left the audience to judge for themselves.

The Social Network is particularly good at demonstrating the distortions this approach can create. I think that criticism should cover all these areas. A critic should understand what a work of art is attempting to achieve (and how well it does so), but then should also evaluate that aim. Critics should be allowed to say that a film is bad because they do not agree with it. Such presumption might appear difficult to take at first. The irresistibly likable Mark Kermode, being a devotee of horror, has expressed wariness about making moral judgments on films. Nevertheless, his favourable appraisals of the Twilight movies, and his unfavourable appraisals of Judd Apatow’s comedies, seem to me to be based on something other than their technical achievements. Try as we might, we cannot divorce ourselves from our beliefs when we react to the beliefs of others, whether friends or film-makers. Acknowledging this when producing reviews is not only more honest, but encourages a more rounded evaluation of works of art.

* This piece was written a WHILE ago...

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