Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Don't Trust Anyone Over 30: Parenting and 'The Social Network'

After the neck-and-neck race for the top spot on my list of favorite David Fincher movies that'll perpetually go on between Se7en and Zodiac, The Social Network sits at a solid, comfortable third. For almost any other director, The Social Network would probably qualify as the greatest film they'd ever made, but Fincher's not almost any other director. Technically precise, imbuing his work with an intellectual detachment that rivals Michael Mann (except, perhaps, in Fight Club, but I'll leave the discussion of that piece of work to Film Crit Hulk), and inexorably drawn to antisocial characters focused on overturning or even remaking society, Fincher's produced nearly as many missteps as he has masterpieces, but when his sensibilities mesh with his material, he's on par with any other filmmaker working today.

The Social Network, which brilliantly paired Fincher's attention to visual detail with Aaron Sorkin's peerless dialogue, told a mostly familiar social-outcast-achieves-massive-success story, with the fresh twist that the story of Facebook, who really created it, and who deserves which portion of the nearly unthinkable amount of money it generates, still unfolds today. The featured players in The Social Network are overwhelmingly young men, college-aged or barely beyond, set out to perfect a new kind of website (of communicating and socializing, it turns out) on their own, with no discernible guidance from the generation preceding them. Parents, to use a catch-all term, have virtually no part to play in The Social Network, because the film, like the university in which the story begins, means to represent an egalitarian ideal. Here, you succeed on the merit of your idea and its execution, not solely because of whom you know, or whose last name you share (at least, that's how it's supposed to work).

[DISCLAIMER: After all the discussion and furor over The Social Network's representation/tweaking of reality, and of the difference between the real Mark Zuckerberg and the one played by Jessie Eisenberg, I probably don't have to say this, but in case I do... There's a difference between fiction and reality. I know nothing about the real Zuckerberg, and I honestly don't care to rectify that gap in my knowledge. Same goes for anyone else in the movie based on a real person. I'm writing about the characters here, not the people. Don't misunderstand my intentions.] 

For all intents and purposes, Mark Zuckerberg doesn't even have any parents in The Social Network – he never speaks to, or even mentions them, in any case. The way he latches onto Sean Parker, how he treats the women to whom he's trying to get close (Women generally appear only in bursts in The Social Network, either as prizes to be won, or devices to bring Zuckerberg's fantasies crashing down to reality), and even the way he regurgitates the advice of his lawyers as he unceremoniously boots Eudardo from the company, all his actions make it clear he's lacked a positive parental figure in his life, or anyone, on whom he can rely emotionally. Of course, the likelihood that a better-adjusted Mark Zuckerberg would've accomplished as much as the one in The Social Network did might seem less, but I suspect the real one has parents, and didn't spring into the world fully-formed, with intellect and self-loathing in equal measure.

His lack of parental grounding, of experience Zuckerberg has in the world of the elite, is what pushes him to surpass all his competitors. Most of them, in a twist of tragedy, had partnered with him at one time or another. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, young members of a new American aristocracy, approached Zuckerberg with a plan that must’ve seemed ambitious at the time: "The Harvard Connection," a website that would allow college women an opportunity to move up a few rungs on the social ladder, to meet, date, and likely sleep with men of Harvard (Harvard.edu being, "the most prestigious email address in the country," Mark's told). The reality of the concept was likely less crass, but Mark dissects it almost immediately, and begins to develop ways to enhance it.

Thee brothers take Mark to their club, likely expecting to dazzle him into a partnership by giving him a taste of this foreign world. It's likely that no one in the history of the world has been less impressed than Mark Zuckerberg, speaking with Divya Narendra and the Winklevoss twins about The Harvard Connection, as he's alternately less engaging and terser than he's been at any moment of the film thus far. After a few moments of conversation, Zuckerberg’s brain has clearly moved onto other concerns, and his mouth only participates in the barest minimum of conversation required.

Whether Zuckerberg stole their idea outright for Facebook - one of the points on which The Social Network pivots - there's no denying that he improved it massively, taking, "the entire social experience of college and putting it online" (the relationship status tag – an “Eureka!” moment for him one day – alone has redefined the way college students quest for mates). As he argues to Eduardo Saverin, “Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn't owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair, okay? They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.” Zuckerberg’s thought process is painfully transparent, as is its diametrical opposition to the rules of the old world.

He poured his three defining traits into the development of the site: his obsessive need to analyze everything around him, horrendous social anxiety, and fanatical focus on a project that might gain him some measure of respect from a world that he shuns and pines for in alternating degrees. After all, when called before the Ad Board in the aftermath of the Facemash incident, Mark states that he “feels he deserves some recognition from this board,” as he pointed out some glaring flaws in the Harvard network’s security. He may disdain the old order, but that doesn’t mean Zuckerberg doesn’t want their respect, or even awe.
The Winklevii's firm grounding in the world of their parents, in a world defined by propriety, deference and rules, is what causes them to fall behind Zuckerberg from almost the moment they meet him. While they write letters and emails, examine options, debate the finer ethical points of the situation developing between themselves and the rogue programmer, Zuckerberg moves right along on the development of Facebook. Cameron and Tyler talk; Mark works. Those differences define them, from their first meeting until the film's conclusion.

The only (pre-legal proceedings) adult authority figures that show up in any capacity share screentime with the Winklevii exclusively. Their father, following their last-second loss in the boat race, idly refers to Facebook, momentarily ignorant of his sons' tribulations. Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, the higher power to which the brothers appeal, cares not a whit for their problems, despite the implicit agreement they feel exists between them and their university. 

Cameron rages when they're first unable to get a meeting with Summers: "My brother and I pay tuition at this school, we carry a 3.9 GPA at this school, we've won trophies for this school and we'll be rowing in the Olympics for this school. I want a meeting with the goddamn president of this school." Even when they finally land their coveted meeting, their university president doesn't feel obligated to hold up his end of the bargain they assumed they'd made. He suggests they turn their efforts to a new project, as Harvard is a hotbed of creative entrepreneurs. The Winklevii refuse to loose their fixation, their rigid definition of proper that, it turns out, is prized by an even smaller portion of the population than they'd thought.

Speaking of entrepreneurs, Zuckerberg finds a kindred spirit in Sean Parker, who founded Napster (the movie tells us) on a similar open, level-playing-field ethos to the one that drove Zuckerberg to freely distribute an MP3 player application he'd developed, rather than sell it to Microsoft, to make Facebook free, forever. Zuckerberg sees himself in Parker, and he's envious of everything else he has: social ease, a silver tongue, palpable confidenc. Parker actively disdains the old world order, and swiftly converts Mark to his way of thinking. The two orphans (for the purposes of the film), find solace in their quickly co-dependent behavior. 

Of course, no discussion of fathers would be complete without Mark's best friend, and eventually enemy, Eduardo. Eduardo's the son of an obscenely successful businessman, and has designs on being one himself - Mark offhandedly mentions he made over $300,000 on oil futures over the course of a single summer. Marks brings Eduardo onboard as CFO and principal financier. His money, effectively, allows Facebook to spring into being, and his later withholding of that same money nearly brings the site down, sending Zuckerberg into a panic and sowing the seeds of their friendship's fracturing.

If Zuckerberg and Parker live in a new world, intellectually apart from the rules by which the Winklevii and their ilk play, Eduardo's caught between the two, desperate to prove himself to his friend, who's invested trust and confidence in him, and his father, whose approval he's chased his entire life. Eduardo wants to monetize the site as swiftly as possible, wearing holes in his shoes as he treks from visiting one potential investor to the next; Mark, and Sean, have significantly less interest in turning Facebook into a revenue-generating mechanism. "It's cool," Parker tells them at their first meeting, and slathering it with ads makes Facebook less cool, and therefore less desirable. Parker can land them meetings with investors, many of whom seem eager to pump capital into the company, and brings in far more money effortlessly than Eduardo can do driving himself to exhaustion.

This conflict within Eduardo puts him on a collision course with everyone at Facebook who subscribes to the, "I'm CEO, bitch," mantra with which Parker inculcates Zuckerberg, culminating in Eduardo's forcing out from the company he co-founded. Their friendship nullified, Eduardo adopts the same tactic as the Winklevii: he lawyers up. The boys with the firmest connections to their fathers are the ones who finally bring their agents into the world of Facebook. Justice is served, in the end, but neither side moves to recognize any rightness in the other’s, and we’ll not know any time soon ourselves, as even much of the real-life proceedings remain sealed away.

The world of The Social Network is chaotic and mesmerizing, running the gamut of dizzying highs and crushing lows. Adult influence might’ve moderated some of those circumstances, but certainly would’ve made them less compelling. As drama and art, it’s a glorious thing.

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