Sunday, October 31, 2010

Determination borne out of necessity: Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, starring Jennifer Lawrence

Few films take such meager grungy materials to form such a compelling storyline as director Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell. Without much to live on except the generosity of her neighbors and what she can shoot, a 17 year old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is forced to take care of her severely depressed mother and her younger brother and sister on a small farm in the Missouri Ozarks in winter. Her father has just signed over the farm to pay part of his bond, and now that he's skipping bail, Ree and her family face eviction where they would have to live "out in a field like dogs" as she phrases it. So, without a truck, she has to walk out to find her father, or her father's bones if he's dead, in order to maintain her hardscrabble existence. She teaches the kids some survival skills by showing them how to shoot squirrel. When her brother Sonny balks at pulling the guts out of a squirrel's corpse, Ree tells him that he doesn't have the luxury to be frightened of that. As he pulls it out, he asks, "Do we have to eat these parts?" Ree replies, "Not yet." When he later asks her if they can beg for food from the neighbors, she grabs him and says "Never ask for what ought to be offered."

The ever-present sense that Ree can sink lower in the circles of the meth-lab hell around her lends the film such force. Widespread methamphetamine addiction has reduced most of the men to bedraggled shifty-eyed Charles Manson-esque freaks. Ree's father's uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) is in the best position to help her, but instead he grabs her head and threatens to punch her in front of his grim wife, who can only offer Ree a joint for the walk home afterwards. From there, one can see Ree's possible future in the gaunt hardened faces of the women she meets as she tries to track down some answers from increasingly scary meth-dealing men who keep a code of silence. "Talking just causes witnesses," as one wife answers Ree's plea before refusing to let her talk to her husband. Meanwhile, the bond officer tells her that she just has one week left before they evict her from her farm. At one point, Ree's next door neighbor drives her to a burned down shack, and tells her that her father was recently burnt up in the fire. Ree indignantly replies that her father didn't "blow no labs" or produce any "bad batches." He must think her an "idiot" for thinking she wouldn't notice that high weeds inside the house betray the fact that the house burned down the previous year.

As the film moves toward ever more grim noirish scenes, Ree gets beaten up by some harpy-like wives. When a family huddles in a barn and wonders what to do with her, Ree half-humorously replies "Kill me, I guess. Or help me? Has that occurred to anyone?" Twenty year old Jennifer Lawrence holds the screen with her determination. Her character has moments of despair, for instance when she weeps when her mother cannot snap out of her depression long enough to help her, but basically Ree has no choice in what she does, and Lawrence's performance honors that up-against-the-wall ferocity. In the midst of our media-distracted age, Winter's Bone reminds one of the fundamentals of survival, and the stoic resolve that can result from necessity. When her kid brother and sister ask Ree if she will leave them, she replies, "I'd be lost without the weight of you two on my back."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Daniel, Kristi, Ali, and Hunter face the demon: 7 notes on the banalities of Paranormal Activity 2

I admire Oren Peli's do-it-yourself indie coup when his $11,000 home-made movie Paranormal Activity (2007) made over a 100 million dollars. When I reluctantly went to see the deliberately crude but more professionally made Paramount sequel last week (with Peli as a producer), I wasn't expecting much, but I confess I liked its banalities: its repetitive lulling rhythms, its improvised dialogue, its indefatigable robotic pool cleaner that steals every scene it appears in, and its REC-influenced progression to eerie green night vision footage. I'll let a quote from Robert Abele's LA Times review of the movie set up the basic situation, and then follow with some notes:

"First off, there are more characters, in this case a Carlsbad, Calif., family composed of a dad (Brian Boland), second wife (Sprague Grayden), perky teen daughter from the first marriage, boy toddler, Latina nanny who senses bad spirits and German shepherd (whose alertness to things unseen is one of the movie's new goose-bump-raising assets).

There are also more visual perspectives, from the hand-held camcorder that various family members use to document initially happy — then increasingly worrisome — household events, to the six security cameras installed in the wake of an unexplainable burglary. Katie (Katie Featherston) is back, too, as the sister of this movie's young mom."

1) Paranormal Activity 2 suits my increasing sense of dread. How in the midst of plenty--a nice house, a thriving family, and much technological advancement-- there's something very wrong, and I couldn't help seeing the demon as a metaphor for:

a) the evils of surveillance (we observe a family electronically observe themselves),

b) the clutter of consumerism (the suffocating rat's nest in the basement),

c) cookie-cutter identity-annihilating suburban sprawl,

d) the banalities of reality TV

e) the evil oppression of having to watch home videos with babies (one reason why I hate Facebook)

2) PA2 celebrates the long shot of various rooms, a break in the tyranny of closeups, where (much as in the first Paranormal Activity) the audience looks all around for the next demonic irregularity--the door opening on its own when the mother Kristi looks out the window, the German Shepherd barking at the ostensibly empty bathroom, the baby Hunter being dragged across the crib in his sleep. The film suits our hunter's instinct to look for the movement of prey (although the prey in this case is the hunter or the trickster frequently messing with the family). I liked the playfulness of the demon twirling the child's mobile over the crib when the mom isn't looking, turning off and on the night light, and making the pool cleaner slide out of the water. The sheer ordinariness of the household invites destruction.

3) I liked the film's lack of an authoritarian point of view. The teenaged daughter Ali hunts around on various websites until she hits upon a theory that hints at the demon's desire for the first-born male child as part of a grandmother's Faustian deal. But this interpretation is just tossed in for those who desire some explanation.

4) The film plays with our insecurities--Ali gets locked outside and no one's inside to watch the baby. Things increasingly go wrong, yet the family mostly wants to avoid what it knows in its desire to continue to enjoy its creature comforts.

5) In its The Shining-like way, PA2 ultimately favors the child. It's the purblind adults who are in real trouble.

6) I found more horror in the father Daniel's fuddy duddy little trimmed hipster beard, his flipflops, his shorts, and his huge flat screen TV. (spoiler alert) Typically, he has to rush off to work when his wife Kristi (Sprague Grayden) is possessed. She stares blankly from a chair, a large bite mark on her leg from when she got dragged down into the basement.

7) As I watched the no-name actors emote for the camera, eat bacon in the kitchen, or romp around in the pool, I wondered how much PA2 reflects its audience. The teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) likes to videotape everything because it makes her feel more real, but the true horror lies in watching stand-ins for ourselves immobilized, specimens in a luxury terrarium, slumped on a couch, and watching TV. The demon ultimately seems superfluous.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

zombie links

---Jim Groom discusses Dawn of the Dead

---Rodrigo Blaas' Alma

---the zombie attack as stress test

---kill your lawn

---Night of the Living Dead

---Google-Verizon's betrayal

---the new consumption

---Wilson-Brown's "The Curator's Dilemma"

---the e-book and the novel:

This September, the American author Don DeLillo was asked, upon receiving the PEN/Saul Bellow award, how technology is changing fiction. “Novels will become user-generated,” he speculated. “An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customised, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write and read.”

The “shrinking context” DeLillo describes is the paradoxical offspring of an arena in which all media float free and fight for attention, where anything goes, and yet where it’s only an ever-more-dominant few that are able to spin their stories across media and into the popular consciousness. “Here’s a stray question,” DeLillo continued. “Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?” He left it unanswered. But we shall find out soon enough.

---Sir Ken Robinson discusses creativity in education

---medieval zombies

---movie purgatory

---10 things I learned as a zombie

---Friedkin discusses the chase scene of The French Connection (thanks to @LaFamiliaFilm)

---zombie TV

---Taibbi's Griftopia:

America is quite literally for sale, at rock-bottom prices, and the buyers increasingly are the very people who scored big in the oil bubble. Thanks to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and the other investment banks that artificially jacked up the price of gasoline over the course of the last decade, Americans delivered a lot of their excess cash into the coffers of sovereign wealth funds like the Qatar Investment Authority, the Libyan Investment Authority, Saudi Arabia's SAMA Foreign Holdings, and the UAE's Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Here's yet another diabolic cycle for ordinary Americans, engineered by the grifter class. A Pennsylvanian like Robert Lukens sees his business decline thanks to soaring oil prices that have been jacked up by a handful of banks that paid off a few politicians to hand them the right to manipulate the market. Lukens has no say in this; he pays what he has to pay. Some of that money of his goes into the pockets of the banks that disenfranchise him politically, and the rest of it goes increasingly into the pockets of Middle Eastern oil companies. And since he's making less money now, Lukens is paying less in taxes to the state of Pennsylvania, leaving the state in a budget shortfall. Next thing you know, Governor Ed Rendell is traveling to the Middle East, trying to sell the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the same oil states who've been pocketing Bob Lukens's gas dollars. It's an almost frictionless machine for stripping wealth out of the heart of the country, one that perfectly encapsulates where we are as a nation.

---zombie trailers


---Lester Bangs reviews Astral Weeks

---zombie Sears

---Digital media, new learners of the 21st century

---the story of Warren Oates

---zombie political ads

---the evils of in-image advertising:

How long before every photo on the Web is monetized to the max? Every piece of clothing — whether it's in a fashion spread or a news photo about a homicide? Every Ford truck — whether it's in a beer ad or a shot of a crime scene? Every Nike shoe — whether it's being worn by President Obama or a pervert on a perp walk?

News stories will become shop windows and every newsmaker a mannequin. Talk about Photoshopping.

Taken to the extreme, online shoppers will be able to buy a copy of the hat Jackie Kennedy was wearing when her husband was assassinated. Or the T-shirts straight from the mug shots on The Smoking Gun.

And how long before the tables are turned and some politician picks up extra campaign money by wearing certain name-brand clothes?

---how the internet inspires Hollywood

---zombie Red Dead Redemption

---bloggers in jail

---lastly, Sigourney Weaver's big audition for Alien

Friday, October 22, 2010

twilight links

---Schwartzman survives, Rushmore rules

---South Park explains Inception

---Kristofferson kind of remembers his movies

---Rushkoff on how not to be programmed

---the cinetrix clears her throat

---@maryannjohanson defines the female gaze:

"The problem with the male gaze -- and the desperate need for a more prominent female gaze -- is its dominance, not just visually but as the provider of the perspective. Because most filmmakers and TV creators are still straight men, we are still bombarded with stories that, even when they are ostensibly about women are still really about women seen from a male perspective. (And I should say, “stories that are about straight women”; mainstream stories about lesbian women are all but nonexistent, from any perspective.) It results in movies such as The Ugly Truth, which appears to give us two sides of a battle-of-the-sexes coin but actually only smacks down the female side while giving the male side a hearty, approving slap on the back. And like Knocked Up, which seems almost ignorant of the stuff of women’s experiences even where it directly impacts on the story (such as the female protagonist, an adult woman, appearing to have never been to a gynecologist prior to her manifesting as a character in a pregnancy comedy).And even the good and great movies are still overwhelmingly from a hetero-male perspective -- why are we limiting our art this way?"

---notes on L'Avventura (thanks to @filmstudiesff)

---the revolt of reading and Franzen's favorite books

--an interview with Olivier Assayas about Carlos

---laptop moviemaking

---The Net Delusion

---interactive Black Swan

---the best blog about screenwriting and Billy Wilder's thoughts:

"Now, I do have to admit I was disappointed by the lack of success of some pictures I thought were good, such as Ace in the Hole. I liked the movie very much but it did not generate any “must-see” mood in audiences.

On the other hand, sometimes you’ll have a rough time, and the film will turn out all right. On Sabrina I had a very rough time with Humphrey Bogart. It was the first time he’d worked with Paramount. Every evening after shooting, people would have a drink in my office, and a couple of times I forgot to invite him. He was very angry and never forgave me.

Sometimes when you finish a picture you just don’t know whether it’s good or bad. When Frank Capra was shooting Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, after the last shot she said, Will that be all Mr. Capra?

We’re all done.

All right. Now why don’t you go and fuck yourself. She thought the picture was shit, but she won the Academy Award for it.

So you’re never quite sure how your work will be received or the course your career will take. We knew we’d gotten a strong reaction at the first big preview of Sunset Boulevard. After the screening, Barbara Stanwyck went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing that night. Gloria had given such an incredible performance. Then in the big Paramount screening room, Louis B. Mayer said loudly, We need to kick Wilder out of America if he’s going to bite the hand that feeds him. He was with his contingent from MGM, the king then, but in front of all his department heads, I told him just what he could do. I walked out just as the reception was starting."

---the new water-driven economy and the twilight of the suburbs. 9 billion people? No problem!

---Mottola's Paul teaser trailer

---a Chris Pine profile

---getting ready for the zombie crash while remembering Apocalypse Now

---Naomi Watts and Valerie Plame discuss Fair Game

---10 reasons not to go to grad school (thanks to @annehelen)

---Guillermo Del Toro is voracious

---a history of mug shots

---Brazil street view

---lastly, Bruce Willis between two ferns

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Obsessive love and art's revolt: 9 notes on Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton

Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love served as a kind of aesthetic cleanser for my week, a film so artfully made, it immediately sparked associations with Vertigo, The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Single Man, The Leopard, L'Avventura, and Big Night. Even as Yorick Le Saux's cinematography moves between edgy and gorgeous, I Am Love keeps shifting and re-shifting its allegiances between art and nature, the rich and the poor, the interior and the exterior world, and the past and the present. In the process, the film never settles on the obvious conclusion. Some notes with spoilers:

1) The title I Am Love, which evokes Rimbaud's "J'est un autre" (I is someone else), at first appears to be a bland affirmation of the power of love, but insofar as society matron Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) has to sacrifice everything to become "love," one realizes that the title also hints at the annihilation of her identity.

2) I found it weird how I Am Love shares with Eat, Pray, Love a three word title that ends with "Love" and includes a female midlife crisis intertwined with a rapturous appreciation of Italian cuisine. There, I trust, the resemblance ends.

3) I liked the way that Guadagnino kept exploring artistic forms, notably those found in architecture, fashion, the nude, interior decoration, and in high cuisine. The film begins with several shots of large buildings in Milan on a snowy winter day. They reminded me of Saul Steinberg's drawings where larger institutions dwarf humanity. These scenes prepare the viewer for the sense of upper class social control and heirarchy in Recchi family's extravagant dinner party where the elder titan of the Recchi textile industry (Gabriele Ferzetti) bequeaths his power to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). During the course of the party, we learn that Edoardo just lost a race to Antonio, a chef (Edoardo Gabbriellini). For some reason, later on that evening, Antonio stops by with a cake he had made for Edoardo. When he first appears out of the snowy night, we see his (class-related?) hesitation before interfering with such a high class affair, and he refuses to accept Edoardo's offer to come inside. When the head house servant turns her back for a moment, Antonio sneaks out.

4) A bearded, intense artist, Antonio befriends Edoardo, uses him to obtain permission to open a restaurant, seduces Emma with his cooking, and eventually proves instrumental in provoking Edoardo's death. Does he do all of this out of class resentment, or is he just blithely following his culinary and erotic passions? It is really hard to tell.

5) Meanwhile, another artist, Emma's daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), who shares Emma's Russian blond coloring, manages to shock the family patriarch by giving him a photograph of a garden when he's expecting one of her drawings. The scene emphasizes how the artists in the family keep restlessly shifting their forms of expression, and even though the Recchi are rich and cultured enough to enjoy art, they are uneasy with its potential for subversive passion. Emma is both an enviably sophisticated woman of leisure and a caged animal in an airless museum. So, when Betta breaks out of her expected role and starts a passionate affair with a woman, Emma finds herself tempted by her daughter's example.

6) I Am Love first shifts to Emma's subjective point of view when she eats some of Antonio's expertly prepared prawns with homegrown vegetables. Suddenly, the lighting rests only on her as the rest of the room dims, a scene reminiscent of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenski's similarly lit early private romantic moment in the theater in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993).

7) When Emma gives into her passion and starts to follow Antonio around San Remo, Guadagnino has her wear the exact same hairdo that Kim Novak wears in Hitchcock's Vertigo.
The homage suits the way Emma's fixation on Antonio now takes on obsessive overtones, just as Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine, but now the two roles are reversed, with an older woman chasing a younger man. When Antonio threatens to turn around and see her, Emma ducks into a book shop and in her confusion and excitement, looks at an art book. Then, she inadvertently steals the book when she hops out of the store, and bumps into Antonio, who then cheerfully asks her to join him in visiting his garden in the countryside. The theft of the book emphasizes the transgressive side of Emma's interest in Antonio and his cooking. The interest in art now leads her out into nature, where she will sleep with Antonio al fresco. For the rest of the film, Emma's desire to break the confines of her high society position will lead her to increasingly run around outside barefoot as the rest of the Recchi clan looks on, bewildered.

8) And yet, when one would expect Guadagnino to affirm this new pastoral love, he also uses its imagery to plant the seeds (so to speak) of Edoardo's destruction. Whenever Emma is around water, be it with her daughter by the pool, or with Antonio when they make love near a mountain stream, or even by some bottled water in the back of Antonio's restaurant, all of these scenes prepare the viewer for Edoardo's death late in the film when he falls and hits his head on a stone parapet before falling into a pool. All of this occurs directly after he learns of his mother's affair with his friend Antonio.

9) Just when one expects the film to go all pastoral and sweet, it turns lethal. Other ambivalent images of nature include individual shots of insects on flowers in the lovemaking scene and a later shot of Antonio and Emma reclining murkily inside a dark cave. On one level, she has shaken off her formal shoes, burst the confines of her swank Milan existence, and followed her subversive heart, but now what's she doing being enveloped by the earth? With her son dead, her family estranged, and Antonio leading her further and further into the dark, where's the triumph in her "being" love now? Aside from beautifully depicting these multiple tensions, I Am Love refuses to say.

Related link:

Rene Rodriguez discusses I Am Love's literary and cinematic influences

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

information links

---@DougCoupland's pessimistic guide to the next 10 years:

1) It's going to get worse.

No silver linings and no lemonade. The elevator only goes down. The bright note is that the elevator will, at some point, stop.

2) The future isn't going to feel futuristic.

It's simply going to feel weird and out-of-control-ish, the way it does now, because too many things are changing too quickly. The reason the future feels odd is because of its unpredictability. If the future didn't feel weirdly unexpected, then something would be wrong.

---Wes Anderson's new ad

---unlogo

---Nick Denton and Gawker:

"There exists in the collective media mind a caricature of Denton as an evil, soulless, Machiavellian puppeteer: the Wizard of Blogs. It is fed in part by some of the familiar pejoratives associated with tech geekery (Denton as anti-social robot, for example), and also by his own publications, which, in the interest of his vaunted transparency, occasionally turn their pitiless gaze on the boss himself, for comic effect. From reading Gawker, I had learned that Denton is not just a terrible employer but one of “New York’s worst,” as well as an unapologetic liar and the kind of person who leaves his own party early in search of a better one. The caricature was not much diminished by speaking to people about their experiences with the man.

“He’s not, like, a sociopath, but you kind of have to watch what you’re doing around him,” Ricky Van Veen, the C.E.O. of the Web site College Humor, told me.

“The villain public persona is not a hundred-per-cent true,” A. J. Daulerio, the editor-in-chief of Deadspin, Gawker Media’s sports blog, said. “It’s probably eighty-per-cent true.”

“He has fun when people say horrible things about him,” the blog guru Anil Dash said.

“I can’t lie to make him worse than he is, but he’s pretty bad,” Ian Spiegelman, a former Gawker writer, said.

---Uffie's video "Difficult"

---the fun new world of web scraping and the Draconian anti-piracy bill

---Troy analyzes The Night of the Hunter

---Dave Blakeslee celebrates Elevator to the Gallows

---a clip from Assayas' Carlos

---David Denby considers David Fincher's The Social Network:

"By focussing on the moment of creation, Fincher and Sorkin are getting at something new. From the first scene to the last, “The Social Network” hints at a psychological shift produced by the Information Age, a new impersonality that affects almost everyone. After all, Facebook, like Zuckerberg, is a paradox: a Web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind. Karl Marx suggested that, in the capitalist age, we began to treat one another as commodities. “The Social Network” suggests that we now treat one another as packets of information. Mark Zuckerberg, as interpreted by this film, comes off as a binary personality. As far as he’s concerned, either you’re for him or you’re against him. Either you have information that he can use or you don’t. Apart from that, he’s not interested."

---a history of exploitation cinema by @mattzollerseitz

---inattentive reading and information obesity

---A. O. Scott remembers Walkabout

---why blogging still matters

---Of Dolls and Murder trailer

---predicting the future of information technology

---overworked Americans

---the first Marty McFly of Back to the Future

---Drenttel and Helfand's Introduction to Graphic Design

---lastly, 106 examples of the creative internet

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

sweet links

---the world clock and the future of transmedia

---20 signs of economic collapse and the increasing number of old people

---Tony Curtis' life in clips and Arthur Penn's struggles against the Hollywood machine

---Mad Men real ads and the need to worship the brand name logo

---Hunter S. Thompson's cover letter for a newspaper job:

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you're trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I'd like to work for you.

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don't give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.

I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.

It's a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I'd enjoy the trip.

If you think you can use me, drop me a line.

If not, good luck anyway."

---the inside story of The Social Network and @onlythecinema's thoughts about the film

---Wes Anderson's top 12 Criterion favorites

---the complete Andy Kaufman files and @DCozzalio's appreciation of Albert Brooks

---heist films

---Chloe Sevigny's interview

---a map of online communities

---Influencers and why companies watch your every move in social media

---James Surowiecki considers procrastination:

"So a fuller explanation of procrastination really needs to take account of our attitudes to the tasks being avoided. A useful example can be found in the career of General George McClellan, who led the Army of the Potomac during the early years of the Civil War and was one of the greatest procrastinators of all time. When he took charge of the Union army, McClellan was considered a military genius, but he soon became famous for his chronic hesitancy. In 1862, despite an excellent opportunity to take Richmond from Robert E. Lee’s men, with another Union army attacking in a pincer move, he dillydallied, convinced that he was blocked by hordes of Confederate soldiers, and missed his chance. Later that year, both before and after Antietam, he delayed again, squandering a two-to-one advantage over Lee’s troops. Afterward, Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck wrote, “There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.”

McClellan’s “immobility” highlights several classic reasons we procrastinate. Although when he took over the Union army he told Lincoln “I can do it all,” he seems to have been unsure that he could do anything. He was perpetually imploring Lincoln for new weapons, and, in the words of one observer, “he felt he never had enough troops, well enough trained or equipped.” Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle. McClellan was also given to excessive planning, as if only the ideal battle plan were worth acting on. Procrastinators often succumb to this sort of perfectionism."

---Seitz analyzes Fight Club's opening credit sequence

---the William S. Burroughs trailer

---tips on filmmaking: the reshoot, shooting outside, and Mike Newell's thoughts

---making Back to the Future

---lastly, Emerson honors Sally Menke's work on Inglourious Basterds

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The billions justify the means: 12 notes on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and David Fincher's The Social Network

"It’s technology, not business or government, that’s the real driving force behind large-scale societal shifts.” ---Sean Parker

"To have ultimate victory, you must be ruthless."
---Napoleon Bonaparte

1) When Mark Zuckerberg launched theFacebook in 2004, he found his Archimedes' lever to change the world, and now we can contemplate the movie version of this momentous event: David Fincher's compelling The Social Network. Two basic ironies emerge from the film:

a) A shy, anti-social young man electronically seduces the world by appealing to everyone's social instincts.

b) Goaded on by sexual rejection and class resentment, Zuckerberg invents the ultimate club that establishes its own kind of exclusivity by allowing only members with the Harvard.edu address, but then he gradually lets everyone join. Like a bunch of lemmings, we do.

2) What's the appeal of Facebook? It makes everybody feel like they are the star of their own electronic magazine, the center of attention in their pool of "friends." Ironically, while we each feel like we're mastering that universe, The Social Network emphasizes we're all really being controlled by the master manipulator, the puppeteer Zuckerberg whose invention both fascinates us and control us. As David Kirkpatrick writes in his Vanity Fair article concerning Sean Parker, "500 million people now spend 700 billion minutes a month" on Facebook.

3) What are the problems with Facebook? If you want to opt out of the system, Facebook pleads with you to stay, plastering the screen with large pictures of your friends, and pointing out that they will miss you.
Facebook strives to be addictive, to claim your attention all of the time by obliging you to compete for other people's attention. The social network feeds on our desire to be noticed, turns us all into attention-whores, mini-celebrities seeking to extend the reach of our pool of friends.

4) So why does The Social Network work so well? In part because it appeals to the audience's greed, its feeling of being socially excluded, and its pleasure in watching a fast-talking young fellow connive and trick his way into becoming the tech Caesar and the youngest billionaire on the planet. He knows how to harness the power of writing addictive computer programs. Ultimately he doesn't need Harvard, and drops out during his sophomore year. By mixing up the scenes between Zuckerberg's early days in Harvard and later depositions in court, Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin tease the viewer with the quick transition from Zuckerberg's modest $1000 start-up to lawyers talking of millions of dollars of revenue. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg exhibits an increasingly arrogant dismissal of the proceedings. We wonder how this young kid can be so estranged from legal proceedings and then we realize that he can afford to be that way--the young kid is already a multi-millionaire.

5) In one of the deposition room scenes, Zuckerberg stares out of the window at the rain. The lawyer asks:

"Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?"

"No."

"Do you think I deserve your full attention?"

" . . . You have part of my attention. You have the minimal amount."

In our new attention economy, Zuckerberg allocates control over what to concentrate on, and what not, as befits his increasing command over Facebook. And now David Fincher claims our attention with a movie about the man who holds our attention. Where will it end?

6) Fincher has also jokingly said that
The Social Network is the Citizen Kane of John Hughes films. While there is one key difference (Zuckerberg does not inherit massive wealth whereas Kane does
), the two films do share the stories of a close personal friend who is there at the outset of the tycoon's career (Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)). In Citizen Kane, the night scene in which Charles comes up with his declaration of principles has a rough parallel in The Social Network when Eduardo visits with Mark in his Harvard dorm and writes an algorithm on his window. Both friends also attempt unsuccessfully to act as a conscience for their respective tycoons later. I wonder if Fincher and screenwriter Sorkin intentionally alluded to the classic film.

7) From Zuckerberg's e-mail correspondence back at Harvard:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks

8) From the Entertainment Weekly October 8 cover story concerning The Social Network:

"Asked about the movie's overall truthfulness, [Film producer Scott] Rudin offers a carefully worded reply: `You can't make untrue statements about someone without running the risk of getting sued. . . Look around and notice that nobody has sued us.'"

9) In case anyone felt inclined to get tired of Jesse Eisenberg's sulky mien, Justin Timberlake appears as Napster-internet-wunderkind Sean Parker and continually threatens to steal the movie. I liked the way Sean persuades Mark to hold back on advertising to keep Facebook "cool." Little wonder that The Social Network has received such an enthusiastic critical following. In his uber-successful way, Mark shares many of the new journalists' concerns: how to boost the number of page views? How to monetize? Moreover, how does one maintain a brand identity? Having turned down offers of billions of dollars for Facebook, Zuckerberg appears as much interested in control as in money. I still wonder how much his calculations include attempts to manipulate the Facebook user. As mentioned in the recent Jose Antonio Vargas profile in The New Yorker:

"Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet. Google and other search engines may index the Web, but, he says, “most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?” Zuckerberg was in middle school when Google launched, and he seems to have a deep desire to build something that moves beyond it. “It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you,” he said.

In 2007, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would become a “platform,” meaning that outside developers could start creating applications that would run inside the site. It worked. The social-game company Zynga—the maker of FarmVille and Mafia Wars—is expected to earn more than five hundred million dollars this year, most of it generated from people playing on Facebook. In 2008, Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Connect, allowing users to sign onto other Web sites, gaming systems, and mobile devices with their Facebook account, which serves as a digital passport of sorts. This past spring, Facebook introduced what Zuckerberg called the Open Graph. Users reading articles on CNN.com, for example, can see which articles their Facebook friends have read, shared, and liked. Eventually, the company hopes that users will read articles, visit restaurants, and watch movies based on what their Facebook friends have recommended, not, say, based on a page that Google’s algorithm sends them to. Zuckerberg imagines Facebook as, eventually, a layer underneath almost every electronic device. You’ll turn on your TV, and you’ll see that fourteen of your Facebook friends are watching “Entourage,” and that your parents taped “60 Minutes” for you. You’ll buy a brand-new phone, and you’ll just enter your credentials. All your friends—and perhaps directions to all the places you and they have visited recently—will be right there."


I wonder how oppressive it might be to constantly have one's friends' choices surrounding every electronic decision one makes.

10) At any rate, The Social Network succeeds on other levels too. I enjoyed watching the two privileged Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) react once they learn that Zuckerberg has stolen their Harvard Connection website idea to make theFacebook. Even though they are nice enough guys, they make perfect foils to Zuckerberg, since they belong to the most exclusive Harvard club. They are the jocks that in another movie one would love to hate, and the fact that they are twins makes them inherently comic. They live in a world of assumed privilege, and now all of their gentlemanly notions of proper conduct have no place in the technological world that's about to hit them.

11) Ethically, The Social Network remains ambivalent. Zuckerberg does appear to (spoiler alert) shaft his former best friend by devaluing his Facebook stock. But one could also claim that he replaced his friend with better workers who helped ensure the continuing success of the company. In the end, the billions justify the means. Money creates its own morality, especially when the victims walk away from 65 million dollars in one settlement. Mark Zuckerberg is now the youngest billionaire in the world, now worth approximately 6.9 billion and counting, and Facebook is now poised to surpass Google in size and influence within the next five years.

12) The Social Network is perhaps weakest when it comes to gender, since many of the women of the film are seen dancing in discos, playing the groupie once Zuckerberg starts to become famous. We see them smoking out of a bong or providing a surface for snorting cocaine. Sorkin does frame the movie with Erica (Rooney Mara), who dumps Mark in the first scene, calling him an "asshole" after comparing the exhausting process of dating him to being on a "Stairmaster." Later, Sorkin seeks to balance the arrival of Zuckerberg's new groupies with the persistence of Erica's presence when Mark sees her in a restaurant. She tells Zuckerberg off again for writing of her bra size and other personal details on the internet. Later, once Zuckerberg starts to earn his billions, the women seem less judgmental, though he still wants Erica (who humorously has a Facebook page) to friend him. Perhaps Sorkin meant this last gesture, Zuckerberg insulated within his network yet still trying to make contact, as the ultimate irony of the film.

Related links:

cheering Zuckerberg

the women of The Social Network

hacking into Zuckerberg's profile

the problems with Facebook's nudging