Thematic Explorations in The Social Network's Mise-en-Scène
Having written about David Fincher’s “The Social Network” twice already (here and here), I thought I might have run out of words on one of the most brilliant American films in years. Then, however, I came across a great post by David Liu that referenced the great location shooting of the film. But where Liu saw these locations as contextualizing the movie “within the fabric of history and modernity,” I began to see the thematic importance in these shots, how they not only placed The Social Network but reflected its meaning and ambition.
For all of the themes of entitlement, sociopathy, insularity and the contrast between social and professional codes raised in The Social Network, its narrative is fundamentally framed as a creation myth, something openly referenced at the end by Rashida Jones’ recently barred lawyer. But Fincher gets at this idea far sooner, and in both subtler and more grandiose fashion, almost at the beginning.
During his haunting, emotionally summarizing opening credits, Fincher paints an image of Mark Zuckerberg as a young man so intently focused on the swirl of anxiety and arrogance constantly dueling in his head that he single-mindedly rushes back from a bar outside of Boston to his Harvard dorm, bypassing the real world to blog. But when the camera pulls back to an extreme-high-angle shot monitoring Mark, the camera shows the cityscape before tilting down to see people.
In the far background is the looming sight of the Old North Church, the chapel where Bostonians hoisted the lanterns to announced how the British were invading, setting off Paul Revere’s ride and, legendarily, the American Revolution. Perhaps the earliest symbol of America’s emerging sovereign identity, the church is both a throwback to an unprecedented social upheaval and, when simply viewed as the church it still is, nothing more than an old building. Now it’s a relic, placed far in the background from what is about to be a new social revolution, though the beacon illuminating the landmark cheekily suggests another massive event, this time by land.
The church is still visible in a subsequent shot where the violinist plays beautiful music out on a lawn simply to play. With the camera still slightly tilted downward from a higher placement but relocated much closer to eye level, Fincher further emphasizes just how much there is around Mark for him to occupy himself instead of barreling through them. Liu rightly notes that Fincher presents Harvard (here “played” by Wheelock College) as a sheltered realm where a more classical sensibility still holds sway. The sight of a young prodigy practicing music out in a courtyard is something that hasn’t been a casual occurrence for a century (at least), yet the lack of response it elicits not only from Zuckerberg but other students suggests that those at Harvard are still used to this sort of thing.
Harvard’s reputation is split along classic and modern lines, playing on its reputation as the nation’s oldest institute of higher learning while still impressing their permanent location at the forefront of educational superiority. A Harvard graduate should be the best-equipped candidate for his or her field, forcing constant evolution. The mash-up of old and new can be seen all over the place in Fincher’s film and informs some of the classical manners in which some characters confront modern problems.
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, steamed that Mark Zuckerberg “stole” their idea — which was, as Zuckerberg himself says, no more original than “Match.com for Harvard students” — try to take him down on intellectual property laws, but those laws have utterly failed to keep up with the nature of the innovation they sought to protect and encourage. The Winklevii, along with Divya Narendra, did not truly come up with anything beyond a “hey, wouldn’t it be great if?” idea, not any kind of working blueprint that wasn’t already a vague take-off of other social networking sites. Yet they pursued litigation (and won a hefty settlement) because wording in laws, even those modified for Web content, still hasn’t caught up to the way innovation happens now.
Fincher ties this outmoded view to Harvard when the Winklevoss twins see the Harvard president, who himself is something of a relic despite serving in high areas of government both before and after his tenure as head of the university. “This building is 100 years older than the country it’s in,” says the dean’s secretary with a threatening air as the two young men sit immobile in chairs, as if they might set about destroying the place at a moment’s notice. The twins try to place on Harvard’s history and the code it sets down for students to sway the school president, but he realizes that their situation does not line up with any traditional criteria for disciplinary action.
However, Larry Summers is also presented as blind to the potential of this new media, despite his economic credentials as the former Secretary of the Treasury. He scoffs at the notion that a website could be worth millions, especially one targeted at simply letting teens chat for free. (Funnily enough, the real Larry Summers got himself in some hot water for more classical views of a darker stripe when he suggested, perhaps half-jokingly, that the dearth of women in science and engineering could be the result in differing levels of aptitude between the two sexes.) To show his frustration at not being able to use traditional means to stop Zuckberberg, Cameron snaps the 335-year-old doorknob off the president’s officer door as he leaves, spitting in the face of institutional policy that no longer has any use for him or anyone else looking to forge new ground.
Cameron comes into conflict with his brother and Divya for being reluctant to wage what is essentially a new-age “flame war” on Zuckeberg, refusing to taint the legacy of the university and its acclaimed student paper to snipe at another student. The impatient reactions of the other two suggest both that they are still so immature that they do not have the same respect for the old as Cameron, but also that they are paradoxically ahead of him in realizing the more personal manner in which conflicts must be settled now. Yet it is Cameron’s cooler head that likely serves them best when they pursue the other facet of old-school vengeance to get back at Mark: the courts. Then again, both they and Mark use the tradition and precedent of litigation to more or less bitch at each other on the record, airing petty grievances with an absurd amount of money put up at stake to soothe the bruised egos of the Winklevii. Mark shows them that privilege no longer counts, even as he shows the audience that a power-mad tyrant can now come from anywhere. Progress is a double-edged sword indeed.
But the Winklevii aren’t the only ones trapped in a old way of thinking. Eduardo Saverin, Mark’s best friend and the man who provides the start-up capital for Facebook, stands apart from Mark not only in the vast difference in their physical appearances but in his frustratingly outdated form of business thinking. He recognizes the value of Mark’s idea but does not know how to monetize it. The second Facebook becomes a hit, Eduardo wants to bring in advertisers, but Mark believes doing so would ruin the draw of Facebook. One need only look at the nightmare of Myspace after pop-up ads and spam accounts took over. But Eduardo persists, believing that courting investors on Madison Avenue is the only way to expand.
Though Sorkin frames the ambitious zeal of his cinematic Mark as, at least in part, a reaction against the final clubs that will not let him join, their coolness toward him ultimately marks him as unique. Saverin, meanwhile, does get tapped to go through the process, which involves a series of insipid hazings that do nothing but amuse the established members. However, the rituals Saverin and other punches must perform directly tie into Harvard’s history: they sing Harvard songs as liquor is passed around and, in a memorable shot, stand in the cold trying to remember trivial tour guide facts as their brains rattle from shivering. They stand before the statue of John Harvard, men tapped because of their potential to become innovators and great men forced to give tribute before an unofficial altar of the past. (The monument is also called the “Statue of Three Lies,” thus giving Harvard its own creation myth).
By the time Eduardo realizes how far out of the inner circle he’s drifted, it’s too late. After spending all summer hitting up investors for small change, he returns to find Mark set to receive a lucrative deal from a Silicon Valley firm, his old-school drive and mindset nothing compared to the casual manner in which Mark sat back and let the offers come to him. That Eduardo stayed on the East Coast is but another sly method in which Fincher and Sorkin highlight the traditionalism that motivates him. He stayed in the merchants area of New England while Mark hitched up his wagons and headed west for glory.
Sean Parker stands between the two friends as the missing link between old and new. Stacked against each other, Sean doesn’t make nearly the impression Saverin does, despite the fact that one is played by a multi-platform A-lister. Saverin looks slick in a business suit and, unlike the legally bound Parker, has actually made money off his ideas, making $300,000 in a single summer. He also enjoys connections to the investment world and displays enough savvy to work within it. Yet he’s trapped in the old model: by spending all day on New York subways courting advertising firms that simply don’t speak to youth, much less a young audience on the Web, he wastes his time.
Meanwhile, Parker, who oscillates between Mark’s sloth and Eduardo’s focus, introduces a more lucrative plan. He knows exactly how to ensure maximum profit in a modern business plan but also has the classical networking skills to get his foot in the door. Left to his own devices, Mark would have waited past the time to act, but Parker knows just when to start calling up all those investment firms.
“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we will live on the Internet!” exclaims Parker, refashioning the infinite possibilities of the Internet into more traditional terms. He’ll find the right balance between familiar and new: part of the reason he encourages Mark to hold off advertising is to avoid changing things up while the site is new. Once users become accustomed to it, then change the model (Facebook has followed this plan in real life all the way up to the present). Parker wins the fight for Mark’s soul, but he also helps him turn Facebook into a global presence.
Elsewhere, Fincher displays an understanding for clashing modernity and antiquity even in extraneous moments. The boat race in Henley, at once the least essential yet most memorable sequence of the film, exemplifies this. Henley-on-Thames, founded nearly a millennium ago and has been the site of the Royal Regatta rowing competition for 200 years. But the sequence is undermined with Fincher’s modern touches, be it his musical cue or the fact that this is the one scene dominated by wide-angle close-ups. Here, at a refined location hosting the classical sport the Winklevii are proficient at, they still lose. Not only are they useless in the new order of things, they’re not quite as masterful at the old life as they thought.
The Winklevii’s introduction, in fact, also makes subtle use of its surroundings. The twins practice on the Charles River, and Fincher includes the bridge overlooking the river in his master shot. It’s the same bridge where, in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” Quentin Compson threw himself into the water (there is even a plaque for the fictional character). This symbol of artistic modernism is here tranquil and dated, what was once groundbreaking and revolutionary as quaint as everything else about the chilled idyll of the scene.
Fincher even incorporates his own films into the old/new split, using “Fight Club” for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke when Mark uses Facebook to cheat on an art exam by using the fake name Tyler Durden. He makes more serious work out of a reference to “Zodiac” by way of a shared usage of time-lapsed shots of the Transamerica Pyramid. “Zodiac” used them to show the building being built, erecting during the months and years of inactivity surrounding the case. The building has long since been erected by the time Mark heads out to party with Sean, and the time-lapse shots here display the accelerated pace of development. It took years for the pyramid to be built, but now sweeping changes can occur in months, days, minutes.
To return to the aforementioned music, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score mixes old and new styles beyond its interpretation of classical music. Reznor’s beeps, hisses and electronic groans are hypermodern, but they also hark back to the synthesized scores of the ’80s. “The Social Network’s” score is a damn sight more sophisticated by any of Harold Faltermeyer’s pieces, but the latter is the father of the former.
I continue to marvel at how perfectly Fincher fit Sorkin’s script, more so after studying the backdrops and framing more. An unlikelier pairing hasn’t produced such masterful cinema since Steven Spielberg took Kubrick’s “A.I.”, a film that also muddies artistic vision until everything one might attribute to one filmmaker was actually the input of the other and vice-versa. To continue writing about this film strikes me as unnecessary, what with the plethora of glowing reviews (two of which are my own), but maybe if I didn’t keep finding new aspects to highlight I could leave the damn thing be. When “The Social Network” premiered, it soon shut up every lazy critic dismissing it as “The Facebook Movie.” By studying the level of care and craftsmanship put into the shots and the meaning evoked by the mise-en-scène, one can far more easily see how the film proved its mettle so quickly, even if it still contains secrets to be unlocked.