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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Updating my Facebook Status

It's extremely rare to get to the end of a movie and be left wanting more, but that's how I felt at the end of The Social Network, the extremely delightful film directed by David Fincher, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. I wanted more. I was so delighted by the music, by the writing, by the performances, by the unobtrusive craft in every frame and every minute, by the true drama still made with enough wit that I found more laughs here than in many an alleged comedy I had seen, that when we got to the end and I realized we were at the end that I deflated a bit that there wasn't going to be another hour I could be entertained. This movie is good. It is good, good, good, it is Empire Strikes Back good because that's about how rarely it comes along that I am Not Happy that I will have to leave a movie behind. Jerry Maguire, maybe, or Bull Durham, there just aren't too many movies I can think of over the past 30 years that have had me under their spell the way The Social Network did.

So if you haven't seen it, go, come back to my blog after you've done so.

As most of you probably know by now, the movie's about the circumstances surrounding the founding of Facebook, the social networking website that I've thoroughly resisted joining but which a huge fraction of the world is taking advantage of these days. In a nutshell, the public face of Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard student who started the web site less than seven years ago from his Harvard University dorm room. He started it not long after he was invited by identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss to work on another social networking site called HarvardConnection. They sued him. Three other Harvard students, Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovits and Eduardo Saverin are listed with Zuckerberg as co-founders on the Founder Bios page, and it's Saverin who is the third leg of The Social Network triangle with Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses (or "the Winklevi" as Zuckerberg calls them at one point during the movie). He provided the initial funding, a start-up investment of $1K and then $18K follow-up for Facebook, but disagreed with Zuckerberg on the timing for starting to monetize the site, and sued after his stake was diluted from 30% to .03%. Coming to hang over Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook like Polaris to the Ancient Mariner is the figure of Napster founder Sean Parker.

It doesn't sound like a comedy, does it? It also doesn't sound like a Valentine's Day card for Mark Zuckerberg. But in some ways it manages to be both. [And let me say moving forward that I'm always talking about events as we see them in the movie, which may or may not be what they were like in real life...]

Let's first deal with Zuckerberg. Certainly the movie depicts him as, being maybe somewhere on the autism scale. His skills at computer hacking are amazing, but his interpersonal relationships are incredibly bad. It seems vividly clear that he had a prior interest in the different social networking sites at Harvard. Prior to founding Facebook, he hacks into many of them to get images for a website that will allow Harvard students to rank the coeds. Yet it seems quite likely that he would never have founded Facebook without being shown what was planned for HarvardConnection. His defense isn't to claim that the idea was his, but rather to say that the coding was his. i.e., it doesn't matter if they gave him the idea because they didn't give him any of the expression thereof. And from a literary agent perspective, I find this isn't necessarily a persuasive defense, but it's a valid one, and the implications are worth studying. Ideas are nebulous things. They can't be copyrighted, none, really. Some can be patented, but even there the idea can't be too obvious or too already out there in the aether. Even taken that the Winklevi were royally screwed by Zuckerberg, their naivete in their initial dealings with Zuckerberg is really, really naive. On the other hand, how do you know when to be really cautious and when to be somewhat trusting? In publishing, most authors don't copyright their manuscripts before they start submitting them, as a rule I don't think they should, as a reality there are few allegations that unpublished books are stolen. There's somewhat more smoke surrounding the infringement fires in Hollywood. Corporate espionage is a fact of life and theft of intellectual property seems to be more of a problem than theft of creative property. There's just a lot of interesting stuff lurking in the background of all of this, the upshot being that I'm more conflicted over Zuckerberg's treatment of the Winklevi than even I might expect.

And as to Eduardo Saverin, it's again a situation that's fascinating to me on a professional basis. It's clear that Saverin and Zuckerberg were on very different pages regarding Facebook well before he was forced out. It probably would have been best if one or both had decided to end things long before things ended. When Saverin is asked to sign papers to faciliate Facebook's corporate restructuring as it starts to attract venture capital angels, he doesn't hire his own lawyers to look over the papers before signing and trusts that the interests of himself and the company lawyers are one. The stakes aren't as high in my line of work, but similar issues present themselves when it's clear that an author and agent have gotten themselves on very different pages. When does everyone realize this and move on?

As with Jerry Maguire, The Social Network has some rich professional relevance that might give me an added interest in the movie, though I think the questions are of much more general interest here. When to end a sour relationship, when to consider the big blow-off to be something other than innocent, when to trust the people you're dealing with and when not, when it's honorable to do the right thing and when all is fair in love and war. And in reviewing and thinking on the movie, when do you consider the circumstances of others to be unique and when does past history provide a life lesson for today?

And then to go broader, why are there those nice guys who manage to succeed by being nice, and then the guys who succeed by being brutal to the people around them? Zuckerberg is the kind of person we're all told not to grow up to be, and he's the kind of person we all want to be. He's the embodiment of the conflicting cliche, that eternal battle between "parting makes the heart grow fonder" and "out of sight, out of mind," between "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar" and "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

It's rare for a message movie to entertain, but The Social Network entertains in spades.

Let's start with Jesse Eisenberg. You can click here for reviews from this blog of other movies he's been in. Just turned 27, I've kind of been watching Eisenberg grow up in film, from early roles in Roger Dodger and especially The Squid and the Whale where he's playing a high school student, and into a bad movie like Adventureland where he was too old to be playing a high school student and looking bored in a script that wasn't good enough for him, and more recently starting to grow up a bit in much better roles in Zombieland and Solitary Man. He's amazing here, like he was born for the part, like this is the role God wanted him to play. His Mark Zuckerberg is constantly wrapped in a university hoodie, almost like a ward against the rest of humanity. He never seems to have a kind word for anyone. He never seems to come alive unless it's when he's taking the Sean Parker approach that Facebook must be cool vs. the Eduardo Saverin approach that Facebook must make money. In fact, it's interesting to compare his reaction to Saverin's attack on Facebook cool to his much calmer approach when Sean Parker's arrested simultaenous with Facebook getting its millionth user. I'm not Pauline Kael, I'm not good at describing what makes good acting good acting. But I've seen Eisenberg in enough films playing enough different kinds of characters to know that he's acting here, that the person we see in this movie is a different person than the one we see in Zombieland, and that this is a fully-realized portrayal.

And Justin Timberlake is the fire to Eisenberg's ice. Timberlake is a bona fide actor these days, not just some boy band expatriate. He's shown bits of it in other movies, or in his command of Studio 8H hosting Saturday Night Live. He's got a touch of Jude Law in his portrayal of Sean Parker, as a kind of Peter Pan of internet start-ups. He's been shown the adult world in starting and losing Napster, but he doesn't really want to be an adult. He finds in Zuckerberg and Facebook the opportunity to locate his own little fountain of youth. And yet his eternal impishness isn't the all of him. There's a head for business, the experience that comes from having made his mistakes, and learned from them. The two performances are a pair. There's a wildness to both, but Timberlake is every bit the outie to Eisenberg's innie, and the two make beautiful music together.

It's hard for the other actors to emerge fully from behind these two great central performances, but nobody fades into the background. This is also one of those good movies where the efforts at casting reach far down into the cast list. There are a lot of deposition scenes in the movie, and the actors are as well matched in them as the lawyers.

Aaron Sorkin has written the script, and it's an amazing piece of work. He tells a story about the invention of a website that manages not to drown in shots over the shoulder of a computer screen. He's written a legal thriller that doesn't once set foot in a courtroom. He's written a serious business drama that's full of great throwaway lines. Shakespeare did comic relief, where he had to cut to the special characters designed to provide the relief, and Sorkin improves upon this totally since he manages to find the relief inside each character and fully integrate every piece of the stew.

And David Fincher is fully in control of every frame of the movie. The main titles of the movie are shown over a scene of Mark Zuckerberg walking back to his hotel room in an angry rage after being dumped by his girlfriend, and this is the kind of scene that in a lot of movies would be kind of quiet and sedate because after all it's just the background for the credits, or would go the other way where you'd get kind of all artfully fancy in making the credits swooping and fancy. This credit scene doesn't do either. The main titles aren't very fancy at all, it's Jesse Eisenberg fairly plain with the first name italicized. But yet there's something utterly propulsive about the most basic walk through Harvard Yard, about the way the shots are edited, about the purposefulness of Eisenberg's stride. The entire movie is every bit as propulsive, and yet at the same time never goes so fast that you don't notice every line of dialogue or every bit of techie business about the underpinnings of Facebook that you might need to know to understand everything that's happening. I've read that Fincher was Kubrickian in his filmmaking process, doing dozens of takes for some scenes, and if so let us stipulate that the gazillions of feet of film show up on the screen. The amazing performances from Timberlake and Eisenberg, the perfect line readings from every member of the cast on every line of every scene throughout the entire movie. You don't notice things like the photography or the music, but this isn't the time or place where you want to.

In a way, I'm overstating the case for The Social Network. There are lots of good and great movies in the world. This one doesn't have the best acting up and down the entire cast, or the best photography or the best music. I wouldn't say The Social Network is one of the Best Movies I've seen in my life. But there are better movies that don't inspire me the way this one did. Better movies that ended when they ended, and I was fine with that. But I'll reiterate the point I made at the top of this post. There just aren't that many movies that leave me deflated and sad when the credit sequence starts to roll at the end. The Social Network is an awfully good movie, and I don't know if it will be the "Best" movie of the year, but I doubt even the "Best" movie of the year will be as thoroughly entertaining as this. I doubt it will be resonant. I doubt it will be as successful in walking a tonal tightrope.

The Social Network dropped a projected 31% in its 2nd weekend, which is the smallest percentage drop second weekend of any #1 movie this year. That wouldn't have been so hot 30 years ago when I first started paying attention to these things, but in the current day and age you hope to drop 40% and a lot of horror flicks or other genre fare will routinely drop by 60% or more. I'm glad to see this is getting some good word of mouth, and I'll happily join in. This is one anticipated well-reviewed movie that's living up to expectations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Bilmes:

When are you opening up to submissions from paranormal writers who are politely waiting for fall to come? We are
beginning to wither up and drop off like the leaves.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Cathy A. Corn