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October 19, 2010

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PaulJBis

Okay, I should clarify myself: I don't think personally that the movie "trashes" Zuckerberg, or at least my opinion is more nuanced than that. However, it's clear that the PR people at Facebook feel this way, and also that a non-insignificant group of the people who are commenting on this movie are going away with that impression (fair or not). Hence my snarky aside above.

(So what do I think of its portrayal of Zuckerberg? Perhaps this is my own version, as a recovering computer nerd, of the "this movie is sexist/gets Harvard wrong" argument, but I feel that, by focusing on the things that Zuckerberg was worst at (social interaction) instead of the things he was best on (coding), it shortchanged him a bit. From what I've read of him, it seems that Mark Zuckerberg has been a virtuoso coder since he was a kid, and the second sequence, where he describes in voiceover how he downloads the pictures from the different houses' websites, is the closest depiction I've seen onscreen of the exhilaration you feel when you're programming and you find a way after another to solve problems and everything clicks and *just works* (BTW, not that anyone cares, but the techno-jargon here was spot-on). Of course, that was just one sequence, and right after that we start seeing him not being able to behave in front of women, authorities, etc. I understand the decision, since seeing someone typing at a computer is about the most boring thing ever, and the general public isn't going to be very interested in algorithms, but I still feel that this shortchanged his character).

edo

Kent, we're in agreement about the complexity of its depiction of Zuckerberg, and about the basic themes of the film.

Where I disagree is where you say the social structure of 50 years ago is gone in the film. It's not. In the film, the social life of the campus is 1.) ordered around the final clubs, 2.) organized on the principle of exclusivity on that basis. Eduardo and Mark both treat the final clubs as a big deal in getting ahead in life. I'm sorry, but this age group is my own. These are people I've sat next to and had lunch with. I can guarantee you that no one thinks this much about elite societies, and more generally that college communities are not organized around exclusivity in principle. The reason the film works is because so much of the obsession with exclusivity is refracted through the paranoia of the characters, particularly Zuckerberg. This is a film about how the suspicion of being left out warps reality. What it is not is an accurate depiction of the reality itself.

For the record, I didn't say Narendra was easy to write out, and I didn't mean to suggest that. I meant that he's a less important character, like Moskovitz, who's there more to add texture. I think that the class/ethnicity card is played. It's just not dealt into a full hand. It's there just enough for critics like Scott F. to seize on it. I personally do not think the film is about class or ethnicity. I agree that it's about exclusivity in a broader sense, but class and ethnicity are two bases for exclusivity and, in the film, at the very least the latter is suggested as one of those bases, and the former is brought up in one scene specifically - when the lawyer questions Mark if he knew the Winklevii came from money.

Kent Jones

Edo, I did not go to Harvard (did you? not sure), but from the outside looking in, it does not have the appearance of your average American university. It looks and feels like a success factory, with a general aura of privilege. The Final Clubs obviously don't carry the kind of weight they once did, but they do exist and people do seem to want to get into them because 1) they confer some kind of status, and b) belonging to one seems to open the door to getting laid. The tales of Skull and Bones at Yale and who came out of it are well documented. As for Harvard, I am no fan of Mezrich's book, but he must have felt a certain level of comfort when he wrote the following representative passage: "...the Final Clubs were the barely kept secret soul of campus life at Harvard...the eight all-male clubs had nurtured generations of world leaders, financial giants, and power brokers. Almost as important, membership in one of the eight clubs granted an instant social identity...each of the clubs had its own distinct, and instantly defining, power."

I'm sure everyone agrees that colleges are not organized around exclusivity in principle. Exclusivity more or less takes care of itself, especially at a place where there's a tradition of it.

Look, these are extremely subtle points about an extremely complex movie, much more complex than the Facebook-happy people at Slate seem to want to admit. But I just don't think the movie is doing what you think it's doing, namely drawing on an arcane social structure to maximize its drama - I've seen it a few times, most recently the night before last, and I just don't experience it as such. The refraction of everything through the characters IS the reality of the movie. And, I mean, all you have to do is look at the real life Winklevoss twins and the real life Zuckerberg to get a sense of what the movie has caught.

edo

Kent, you know where I go to school! There's no need to make that comment...

No, Harvard is not your average American university. Yes, it does look and feel like a success factory. Yes, there is a general aura of privilege. But, but, but... not so many people as you might think want to get into those Final Clubs. That's my point. The Porc is a very small old house stuffed with Americana. I know someone who was a member. From what I gather, mostly, it was fun because he got to chat with fellows he thought were friendly over lunch. It's an eating club for Christ's sake. Mezrich is just milking his subject, when he says something as vague, and vaguely ominous as "each of the clubs has its own distinct, and instantly defining, power." And when he claims that "the Final Clubs were the barely kept secret soul of campus life at Harvard," give me a break. 7000 students in undergrad alone. There's no soul of campus life at any college. At the U of C, I had Doc Films. That was my community. My first girlfriend had Green Campus Initiative. That was hers. At Harvard, a friend of mine had choir. That was her community. Some people have their dorms. Some people have their departments. The society is broken up, diffuse.

As for Skull and Bones, did you know that they're co-ed now? They have been since the nineties. They're also not officially recognized by Yale anymore.

The upshot is that it's not just that these societies don't hold the place they once did. It's that what place they do hold is roughly equivalent to that which the royals hold in the UK, except even less prominent because the place these institutions held to begin with wasn't nearly as important to America as the monarchy was to England.

What do we actually know about the real Winklevoss twins? There are a few pictures and a brief wikipedia page. Besides that, there's very little information available about them. As for Zuckerberg, most of what I've read suggests the filmmakers got him broadly-speaking wrong, but their intention wasn't to be accurate and I don't hold that against them at all.

Sorkin's script does draw on myths of what Harvard is. It's a great film nonetheless.

Kent Jones

Edo, I honestly didn't mean it as a comment. I do know where you go to school. But based on your comments, I didn't know if you did a semester or a program or a class at Harvard, something like that.

When I wrote "look" at the real Winklevoss twins and the real Zuckerberg, I meant it literally. A quick Google search will tell you all about the Winklevoss' latest venture as well as their new suit against Zuckerberg, which they explain in an interview that can be easily seen on YouTube. They're not as charismatic or handsome as Armie Hammer, but their presences and body language speak: old money, WASP inheritance, etc. And Zuckerberg on camera is...fascinating. I think the film makes something very interesting by working FROM all three of them.

I know all about Skull and Bones, yes I know they're co-ed now, yes Mezrich is an opportunistic scribbler, and so on and so forth. You just see these issues, and the film, differently than I do, and Glenn must be getting pretty bored just about now.

Castle Bravo

I think the problem here is that the movie is being read primarily as a collection of themes, when in reality, I'd argue both Sorkin and Fincher were primarily interested in storytelling.

edo

Kent, thanks for the clarification. No offense taken. Yeah, Glenn must be getting bored. Time to throw in the towel. Sorry, Glenn!

Glenn Kenny

@ Kent and Edo: No, "bored" is the last thing I am, so do carry on. Aside from cinematic interest, and bringing up provocative stuff about what we talk about, and maybe what we ought to talk about, when we talk about film, the discussion does bring me back to my own college days. At good old William Paterson, from which vantage point RUTGERS was considered the Ivy League...ah, living in Paterson at the same time as Nelson Algren and not knowing it...spending my college loan money on Pere Ubu singles and Henry Cow LPs at Soho Music Gallery, eavesdropping on Zorn and Fier talking Charlie Parker behind the counter...an evening's entertainment when you were totally broke being a joint, a pot of frozen ravioli, and a horror triple feature at the Plaza...oh, nostalgia...

YND

On topic (if several days late), Assayas presented IRMA VEP and DEMONLOVER last night at the Egyptian to an audience of *maybe* 3 dozen people. Pretty shameful turnout which added even more resonance to IRMA (particularly the scene with the populist French film journalist raving about Van Damme and Schwarzenegger). Here's hoping CARLOS, playing through the weekend, has a better turnout. This town is sad-making.

Kent Jones

Oh, that's a shame... the screening of DEMONLOVER at BAM was packed and the theater in Minneapolis was almost full when we did our talk on Wednesday.

I showed that clip from IRMA VEP, a scene I've always loved. "It's a cinema of the nombril...you know, your nombril?...Friends giving money to friends..."

Kent Jones

Glenn, I have a vivid memory of myself as a freshman at McGill, haunting the record stores, finding the British version of THE CLASH and DUB HOUSING and MANIFESTO, and then Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO. The first pressing of which, you may remember, had a fancy marbled design. I had no stereo in my rented room on Peel Street, so I had to bring my records to the University library to listen to them on clunky institutional headphones. I will never forget the astonished looks of the music students when they got a load of the introspective freshman in the turtleneck, spinning his crazy Devo record.

A couple years later, I was at NYU. Like all my friends, I wore my musical preferences on my t-shirts (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT, BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE, and THE MODERN DANCE were my favorites) and multiple buttons. After a while, I got used to aggressive laughter from straight-arrow types whose tastes undoubtedly ran to REO Speedwagon and Starcastle and Molly Hatchet. One night, I went to see The Feelies at Hurrah's, and on the way home, for some reason I have forgotten, I got a ride to the subway from a cop. He saw my Eno button, and I expected a smirk or a raised eyebrow or something. Instead: "Isn't that Brian Eno? He used to play with Bryan Ferry. I LOVE Bryan Ferry..." A member of New York's finest was a Bryan Ferry fan. I still marvel.

Ludgershall

"all you have to do is look at the real life Winklevoss twins and the real life Zuckerberg to get a sense of what the movie has caught."

Except it doesn't catch what's been going on socioculturally in real life Harvard and real life America, which is complex and elusive and not reducible to Jewish and Asian computer geeks struggling against the dominance of Brooks Brothers crew jocks. To say that is not to say there's no there there, it's to say that the movie replaces real life with a very familiar cartoon: what Edo calls "myths of what Harvard is" (e.g. the myth that anyone cares about the damn finals clubs). I think much of what some of us finding disappointing about the movie is the laziness and imprecision of its rendering of real life.

Kent Jones

This is a weird, vexing issue.

There's a part of me that thinks it's a generational divide and that it should just be left at that. Because I don't hear any similar complaints from friends in my age group, including the director of DEMONLOVER. However, I have a feeling that it's something else.

I've looked at this movie a few times, and I just don't see a "very familiar" cartoon Harvard of "Jewish and Asian computer geeks struggling against the dominance of Brooks Brothers crew jocks."

I guess the big question is: why are the details of how the final clubs work, what the parties look like, how much or how prominent a role they played in 2003 vs. 1870, so important to some people (Edo, Ludgershall) and so unimportant to people like myself or Glenn or OA? First of all, in the movie, they look like places where people go to get drunk and get laid, period. You do have to be invited, you can't just walk in and join (those are facts), and while it seems important to a guy like Saverin (he was Mezrich's primary source), that doesn't mean it was important to absolutely everyone.

The bigger question about Zuckerberg - inventing a voracious desire to get into a final club that just wasn't there - would be mighty problematic if the script had been directed by Rob Reiner, for instance, who probably would have produced the cartoon described by Ludgershall. But I don't mind it as a device because everything that happens in the movie is so tightly bound to his consciousness, his drive, and the dynamic of exclusion, resentment and stealth penetration (no metaphor intended), which feels 100% relevant to this moment in time. In other words, they needed a device, and this one worked perfectly well. Finally, the issue of how much the real Mark Zuckerberg longed to be punched by the Porcellian Club is secondary, bordering on irrelevant. At least that's the way I see it.

As for the Winklevoss twins as rendered in the movie, I just don't experience them as cartoons. They really do dress and talk like that, and I find them very touching in the film, inhabitants of a world that seems to be drawing to a close. For the record, they saw the movie and liked it.

Ludgershall

Thanks for your response, Kent.

To be clear, I do not mean to equate Fincher's movie, which I often admired, with THE SOCIAL NETWORK as directed by Rob Reiner. Also, my objection doesn't really have to do with the "details" of the clubs: in fact, it's in the physical details that the depiction of the time is accurate, sometimes strikingly so. My objection has to do with a more general misrepresentation of cultural history -- of how people thought and what they cared about at a particular time and place.

However, I find this sentence very convincing: "I don't mind it as a device because everything that happens in the movie is so tightly bound to his consciousness, his drive, and the dynamic of exclusion, resentment and stealth penetration (no metaphor intended), which feels 100% relevant to this moment in time." I'd be lying if I said I didn't find this "device" distracting and problematic, but I've only seen the movie once and your explanation is quite reasonable.

I also gotta believe the generational divide is at least a small factor in this.

edo

For my part, I found the Winklevi and the dilemma they face very moving as well. I don't think they're cartoons in the film. I don't think anything in the film is a cartoon. To be clear, I don't take issue with the direct depiction of the Final Clubs, like the beginning of the year party or the initiation rituals. I take issue with the suggestion that the Harvard community as a whole was directly organized around them, and that Facebook was a quantized abstraction of that social template. When Eduardo says during the deposition, "In a world where social structure was everything,*psh* that [exclusivity] was THE thing," it just strikes me as a complete misunderstanding of both Facebook and the social world it emerged from.

Why is that significant? Well, it suggests that arcane social codes and institutions still have a lot more sway in American society than they do (specifically, that they matter to my generation when they don't), and that the development of social networking sites like Facebook constituted some sort of insurgency. I don't think it works, but a lot of critics including Scott F. or David Denby have praised the film on this basis.

Was it Pierre Rissient who said "it's not enough that you like this film. You have to like it for the right reasons." I want this film to be praised as the great film that it is for the right reasons...

Kent Jones

Edo, I really, really do think that Saverin, the real Saverin, the guy who basically gave Mezrich his information, holds a contrary opinion. Which doesn't mean it's a generally held opinion - as reflected in the film as I see it. Beyond that, there's a big difference between the script and the film. And there's just as big a difference between what people say about a movie and what it is.

edo

I don't know about the real Saverin (other than that completely useless op-ed he published about the beauty of entrepreneurship there's been nary a peep from him), but everyone in that movie seems to think that exclusivity is THE thing. The Winklevosses and Narendra certainly do. Mark and Eduardo do.

Let me be even more clear though. It's not that I think exclusivity wasn't important to the real Facebook. It was probably very important, particularly as a tactic for expansion, but was it some sort of deep incite into the caste-ordered nature of an elite society? No way. Facebook was a model that was meant to work for many different social contexts. Its incite was much more simple and universal for its age. "People want to go on the internet and see their friends." That's a line from the film! But it's placed amid all these other lines that suggest that the film, and the characters in the film, see it differently. I don't think this is just a case of interpretative or critical projection. I think the film loans itself to the kind of interpretation that Scott F. and David Denby have promoted. Hoberman puts it quite well:

"Applying a Zodiac-level love of detail and subtly expressionist lighting to another sort of petri dish, Fincher produces a rich, gaseous atmosphere. His Harvard is at once cold and cozy, electric with possibility and oppressively organized according to arcane internal castes—although I have to wonder at what temperature an actual alum like Andrew Bujalski would have served this material. Suffering through “Caribbean Night” at his déclassé Jewish frat, Zuckerberg tells Saverin that they’re taking “the entire social experience of college online.” Facebook.com will be a virtual final club with them as presidents."

Kent Jones

Finally, all I can say is that I disagree with you, Edo. I also disagree with Hoberman and Denby. But I don't have any energy left to articulate exactly how, except to say that we saw two subtly different movies.

Kent Jones

Ludgershall, thanks for the thoughtful response. Yes, it's a generational matter, I think. I'm trying to think of an analogue: a film that I admired that nonetheless bothered me because it got a certain aspect of life as I knew it wrong. Not sure I can. Maybe DAZED AND CONFUSED, but the wrong note (the left-wing history teacher) is over in a flash, so it never bothered me that much.

edo

It's a great film. We agree on that. Ultimately, that matters to me much more. And none of the problems I see in it are things I view as major flaws, just things that perhaps limit its applicability to certain regions of current events.

Anyway, I'm eager to see it again with this discussion in mind, allowing the very real possibility that I'm just wrong...

Evelyn Roak

Having just seen the film, and just gotten caught up on this conversation, I would perhaps throw a short line out there that edo seems to be looking for a somewhat universal view of a social stratum where the movie is depicting a subjective one. I don't think the Harvard portrayed is meant to be true to all experiences of the place but rather to delineate this(these) characters understanding, or lack there of. It is very much Zuckerberg's perception of clubs and the social dynamic which fuels the movie. As Kent says longing, resentment, projections of exclusivity and belonging are put forth in the film, they take the guise of the social world around the clubs (and grow into other worlds, Parker's Silicon Valley, for example), because for Zuckerberg he perceives them as such. In a film, or music, or literary or athletic (etc etc) world it is different social gatherings or groups but often the same dynamics, and sense and perception of dynamics (real or imagined) exist.

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