The Social Network (2010)

Written by: Aaron Sorkin Directed by: David Fincher

Social_network_film_posterThere are scenes in the social network that make me really dislike the concept of lawyers.  It’s not a fully rational dislike, but it’s close enough to rational to justify the mention. The legal system of the historically-British-colonized world is known as “adversarial.” It means that lawyers are trained to think that doing their job well requires unequivocal advocacy for their clients, as opposed to trying to reach a mutually beneficial, just outcome. The coldness of this system comes out in a scene when Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg’s) lawyer Sy (John Getz) coldly tries to take down his much younger adversary by drawing on an unflattering story about him from a student newspaper. Perhaps more damningly, however, is a moment when opposing council pettily  insists that Zuckerberg and his team address their opponent as “Mr.” irregardless of the fact that the pair are the same age and were friends. In this moment, the lawyer opts for cartoonish property, snuffing out any possibility of amicability in the proceedings.

The antithesis to these lawyers is a junior member of Zuckerberg’s council (Rashida Jones). She attends the proceedings largely to watch and get the experience, though her function in the screenplay is to offer some exposition on the law to viewers. She is also unique in her compassion to Zuckerberg. While her colleagues are unpleasant, she is pleasant but oxymoronic. The legal profession is an odd one. Many will go into it with idealistic aims  and indeed revisit those aims along the way asking questions such as whether law firms have diversity initiatives. At the end of the day, however, many of them will end up practicing kinds of law that at best has nothing to do with social justice and at worst advances the harsh realities of inequality and the adversarial system.

I suppose I’m getting a little tangential here in talking about lawyers, but I believe this gets at some of the key themes in The Social Network: some of its underlying contradictions.

In a much more extensive review of the film (written at the time of its release), Zadie Smith contrasted the real Mark Zuckerberg with Zuckerberg the film character. The on-camera character shares the basic traits of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper but is less cartoonish and is notably more cruel. The real Zuckerberg, Smith posits, was not rendered an evil genius by his social ineptitude, but instead was made bland. This difference may not be a mere error or matter of confusion. The on-screen version is the Zuckerberg audiences want to see: his scheming entertains the masses and provides fodder for his ideological critics.

Nonetheless even the film gives Zuckerberg the occasional sympathetic or at least lucid moment. Smith notes the artistic significance of such moments, but they are politically informative as well. The film’s most important political scene comes when Zuckerberg discusses the motives of his adversaries. Zuckerberg’s implicit driving code in the film (I don’t think ideology is the right word here) is that wealth is a privilege, not a right. The idea of telling people they don’t have rights, of course, reeks of Ayn Rand: the cold side of libertarianism. Yet Zuckerberg (the character) flips this logic on its head. He is not depriving the huddle masses of anything, only his fellow-privileged ilk, who rightly or wrongly think they are entitled to be a top-dog amongst the nouveau-riche as he is.

The Social Network focuses on the lives of a number of young men. They are well differentiated and yet, despite theirs being a modern story (a story of generation 2.0s as Smith puts it), they all feel like they are parts of some Shakespearian tale. In King Lear Edmund is a “bad guy” since he’s willing to turn to violence to usurp a dukedom. Yet it’s hard not to see Edmund as justified in his critique of the arbitrariness of his brother Edgar inheriting their father’s title, since Edmund is deprive due to the mere technicality of his being a “bastard.”The Social Network is similarly full of disgruntled nobility. The Winkelvoss twins (Armie Hammer) and business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) are princely enterpreneurs. In the context of the film they seem worthy of sympathy, but perhaps that wouldn’t be the case if Eisenberg was less of a MacBeth and more of a Robin Hood. Chief amongst the film’s cocky princes, meanwhile is Sean Parker (Justin Timerblake), the founder of Napster, whose role in the film seems to be to show that Zuckerberg has not reached the utmost echelon of corporate arrogance.

Finally, one more character features in the film’s noble cast: Zuckerberg’s Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Much like Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, Garfield’s Saverin is a memorable figure: trusting, and nervous, but never quite a pushover: he’s the “good guy.” Garfield’s portrayal is so strong, however, that we forget this “good guy’s” aspirations are to be a Wall Street billionaire and a member of an elite fraternity (apologies if it’s technically not a fraternity, I can’t see the difference). In 2010 Zadie Smith called this film emblematic of a generation, but that begs the question, has the generation already changed? Where, I ask, are the social justice warriors? There is, I suppose, in this film of Shakespearian aristocrats one character who breaks the mold a little. Zuckerberg’s one-time girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) serves as a bit of a Cordelia to Zuckerberg’s Lear: a little bit I say because it’s more that that’s the role he wants her to fill than the one she does.

So how does this all come together? The social network is a story of warring principalities, some of whom are “good King Richards,” and some of whom are “wicked Prince Johns.” There’s an absurdity in this logic, of course. Should anyone rightly be a billionaire? Are people ready for the responsibility of designing a hegemonic social network fresh off designing a website that ranked female Harvard students on their hotness?  It makes for a good story to see Saverin as very different than Zuckerberg or Rashida Jones’ character  as different  than the other lawyers, but this is not reality. Fighting adversarial IP and contractual battles with those close to you is not “wrong” it’s  “just business,” and business can be conducted by people like Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Garfield’s Saverin alike.

Artistically speaking, Sorkin and Fincher decided to depict Zuckerberg as an anti-hero. Politically this is a questionable, if not wrong choice. The darker side of Facebook and Zuckerberg is inseparable from the logic of capitalism as a whole, a system that can exist even without anti-social schemers like the on-screen Zuckerberg. I do not conclude this way to make this a “negative” review. Eisenberg and Garfield’s adaptations of their characters are engaging and make for a good story, even if they are not the most politically informative. The Social Network,like all political texts needs to be consumed alongside other sources. Regardless if it is the defining film of this generation, it cannot be the end-all of this generation’s political education

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Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Written and directed by: Boots Riley

Sorry_to_Bother_YouWhat does it mean to make a political film? I don’t just mean a film about politicians, but rather one with a clear political agenda. A quality one might assume necessary is directness: a film that makes its point, free from ambiguities. I thus sometimes find myself in a position of struggling to reconcile my political values and artistic tastes. Movies that are too direct rarely strike me as great. What I get out of movie watching is seeing interesting images, lines and personalities artistically thrown together in a way that miraculously forms a coherent whole. In Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley has done just that, and also, somehow, made perhaps the most important political film of the year (or the era?–how prematurely grandiose am I allowed to go with this?).

So how exactly does Sorry to Bother You pull this all off? Its effectiveness comes from the fact that its premise exists on several levels. At its core it is a film about a number of political issues: white privilege, precarious work, mass culture, and the (im)possibility of ethical consumption under capitalism. The film then seeks not to simply portray these issues, but to theorize about them. One of the themes the film deals with is the presence of modern day slavery. How, Riley asks, could/does slavery prevail? By branding it just enough to make it commercially palatable in the short term, and then granting it eternal life through deeply entrenching it in market networks.

To top off his politics and philosophy Riley throws in a final layer of aesthetic imagination. His dystopia is a colorful one meshed in the logic of advertising and high end party culture. This means his audiences get to experience an entertaining fiction rather than merely be bombarded with ideas. At the same time, Riley’s hi-fi humor accentuates his political message: the idea that capitalist society is so absurd, that laughing at it and mourning its consequence  are almost equally acceptable reactions.

Sorry to Bother can thus be described as a fine piece of cinematic architecture. This is a quality that extends beyond the film’s superstructure to each of its little rooms is as well. Sorry to Bother You is not a run of the mill collection of important moments connected by downtime transitions. Rather each scene is a mini-drama. Sometimes these scenes are relatively low stakes such as the confrontations between protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) and his uncle (Terry Crews). Sometimes they’re high-stakes and bizarre such as the confrontations between Cash and celebrity-CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The great thing about the design of the film, however, is that it’s not clear until its end what exactly the high and low stakes plots are. Cash’s rifts with his modern-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and friends/colleagues Salvador and Squeeze (Jermaine Fowler and Steven Yeun), may dwindle  in comparison to the ultimate rift with Lift, yet the intensity they are presented with, their importance to the protagonist, and their political undertones make them a highly engaging form of drama. The result is that when Sorry to Bother You finally reaches its dramatic conclusion one can feel like it could have ended once or twice already, but nonetheless, each new plot twist is more satisfying than the last.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to be said about the richness of Sorry to Bother You. One more important point to be made about it is that it was conceived in the Obama era (in the wake of Occupy Wall St). This may partially explain why it comes across as a particularly smart political work. It is not a reaction to the obvious political travesties of Trump, rather it is a product of an age when the problem was not the president, but of the greater political culture he couldn’t or wouldn’t break from.

Given its political qualities, one can hope that Sorry to Bother will go mainstream and help rejuvenate a anti-racist union movement in America. Of course one can just as easily imagine the film simply playing a role in our market world: “have a cola and smile b****” and the logo of The Left Eye society could certainly adorn t-shirts. Would that be ironic? I suppose so, but it’s hard to pinpoint the degree of irony. Sorry to Bother You is thorough in its critique. It deals with capitalism as a complex, socially interwoven phenomenon, that many come to face with a “if you can’t beat it, join it” mindset. Anyways if your mindset is more Sorry to Bother You is more Billy Bragg in “There is Power in a Union” or Billy Bragg in “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” (“mixing pop and politics they ask me what the use is?”), Sorry to Bother You is a viewing experience you won’t soon forget.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Written by: James Ivory, Directed by: Luca Guadagnino, based on a novel by André Aciman

CallMeByYourName2017           Call Me By Your Name is the story of a budding romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and his archaeologist father’s live-in grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Hammer, pitched this acclaimed movie by arguing it’s “a rare same-sex love story  where no one gets AIDS, no one has their personal life destroyed and no one gets lynched.”. As such, its an important cinematic innovation: destroying heteronormativity, by definition, means creating “normal” non-heterocentric stories. As a result of its low key plot, however, Call Me By Your Name, challenges its viewers to find other (non-narrative based) reasons to engage with it. For some, that will mean relating to the suppressed romantic yearnings of Elio and Oliver.

 

For others, enjoying this slow placed film requires appreciation for its aesthetic. For many this will not be challenge. As Pedro Almodóvar put it “Everything is beautiful, charming, and desirable in this movie: The boys, the girls, the breakfasts, the fruit, the cigarettes, the reservoirs, the bicycles, the open-air dancing, the 80s, the doubts and the devotion of the protagonists, the sincerity of all the characters, the relationship with their parents.”  For me, viewing Call Be Your Name, however, was a lesson in how fragile and subjective the concept of cinematic excellence truly is. Movies with simple story lines can be amongst the greatest. In finding beautiful shots and compelling drama in everyday life, these movies strike the perfect balance between providing an escape from and shedding new light on our realities. That said, the ability of these films to connect with their viewers is limited by precisely what comes into their cinematography. The simple plot of Paterson, for example, featured creative writing, guitar playing and occasional downtown city scapes. Call Me by Your Name featured lots of apricot juice, characters walking around in soggy bathing suits and, briefly, a fishing handyman. Granted, these are not the only differences between these two low-stakes films, yet I can’t help but imagine that it was these superficial differences that explain why I enjoyed the former much more than the latter.

Regardless, Call Me By Your Name, has an unmistakably well written script. The characters have developed interests, classical music in Elio’s case, that always leave them with something to talk about. Furthermore, no line in the piece is overly ambitious. No one sentence establishes Elio and Oliver’s feelings for each other, nor tries to explain the struggle of being gay in the 80s. Perhaps one of the film’s shortcomings is that it avoids burdening its characters with the latter problem. While the unstated truth of the film is that Elio and Oliver cannot ultimately be together, and they feel a need to keep their relationship secret, the degree to which this is the result of their orientation as opposed to Oliver’s discomfort with their age gap is ambiguous at best. That said, there is some merit to Hammer’s comments in praise of the film. At one moment, an important character makes a speech that slowly and lovingly reveals their support for gay love. The speech is believeable and intelligent, making its performance a valid substitute, for a higher-stakes, homophobia-ridden plot.

Call Me By Your Name may prove a divisive film amongst audiences, but it is not undeserving of the praise it has received. If believable, slow-paced romance, rife with gushy-yet-original lines like “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” is your thing, perhaps your perception of this film will indeed be more like Almodóvar’s and less like mine.