Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network

As The Social Network braves the unpredictable terrain of American theaters, I find myself in the position of having managed not to write anything in nearly two months. Since I started regularly writing again, this has been my longest hiatus, and it's been one that crept up on me like a wary predator. A number of factors have contributed to this drought (the late-summer multiplex doldrums, a re-watching of The Wire, the AL East pennant race, the day-job…), and even as I type this out I hear a voice in the back of my head whispering: "This isn't real yet."

When will I really be a writer? Will it be when I have a reader? In that case, what are my thoughts worth?

The online film critic suffering existential malaise is a hilarious irony, but the dilemma isn't unique to this occupation. The question of whether or not I will be noticed when I start knocking trees down in a forest is one that can apply to much of how we interact with each other these days. At work, I exchange instant messages with co-workers sitting a yard away. This past Saturday night I was at a party where a close friend said she hadn't heard about the event because she missed the Facebook invitation. When I post these words to my blog, are they still mine, or will they belong to the blogosphere? To what extent can I judge my own value by the number of click-throughs I get from Twitter?

I would like to say this is all a lot of juvenile pablum, but it's not, sadly. There are people out there who suggest that The Social Network, a fictionalized retelling of the creation of Facebook, can only be of middling importance. There are people for whom Facebook is merely a toy, a phase, a fad, a trend, something for the younger generation that they cannot understand, a computer game. Rather, Facebook is quickly destroying the foundations of human interaction — and even if we cannot blame Facebook for IMs, text messages or Twitter, we can blame Facebook for making this tripe look 'cool' and getting everyone wrapped up in living their lives online. We may mock or pity those addicted to Second Life, but how are their consciously contrived extensions of id or superego any different than the person who updates their Facebook page several times in a day?

"I used to write letters, I used to sign my name," sings Win Butler on Arcade Fire's new album, The Suburbs. "I used to sleep at night, before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain […] when the lights cut out, I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown." In his book, You Are Not a Gadget, computer scientist Jaron Lainer writes of how we are giving too much value to a hive mentality with no consideration to the loss of the self; what's true and meaningful is verified by wikipedia, which is created by an us, not an I. In a New Yorker profile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's ultimate goal for the site is described as an eventuality in which "users will read articles, visit restaurants, and watch movies based on what their Facebook friends have recommended," and describes the possibility of turning on your television and receiving a message that 14 friends are watching Entourage. What Zuckerberg has thus far failed to communicate is the virtue of any of this. And by the way, how will the initial recommender know to read his article or visit his restaurant in the first place?

In advertisements for cell phones, humans are now depicted breaking up with girlfriends via text message (which they get to do thanks to cheap rates), ignoring their families, reclining to watch a movie on a public train because they think it's their living room, and finally turning into robots, all without a hint of irony. These scenarios, all of them, are filmed as evidence for why you should buy cell phones. In The Social Network, Napster co-founder and eventual president of Facebook Sean Parker claims, "We lived in fields, we lived in cities, and now we'll live on the internet," right before getting busted for doing a bunch of coke. He worries about the scandal "getting out."

The Social Network is a great movie, nearly perfect. It's funny and slick, brutal when it needs to be and light-hearted when it gets the chance. It's an expertly told story, thanks to the unlikely teamwork of writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher. It's beautiful and moving, and should work as entertainment for anybody inclined to sit down for it. But what makes it great is Sorkin's ability to write hateful and pitiful people with sympathy, which, coupled with Fincher's pervading sense of doom, allows the story to unfold as though it were a movie about the Manhattan Project. These children, these college kids about to change the world, have no idea the havoc they are to wreak. Or, if you aren't interested in that, it's just a great story.

It's all about money, power and sex, of course. Sorkin posits Facebook's inception as the result of a break-up. Zuckerberg unleashes a vengeful blog post that he will never live down; when he tries to apologize, he is told "the internet isn't written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink." This sounds like a theme line (and it is), but Sorkin is too expert a dramatist to let anything like this hang in the air. He keeps the story pumping, and he'll let us make our own judgments. It's not about changing or not changing the world: it's about getting the girl to notice you, getting the coolest guys to want to be your friend, becoming cool and staying cool. The peak of the relationship between Zuckerberg and his former best friend Eduardo Saverin is shown as the night they get recognized as the creators of Facebook and end up getting blown in adjacent bathroom stalls. It's a high that Zuckerberg chases while Saverin stays down on earth. Zuck traffics in Cool and ends up addicted. Whether you end up feeling sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg will be left up to you. Sorkin and Fincher are merely going to show you how to get there.

But it's simultaneously a tremendous, microcosmic examination of what Facebook has become to so many people. And if I experienced some fleeting disappointment following the movie that it wasn't a more vicious, unilateral attack, this quickly subsided because what I was hoping for was propaganda and what I got was a fable. Mark Zuckerberg is a nerd at best and an asshole at worst; the other characters discuss him like you would a book in English class, arguing about his true nature. What's explicitly clear from the opening scene on is that this kid is socially inept and wants not to be, even as he feels he shouldn't have to work so hard for it. In the process of trying to get cool, he ends up inadvertently reducing everybody in the world to his level. (That they're actually reducing themselves is a whole other matter; we can't really even blame the guy.) Cool is a number, image is a webpage, fashion is a 140-character status and Zuckerberg is our all-knowing, all-seeing God.

The judgments are left to us, as will be the case in any movie with the balls to put its story first and let the audience do some thinking for itself. But the evidence is all there. What are we to make of the fact that Facebook was born from a premium on exclusivity and now everybody and their mother gets to make a page? What of the comparison to Napster, as Sean Parker gets on board behind the site? He brags of how he changed the world, and Saverin corrects him: Napster lost and went broke. But, Parker counters, he changed the music industry forever. This man wants to do to social interaction what he did to he music industry. He wants to live life digitally so that it can be quantified rather than qualified. If five of my friends are watching one thing on TV and six are watching the other, I already have all the information I need to make a decision.

Barring an unlikely revolution, we're gonna be stuck like this for a while, and it makes me wonder what my own or anybody else's individual thoughts are really worth any more. When I put these words on the internet, I'll just be a raindrop in the thought-cloud: the blogosphere loves The Social Network. But don't take my (our) word for it. Get out there and make your own thoughts.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Only one of many successes onscreen in The Kids Are All Right is the portrayal of a Hispanic gardener. In even the most highbrow of family dramas, a three-scene throwaway supporting character like Luis might all too easily get left in the realm of the underwritten. This is not to say that Luis, who is accused of having a drug problem after an allergy-induced sneeze, is not a stereotype: in fact, all of the characters here are stereotypes. What writer-director Lisa Cholodenko carries out is the neat trick of imbuing them with a refreshing self-awareness. Luis chuckles at his fate and comes out cleaner than most of the major characters. He just likes the flowers.

Luis is contracted by Jules (Julianne Moore) to assist in her fledgling landscape design business. As half of a middle-aged lesbian couple with two kids, Jules is starting to feel restless after 18 years of motherhood without anything approaching a career. Her partner Nic (Annette Bening) is a doctor, and the one who pays for their lovely house and all the expensive wine they drink.

This feeling of housewife-neglect is just one facet of the couple's simmering malaise: as their two kids struggle with adolescence, a craving for 'normalcy' has eroded the family's foundation. They have an 18-year-old perfect-angel daughter who's just graduated as valedictorian of her high school and a 15-year-old son who needs a father figure. In turn, the two kids go behind their moms' backs to seek out the man whose sperm donation brought them into existence.

The donor is Paul, a naïve man's man with a touch of gray played by Mark Ruffalo. Before getting contacted by the children he didn't know he had, Paul was coasting through life as a successful restaurateur and purveyor of organic produce. He has a lot of casual sex and leaves several buttons undone. If he sounds like a cocksure stereotype of effortless sexuality and a predestined 'no-man-is-an-island' growth arc, he is. His son, upon meeting him, refers to his new father as "kinda into himself."

Jules is a "depressed, middle-aged lesbian", her son Laser (namesake never explained) is a "sensitive jock type", Joni (named after Mitchell) "got all A's and got into every school", Nic is a "control freak" and Paul is a "doer, not a learner". They're all familiar characters. Paul's entrance forces the foursome to reassess their already-fragile union, and what's so fun is watching the awkward friction and identity crises between these five strangers who all want to be a family together.

The movie works through two simple, distinct qualities: the script is tight and funny, full of forward momentum, and the actors are all dynamite. Whenever it seems like Ruffalo is starting to steal the show—Paul's role is to be distractingly charismatic—Cholodenko carefully assigns equal screentime to the other four. It's an ensemble piece where when characters bicker, it's impossible to take sides. We want them to get along.

And then this is where the movie starts surprising. As Paul, despite his own and everyone else's better intentions, starts taking up the mantle of fatherhood—he imparts social advice for his kids and parenting advice for the moms—it becomes clear that these characters have painted themselves into a corner. The inciting incident was born of Laser's desire for paternal normalcy and quickly this idea festers inside the other characters. But there isn't room for three parents in a 'normal' family and somebody is going to have to lose.

It's not long before an overwhelming sadness takes over. Even as the movie is consistently hilarious, mining laughs from awkward discussions of sexuality and from the minutiae of home life, all five gradually become aware that they will be victims of their own desires for self-actualization. The characters win you over by being funny and warm and then screw you by being human. At one point, a character loses control and goes off on a rant about self-absorbed, eco-friendly, organic food-eating stereotypes, even as she orders another bottle of a specific favored wine. There is another winking moment where one of the moms describes lesbian porn as fallacious, because it usually involves two straight actresses faking it.

It's a self-aware picture about self-aware characters going out of their way to fit their circular selves into square spaces. Ultimately moving and incisive in its glances into both middle age and adolescence, The Kids Are All Right is an exquisite, eloquent drama that's as true to itself as it is to its audience. It's an increasingly rare commodity in our self-important arthouse multiplexes — you get the impression everyone on screen would love this movie. The film is an exercise in honesty, and a pure delight.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, July 26, 2010

James Cameron: A Cinema of CAPS LOCK + A Second Take: Avatar

Since publishing my original review of its theatrical release, my opinion of Avatar has become informed by two lengthy conversations about the film with friends who didn't like it. I will do my best to represent their viewpoints here.

"It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters." - James Cameron

The New Yorker ran a profile of James Cameron by Dana Goodyear a few months before Avatar's release last year. A friend named Trevor pulled a quote from this article on my previous review's comment board as telling of Avatar's being a failure, in particular, as an 'anti-war' movie: "I suppose you could say I believe in peace through superior firepower."

I told Trevor at the time that what he should've quoted was Cameron's lengthy discussion of the science and story behind one of the film's battle scenes, which he sums up with: "It's really just an excuse to do pterodactyls versus helicopters."

This is a problem with the film, and it's one that is likely shared in most of Cameron's work: he's such a creative filmmaker—his stories so imaginative—that the 'wow' factor tends to overshadow the more important elements like the story and the characters. This extent to which this is happening on the set or in the teenaged heads of his audience varies from film to film, but it's too bad that even in a movie as thematically complex as Aliens we tend to focus on the badassery and the bloodletting.

Cameron makes really cool movies (or at least, he used to, before he grew a big soft one and started making romances: “Of course, the whole movie ends up being about women, how guys relate to their lovers, mothers—there’s a large female presence [...] I try to do my testosterone movie and it’s a chick flick.”), and a great deal of Avatar's success, even amidst today's jaded, self-aware moviegoing populace, was due to its gimmickry. Photorealistic aliens! Three hours on a planet that feels real! Digital 3D like you've never seen it! Sexy cat people! All the plants and animals have Latin names and the Na'vi speak a real language that he hired some guy to make up!

Like Titanic before it, Avatar was an event movie (already faded from the spotlight—and that much too fast) that people talked about just because everyone else was talking about it. But with the hype machine interested only the gimmicks, it's increasingly difficult to remind ourselves exactly what it was Cameron was trying to do.

See, Cameron's been making and remaking the same Vietnam War movie since the beginning of his career. It was when I stumbled across an archival press interview from the release of Aliens that I realized this. Cameron discussed that his main intention with the sequel was to tell a parable about Vietnam, in which a squad of overqualified, over-armed, over-mechanized soldiers goes into a jungle and gets their collective ass kicked by an allegedly dumb, primitive race that they should've easily pwned onto the next planet. Now, for me, Aliens was always about maternity (and it's about both of these), but it's easy to see that this is the same movie he's been making ever since. Cameron's story is always about man vs. machine or nature vs. human design. The fancy pulse rifle with grenade launcher vs. the Aliens. The humans versus the terminators. The Na'vi archers versus the giant bombers. The Titanic versus the laws of physics.

What's inconsistent throughout his oeuvre, then, is the confusing notion of the 'we'. In that man vs. machine battle that Cameron has extrapolated from the demons of Vietnam, his different films take different sides (possibly because, as an American, Cameron's 'we' was the American military machine). Cameron actually examines this directly in Avatar, as over the course of three hours we witness a gradually shifting allegiance from the protagonist, Jake Sully. From the beginning he is torn between his duty as a marine and his new position as a science officer, and eventually he finds himself at the wrong end of evil Col. Quaritch's clumsy one-liners like "I'd say diplomacy has failed!" and "How's it feel to betray your own race?"

In Avatar, Sully's transformation from human to Na'vi is as much a matter of his 'soul' as it is his physical appearance; by the end of the second act he's already turned down the long-desired reparation of his paralyzed human form. And with the hero's allegiance so turns the audience's, which is one of the more interesting facets of Avatar's story. As heavy-handed as it may be, Cameron holds nothing back in making the human race into the bad guys.

And this is what's fun to trace throughout Cameron's work: in returning to the well of the darker sides of human nature, he seems to waiver back and forth in regards to whether or not he believes there's any hope for us. Says Ripley, upon learning of Burke's deception: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see [the aliens] fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." As a species, we may or may not be any better than this race of venomous, acid-blooded killers, and we are absolutely a bunch of assholes when compared to the ethically and environmentally pure Na'vi. In Titanic, our ambition to bend the laws of nature kill more than 1,500 of us. In The Terminator, our technological ambitions take us even further, killing off most of the human race.

Yet, the lesson of that film's sequel turns out to be one of hope, as is also the case in The Abyss. Both Terminator 2 and The Abyss end unequivocally with saccharine messages of hope for our future; from our darkest wars we will emerge cleansed and prepared for a new age of prosperity.

Only with Avatar, though, has Cameron finally given up on humanity—likely the result of the Bush administration further informing his anti-imperialist beliefs already clung to decades after the Vietnam War. Even as the Na'vi shelter the few humans righteous enough to side with them, those are the humble sky-people that studied the alien race, learned their ways, and actually became (in Sully's case, literally) part of them.

But this is not the only way to read Avatar. To quote Kelly from that previous discussion board, "the important thing is that we can pretend we understand them through a billion dollar, 3-hour movie where we literally murder our own guilt with a roomful of other cheering white people."

In a non-internet-based, real-life extrapolation of her argument, Kelly told me that she understood what Cameron was trying to do, and actually was able to get behind it, were it not for Cameron's failure to follow through on his point in the end. To hear Kelly tell it, the way Avatar should've ended is with the humans winning, the Na'vi completely slaughtered and Pandora ravaged for precious unobtanium. Now, here's an ending that would likely have been more difficult for Trevor to deny as being 'anti-war'.

Kelly's idea is potent, and in many ways, she's right. Even though Cameron has shrugged off responsibility for human actions by siding with the aliens, that doesn't absolve humanity of its power or its history, and as clever as the Na'vi are in besting the human military machine, it's still pretty absurd that they don't all get crushed (but again, that's how it went down in Vietnam). This, by the way, was exactly what Cameron was going on about when he started waxing adolescent about helicopters and pterodactyls:
"The idea is that Pandora has such a hot, humid climate, with incredibly powerful magnetic fields, that they can’t use sophisticated energy weapons. A lot of the equipment is retrofitted, from their perspective, because it works on Pandora. So you’ve got vehicles that are more consistent with twentieth-century warfare.” His face was flushed and happy. “It’s all just an excuse to do helicopters versus pterodactyls,” he said.

Whatever, dude. Here's the thing: if you want to be an environmentalist filmmaker and actually stir people into action (a laughable premise, right away), you're giving up way too easily when you let the humans of Avatar give up way too easily. As Kelly puts it, the ending of Avatar is far too easily construed as an apology and an absolution for our long, storied history of military imperialism and murder.

So where does this leave me as I attempt to wrap up my restrospective on the films of James Cameron? Do I believe his visceral, kinetic filmmaking tends to overshadow his ideas? Probably much of the time, though I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. It's definitely not bad in theory, and in the practice of Cameron's films it's probably better this way, as we know all too well what happens when he doesn't shut his characters up and put guns in their hands.

I have to revisit the incidents of the teenagers in the theater during Avatar, shouting "Yeah, get some!" at the screen during the extended battle royale. Though the onus of coaxing an audience out of passivity into analytical thought can never be put solely on the shoulders of the filmmaker, it's a shame that in Cameron's case he so often gets caught up playing with his toys. Avatar becomes, rather than an anti-war treatise, a story of helicopters and pterodactyls. Even as he smacks you over the head with his allegory, it's easy to view the whole thing as an extended playtime.

And yet, when I was a little boy, it was the nuclear detonation from Terminator 2 that gave me recurring nightmares, and I still think of it whenever the topic of nuclear weapons is raised. Where T2 was a hugely successful summer blockbuster with one-liners and set pieces, its staying power for me was a (simple and obvious, but nonetheless true and important) message of peace. Nuclear war is bad. Humans are good, but we created nuclear war. We have to reconcile this with ourselves.

Is there a similar message to be found in Avatar for the boys who went out for it to cheer on the soldiers? Yes, certainly. There's a purity to Cameron's ideas, even as obvious as they always are, that sticks with you and works in concert with the awesomeness of his action. Taken even as dumb action movies, his work sticks with us as we grow up. Perhaps this isn't anywhere more clear than in Titanic, as mawkishly sincere a story of love triumphant as we can hope for and the movie of the decade for so many heartsick middle-schoolers, whether they deny it now or not.

Of course, Cameron's not done yet. There are allegedly two Avatar sequels on the way, and it's always possible that the man with the biggest head in the business can get his head back in the game. Some of his best work so far has been sequel: with the setup out of the way, Cameron's proven he can hit the ground running. And regardless, even mediocre Cameron is thrilling, exciting, ripe for discussion, worthy of our time and money. I'll be there at midnight on opening day.