Friday, October 22, 2010

So many loyal friends...The Social Network

I finally made it out today to see the acclaimed drama THE SOCIAL NETWORK, although I have seen so many previews and interviews that I almost felt as if I had already seen the film itself. Based very loosely on an account of the rise of Facebook, THE SOCIAL NETWORK gives a slanted but extremely entertaining view of the life at Harvard in the early part of this decade when competing computer geeks attempted to create social internet sites for their campus. Directed by David Fincher, who gave us provocative fare like SEVEN, FIGHT CLUB, and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, this film was written by Adam Sorkin of WEST WING fame. The director and writer have assembled an almost perfect cast of young men to play both the nerds and elites of Harvard undergrad life.

And the picture of the priviledged, often snobbish enclaves at one of the top Ivy schools is often scathing in its look at old money, entitlement, and rampant ambition. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg, a brilliant, self-absorbed computer whiz who may be somewhat autistic in his social skills (he seriously lacks them). His performance is so on spot that he is sympathetic, annoying, and downright ridiculous all in one scene. Sorkin sets up his screenplay by cross-cutting among two trials against Zuckerberg from fellow students who claim he stole the Facebook idea from them, and the writer cleverly never tells us exactly what happened in the creation of the new site. But we do see friendships betrayed, millions lost, and billions gained. Perhaps the strongest performance comes from Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, an idealistic but naive young man who worships Zuckerberg for his computer skills and funds the initial site. Garfield's enlightenment about the world of business and being taken by his best friend is almost heart-breaking and deserves attention at Oscar time. Justin Timberlake perfectly embodies Sean Parker, the huckster founder of Napster who lures Zuckerberg to Silicon Valley and steals much of the company away from Saverin.

Sorkin and Fincher keep the action and social satire moving so quickly and smoothly that we hardly realize we are also being hustled. Who and what are we to believe about these people? One thing's for sure: be careful who and what you post on Facebook.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Franzen's Frantic Decade

Since Jonathan Franzen's hugely critical and popular success with THE CORRECTIONS in 2001, the world has undergone far too much "shock and awe." THE CORRECTIONS was a family drama about a middle American clan that falls apart in quiet and occasionally spectacular ways against the background of the last decade of the twentieth century. Now Franzen is back with a vengeance with another novel that deals with family implosion, but this time the period is primarily the George W. Bush/Cheney years, and the equation between the Bergland family and the financial, political, and wartime failures of the Bush years is much closer. When the characters, especially the male ones, speak, they unleash tirades against everything from global warming to government corruption to over-population. Sometimes the message overwhelms the character's development as a believable human being. But, for the most part, FREEDOM succeeds in most arenas. It is a strong wake-up call for Americans to keep fighting those seemingly impossible fights for a better life for every person.

For over 500 pages, Franzen chronicles the love/hate triangle among three terribly matched college friends--Walter Bergland and Patti Bergland, and Richard Katz. One of the major criticisms of these characters is that they are unlikable, self-absorbed, and totally unaware of how much damage they are doing to themselves and t hose around them. This is a justifiable complaint, though Franzen has the knack of keeping us interested in several ways. Just how low will Patti go before she finally caves into her insatiable sexual desire for the Dylanesque rocker Richard? How much more debasement can the puritanical husband Walter put himself through as he tries to maintain his love for both Patti and Richard? How long can the Bergland marriage last? Patti, an outstanding college athlete with little self-esteem and a great loathing of her family, to Walter, a young man who has seized his success despite his poor background. Richard is the one who seems to lack a moral center. He thinks about not using people, but thinking does not trump action. As for Walter, his love of nature leads him to make compromises that lead to the dissolution of his dreams, his marriage, his friendships, and his family. Now, if all this seems too heavy or depressing, be aware that Franzen is a terrific writer who blends wry humor with irony and surprise plot twists. If you have read THE CORRECTIONS, you know that he knocks the reader over in the middle of the book and then withholds the punchline for many chapters.

I certainly won't spoil any surprises in FREEDOM, a novel that is annoying, satisfying, and brilliantly written. This one takes effort and interest on the part of its readers, and that makes it worth the work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

One of the Greats

One helpful way to get better while restricted to bed and/or a chair is to return to your favorite entertainments. The other afternoon I watched Joseph Mankiewicz' masterpiece ALL ABOUT EVE. This 1950 serious comedy scours the New York theater scene, its divas, its traditions, and even its fans. But basically, Broadway theater is a stand-in for the follies and shenanigans of Hollywood, an even better target. It would take Billy Wilder to face the extremes of fame and desire with SUNSET BOULEVARD in the same year. These two films produced two of the most memorable performances in screen history--Bette Davis as the age-fearing diva in ALL ABOUT EVE and Gloria Swanson as the silent star Norma Desmond, desparate for a come-back in SUNSET BOULEVARD.

ALL ABOUT EVE set the record for Oscar nominations, 14 in all, and won six including Best Film, Direction, Screen Play, and George Sanders for Best Supporting Actor. The film often makes top ten lists of all American films and deservedly so. The writing, acting, pace, and depth of a film whose subject seems so flimsy are astounding, since Mankiewicz and crew make it entertaining and profound at the same time.
The plot centers on a young ingenue (Eve, Anne Baxter) who insinuates herself into the inner circle of Margo Channing, a brilliant but insecure actress facing her age. Before long it is obvious that Eve is after more than shelter. She wants it all--Margo's talent, her roles, her boy friend, anything--Eve becomes an insatiable monster whose sweetness turns to poison. And she has a strong ally in the acidic critic Addison de Witt, played with withering precision by George Sanders.

Much of the joy in ALL ABOUT EVE comes from Mankiewicz' dialogue bandied about by some of the best actors in the business. It is difficult to pick the "best" scene in this film, but three loom large. First there is the cocktail sequence which begins with a battle between Margo and her much younger boy friend (Gary Merrill). Striding through the room, hands on her hips, Davis puffs away and picks up a chocolate, puts it down again and finally pops it her mouth as she finishes her argument. And then there is her most quoted line: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." In a later scene, Addison tells Eve that she is his because he knows the truth about her background. This is surely the scene that won that Oscar for Sanders. And then there is the closing scene. SPOILER ALERT. Eve has won her award but lost all her friends. She returns to her apartment to discover a beautiful high school student asleep on her couch. Soon the girl has insinuated herself into Eve's life. The last shots show Phoebe donning Eve's evening cape and standing before a multiple mirror holding the award. As the music swells ironically and majestically, we see multiple images of the next Eve. This is an ending without words that is much more powerful than any clever line.