Scott Feinberg‘s recent “Citizen Zuck” piece points out several similarities between The Social Network and Citizen Kane. A stretch in a couple of ways, cosmetic in others, in other ways interesting. But a piece that no one on The Social Network team would want to be taken seriously. They’re slapping their foreheads right now and muttering to themselves, “Please, Scott — you’re hurting us!
But I thought of Citizen Kane as I read David Poland‘s Social Network review, a mostly positive response that nonetheless says “where’s the metaphor?” It struck me that a critic could have said some of the same things about Kane in 1941.
“Okay, a richly photographed and very entertaining film about a brilliant headstrong visionary who builds a powerful empire and hurts some people along the way (including a couple of women) and fucks over a friend and who doesn’t seem to be an emotionally healthy human being at the end of the day…..and? That’s it? He ends up in a silly extravagant castle called Xanadu and dies and then workmen toss the sled into the furnace….and that’s all? Audacious directing by the young Orson Welles and fine acting and great cinematography by Gregg Toland and all, but I don’t get the undercurrent. I mean, I’m not there is one, to be honest.”
There are admirable, top-of-their-class movies that tell you what they’re about. Movies that tip their hand and convey in a dozen or fifty or a hundred different ways what they’re saying deep down. Movies that let you know the chefs who created the food you’re eating did so with the idea that you’d be eating a lot more than just food. Movies that state their intentions, pay off emotionally, wear their hearts on their sleeves and/or sell a certain kind of emotional seepage (understated or grandiose or in-between).
These are the films (please don’t ask for examples) that most people recognize as being full of meaning and metaphor. The ones that tend to inspire extra-long applause and win extra-passionate praise because they’re obviously about something — metaphors, parables, sum-uppers. Movies through which rivers run and choruses are sung that “this movie is about us.”
And then there are admirable, top-of-their-class movies that just are. They don’t choose to “say” what they’re about — no nudging, no speeches, no summing-ups, no heart moments — because the director feels what he/she has done adds up to a certain kind of precision and completeness that make dramatic flourishes (metaphor, thematically-expressive dialogue, touchy-feelyness) unnecessary or beside the point. These films have all kinds of echoes and interior currents and are beautifully made, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily invite every last movie pundit out there to say, “Wow, this is exceptional…it really adds up to something!” They are what they are. Either you get them or you don’t.
For me, United 93 was such a film. Zodiac was such a film. And The Social Network is such a film. All of them are procedurals of a kind, and in a sense are all about tactical somethings that happen, have happened or are about to happen. Films that are dry and succinct and smart as a whip, and none with a whole lot to share emotionally. And yet all three, I contend, will play like gangbusters 50 or 100 years from now.
A smart older critic and a younger columnist both told me within the last couple of days that as good as The Social Network is, it’s not really Academy material. It doesn’t make you want to hug your son or your father or your wife or your dog. Bite your tongue, I said to both.
If The King’s Speech takes the Best Picture Oscar instead of The Social Network there will be so great a cry throughout the land that Pharoah will surely let my people go. No…what I mean is that Black Swan beating out The Social Network would be okay. I would have no problem with a film as good as Darren Aronofsky‘s winning. But to give it to The King’s Speech would, no offense to Harvey Weinstein and Tom Hooper, constitute a huge backslide and a cultural capitulation to middle-of-the-road cinematic values. It would be a vote for a backrub over art. It would be like voting for Ordinary People over Raging Bull, or Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas.
I truly admire The King’s Speech — it’s a very fine film for what it is, and is superbly performed by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter — but a King’s Speech Best Picture win would be the wrong thing to see happen in 2010. The King’s Speech is the new Best Picture of 1993, and there’s nothing wrong with that. No, I don’t mean that. A King’s triumph would be cause for not just mourning but weeping in the streets. That’s what I mean.
The Social Network is now and The King’s Speech is then. It’s not a matter of one being better than the other, but I do feel that those who vote for the traditional strategies and emotional bromides in the The King’s Speech over the crackerjack pacing, procedural neutralism and 21st Century instant-mythology of The Social Network will have written their social-industry epitaph. I don’t mean to sound like a hard-ass, but either you get with The Social Network program (or the agenda of another film that’s as strong and distinct) or you risk being seen as out of it — there’s no third way. This is pretty much a generational dividing-line issue. A “no” vote for The Social Network doesn’t mean you’re clueless or moribund or lacking in taste, hardly — but it does sorta kinda mean that the 21st Century way of seeing and processing life hasn’t exactly gotten through to you and yours, and that you’re basically looking more to the past than to the future to fill your plate.