Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Rosebud Principle

"Maybe it was something he lost"

Gawker founder Nick Denton recently learned the Zuckerbergian teachings of THE SOCIAL NETWORK the hard way: don't go changing formats in midstream, i.e. you can't expect people to endure slow confusing menus on their lunch break. Denton's recently lost tons of readers in a bid to redesign Gawker for the future. Redesigning is never smart until you have a billion friends, which is why Mark Zuckerberg is so uptight about the server being down even for a day in David Fincher's movie. You can't have doubt, or distraction or difficulty - the competition is too great. Was it self-sabotage, a fear of getting too big too fast that sent Denton on the wrong trail? And if one is, like Zuckerberg, free of such self-doubt, is it because of confidence, or just that the self-doubt already has a home, in bad relationships?

NETWORK's semi-fictionalized (?) Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is not as pompous--yet--as Charles Foster Kane in decreeing people will think "what I tell them to think!" and he's smart enough to never go down with the ship, because he sells everybody else out first. By contrast in the Big Jim Gettes segment of CITIZEN KANE (the only movie SOCIAL NETWORK can really be compared with), Welles' egotistical billionaire lets go of his common sense and decides to not bow out of New York's gubernatorial race, even if means exposing his love nest with "singer." Zuckerberg knows far more about the death knell of bad press than Kane, who smears right and left in his Inquirer but thinks himself immune. Hmmm-hmmm Zuckerberg knows better.

But I mention Rosebud because of the overarching theme of Fincher's film, which begins with Zuckerberg on a date with Erica (Rooney Mara) and hints Facebook was the result of a drunken bit of coder geek vengeance against her after she broke up with him just because he was more concerned with getting into snooty Harvard clubs than he was about her and her stupid personal issues. Once all Mark's problems are solved, and he's got 24 billion dollars, he remembers he invented Facebook just to stalk her, and lives obsessively ever after.

If old Foster Kane had been around in the age of Facebook, maybe there wouldn't have been so much confusion over who or what Rosebud was: he'd have a picture of it in his online FB albums! He'd have a sledding game on there, and a 'design your own vintage sled' app. The ornate picnics and famous guest-collecting could be canceled, because he wouldn't need to see his friends to prove they existed (only their pictures). He could make Xanadu online via one of those online worlds with the Sims.

In short, for all his fancy talk, Kane failed to crush the social sphere down to a small enough crumpled ball that he could find his obscure object of desire, that Rosebud. Zuckerberg on the other hand destroys the last vestiges of the gasping public sphere all so he can continually orbit around his beloved lost sled/girl because, in the process of amassing his fortune, he dissolved the meaning of wealth. The need to flaunt has been replaced by the need to haunt. A hundred bedroom mansions mean nothing if a poor hipster can party with 500 friends just from a desk in a studio apt.

In each case (Rosebud, Erica) we're caught in the same dramaturgical principle: the 'suspension of functional maturity.' The subject 'freezes' in time when the opportunity arises to escape the confines of his current life - and it resumes when he's climbed so far up there's no one in sight to see him 'need' openly. As a boy Kane dropped his sled when it was time to go to New York and learn to manage his inherited fortune. He remembers it only later, but "singer" Susan Foster comes into his line of flight right as he's about to go uncrate it. Finally preparing to project his objet petit a, Kane's receptivity finds an accidental screen in Susan. His purpose changes from resuming his interrupted childhood to trying to enforce the success of an unwilling opera star on an unwilling public. When his whole life crumbles to shit and he's on his death bed, only then he finally remembers the sled again. It's as if the 'story' of the rope ladder to success at the price of your soul hinges on this surrender of linear personal evolution, or something.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is similarly constructed as the long personal grudge/obsession of a genius computer nerd over a girl... entrusted to inhabit the parameters of his objet petit a by the near-guarantee of her never wanting to see him again, no matter how many billions he amasses. Once she gives in and sleeps with him (or Kane finds Rosebud and holds it in his hands), the dream is over - it's just wood again.

As David Fincher is so able a candidate for the role of '21st century Welles' let's examine the nature of genius auteurs in depicting genius millionaires, with the fact borne in mind that movies are an intensely expensive endeavor. Even the smallest indie picture can cost millions and one can only assume that there's more skulduggery involved getting a film made than we will ever know. Compare for example Welles'--perhaps unconscious but nonetheless inexcusable--sabotaging of RKO via his boondoggling in Brazil in 1942 whilst attempting to edit both JOURNEY INTO FEAR and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS via long distance phone calls and telegrams while he slept with local models, waxed poetically over the suffering poor, and danced through Carnivale. (1) Compare that kind of infantile entitlement to Zuckerberg's in SOCIAL NETWORK and all the dots suddenly connect. "You don't make a billion friends without making a few enemies," and sometimes a billion friends are the worst enemy you can have.

Welles in Rio, alone with his million friends
Mark Z, with his.
The ultimate tragedy in both AMBERSONS and FEAR is they could have been great, if Welles had been there to see them through the studio machine to distribution. He wasn't, and ran so far over budget in Brazil he basically bankrupted the studio, then got sore when they re-edited and trimmed AMBERSONS without his consent. The nerve! Fincher seems more reliable as far as wasting other people's money, but don't forget ALIEN 3, which sucked - he all but sabotaged the entirety of the franchise. And frankly I don't like SEVEN, which seems the most claustrophobic and misanthropic of the post-SILENCE OF THE LAMBS genius serial killer movies imitations, and features one of Brad Pitt's most annoying performances, yeah?
Fincher digs coding
But all is forgiven with FIGHT CLUB, which almost started a revolution in the theater on E. 86th Street where I saw it, and of course ZODIAC. I still can't listen to any Donovan, let alone "Hurdy Gurdy Man" without getting nightmares. And yet, it's telling that there exists the question of which came first, Fincher's inability to create human warmth onscreen, or his themes of alienation and the collapse of the social sphere?

Like many emotionally-challenged auteurs, Fincher finds warmth at the office -- the autumnal 70s mod beauty of the newspaper bullpen in ZODIAC, the chummy office spaces of Facebook, but overall his worlds are dark and cold and always on the  brink of savagery. THE SOCIAL NETWORK then, is perfectly suited to his talents, or is it the other way around?

The night Zuckerberg creates the first FB prototype-- a 'who's hot / not" program-- Fincher cuts back and forth between Matt in his dorm and a sterile yet self-consciously 'decadent' exclusive Harvard club party, with bimbos bussed in from all around, for what is basically a long night of strippers and douchebag boys in club ties and backwards white baseball caps. Perhaps it's because my experiences on these lines were clouded in cigarette and pot smoke, full of drunk shouting and noisy bands, but this exclusive party Fincher depicts strikes me as tragically sad and date rapey hollow. Fincher's clinical dep-ick!-tion of it sets the tone for all subsequent SOCIAL gatherings. The women are all drug-addled groupies or wise, centered ladies who look down from their taut heels at lesser mortals--and the boys are either the aforementioned douchebags or rich nerds hiding behind CRTS, funnels, shots, and/or six-foot Graphix bongs. No one is 'connecting.' Ever. Even superstar Napster-creatin' Justin Timberlake is just boastin' and toastin' in a void where he knows everyone's name, but only to show off his memory. A Jewish fraternity's Caribbean night party, for example, is dead in the water since there could be a better party elsewhere. No one can enjoy a party if a better one might be going on somewhere, and by the laws of Groucho Marx, the best party is the one so exclusive they don't even know about it. During the day, lectures and classes are merely backdrops for late arrivals, note passing, and early, dramatic departures.

In sum, Fincher's version of Harvard represents the beginning of the end of the social sphere even before the arrival of Facebook. But again, which came first, the nanny state censoring nearly all our public acts (sexual harassment, smoking, basically everything done by Don Draper in MAD MEN) or the rise of online communities satisfying our final social need, allowing us to stay home alone forever without getting lonely?

Jack Daniels makes a brilliant 1.75 cameo
And is Fincher a misogynist or is the SN mise-en-scene meant to conjure misogyny, and gender stratification? By the end of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Zuckerberg is blissfully alone, to stalk... and stalk... without getting rained on, or splashed by passing cars, or noticed, or paying for his crimes. The only ones who suffer in this new deal are the women who would prefer their men not hide, sneer, or shout obscenities from the safety of their limousine windows. But that's what money's for. It's to make willowy gorgeous waitresses with attitude smile at you for a 20% tip that could buy a jet ski.

I remember I used to suffer from great social anxiety before the arrival of Friendster. What helped me were my precious testimonials: "Erich is so cool" etc. I had like 300 of them! Being able to read that list of validations any time, like alone at four in the morning after a bad date, saved my sanity. So at the same time, the need to socialize in real time dropped off. By the time I'd migrated to Myspace and Livejournal I was depressed again (neither had testimonials) but I now had my insatiable urge fulfilled and, as smoking anywhere indoors became verboten, my socializing dropped off to nothing.

Now, on iMeds and Facebook I never go anywhere. Bars look weird with all that clear air. Now you can see the sad drunk all the way in the back of the room...  on his laptop, and the cute girl has her iPhone at the ready, repelling any and all would be hitter-onners with the inarguable pre-emptive presence of her black mirror while she waits for her internet date to show. Might as well stay home then, and hide, and wait for the collapse to complete, or until girls who aren't coke-addicted groupies finally find a way to see keyboard clacking as something sexy.... maybe via the flesh of the crushed black centipede?

But anyone can see that the gap between the 'real' of physical nuts-and-bolts-and-eye-contact reality and the safe anonymity of the web is widening to the point that soon not even a ten-foot pole will vault you across it.

A Rosebud by any other name would smell as sweet, until one finally uncrated it. Once exposed to modern air it would smell of musty, warped wood, traces of snow having long since gone to glowing liquid rust along the blades, the oxidation tempered by the crate's suffocating darkness. Better to keep it crated, then, forever, and just dream of it--all perfectly, preciously sad and abandoned--while you race down white sloping hills on that online winter sports app on your phone, pressing 'play again' over and over... until suddenly it's morning and there's no one left online to hear you crack your snow globe balls.

1) See Simon Callow's Orson Welles Volumer 2: Hello Americans


  1. Love this post! PS - It's Graffix. ;)

  2. An ingenious comparison, but in one way Welles is more a man of our time than Fincher is. SN's flashbacks all appear to refer to an objective past, while CK's famously don't.

    As for Fincher, THE GAME is a movie that made me want to throw things at the screen at the end. He has improved since then.

  3. Just when I thought that anybody who ever saw Citizen Kane already knows that "Rosebud" was Marion Davies' vagina! And on good authority, from Welles' co-author on the script for Citizen Kane, Herman Mankiewicz, as frequently cited by Roger Ebert and Gore Vidal, and thousands of others after them!

    But what the heck! It's all in the eye of the beholder, from vaginas to the Laura Mulvey Monument, now finally installed (thanks to the ingenuity of Exeter's head groundskeeper Mr. Herbert Muldoon) after many delays in the front quad of Exeter College, Oxford, opposite the Bodleian Library, under an agreement with the Fellows which stipulates that the sculpture shall be fully inflated only on Tuesdays and Thursdays during fall and winter terms, and only on Sundays in June, July, and August.

  4. My dear Jacob, thanks for your lengthy comment - is that sculpture on the level? Of course I knew/heard the whole vagina del Davies thing, but a rose by any other name would perhaps smell sweeter. While Freud said a sword is a penis, for example, it took Jung to say that a penis is still just a symbol for something more universal (the ones and zeroes binary) - just like it would be reductive to say that sculpture is a vagina as opposed to mouth-situated lips - when it's just meant to allude to both and still resist full interpretation (at least I would hope so, otherwise it's dirty!)

    And dear Sam, thanks for your comments - I agree the Game was a big disappointment, though it does help flesh out Fincher's overall thematic obsessions of alienation and the need for trauma and hardship to snap us out of our civilized funk.

    Lastly, Laura Mulvey was WRONG!! and her statue is obscene, unless it's a joke, in which case Mulvey was right and masculinity is a jerk.

  5. About the Laura Mulvey Monument...

    Where before there were only the tedious lawns and brickworks of official Oxonian banality, now a glorious Technicolor celebration of the ORIGIN OF ALL LIFE appears!

    Plaudite amici, COMEDIA INCIPIT!


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