David Fincher's films coil around an invisible center. His protagonists chase after something that they don't know and can't see, sometimes spending years in the hunt. In his first several features (following a successful career as a music video director), the center held, and the characters uncovered the thing that they were looking for. Ridley zaps the alien; Pitt and Freeman catch the killer; Michael Douglas solves the game; Norton sniffs the masculine high of his inner Tyler Durden; Jodie Foster and daughter finally break out of the room.
But then something happened inside Fincher's movies, something roving and difficult to place. Five years passed after 2002's Panic Room, and when Fincher's next film, Zodiac, came out in March 2007, many audiences didn't know what to do with it. Like Se7en, it was a serial-killer movie, and Fincher used many of his standard techniques, which Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas discuss in a fine video essay: wide lenses, deep focus, swooping crane shots, low-angle tracking shots, crosscutting between events in different locations, shock cuts that punch us toward unexpected spots. A visual whirlwind took us on a search for the killer, but unlike in Se7en, where he's uncovered, Zodiac spends nearly 25 years without finding him. In Se7en, the murderer walks into the police station and cries, "Detectives! I think you're looking for me"; in Zodiac, the chief suspect looks directly into the camera and says, "I'm not the Zodiac. And even if I were, I certainly wouldn't tell you."
The center kept dipping in and out of view in Zodiac, as different characters shifted to the front of the movie searching for a person who, at some point, changes into an idea. We could apply the same description to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which Brad Pitt's man-aging-backward drifted into and out of other peoples' lives, reminding them of their own lost youths as they grew further away from them. As Kent Jones notes, Fincher's chief subject emerged as the passage of time, the most fundamentally shifting center of all. Though the snake in Fincher's new movie, The Social Network, is ostensibly the Internet, a force that assumes a greater life than its creators or users could possibly envision, the theme is how all relationships change over time. These are genre films—serial-killer movie, period epic, teen movie—infected with a weird, uncurable melancholy, and over the past four years Fincher has gone from an exciting genre filmmaker to the closest thing we have to the director Otto Preminger (Laura, Anatomy of a Murder), who made detective stories and legal dramas in which the greatest mysteries were why people behaved as they did rather than who they were.
Fincher's thematic shift coincided with a technical one. Just as Preminger's work gained complexity and reverberation once he began shooting in CinemaScope (compare the way female desire literally floats through the wide screen of Bonjour Tristesse to the leading lady's more forward-driving amorousness across the smaller frame of Fallen Angel), Fincher discovered a new way of seeing the world once he switched from film to digital video. His past three works are period films distinctly and unmistakably shot in the present, creating a rich and very sad awareness of the story having ended before the film even starts. Their scenes have not just been recreated, though, but created; Fincher is virtually beyond compare among digital filmmakers, to the point where it's difficult to know that you're watching an effect. Brad Pitt's face on a 15-year-old, sure, yes, clearly a computer, but can you always tell when voices have been digitally altered?
In a way, it's appropriate that Fincher has become one of the best current studio filmmakers, since his approach to filmmaking symbolizes how we now perceive our actual surroundings. More and more people read books on Kindle, watch concerts on YouTube, and talk to friends on Skype or on Gchat. Just as Fincher's films process the world through computers, we process our world through computer screens too.
The Social Network tells a version of how Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook while a Harvard undergrad recovering from a breakup. In the movie's press kit, Fincher compares Zuckerberg to a film director. The comparison, an absolutely right one, also says a lot about how viewership has become immensely interactive. The Internet is a space where people actively make their own entertainment in addition to consuming it, not just through discovering their own favorite sites, but through defining and redefining themselves within the space of a profile. It's possible for someone to tell you an enormous amount of information about himself or herself long before he or she ever actually interacts with you, which changes the way you interact with him or her once you finally do.
I haven't talked a lot about how I interact with this movie. That's because I'm frankly not that interested in it. Aaron Sorkin's script (as usual) suffers from acute Cleveritis, with people constantly spouting either facilely witty remarks (a twin—"I'm six-foot-five, 220, and there are two of me") or moral grandstanding ("The Internet isn't written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink"). I very badly want to shake this writer and say that people don't talk like that (especially not in college); the more you listen, the more Sorkin's writing sounds like a voice concerned with the moment but disconnected from reality.
Yet my greatest problem with the movie is that it doesn't engage with the moment much either. The story ends up focusing on court cases between Zuckerberg and former colleagues over Facebook's ownership, the tale of its founding unfolding as evidence. (Critics who compare this structure to Citizen Kane or to Rashomon are off-base; while those movies present multiple versions of stories to show outsiders trying to uncover the truth of essentially unknowable experiences, The Social Network is one linear narrative with occasional flash-forwards.) Yet the custody battle is among the least intriguing aspects of Facebook, and of the Internet age in general. What Facebook's prime movers did doesn't have anywhere near as many ramifications as what users do with it. Someday there will be a movie that will be made up entirely of chat sessions, webcam conversations, and digital photos—and needless to say, it'll be posted online. By contrast, The Social Network contains very few shots of actual computer screens, let alone computer-based interactions.
One is the film's last shot, in which Zuckerberg sits waiting for his ex to respond to his friend request. The moment's a nice display of how the Internet's changed social interactions (the idea of what it means to be someone's friend). Still, that's something but not enough, which save for Zodiac is how I feel about Fincher's work; like the promise of a virtual relationship, it proves tantalizing but frustrating. The Social Network leaves you with issues more stimulating than the movie raising them is. Fincher will probably earn an Oscar nomination for it, though, and might win; his next project is a remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, followed by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I fear that he'll end up the kind of director Pauline Kael attacked auteurists with, the kind who makes crap that viewers watch in search of style. But time will pass, as it always does, and we'll have no choice but to find out.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.