There were several hundred movies released in New York in 2010, but at the end of the year, critics and journalists and members of film unions receive around thirty or so screeners that represent “the best” of the year, or the end of the year, or the films that have some kind of money behind them and might have a chance of winning something or other. I never wanted to write one of those pieces that begin, “2010 was the year of the underdog,” or “2010 was all about chairs,” etc., but I have some specific problems with the movies that are rising to the top for awards nominations, and I think the problems I have might be germane to a more general discussion of what’s wrong with our movies at this point in time. And by “our” movies, I mean mainly American films produced by some “independent” branch of a big studio.
I’m going to focus on three movies in particular: David Fincher’s The Social Network (which is also Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, but more on that later), Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Of these three directors, Fincher has the longest career thus far; he’s been working sparingly for almost twenty years, and his movies are recognizable in their dark look and detached tone even if they remain hard to judge on a thematic level. Fincher likes to put his actors through a punishing amount of takes before he gets whatever it is that he wants, and there are precedents for this: William Wyler famously made actors repeat scenes without giving them much guidance beyond, “Do it again,” and Fritz Lang also made his actors go through take after take in this fashion. Wyler got outstanding work from the jittery Bette Davis by wearing her down with multiple takes, and Lang got tremendous performances from Spencer Tracy in Fury (1936) and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937) by making them feel as hunted and enraged as the characters they played. There isn’t yet a performance in Fincher’s work that stands out on that level, but there are cameo-like moments of inspiration, like Helena Bonham Carter’s flirty self-deprecation in Fight Club (1999), or the way Robert Downey Jr. drapes one leg over another in Zodiac (2007), the best-integrated Fincher film so far. Fincher generally sees his people as if from a distance, not unkindly, but not in a way that evinces any particular interest beyond their place as sometimes-lively cogs in his machines.
There’s a magical moment in The Social Network when Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) does a little dance (mainly with his arms) to try to cheer up his friend Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in the midst of a lame social event. Eduardo’s dance has a suspended-in-time, wondering tenderness, and it plays like a bit of remembered grace and possibility in the closed, bad-buzz-beige world of this movie; it’s the sort of thing that probably needed a lot of takes to get just right. Later on, mainly through the fault of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, Garfield’s Saverin is set up as Relentlessly Sweet Victim to Zuckerberg’s robot-like ambition, so that Garfield has nothing to do for the rest of the film but impersonate a puppy dog that’s just been kicked. This simplistic characterization is the film’s most glaring fault, along with the sentimentality of the ending, and the weird thing about Fincher at this point is his willingness to entertain the most shameless sentimentality on a script level while pursuing a kind of brute sensory deprivation in his visuals. I’ve read a lot about The Social Network at this point, mostly raves about how it supposedly captures The Way We Live Now, but no one has really zeroed in on how deliberately alienating it is on a visual and aural level with no clear end or pay-off for the deprivation aside from a few late “laughs” that are about as funny as the droogs in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).
The first scene in The Social Network between Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend whizzes by on mile-a-minute dialogue from Sorkin, who specialized in this clickety-clack style on his TV series The West Wing. On that show, the lightning-fast talk was sometimes effective because the characters were hyped-up about some topical political issue, and getting through these issues as quickly and intricately as possible could be amusing. Speaking to some friends after seeing The Social Network, a few of them fell back on the complaint that “people don’t talk like that,” which can be a valid criticism of some movies, but not all. In the reviews of the film, there have been a lot of comparisons to talk-talk-talk classics like His Girl Friday (1940) and All About Eve (1950), but I thought more of something like Bombshell (1933), a Jean Harlow movie that I’ve twice had to turn off because the people I was showing it to couldn’t stand its loud, brassy dialogue delivery. So yes, Lee Tracy would probably be at home in a movie like The Social Network (imagine Tracy playing the Harvard dean!)
But let’s place this movie on a group substance level. In a film like Stage Door (1937), the overlapping talk becomes a group sound, a kind of group music that is close to the shouty bonhomie of alcohol, but there can be no such connectivity in The Social Network. Closer yet, compare the talk in The Social Network to the hazy but always-precise soundscapes of 1970s Robert Altman films, which are obviously influenced by marijuana use. Listening to the talk in The Social Network, I didn’t think, “People don’t talk like that,” but I did think, repeatedly, “This is what people sound like when they’ve snorted a lot of cocaine.” Maybe it’s time that screenwriters threw out the ’80s coke and lit up a ’70s Altman joint or poured themselves a good stiff ’30s Ben Hecht drink? This might make for group movies with some modicum of warmth or human possibility instead of rigged fortress films like The Social Network, in which one-note people barely listen to each other.
There is drug use in The Social Network, mainly instigated by Justin Timberlake’s guru character, so it makes sense for him to sound like he’s on coke, and when you have a brain like the Zuckerberg character here, which comes close to outright autism without ever quite settling into a clinical case, it also makes sense that his neurons are firing at cocaine-impelled speed, but there’s usually no reason for the other people in this movie, notably the very neglected female characters, to sound like they’ve been doing lines all night. This limitation, which a lot of audience members seem to be grooving on, comes directly from Sorkin, and it exposes Fincher’s inability to shape material to whatever his own aims might be. After Zodiac, which really is a masterful, almost Jamesian orchestration of true crime interest standing in for larger and larger dreads, Fincher made the polarizing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), a story of Gump-like wonder at love that has had some critical proponents who were willing to ignore its bored Brad Pitt performance and Cate Blanchett’s ridiculous posturings as a ballerina. The question remains open: Is Fincher a Wyler crossed with a Lang, by way of Kubrick? And if so, why does he seem so inattentive to flaws in his scripts and the performances of his actors if he’s such a multi-take perfectionist?
Speaking of ridiculous ballerinas, let’s not waste too much time on Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which lots of people I know and people I read seem to have enjoyed. I laughed out loud at Black Swan four or five times, but I didn’t enjoy it, and I think that has to do with its uneasy tone. J. Hoberman memorably called the film “heterosexual camp” in the Village Voice, but what is “heterosexual camp,” exactly? I suppose Showgirls (1995) qualifies, and that proudly inhuman movie has been reclaimed again and again by queer academics, which is probably what is going to happen to Black Swan eventually, on a much smaller level. As with The Social Network, there have been comparisons to older works to prop up this new one, mainly Repulsion (1965) and Carrie (1976). The main difference, I think, is on an acting level. Those two films are centered on large, complex performances by major actresses, Catherine Deneuve and Sissy Spacek, whereas Black Swan revolves around Natalie Portman, a great screen beauty of limited range who plays the same “who, me?” neurasthenic quality in every scene, even in moments, like her first confrontation with Winona Ryder’s has-been ballet star, where she might have revealed different sides of the good girl stereotype she’s stuck in. She’s monotonous, and badly used by her director, who’s stuck in some netherworld of not-quite-exploitation and maybe-serious.
I was moved by Aronofksy’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), but boy, has he ever made me regret that initial feeling of enthusiasm. At a post-screening Q&A of Requiem for a Dream at BAM shortly after it was released, Aronofsky was asked about Jennifer Connelly’s participation in the “ass to ass” scene in the last furiously cross-cut third of the film; in response, the director put on a devilish smirk and said that Connelly was “a real trouper,” which got a big laugh from some of the guys in the audience. For a moment, I wondered if Aronofsky was just a jerk with a taste for grindhouse theatrics underneath a showy technical surface and a pretence of “caring.” There have been a lot of great directors who were assholes (Fritz Lang was a terror), but there are great assholes and minor jerks, and Aronofsky seems like a fairly minor and wildly uncertain jerk at this point. As I watched Portman unravel over and over again in Black Swan, especially in the pitifully shallow, grasping-at-straws final third of the movie, I kept wondering, “Does Aronofsky really think he’s going to get away with this?” And surprise, he has! No doubt there are film students who are eagerly typing away on their “Open Wounds in the Cinema of Darren Aronofsky” papers, and God bless them. They’re “real troupers.”
Lisa Cholodenko has made four feature films, the strikingly druggy High Art (1999), the likably relaxed Laurel Canyon (2002), something called Cavedweller (2004), with Kyra Sedgwick, and now The Kids Are All Right. I haven’t seen Cavedweller, but what seems interesting, even unique, about Cholodenko’s first two movies is how non-judgmental they are about sex and sexuality (Frances McDormand has never been better than in the scene where she realizes she’s gone too far sexually with her straight-laced son’s wife in Laurel Canyon). Oddly, it’s this same lack of judgment on sex that gets Cholodenko into trouble in The Kids Are All Right, which hinges on a sexual affair between Julianne Moore’s lesbian Mom and the birth father of her children (Mark Ruffalo). Cholodenko is still open and daring when she reveals that her lesbian mothers like to watch gay male porn during sex (the conversation this prompts with their son proves that there are still new movie topics to explore). But when Moore falls into bed with Ruffalo, exclaiming over his large penis, and then falls into bed with him again and again, it does feel like Cholodenko is (unconsciously?) pandering to the old popular conventions about lesbians who are secretly longing for men. If Moore’s character is really a lesbian and not bisexual, which she makes very clear in dialogue later on, why is she so turned-on by the size of a penis? And why does she keep coming back to Ruffalo? If their coupling is a mistake to move on from, wouldn’t it be more likely to be a one-time thing, and wouldn’t it be less than the great sex it’s presented as?
This is very tricky material to parse, mainly because the movie is telling us one thing in dialogue and showing us quite another visually. From what we see, Moore’s character is unhappy with her partner (Annette Bening), and going back to her at the end feels like a mistake. I’m assuming that Cholodenko didn’t intend it to play this way, and so she forces her movie to end where it’s supposed to at the expense of the Ruffalo character, who is cruelly discarded and left outside looking in, which doesn’t seem fair or merited. This is a mess of a movie, and it’s frustrating in the same cross-purposes way that The Social Network is. Some of our imported art-house films, like Claire Denis’s White Material, also suffer from the same disconnect of visual ideas and narrative sense. White Material is entrancing and suggestive on a visual level up to the moment when Denis feels that she needs to “develop” her characters a bit more, and when she does this, she moves away from her best sensory instincts and into the obviousness of trite dramaturgy.
The unavoidable conclusion I’ve come to about this year’s “best” movies is that we are awash in visual, editing and soundtrack mastery from Fincher, Denis and even Aronofsky, but we are very much lacking in scriptwriters who can help ground their inspirations with structure, more subtle and ambiguous thought, and firm psychological sense. Old Hollywood used to nab playwrights and novelists and set them up in an office on the studio lot where they made huge money to write scripts and, most importantly, do some doctoring on other scripts that needed work. Imagine what The Social Network would be like if the flashy Sorkin script had been passed off to someone old school like Robert Towne, who might have rooted out the corniness and provided a more clear-eyed view of corruption. Or if Cholodenko, who spent many years working on her Kids Are All Right script with a male writing partner, could have brought in someone like Mary Harron or Guinevere Turner to restore some balance to her movie, which might have been a popular success without sending such mixed signals. Or if Aronofsky could have brought on just one female writer to deepen and complicate the mother-daughter scenes in Black Swan. These 2010 movies were all very promising as projects, and people are responding to the best elements in them that somehow got through. But if we want a few great or even solidly good movies that hold together as more than just sensations of the moment, then we need to get more writers to pitch in on these projects, Old Hollywood style, and make sure that the idea of the film on paper meshes more elegantly with what winds up on the screen.