Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Social Network (2010) Re-visited

Back in 2007, when I was in film school, I enrolled in a course on the films of David Cronenberg. It was the final course that I needed to complete in order to earn the credits to graduate, and since it was offered in the summer, the long class periods allowed us to immerse ourselves in lengthy discussions about the films. Even after screening nearly all of Cronenberg's filmography (excepting maybe two or three minor works), the film that made the greatest impression on me was his prophetic 1983 science fiction thriller, Videodrome, which certainly gave me much to think about in terms of the film's prescient views of the ways in which humans interact with technology.

A comparison can be made between the ways in which Cronenberg depicts his characters' relationship with television, and the relationship between Internet users and social media sites today. I was especially intrigued by the character of the McLuhan-esque media theorist, who only appears "on television" -- that is, via a televised image. His representation in the form of a video image is accepted as "real" by the flesh-and-blood characters, but when Max Renn tries to meet the professor in person, he learns that he has recently passed away, and "lives on" only through pre-recorded videotapes, which are naturally limited in terms of the experiences and interactions they can provide.

In watching the film, I was struck by the similarities to the depiction of the professor's video representation being accepted as reality, and the digital representations of users on social networking sites like Facebook that come to create an illusion of reality of their own, which are accepted by other users, but are similarly limited in terms of the experiences and relationships it can provide.

Because of this fascination with thinking about these ideas in relation to social media, I have also been interested in thinking about them in relation to The Social Network, the 2010 film -- written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher -- about the creation and rise of the popular social networking site. I had avoided the film when it premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2010, as well as on its theatrical run, perhaps because I was concerned that the critical enthusiasm surrounding it was a misplaced excitement for the website itself, and that the film would turn out to be little more than a ride on the wave of Facebook's growing popularity.

When I finally caught up with the film last December, I was struck by just what a good film it is in many ways, and by just how much it "got right" from the vantage point of 2010, when the site was hardly in its infancy, but when its future seemed a lot less certain in terms of what directions it might take. As a biographical drama, it succeeds in creating a vivid portrayal of the historical moment in which the website appeared, and the factors that contributed to its longevity and success where other similar sites of the period failed.

It seems to me that the trick in writing a film about any social phenomenon is to avoid falling into the trap of becoming instantly dated, of creating something that quickly becomes the target of camp condescension for its laughably inaccurate predictions of the future. If Facebook had gone the way of MySpace or Friendster, say, in the intervening years since the film's release, it would no doubt look very different today.

It is difficult to fathom how incredibly important Facebook has become to the lives of many of its users in those intervening years. And, I think, where the film is most effective is in how neatly it explores the seductive ways in which the site becomes accepted as a substitute for real interaction, through book-ending scenes depicting opposing moments in the life of its creator: from the early popularity-seeking and competitive self-comparisons of the college years, to the wistful reflection on the people with whom connections have been broken over the years, and the (false) hope of re-kindling those connections through digital representations.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

An intriguing little thriller about a meek, sheltered English sound engineer who accepts a job working on an especially disturbing Italian horror film, an experience which gradually begins to alter his perception of reality as he loses himself in the work of creating the soundtrack for the film's brutal, violent images.

The plot is a model of economy, conjuring up a real sense of dread and isolation in the claustrophobic little dubbing studio in which most of the action takes place. Unfortunately, after a strong first half, the interesting premise loses direction toward the end, which feels both protracted and rather confused. The fine character actor Toby Jones perfectly embodies the awkward, withdrawn sound man, who finds himself something of a stranger in a strange land, and slowly reveals aspects of his character, including hints of suppressed rage, that are at turns pathetic and sinister. Despite the problems with the ending, director Peter Strickland creates a thoughtful, dark character study made with a real attention to period detail and the genre conventions of the film-within-the-film, which should be especially appealing to fans of Italian giallo cinema.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Scream (1996)

When Wes Craven passed away earlier this year, and as I read several of the tributes to the director and his career, it occurred to me that -- as much as his work had been a major part of the pop cultural landscape during my childhood and teen years -- I had seen surprisingly little of his films. In fact, outside of Last House on the Left, I couldn't swear to it that I had seen any of his films at all (not even the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise).

I was 12 when Scream was released, and although I did not see it then, there were few films at that time that I recall creating more excitement among my peers, who talked endlessly about it. So by the time I finally got around to seeing the film 19 years later, there weren't too many surprises. I was already familiar with the premise (a girl is stalked by a serial killer on the anniversary of her mother's murder), its clever approach to the genre (a post-modern, self-aware take on the slasher film), its much-publicized casting gimmick (Drew Barrymore's character is killed off in the first ten minutes), and of course its now-iconic "ghost face" serial killer character.

Scream is still not the kind of film I typically care for, but Craven is clearly committed to the material and has fun with the self-aware approach to the genre that he had made such an indelible mark on, and it is to his credit that it actually works, rather than just serving as a glossary of the genre's tropes, or name-dropping famous movies or scenes for their own sake, as lesser films might have.

There's something else about this film that I enjoyed immensely, and that was the performance of Matthew Lillard. Whatever happened to him? He emerged as one of the most interesting, offbeat character actors of the 1990s, thanks to his roles in John Waters' Serial MomHackers, and a fine starring turn in the indie black comedy Dead Man's Curve, but I have not seen him in anything since 2004's Without a Paddle (an otherwise forgettable comedy). His performance in Scream was a highlight of the film for me, and reminder of just what a unique and immensely talented actor he is.