At the end of their 1979 ode-to-nihilism album entitle The Wall, Pink Floyd –after dismissing most of the things we turn to for comfort—school, work, love, sex, politics—as “just another brick in the wall,” gave themselves an out in the album’s last cut, “Outside the Wall”:
All alone, or in twos
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall
Some hand in hand
Some gathering together in bands
The bleeding hearts and the artists
Make their stand
And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall after all it’s not easy
banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.
Yes, I’m afraid even mainstream nihilists cannot be trusted; they need something to live for as much as the rest of us do. And what better refuge from the pointlessness of it all than humanity itself? Whatever else may happen to disappoint you, there will always be someone to love you, someone you can trust, someone to rely on. Or will there be?
In perhaps the best made of last year’s films, The Social Network turns the cynical eye of reason on the last refuge of the meaningless: human relationships. No matter what you may have heard, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay isn’t about Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to take part in the project, nor is it about the advent of Facebook, the Internet phenomenon that, according to its devotees, has changed the world. It’s about relationships, or perhaps more precisely, what relationships are about.
I’m not suggesting that reason per se is inherently cynical. Most Americans would benefit greatly from a little disciplined thought about themselves and the world they live in. Thinking doesn’t produce cynicism; failing to think clearly does. But when the cynic turns reason towards relationships, his conclusions are predictable.
Relationships are about sex
In his book Accidental Billionaires, on which The Social Network is based, Ben Mezrich writes, “The impetus of everything in college, I think, is to get laid… I know that was my whole purpose in becoming a writer.” I don’t know Mark Zuckerberg; perhaps he and Ben Mezrich are really alike at this point, or perhaps Mezrich is guilty of creating the film’s Zuckerberg in his own image. Either way, sex is the cheapest commodity that is traded in The Social Network, and thus, the most easily obtained.
Relationships are about social standing
Crowds and music are a sure sign in The Social Network that an important conversation is going on. If like me, those are just the sort of circumstances in which you have a hard time understanding words, be sure to add subtitles to your viewing. This is never more important than in the film’s first and most painful scene. Mark and his girlfriend Erica are having a DTR—Define The Relationship—talk you shouldn’t miss. It’s quickly evident to everyone but Mark that it isn’t going to end well.
Mark: “I want to try to be straightforward with you and tell you that I think you might want to be a little more supportive. If I get in [to the Phoenix Club, an elite Harvard social club] I will be taking you to the events, and the gatherings, and you’ll be meeting a lot of people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”
Erica: “You would do that for me?”
Remember Erica’s line, because Mark will repeat it (whether consciously or not, I can’t tell) at another turning point in the film.
Does Mark need Erica? Sure, but in his mind he needs to be seen with her even more. He’s like the eccentric who buys a Van Gogh, not because he loves it, but because others will look at him differently because he owns a Van Gogh. He’s the ultimate nerd: brilliant, needy, awkward, inspiring sympathy and loathing in equal measure. That Facebook is born from the tension between his needs and his ineptitude is at the same time his salvation and his tragedy.
Relationships are about money
Or not. Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter won a well-deserved Oscar for their seamless melding of The Social Network’s two story lines: the Story of Mark and Facebook, and the Story of the Lawsuits filed in the wake of Facebook’s success by two of his former classmates, Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, who accuse him of stealing the idea for Facebook from them, and by his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook. When an opposing attorney accuses him of starting Facebook so he could gain admittance to the Phoenix club, Mark replies, “Ma’am, I know you’ve done your homework and so you know that money isn’t a big part of my life, but at the moment I could buy Mt. Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club, and turn it into my ping-pong room.”
It’s a quote that perfectly captures a central Social Network dilemma: having money isn’t a worthy goal. That’s old school. But what money can do for you creatively, socially, relationally? That’s cool. Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, makes a brief appearance in The Social Network in the person of Justin Timberlake, and explains it like this:
Sean: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?”
Sean: “A billion dollars.”
Of course, there’s just enough truth in Sorkin’s snapshots of love to make them believable.
Anyone who watches The Social Network and can’t relate to the pain of Mark’s failed relationships is either a liar or has led a charmed life. None of us are immune to the lure of sex, money or social standing; all of us struggle with the power they exert over us and our relationships. The cynic is right in admitting that even the best of our relationships are flawed, just as all of us are. But he’s dishonest in pretending that once we’ve seen the faults, there’s nothing left to see.
C.S. Lewis put it like this in The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
The Social Network begins with Mark in a room full of people, talking with Erica face-to-face. It ends with Mark alone with his computer, sending her a friend request via Facebook, waiting for her reply. How do you think she answers? There’s a sad irony evident in this ending: while Facebook may allow you a “yes” here, The Social Network does not.
Copyright © 2011 Greg Grooms