In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

When it was announced a few years back that David Fincher would be directing what most people were then calling “the Facebook movie,” I reflexively cringed. Part of that reaction was my general dislike of Facebook, which I’d tried for a while and found largely useless (and this was before they started manipulating people’s feeds via algorithms—a certified deal-breaker for me). More specifically, though, it seemed like a misguided project for Fincher, who had just made the hugely disappointing Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. Any film about the creation of a social-media juggernaut would necessarily have its actors sitting in front of computers much of the time, tapping at keyboards and generally being uncinematic. Not the best use of Fincher’s skill set, it seemed. On top of which, Aaron Sorkin had written the screenplay, so the film was sure to feature plenty of witty, rapid-fire dialogue, further hobbling (in my mind) any efforts Fincher might make at formal dynamism. Most of my friends were stoked, but I was convinced that The Social Network, even more than Benjamin Button, was a disaster waiting to happen.

Obviously, I was wrong. (Some of you no doubt think I’m wrong about Benjamin Button as well. You should see what I think of The Game.) The opening scene did worry me a bit, as it’s much more Sorkinesque than Fincheresque: five solid minutes of snappy patter, shot cleanly but undistinctively in a master, a couple of three-quarter over-the-shoulders, and alternating close-ups. Standard coverage. The scene is great, but it’s the writing and the performances that are doing the vast majority of the work. A few minutes later, though, it was clear that my concerns were groundless. The Social Network’s Facemash sequence, depicting Mark Zuckerberg’s creation (immediately after getting dumped in the opening scene) of the site that would lead to Facebook, ranks among the most visually spectacular Fincher set pieces—a feat that’s pretty remarkable when you consider that it does, in fact, consist primarily, albeit not exclusively, of people sitting in front of computers. The entire sequence is too long to address here, so I’m going to focus on its second half, in which the Facemash site quickly spreads across Harvard.

Earlier in the sequence, while Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is busily acquiring photos of the Harvard student body, Fincher starts juxtaposing his labors with shots of cool kids arriving at parties. This isn’t remotely subtle, and the movie wisely doesn’t try to pretend that it is. In fact—though I’d never noticed this detail until I watched the scene carefully in preparation for this piece—the quick shot of one student doubling over in laughter features a poster on the wall that reads BIG BOOBS VS. BRAINS. All the same, the specific choices Fincher makes here are highly effective. My personal favorite is the cut from two women kissing at a party to Zuckerberg and his three friends/roommates all leaning forward in unison—the guys are looking at Facemash-in-progress, not the make-out session, but that sort of implicit visual comparison is exactly the kind of thing that only moving images can accomplish so effortlessly. (You could do it in adjacent comic panels, but it’s a different, less visceral effect.) There’s also, less blatantly, the contrast between the kissing women, facing each other in profile, and the two women on Zuckerberg’s screen, seen full face and side-by-side. The latter will overwhelm the former on campus in short order.

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It’s amusing to look back at this sequence today and realize that Zuckerberg, before creating Facebook, basically invented Tinder. It’s clicking rather than swiping—mobile devices didn’t have touchscreens yet—but still more or less the exact same concept. (“You think this is such a good idea?” asks Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield. It was a great idea, but ahead of its time.) As far as the movie is concerned, however, the most crucial aspect of Facemash is its simple design. I haven’t been able to determine whether the version shown in The Social Network is identical to what Zuckerberg actually programmed, but if Fincher altered the look, he did so for a purpose: Rather than deliver endless boring shots of kids leaning over their laptops in medium close-up, he shoots through windows, over staircase bannisters, from way the hell across the room (alternating with some basic laptop shots). This whole section of the sequence, as Facemash spreads across campus, is like the opposite of Where’s Waldo? In every shot, you can instantly see the dual photographs on a white screen—it leaps to the eye in every single composition, no matter how tiny it appears in the frame. The information comes across in a way that’s visually dazzling.

Aurally dazzling, too. Just as the opening-credits sequence in Se7en (which Fincher didn’t direct, except in the sense of having commissioned it—it’s the work of ace title designer Kyle Cooper) uses a remix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” to hair-raising effect, so the score that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed for The Social Network imbues Fincher’s images with an anxious intensity. This particular cue, which is titled “A Familiar Taste” on the released soundtrack (for no reason that I can work out), combines heavy percussion with industrial screeches and a grungy, almost dirty guitar riff; it’s meant to be mildly unsettling, and it works. It’s also used expertly as punctuation. At the end, when Saverin mutters “Holy shit,” the cut back to Zuckerberg’s suddenly concerned expression (he’d looked smug seconds earlier) is accompanied by one final chug of Reznor/Ross noise, after it had seemed that the score had ended. That same effect occurs earlier in the sequence, when the score suddenly drops out as a group of women looks at Facemash, then slams back even louder on a cut to two smirking guys making their choices.

Most remarkable of all, Fincher manages to locate a moment of piercing emotion in the midst of this fast-paced, energetic montage. Zuckerberg explicitly created Facemash as an act of revenge, and it was preceded by a series of blog posts about Erica (Rooney Mara), the woman who dumps him in the opening scene. In one of those posts, Zuckerberg alludes to Erica’s small breasts, and just as Facemash is reaching peak propagation, a couple of assholes show up at Erica’s room with a bra, with one of them joking that he “stole it from a tranny.” Erica’s silent reaction to this taunt is so wrenching that I half-seriously suggested at the time that Mara deserved an Oscar nomination for that facial expression alone. (Looking at it now, I can see that Fincher and directory of photography Jeff Cronenweth also lit the shot to make her eyes look as if tears are forming, though that takes nothing away from Mara’s ability to look stricken to the core.) Strictly speaking, this moment has little to do with Facemash per se—it’s more about the power to wound other people via the Internet generally. But it’s arguably the most affecting moment in the entire movie, despite being just a fleeting blip amid a rush of post-adolescent aggression and lust. Few filmmakers could have pulled it off so adeptly, without bringing the film to a halt. I should have had more faith.

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