Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review: The Social Network

Warning: This review contains SPOILERS

The “Facebook movie” isn’t really a movie about Facebook. That’s hardly a surprise. After all, a website does not make for a very exciting biography. But what’s surprising is that The Social Network isn’t even a Mark Zuckerberg movie. By the end of it, we know very little about the man who created Facebook, except how he created Facebook. We don’t know anything about his family, or even if he has one. We do know that he is a loner, and we get to know his best friend because they are both crucial to the story, but beyond that, Mark Zuckerberg is a blank slate. No, this movie can best be described as a “Like – triangle”. It’s a movie about friends, and ambition, and greed and more ambition, and finally, it’s a movie about three intelligent people bound by an idea. Of course, Facebook is at the epicenter of it all, it is the fulcrum, the crux, the eye of the hurricane, so to speak, but it’s not what the movie is about. And that’s what makes it work.

Even before the film was released in theatres Aaron Sorkin raised quite a few hackles when he said that he was less interested in the truth and more interested in telling a good story. And a good story it is. It’s not a very deep story, it’s more interested in what the characters do than why they do it, but you don’t really get to notice that. The movie is cut tightly, with scenes and dialogues whizzing by at a hundred miles an hour, and too much of exposition would have just slowed it down. Pace is what the movie is all about, and that’s why it is cut like a thriller, with Trent Reznor’s musical queues adding a techno industrial vibe throughout.

The film begins at a Harvard pub with Mark Zuckerberg fast talking his date through a veritable maze of topics, bouncing around like a conversational pinball. His date dumps his, he goes home, sits at his computer and writes a program that allows Harvard students to compare and vote on the relative hotness of all the women on campus. It is mean, sexist and low. It’s also so popular that it crashes the entire Harvard network.

This sequence takes quite a bit of time and is punctuated with Zuckerberg uploading his blog about highly unflattering comments about his erstwhile girlfriend. This somehow makes him a more sympathetic character in my eyes. It gives purpose to the meanness and crassness he displays when he creates his website. The scene also has Zuckerberg explaining how he downloads all the images of the girls on campus from the server as well as the problems he has to overcome in creating the previously mentioned website, but the constant patter is too fast to follow, as I am sure the director means it to. There is no reason to understand exactly how Zuckerberg overcomes these problems, only that he overcomes them fast, often ingeniously, and that he’s damn good at what he does. In a way, his monologue is almost like background music, telling you nothing, but saying everything.

The reason I spend so much time on this sequence is because this sets up the whole movie. It’s a peek into the mind of Zuckerberg, his relationship with his then best(only?)-friend Eduardo Saverin, as well as his surprising level of insight about what makes a website popular or desirable. Surprising because Zuckerberg himself displays no social skills or understanding of human nature whatsoever in his dealings other than when he is creating.

The movie mixes things up by cutting between two lawsuit depositions, both taking place in the present. The rest, we realize soon, is all flashback from various parties involved. It can be confusing at times, with Fincher cutting between courtroom scenes what seems like mid sentence. However, that does not make the movie incomprehensible, but rather gives it a thriller – like air, as your brain rushes to keep up with what’s happening. What helps is that the dialogue absolutely crackles with energy.

Through these courtroom scenes and flashbacks we get to know the main players in the game… the Winklevoss twins, two Harvard rich kids who believe Zuckerberg stole their idea to form Facebook (a belief that certainly has merit), Zuckerberg’s former best friend and former Facebook CFO Eduardo Saverin, who was frozen out of the company for reasons that are largely kept a mystery, and finally, the creator of Napster Sean Parker, the third side in this Like-triangle. Unemployed and hunted, Parker seems to survive by sleeping with women awestruck with his renegade celebrity status, until he meets Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg in turn sees Parker like a rock star, hanging on to every word he says. For the first time in perhaps his life, he admires someone, someone who truly understands his way of thinking. Saverin does not like Parker, naturally, and finally that is what drives the wedge between him and Zuckerberg.

The performances in this movie are uniformly good, but the show stealer is Justin Timberlake as Parker. His is also the only character who is allowed any kind of depth and progression, first suave and smooth, a guy who always seems to know a guy, then vaguely sinister and finally, scared and vulnerable in a climactic scene that flips the relationship between him and Zuckerberg around. Timberlake has been good in other movies, and the first part of this film is largely parallel to his real world persona of a smooth talker, but it’s at the end that he shows his real acting chops. A little different and Parker could have become a “villain”, but that never happens (evil blue light constantly on his face during a club scene notwithstanding) simply because Timberlake makes him so very genuine. Part of him truly believes that Saverin is bad for the company, and it is hinted that he is the driving force behind Saverins ouster (although even that doesn’t explain why Zuckerberg goes along with it)

The Social Network is a great movie because it manages to be a movie about geeks, but not a geek movie. It does it with smart direction, a whippet like script and the feel of a thriller. And although I didn’t buy the final attempt to give Zuckerberg an emotional anchor by trying to friend his ex (Isn’t Mark Zuckerberg automatically the friend of anyone on Facebook? And what self respecting girl would want to be part of a website created by a guy who humiliated her? Doesn’t make sense to me), it’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Celebration Season

It starts with a few murmurs, here and there. Snatches of conversation overheard in the bus or auto.“Pujor ar matro koekta din baki…” ”…ki re, kenakata kichu holo…” “….rastaghater ja obostha kore rekheche, pujor thik age keno je kore……” Little bits and pieces of sentences hanging in the air that reminds you of its imminent arrival. Then you spot a countdown clock ticking away in one corner of the screen of the regional news channel. It’s a bit of a jolt, realizing how few days are left. Streets get busier, and crazier. Big, hulking bamboo skeletons go up even as everyone, from your maid to the paperwallah starts dropping hints that expenses are going up and it’s time for the pay packet to be a little heavier than usual. Autowallahs are suddenly eager to share their thoughts on the economy, specifically on the rising cost of living, with you. You don’t mind, of course…ten bucks here…twenty there….even when nothing less than a sheaf of hundred will suffice. ‘Tis the season to be merry, and to spread the merriment.

Then the naked bamboo structures are clothed in fabric, plastic, cardboard, cellophane, gold and silver foil and so much more. Art is layered over craft and each skeleton becomes a pandal, fresh, new, and unique. Marketplaces choke up with people, but the people never tire of the markets. Complaining every step of the way, they pause long enough only to haggle, argue and shop. Every shop front, every stall, every temporary shed where a man can find space for his assortment of trinkets buzz with activity. Eyes light up as shoppers find EXACTLY what they were looking for. They usually do. The air tastes of electricity.

And then you hear it. Sometimes it wafts in from the distance, a faint rhythm that only just drowns out the beat of your heart. Sometimes it’s close enough to be deafening. The big, barrel like drums, and the tough, weathered hands that wield them make it official. Pujo has finally arrived.

I am not a romantic. Nor am I a believer. I can’t find the aroma of kashful in the air in the middle of the city, nor do I enjoy standing outside packed pandals for a glimpse of the idol’s face before a mix of overzealous volunteers (who clearly signed up only because they’d get to wield bamboo batons with impunity) and impatient crowds poke, prod and propel me towards the exit. I don’t enjoy eating out because it usually involves a potent combination of long wait, bad food and criminally marked up prices. I don’t enjoy returning home two o clock at night, only to be prodded awake with the rising of the sun by overzealous “friends”. Extended exposure to dhak give me a headache, dhunuchi makes my eyes burn and you couldn’t get me on a truck and make me dance even if you encouraged me with a scalpel. And yet, I love that wonderful week of festivities, family and fun. I love the pujo.

I can’t define it. I don’t WAN’T to define it. But I know that pujo means more smiling faces on the streets than on any other week of the year. It means looking out the window at midnight and seeing packed lanes with children eight to 80 having the time of their lives. Pujo is the buzz from the street lulling you to sleep. Pujo is staying in bed until you are good and ready to get up. Pujo is celebrating, not something personal and closed like a birthday or a promotion or a degree, but something larger and grander; something you know every single other person in the city is celebrating with you . Pujo is smiling at people who scream from the rooftops, even if you don’t do it yourself. Pujo is being happy, because so many around you are happy. Pujo is being happy, because Pujo is here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Soul of a Nation

This was triggered by a comment from a friend. We were talking about patriotism (more on that later), and I was trying to explain my point of view that patriotism does not lie too high on my list of virtues. It’s a personal issue, and I am not for once claiming that I am not confused about the subject, like most things in life, the issue of patriotism too is one about which I veer unpredictably. However, my point is that patriotism has a tendency to place walls and fences on universal virtues like love, kindness and respect. As part of my argument, I claimed that patriotism is a fleeting virtue. A man in Karachi would be a patriot if he loved India and was willing to give his life for the country on 14th August 1947. A day later he could hold the same views and be labeled a traitor. I said that India as we know it didn’t even exist up until the British united the large landmass so that it would be convenient to govern. This was when my friend said something that made me stop and think. He said that the soul existed. The soul of the nation.

The soul of the nation. What is, after all the soul of a nation? Can a nation even HAVE a soul? And at the end of the day, what IS a soul? It’s a very ill defined concept, or maybe it’s just been defined too many times, in too many ways, by too many different people for there to be any kind of consensus. As a person who constantly hovers between atheism and agnosticism, I don’t really put much stock in the whole eternal soul concept; I don’t believe there is anything that transcends the lifespan into eternity. To me, if there is a soul, if there is something that can be called by that name it is more akin to the glow of a lamp, something that just flickers out of existence when extinguished, but when it is there, defines the lamp far beyond its physical components. In fact, I have seen the bodies of dead men and women and that’s just what they remind me of –lamps without the light of life. From living creatures to objects, shells - cold, hard and unfamiliar.
So what is soul then? I guess the word closest to defining it in my book would be personality. Those little things, those thoughts, those movements, those quirks, the way you wrinkle your facial muscles and move your hands, the way you talk, walk, sit, concentrate, the way you ooze life and living in every step and every breath, they way you display fear, hunger, pain, joy, glory, envy, and all the hundred shades of human emotions in-between….all of them. They are all parts of your soul. The unique mix of DNA, society, upbringing and a hundred other factors that go into making you YOU, beyond the eyes and nose and lips… that is the soul.
So what then, is the soul of a country? Especially a country like India? If we had to compare this nation to a person we would have the most schizophrenic, multiple-personality-disorder affected, paranoid psychopath outside of a Batman villain in our hands. India is possibly unique in the history of the human race in the sheer and frankly scary amount of diversity bubbling within its borders. However, unlike that mythical personification of the nation, it survives. And here’s my take on it.

It survives because it DOESN’T have a soul. Not A soul. No, it has a more than a billion souls, each throbbing to its unique beat and rhythm, each attuned to the ones around it , forming links and connections, spreading out into a symphony that reaches the nation’s borders and keeps going, keeps growing, changing and diversifying but still somewhere connected to each other until it envelopes the world, the entire globe in a crescendo that we call humanity. There are strong links and weak links, tight connections and loose, and some of the souls want to shatter and sunder the chain because of reasons of their own, and reasons planted by people who want there to be walls. But at the end of the day, the web still holds tight, simply because there are more people who believe in unity and harmony than there are not. The soul of a nation does not work for me, simply because I feel it is a limiting, constricting concept, and also because people are not slaves to geography and politics. A nation is necessary, for safety, for security, for a place to call home, but for me, there are only two souls, the personal which makes me who I am, and the other, of which I am part of as a member of the human race.