Saturday 20 November 2010

Chatroom / The Social Network

One of the more intriguing aspects of films that deal with the specific state of mind in the new century is how they incorporate the ever-changing use of technology into the narrative without becoming awkwardly connected to that specific time period, in a fashion that will make them horribly outdated in a few year's time simply for the fact that how we communicate has never before changed so rapidly in such a short period of time. Every little shift and move can now be expressed to a potentially huge audience within seconds - but how can this be incorporated into movies? How can movies tell stories about characters that are in a constant process of expressing themselves through technology?
The Social Network isn't really concerned with that question. The main point of that movie is that the (fictional version of) Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is an incredibly socially awkward person who has a keen understanding of how to involve people, how to create needs that haven't existed before, how to change the way people communicate with each other. I prefer the beginning of the movie to the end: in a brilliantly written scene (notably by a director who is good at creating meaningful action scenes), Mark creates a site that lets Harvard students rate the attractiveness of their female colleagues, describing in detail how he hacks the servers of their respective halls to get access to their pictures, while writing the usual mean drunk blabber about his ex-girlfriend (Rooney Mara, soon to become the American Lisbeth Salander) on his livejournal (as someone who actually remembers the internet before facebook and the almighty monopolist google, this part was particularly amusing to me). Aaron Sorkin has been critisized for his portrayal of Harvard elitism in this movie, and I am in no position to judge how accurate his depiction of the importance of final clubs is (which I did not even know existed, actually), but the point he is making still resonates: Mark Zuckerberg is obsessed with visible status. He is obsessed with membership, with the idea of belonging to something and being able to show that membership to everybody. We see facebook evolving from an elite club reserved for those fortunate enough to go to Harvard to a site open to everybody, but the core idea is still there: facebook makes connections visible, which is, on the one hand, a subversion of the idea of secret clubs and the subtle ties that help some people suceed, but still plays into the idea that the thing that makes us sucessful is the number and quality of our connections (facebook, after all, successfully shifts the meaning of "friend" to "someone I met once and would otherwise have lost touch with") to other people. While losing his only friend (Andrew Garfield) and gaining superficial acquaintances (Justin Timberlake, incredibly well-cast as someone who has come to fame and notoriety years before facebook existed).

Chatroom, a long-delayed movie by Hideo Nakato, attempts something more ambitious than re-telling the story of a creation by trying to paint a picture of someone's specific inner life which fuelled it: it attempts to find a way to visualize the way we communicate on a screen (the size ranging from an iPhone to a large computer monitor) in a meaningful way, which it completely and stunningly succeeds in, and it tries to understand what happens when people who are mentally instable find ways to manipulate each other when a deceptive virtuality disconnects them from the immediate results of their manipulation. While the real world looks dreary, strange and cold, and human contact is complicated, the places created online seem interesting. They provide a platform to meet similar minded (or similarly alienated) people. William (Aaron Johnson) creates a space (which is literally one room on a dingy hall way of other rooms), and soon, a number of other random people who are only connected by the fact that they all live in Chelsea join him. The film subtly and intelligently reveals who they are in reality as opposed to how they present themselves online, how this platform, in some cases, provides a space to talk about their fears and to battle their inhibitions. All of them are damaged in a way: Emily (Hannah Murray) is forced to live in a conservative, upper middle class environment that frustrates and traps her. Eva (Imogen Poots) has friends she shares nothing with, who, under any other circumstances, she would not associate herself with. Jim (Matthew Beard) is terribly self-conscious and awkward around other people. Mo (Daniel Kaluuya) is in love with the eleven-year old sister of his best friend. William, who slowly reveals how manipulative he is and what his ultimate intentions are, has a way of creating an atmosphere in which others feel safe to reveal their secrets, their inner selves, and while he is failing in real life - frustrated by his family which prefers his "normal" and successful brother, with a history of mental illness - he soon becomes the leader, the person all of them seek out for help. Chatroom ultimately argues that there is an inherent danger in the way people communicate online: this willingness to reveal their inner selves to strangers - and that creating these spaces to avoid dealing with reality can lead to catastrophes. On the other hand, there is also a sense that, even after the shocking finale, some of these connections are meaningful and vital to the identity of those who make them.

Chatroom (2010), directed by Hideo Nakato, featuring Aaron Johnson, Imogen Poots, Matthew Beard, Hannah Murray, Daniel Kaluuya, Megan Dodds, Michelle Fairley.

The Social Network (2010), directed by David Fincher, featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones, Armie Hammer.

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