The comedy of experimental cinema

American cinema, Blogpost, Canadian cinema, Experimental Cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I can only say what I saw and heard (and felt and thought).

Over the last two evenings, I have attended two experimental film events. The first was a screening of Michael Snow’s La région centrale (Canada, 1971) at the Serpentine Gallery, which screened alongside the opening credits of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – with both being chosen by artist Lucy Raven, whose solo exhibition, Edge of Tomorrow, is currently on there. The second was a performance at Tate Modern of Tony Conrad’s 55 Years on the Infinite Plain (originally called 10 Years on the Infinite Plain when first performed in New York, USA, in 1972, and which has been growing in age ever since – now beyond Conrad’s death last year).

For those unfamiliar with either of these works, the former is a three-hour film shot on the top of a mountain in Québec, and which features images captured remotely by Snow using a robotic arm, to which Snow’s camera was attached, and which rotates in a long series of different directions. The latter is a 90-minute piece featuring ‘drone’ music and black and white strips that flicker on a screen from four projectors simultaneously.

Both experiences involve a fair amount of discomfort, not least because traditional cinema seats were not provided, with the viewer instead having to sit on a wooden stand (La région centrale) or on the floor (55 Years…). Standing is an option. But either way, one really feels the presence of one’s body as one tries to find comfort during the screenings (and live musical performance in the case of 55 Years…).

I am not an expert on experimental cinema. I have seen a fair amount, read a fair amount of literature about it, and also think about it (and occasionally write about experimental aspects of cinema that is otherwise not so overtly non-narrative as these two films).

I am driven to write about these back-to-back experiences, though, not simply to expose my ignorance of the subject (I can’t imagine that I shall say much that others have not written – or certainly thought – in relation to these films), but to convey some thoughts that I had while watching the films. Perhaps that is, after all, one of the things that a blog can do.

To get to my thoughts, though, we must describe what happens in the films. As I have already hinted, ‘not much happens’ from the perspective of someone looking for a film that tells a story. La région centrale features images captured by the camera as it moves round and round, back and forth, spinning upside down, moving in circles in all sorts of directions and more.

55 Years…, meanwhile, features a deep electric bass line (performed on this occasion by Dominic Lash), accompanied by violin (Angharad Davies) and long string drone (Rhys Chatham). At first one projector, then two, then three, then four fill the wide screen with the flickering lines, before all four projectors slowly begin to converge, their images overlapping, and then are turned off one by one, until only one flickering image remains.

Probably sounds pointless, maybe even dull, right – especially if one lasts 180 minutes and the other 90?

I do not think so. Indeed, quite the opposite.

The Snow experience induced in me so many different thoughts, which perhaps have at their core a sense of seeing the Earth as if through the eyes of an alien. Initially surveying the ground, the camera then begins to rotate in such ways that we are consistently being given new perspectives on our world – toying with it, twisting it, turning it, experimenting with it.

As María Palacios Cruz explained in her introduction, Snow deliberately tried to find a spot in his native Canada where no visible trace of human life could be seen (something that might recall my earlier post about the ‘American eye’ in relation to Le corbeau). In other words, he absolutely wants us to see the world from an inhuman perspective; to see the world ‘for itself.’

In the process, we begin to understand how as humans we often do not see the world ‘for itself’ but how it is ‘for us’ (and this is not necessarily a bad thing; we are driven to live and survive by our selfish genes, after all). By getting us to see the world ‘for itself,’ the world itself is made ‘alien’ to us, or we see the world as if through alien eyes. The film becomes a panoply of different ways to look at the world through the insistent movement of the camera – with the non-stop nature of that camera movement also bringing to mind the way in which our relatively static perspective of the world is perhaps key in bringing about our inability to see the world ‘for itself.’

For, the world is also movement – but generally we do not have eyes to see it. The rhythms of the world are perhaps too slow for us to detect. What Snow’s film does, then, is to bring to mind those rhythms. Not just Snow’s film, but by extension cinema as a whole is thus in part a machine to present to us something like ‘deep time’ – the long, slow rhythms of the world that extend further back than we can remember and further into the future than we can imagine (in other words, a world without humans). Perhaps this is why a narrative classic like Vertigo is also chosen to play in part alongside Snow’s film.

If Snow’s film takes us into the realm of planetary time, Conrad’s film takes us (or me, at least) into the realm of universal time.

Using black and whites strips alone, Conrad takes us into a realm whereby I am confronted not just with a world that exists far beyond the human realm, but with the way in which the world – the universe itself – comes into and out of being. If the world pre-existed humans by billions of years, and if it will outlive humans by billions of years (La région centrale), then Conrad’s film tells us that the universe pre-existed the world by trillions of years, and will continue to exist after the world has gone by trillions of years. (It exists beyond time itself, and beyond measure. Again, language becomes meaningless.)

More than this… 55 Years on the Infinite Plain tells us – in its flickering of white, or being, and black, or nothing – that existence itself comes into and out of being. That there is a beyond existence; that there is a beyond being; that there is a beyond ‘is’ – such that one cannot even express what we are describing since to say that ‘there is a beyond “is”‘ is clearly a contradiction in terms (how can not-is and is co-exist?)!

If language cannot suffice for the task of explaining what we see, then we enter into the realm of experience and of a new, different kind of thought (that also cannot be defined simply by what we ‘see,’ since it must be experienced, too).

What is the universe? But simply a flicker of light in an otherwise infinite blackness.

If 55 Years… takes us somehow beyond the universe, then it takes us into a realm not of a singular reality (a uni-verse), but into the realm of multiple realities. An alien perspective, or what philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and physicist Aurélien Barrau might suggest is the necessary understanding that there is no world, but only multiple, infinite worlds.

As per the translation of their book on the matter: what is these worlds coming to? What these worlds is coming to (note the grammatical error; again, language does not quite suffice) is the co-existence of existence and non-existence. To invoke a different philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, being and nothingness at the same time.

Am I being pretentious? Possibly. I mean, people walked out of both screenings – and so clearly not everyone goes with these films. But at the end of 55 Years… the remaining audience members (perhaps as many as 100 people) sat in silence and darkness for about a minute. Finally, some applause – enthusiastic applause, some whoops of joy. Clearly they needed a moment to catch their thoughts, because this film had taken them somewhere different, somewhere special.

In other words, if to someone who was not there this all sounds like wank, to the majority of people who were there, this meant something – even if expressing it is and perhaps remains difficult. “That was absolutely fucking amazing,” said the woman sat next to me. I felt like dancing (and did nearly throughout 55 Years… – although I refrained from doing so).

Elsewhere I have written about how Hollywood presents to us narrative films that, even if they contain ‘puzzles’ for us to work out (my example is Inception, Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010), they are still designed to be easy to consume and, by extension, not particularly challenging. I then suggest that films that do not involve narratives (my example is Five Dedicated to Ozu, Iran/Japan/France, 2003, by the late Abbas Kiarostami) can be quite challenging, even if there is no specific puzzle to work out – as we just see images of waves lapping the shore, or ducks walking along a beach, or a pond at night.

My argument in that essay is that common responses to Five… might include either ‘I got it after two minutes, so I do not know why I had to sit through that’ or ‘I did not get it’ – while people might easily say that they ‘got’ Inception (even though it is more than twice the length of Five…).

I suggest that there is not so much anything to ‘get’ with Five… (or Inception, or Vertigo – as its inclusion by Lucy Raven in her programme makes clear), but that one might ‘get into’ that sort of film by working at being an attentive audience member and beginning to marvel at what a wave lapping against the shore is and might mean (is it not a miracle that this happens?) as opposed only to marvelling at special effects and ‘mind-bending ideas’ (even though the leaders of the two largest energy companies in the world sit next to each other on an aeroplane and do not recognise each other).

(Besides which, whenever one says that one ‘got’ such a film after two minutes, they clearly do not ‘get’ it since part of getting it must involve experiencing the film in its entire duration, including the sense of slowness, and the different time or tempo of the piece. To demand that it be shorter is not to respect this otherness, but to apply one’s own rhythm to it, to curtail it, perhaps even to kill it.)

(Speaking of marvelling, I also found myself marvelling during 55 Years… about the fact that I can rotate my head. How is it possible that a human evolved from the mud of a planet that itself was a rock spewed from a star, such that it has a head that can rotate on a joint that sits atop a backbone and which contains eyes that can see and ears that can hear?)

To return from these loco parentheses: I make reference to my own essay not simply to continue to explain to a(n imagined?) ‘viewer-on-the-street’ that these non-narrative films might do something for us (and that thus people who might otherwise never go to watch such films might do worse than to give them a try), but also to correct what I wrote in that essay.

In that essay, I wrote that we might ‘get into’ films like Five Dedicated to Ozu by putting in some effort ourselves (rather than having nigh everything served up to us on a plate, as per Inception). However, now I think it would be better to suggest that we do not ‘get into’ but that we ‘get with’ such films (which is not necessarily to the exclusion of ‘getting with’ mainstream films; I believe that we can get with cinema as a whole – but don’t think that we should only get with the mainstream at the expense of the weird and the wonderful).

Why do I now want to say that we should ‘get with’ as opposed to ‘get into’ these films?

Well, in part this is to explain that getting a bit ‘pretentious’ (talking about cosmic things like a world without humans and a multiverse that exists and does not) is to get with what these films are doing, or at the very least what these films can do with us (it might also be an act of love if we were to say that we ‘go with’ these films – since coitus itself means to go with [co-itus] – as I have suggested here).

Furthermore, the preposition ‘with’ (a favourite of Jean-Luc Nancy) suggests not quite a disconnection from the world (seeing it through alien eyes), but also a connection with the world (seeing it ‘for itself’ – or from the perspective of a world that has seen so much more than humans and a multiverse that has seen so much more than our world).

Seeing through the eyes of the other, a kind of forgetting oneself, is also to commune with another – and in this case not just another human, but a whole other timescale (the entirety of existence) and space scale (a planet, a universe – as well, in the case of La région centrale when it shows us the land beneath the camera in close up, a rock, a patch of earth, a blade of grass). ‘With’ is to go beyond the self, to open the self up not only to the other human, but in the cases of La région centrale and 55 Years on the Infinite Plain, the inhuman.

Furthermore, ‘with’ always implies plurality, or a multiplicity of things and perspectives. For, one cannot be with anything or anyone if there is no thing or one beyond the self with which to be. With, therefore, suggests that we live in a multiverse, and that what these worlds is coming to is perhaps us, our understanding of the multiverse, and our place with it.

(The Conrad also suggests with in other ways – particularly the way in which my eyes when they move from left to right can make the flickers seem as though moving in that direction – before then moving in the other direction as my eyes move from right to left… That is, I am with the film in the sense that I co-create what I see; I see not just a different perspective, but a different perspective with my own eyes; I am entangled with the multiverse. This might seem to contradict the idea that I get beyond myself – but what perhaps really is exposed is not just the world beyond the self, but also the relationship between that world beyond self, and the self itself. What is exposed or revealed is our withness – and how the otherness of that with which we are is necessary for me even to exist and to have my sense of self/my perspective in the first place.)

I wish to end, then, by suggesting that these films do not just put us with the universe or multiverse. They put us with the medium of cinema, too, which opens us up to these new perspectives. I hear the 16mm projector rattle along during La région centrale, and I turn to see the projectors during 55 Years…. The experience of these two films is, then, to be with media, to be co-media, to be comedy.

What we can experience during these films is thus the comedy of the multiverse. When we find such films frustrating, we are perhaps taking them far too seriously (I personally found myself laughing regularly during both films as I marvelled at the possibility of anything existing at all). When we are serious, it is because we are rigid in our ways, in our thinking, and we are resistant to change. We do not become, we are not coming to, we are not with (perhaps we are solipsistically dreaming, a state of unconsciousness from which we can recover only by ‘coming to’).

To be less serious, to enjoy the comedy: this is not only a route to laughter and thus by extension happiness – it is perhaps also a route via with to wisdom (to be ‘other-wise’).

Long live experimental cinema. When screenings like these come along, I can only recommend one thing: get with it.

Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, Italy/France, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, Italian Cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

The below is a written version of an introduction that I shall make for Salvo at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton this evening (Tuesday 29 April 2014). Come along if you can – though you may also have to suffer me putting in a gratuitous plug for my film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), which plays at the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase from 1 May 2014)!

And so…


Salvo is the debut feature of screenwriters Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. It tells the story of a hitman, the titular Salvo (Saleh Bakri), who starts out getting into a gunfight. He chases down his assailants and then goes to the house of Enzo Puleo (Luigi Lo Cascio), the man who organised the hit. There he meets Rita (Sara Serraiocco), a blind woman and Enzo’s sister, who suddenly can see at the moment of her encounter with Salvo.

Subsequent to this encounter, Salvo and Rita go on the run – and must evade the mob, which surely will hunt them down in a quest to find out what has happened to them.

In certain respects, then, the film tells the story of a miracle. But rather than being a miracle couched in a sense of religiosity, we have the miracle functioning in Salvo as something of an allegory.

For, the encounter between Salvo and Rita becomes some sort of primordial event, a transitional moment after which nothing is the same – and this event is based upon the encounter between two people who mutually change.

In short, then, the film is about how love can open our eyes – it can take away our blindness – and it can put us in touch with other people. Indeed, if Jean-Paul Sartre once said that hell is other people, Grassadonia and Piazza might counter this by saying that love, too, is other people, constituted in and by a recognition of other people.

Thus Rita’s literal blindness is accompanied by what the directors call Salvo’s ‘moral blindness’. Indeed, in an interview, Grassadonia explains it thus:

The topic of blindness is important. We come from Sicily, we grew up there, and our experience is that you live surrounded by voluntarily blind people. We told this story, this meeting by two characters affected by two different kinds of blindness: the moral blindness of the mafia killer, who is nothing more than a killing machine at the beginning, and this blind girl, physically blind, but not innocent. She knows exactly her role in that kind of world.

It is in encountering Rita that Salvo can see – and the film works hard stylistically to convey the encounter to us, mainly as a result of its absence of close ups and its absence of faces for the first section of the film, the section that culminates in the miracle.

For, we do not see Salvo’s face until the miracle – if anything we see only disembodied eyes surrounded by darkness. We can surmise two things from this.

Firstly, we can surmise that in a world without faces, people do not exist as humans but as objects that can be killed and discarded without a moral sense of guilt.

Secondly, we can surmise that in having no empathy, it is not that Salvo sees no faces, it is that he himself is also faceless. In encountering Rita, Salvo not only sees her face, but she also sees his, and thus he begins to take on a face.

In other words, identity – Salvo as a recognisable human being – is not something born solipsistically in a body and mind detached from the rest of the world; identity is something that exists only in relation to the world, only with the world. We exist only with other people. Subjectivity is intersubjective.

If the film makes this point, the point does not exist in a bubble. That is, while it it may simply just be that humans can only exist as subjects if there is intersubjectivity, nonetheless the film suggests that we live in a world that lacks recognition of others, a world that lacks empathy, and which is thus a world that encourages what I shall term solipsistic.

So when I say that the point does not exist in a bubble, what I am really asking is: what is this world in which we are encouraged to be solipsistic, blind to each other, rather than with each other?

In interviews, Grassadonia and Piazza talks extensively about how they made the film in their native Sicily, Palermo more specifically. Indeed, in the quotation above, they talk about ‘voluntarily blind people’ there – who in effect turn a blind eye to the mafia, thus accepting its way of life, even if they are not directly involved in it.

In one interview with the ICA, the directors state this clearly:

We are both from Palermo and we naturally chose to set our story in our home town. Palermo is a world where freedom is hazardous. A world that feels the need for a tyrant, an oppressor, is a totally unacceptable state of affairs but somehow understandable. What’s more mysterious is the presence of a silent majority that wishes to be oppressed, that needs to live in a “state of exception”, a state of constant emergency, where violence and oppression are the only laws. A situation where an unencumbered meeting between two human beings is inconceivable.

What is noteworthy here is the use of the term ‘state of exception’ – a concept developed and used at length by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

For Agamben, the ‘state of exception’ is the generalised totalitarianism of the present age. That is, during exceptional times, a state might give itself increased power in order to keep everyone safe. However, what we increasingly have these days is the way in which all times are presented to us as somehow ‘exceptional’ – and so we live under greater levels of control at all times, under a generalised ‘state of exception’ (a key example for Agamben is the War on Terror in the aftermath of the plane crashes of 11 September 2001).

In suggesting that Salvo reflects upon the ‘state of exception’ that is the mafioso rule of Palermo, Grassadonia and Piazza in fact spread the relevance of their film, such that it might well be speaking not just of Sicily, but perhaps of an Italy that has recently been under the control of a media-magnate. Perhaps even to a world in general, in which political and economic crisis are presented to us as the master narratives that keep us all in our place – and scared in our homes – trusting of no one else, in competition with everyone else.

Not seeing each other as human beings, as subjects, but as threats, opportunities and objects.

This wider relevance of the film is signalled aesthetically, too. It is hard not to read the opening sequences, full of bloodshed, and in which we follow Salvo as he chases down his would-be assassins, as borrowing from computer games, in particular the behind-the-head shot familiar from shooter games (and complete with the odd silences that moving through space can involve in computer games).

In other words, the film suggests via this reference to computer games that its message is relevant to the whole of the contemporary, media-saturated and digital world. That we no longer look at each other – but instead pursue a faceless world characterised by affectless, or unemotional, violence.

Salvo does not just make references to a computer game, however. It also makes reference to other films and/or genres. The filmmakers themselves discuss how their film pays homage to the likes of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, and that it also draws inspiration from Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic, Le Samouraï (France/Italy, 1967) – while its use of a miracle, its sparse dialogue and its interest in procedure also seem to recall the cinema of Robert Bresson (for me at least).

In other words, while the film is about how we are with each other in the world, even at a time when we are encouraged to feel that we not together, that to create a bond with another person is ‘inconceivable’, the film itself is also making bonds with other films; films only exist in an inter-cinematic way, too, it would seem.

And yet, for all of Salvo‘s precursors and reference points, the film had a hard time getting made.

After writing the 2004 comedy Ogni volta che ne te vai/Every Time You Go (Davide Cocchi, Italy, 2004) and the TV movie, Gli Occhi dell’amore/The Eyes of Love (Giulio Base, Italy, 2005), the latter of which suggests an ongoing interest in eyes and looking, Grassadonia and Piazza wrote and directed Rita (Italy, 2009), a short film that in some respects is the basis for Salvo (it is about a blind woman).

It then took them four years to get Salvo off the ground, making the film the product of a five-year process. Piazza recounts his experience thus:

Basically if you’re a first time director and you don’t arrive with the conventional comedy made for television, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to finance a film. In our case, the Italian press was talking about the film because of the support of French television but not the support of the Italian television

In other words, the aesthetics of Salvo, a cinephile’s film that is in part about films, reflects the production history of the film, in that a film about two characters who come to understand the existence of themselves through finally seeing others, is a film that was only made because of a transnational coproduction (with the French) – most Italian producers being too risk-averse, too caught up in the solipsism of contemporary capital, to want to tell a story that reaches out in the way that this one does.

The generalised ‘state of exception,’ then, is also present in the risk-averse nature of the film industry – and it is only in collaborating with strangers, perhaps, that films of this kind can get made. Perhaps it was a concession to commercial interests that the film features prominently on its soundtrack the number one Italian chart hit, ‘Arriverà‘, by Modà, featuring Emma Marrone.

Perhaps this even helps to account for the casting of the film. Salvo is played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, the star of Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains (UK/Italy/Belgium/France, 2009), while a couple of well-known actors have cameons, including Luigi Lo Cascio as Rita’s brother, Enzo. Lo Cascio won a Best Actor Donatello (Italian Oscar) in 2001 for I Cento Passi/One Hundred Steps (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2000), was nominated for the same award two years later for La meglio gioventù/The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003), and was nominated for Best Director in 2013 for La città ideale/The Ideal City (Italy, 2012).

Leading actress Sara Serraiocco, meanwhile, stars in only her first movie. Perhaps this is emblematic of her character, that she is revealed to the world as the world is revealed to her. But then her character is perhaps a bit more canny than this – she is counting mafia money when we first meet her. That is, while Salvo may romanticise her, the film arguably does not, with the ‘miracle’ potentially being in Salvo’s head – it is an allegory, not necessarily a miracle to be believed in a literal sense – with the cheesiness of ‘Arriverà’ as the central musical motif also suggesting as much.

The directors quote great Italian writer Italo Calvino in relation to the film:

In the inferno of the living, where we live every day, that we form by being together, there are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

One can argue that the film is not without complications; Salvo and Rita do not necessarily escape the cycle of violence and it is perhaps only by perpetuating it that they stand a chance of surviving. Indeed, as Salvo’s name suggests, not only might he ‘save’ Rita, but he might also be a force for the state of exception, in that ‘salvo’ also means ‘except’ (in the sense of ‘save for’ – as in, ‘I would have been killed, save for a hitman coming to my rescue’).

Nonetheless, as a film Salvo is not inferno – and so we must give it space and thus help it to endure in a world of rapidly recycled and endlessly forgettable films.

On Facebook, On The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

I’m not entirely sure I have that much to say about The Social Network that has not already been said.

Zadie Smith has written an excellent article on the film in the New York Review of Books, and countless others have chimed in with, predominantly, praise for Fincher’s film, some critiques of Aaron Sorkin’s rather too stylised dialogue and the possible sexism in the film aside.

As for Smith’s article, it seems strange that she had not yet come across ‘software studies’ before writing it, but this is perhaps only my own small-world view; given that I research the role of digital technology in cinema, among other things, software studies entered somewhere into my feeble brain a couple of years ago – and I just assumed that I was as usual late in thinking about software.

But either way, Smith is correct in thinking about how the choices given to us when using software are not necessarily liberating. Perhaps we should all learn how to write code in order to be able to write our own software that can allow us to express ourselves as opposed to having software (arguably) always compromising what it is that we want to say. Software, in other words, is as ideologically constructed, consciously or not, than is a film.

Facebook is, as Smith also points out, certainly a simplification of life, as is a business card, as is a biography, as is everyone else’s opinion of us, as Jerry Thompson has so memorably found out. As is a sled, for that matter.

Shopping malls and the likes of Tesco are successful, because they save us the bother of having to go to lots of different shops, or at least lots of different shops in different places. Everything is brought to one place – and life is made easier. And while buying everything in one mall/megastore is easier than traveling around town or further afield for the things one wants or needs, buying tout court is easier than having to source raw materials and make and/or grow everything one’s self.

You bet that Tesco has transformed, say, the book market because it offers to readers a small selection of choice titles that satisfy the need for books in most people. As a result, Tesco, HMV, and the Oprah Winfrey/Richard & Judy book clubs ostracise the majority of authors from the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Chris Anderson has argued that Amazon reverses, to some degree, the ‘Tesco’ trend (as I am terming it), since Jeff Bezos‘ baby allows buyers to find the books that they want – because they have a larger choice online than in, say, even the wonderful and massive Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London.

And yet even Amazon comes at a price. Even though the Amazon marketplace does help many booksellers to work with and not against Amazon, its sell-everything approach and its tight grip on the online book sales market has put paid to many individual booksellers in the flesh and cyber worlds.

Smith points out at the end of her essay that audience members laughed when the characters of The Social Network discussed the primitive predecessors to Facebook, such as LiveJournal. Strangely, I do not find myself laughing in a similarly superior fashion when I think about what would otherwise translate into the ‘ineptitude’ of the independent second- and first-hand booksellers that Amazon has put out of business. I find myself saddened in some respects. Some types of obsolescence, it seems, we can cruelly laugh at; others will always make us feel sad (especially when it is our own turn to go on the old scrap heap).

What is linking Tesco, Amazon and Facebook, then, is the fact that each unifies in a single place a bunch of things that might otherwise be dispersed and hard to find. As such, they are simplifications, of course, and saddening ones in certain respects. But their success is based upon the fact that they save humans from having to learn a computer language, hire some web space, and put themselves online – as seemingly we all should do (a position that is replete with its own ideological assumptions concerning the ‘superiority’ of a technical and mediatised presence).

In other words, Facebook is the internet redux before it is life redux; the internet, the bigger version of what Facebook is, is life redux, such that we have an order of largesse: Life > Internet > Facebook. In the same way that shops saved us from growing our own, so, too, does Facebook save us from making our own websites. Facebook is the fast food of the internet, its prefab apartments; if you want a mansion or even a nice house, you have to pay someone more dearly to build it for you, or you learn the skills to build it for yourself.

Now, there is a difference between Tesco and Amazon and Facebook. Facebook is about people, while the former two stores sell stuff. Beyond truisms and urban myths about how family members have discovered the copraphilia of relatives, etc (if you’ve seen that fake, viral Facebook page), and the odd gaffe that most people do not notice (because most of us don’t have time to read other people’s Facebook profiles all day long – as most people don’t read these blogs – a pet hate: people who assume that you have kept up with their life because they report on it via Facebook), and beyond UK murders based upon slurs made on Facebook (revealing that we really do believe erroneously that everyone is looking at us and – more particularly – judging us?; as per one of Smith’s commentators, Facebook allows us all to be famous in our own postcodes; perhaps there is an element of ‘becoming light’ attached to Facebook that does appeal to the appeal of being mediatised, turned into an image, made into a star), Facebook is not really the be-all and end-all of our lives. Indeed, it is only when we confuse Facebook with the internet that we begin to think this way, while my ‘identity’ online consists of numerous email addresses, membership of various sites, some obsolete stuff, comments left in hundreds of forums (to which I never return), and so on. I don’t think anyone takes Facebook to be real life, in the same way that there has been a now-long-standing backlash against the ideological critique of films, because audiences are not dumbly passive to the questionable messages being peddled at them in movies. Facebook alone might constitute something of an implosion of the self, a shrinkage as Smith puts it; but the internet as a whole, especially when considered alongside that even greater medium for (compromised and intersubjective?) self-expression, reality itself, constitutes what Sean Cubitt once described (perhaps rather hyperbolically) as a ‘big bang of the self,’ so many ‘identities’ (or aspects of a single identity) can and do we have floating around in cyberspace.

Jean-Paul Sartre has said that looking at a dice in real life/in existence is a richer experience than imagining one. He says that while in our heads/imaginations we can see all six sides of the dice at once, in real life we can only see at best three or four (unless the dice is in suspension and we have mirrors, although this is my own cheeky contention, not Sartre’s). As such, existence trumps the imagination, hence Sartre as an existentialist who feels that it is better to engage in reality than to disappear into self-invented worlds.

Now, the internets as a whole might be self-invented worlds (though there is grounds to defend them, not least from a postmodern perspective). My invocation of Sartre, however, is not to call people to reject Facebook (as Smith has done), but to suggest that when we look at Facebook, we are only seeing two or three of the many sides of the people we are regarding. Reality is always more rich than Facebook; we know Facebook is a simplification, in the same way that we know a hammer makes simpler the task of making some shelves. Sometimes we would be fools to bloody our hands for the sake of not using simplifying tools to insert some nails in the construction of our lives.

By this rationale, The Social Network is a simplification of the story of Facebook, and this is not surprising given how stylised the film is, with its signature Fincher shady interiors, its dialogue that normal people can only think of after the opportunity, and other flourishes, including, as Smith has also explained, a memorable sequence in Henley, which, as Smith fails to mention, borrows the tilt shift technique made remarkable recently by Keith Loutit, and a good example of which, Mardi Gras (Australia, 2008), can be seen below.

I’m not sure how to interpret Fincher’s tilt shift sequence, except perhaps that, by rendering human endeavour into a cartoonish, or better a stop-motion-like and seemingly toyish form, Fincher is directly commenting upon how his film involves a simplification of a reality, a toyification of the raw material from which he ‘sculpts’ his work.

(It might also suggest that Fincher is uncomfortable shooting outside of the USA. Considered in the light of other of his films, especially The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [USA, 2008], it might also suggest that Fincher is offering a prolonged consideration in his work of the effects of cartoons/simplifications on the human psyche – though in some respects this is no profound thought.)

Even though my last paragraph has dealt with the use of tilt shift in The Social Network, it is time to say that, quite a ways into this blog, we finally are talking about the film as opposed to its subject matter. Smith makes no claims to be talking solely about the film in her essay, so this is not something to hold against her, but it is worth pointing out that no one – myself included – seems capable of talking or writing about the film without using it as a platform for talking or writing about the Book of Face itself.

So Facebook has us in its grips – but we really did not need a film to tell us that. Even several years after joining, I still use it regularly, still ‘stalk’ pretty regularly, and still feel that it is the best self-updating address book I have ever owned (and feel that the rest is fun when I want it to be, and annoying when I don’t). But it’s not as if Facebook is not working alongside various other bits of hard- and software in changing our worlds: mobile phones, the internets themselves, iPhones, iPods, iPads, YouTube, Bit Torrents, and more. Facebook is only a small component of this. We have quickly become habituated to them, so one wonders whether The Social Network might one day be the You’ve Got M@il (Nora Ephron, USA, 1998) of a slightly younger – but still Radiohead-listening – generation.

More important, then, than Facebook, is, after Sartre, reality and people. What does The Social Network have to say about society, about ‘the soul’ and things that Facebook no doubt slightly influences but which more importantly it simply allows to be expressed, whether or not what it expresses is only the Harvard sophomore in all of us?

Rather than being a rewriting of what has been written, and certainly rather than being the final word on The Social Network (which is a superior film by a superior filmmaker, but not necessarily his best), this blog, then, is only supposed to bring out an element of the film that seems to be overlooked by most commentators.

The element that I wish to discuss is the grouped idea of class, private property and commons in the film.

One thing that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants is to be recognised as the author of Facebook. The fact that Facebook for a long time in real life contained the legend ‘A Mark Zuckerberg Production’ on every page has been pointed out. This implies that the internet, like television before it, aspires to the movies in order to be considered legitimate, but it also implies that Zuckerberg is interested in authoring something that is supposedly a collective enterprise. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook,” says the fictional Zuckerberg, before he allows all of his collaborators to get screwed over. Zadie Smith reads this Zuckerberg as someone who wants to be liked, but he is also one of those odd types, whom I can see sometimes in myself, who will screw over his close friends, precisely, perhaps, because Groucho Marx-style, he disrespects anyone who actually does like him, because they must have lousy judgment in human beings.

I have no interest in the real Zuckerberg, but the fictional one at least is a self-absorbed but complex chap who wants to give to the world something ‘free,’ but who, megalomaniacally, also craves recognition for the same. And this is the real paradox in the Zuckerberg character presented here, which does make it perhaps a 2.0 Person created by a 1.0 Person, as Smith says, but which also hints at the 1.0 that holds back the 2.0 in all of us: he talks of an open and free society, but he walks in a privatised world of intellectual property. Zuckerberg’s real genius is not having written Facebook. Contra the ‘great man’ of history (or at least computer programming) that Zuckerberg self-servingly espouses (much like Steve Jobs has done recently on the similarly self-important TED), Zuckerberg’s real genius is in winning his legal battles. Someone else most certainly would have designed Facebook or something like it (indeed, we know this, because various other people are working on this idea in the film), in the same way that someone else would have come up with the fonts for word processing software that Jobs claims as making him/his computers so special. That it was this Zuckerberg – in the film – is simply a twist of fate, a moment of hazardous (inevitable?) chance. But getting the world to recognise that he was the author of this phenomenon – this was the greatest coup. And yet this recognition relies solely on the notion of being a 1.0 person – someone whose ideas are shaped by the rights of private and intellectual property – while claiming to be a 2.0 person – someone who believes in the common, the free, and the abolition of intellectual property. Someone who pretends to be a team player but, whether he ‘actually’ stole from the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) or not, is anything but a team player, as Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) finds out.

In this way, Fincher/Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg is not the face of the future, but the Janus face of the past in the present as it comes head to head with the future. Is Zuckerberg a breed that is dying out, however, as thousands of anonymous programmers work for minimal money or for free on open source software around the globe and around the clock in a real self-organising commons of soft wares? Or is he the lingering face of capitalist greed, regardless of whether the real Zuckerberg has pledged to give away a large proportion of his wealth during his lifetime?

The Social Network is not about Zuckerberg, then, but about a world that is on the brink of potentially undergoing huge social change, upon the brink of becoming, or at the very least welcoming into its fold a generation that is, a network society not of homogeneised kids putting their mindlessness down in their live feeds, but of heterogeneous and collaborating humans who will pool information and resources in such a way that private property, both intellectual and material, is replaced by a sense of a common wealth. A society in which, pace Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, emphasis is not on the individual, but, after Hardt and Negri (whom I am quoting a lot at the moment – apologies!), on the multiple singularities that we are both collectively and ‘individually.’ A generation that recognises its own participation in a reality that is far too complex and ‘existential’ than any single film or piece of software might be able to convey.

Zadie Smith should know well that Judith Butler has, among others, argued that gender is, or at the very least can be, a performance. And while Smith might decry Facebook as a reduced or impoverished life, I would contend that we must think about the performative aspects of Facebook, and understand that few are the people who take it for real. In fact, the performative aspects of Facebook are what make it a liberating tool. A tool for prevarication, perhaps, but also a tool that perhaps also makes a political statement out of prevarication; like the Goldman Sachs employee who preferred networking to making money.

To perform is to perform for others; it is fundamentally an act of communication. As such, performance is fundamentally a means of building relationships with others. Rather than isolating us, Facebook, and the internets more generally, can be considered as a means of bringing us towards a multitude.

To be circumspect, this is unlikely to happen with Facebook as it currently stands. Facebook is indeed too homogeneous/homogeneising, too simple, simplistic and simplified. But given how creative people are and can be with Facebook even now, when we all come to be contributing to an even more complex site at even more complex levels of creativity, and without laughing at Facebook as we would not laugh for poor, defunct booksellers, then perhaps we can see the creative impulses of Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg as a step in the right direction, a 2.0 wish, that was stymied by 1.0 desires.

As a meditation on authorship and private property, it is intriguing that The Social Network has Fincher and Sorkin stamped so clearly over it. Perhaps this film remains too steeped in the mythology of cinema as the work of a single auteur. On the other hand, Smith has attributed to Fincher a genius for casting in her article. In some senses, we need not attribute this to Fincher; certainly, we need not attribute the great acting solely to Fincher. For even if some elements and the general high standards of the film suggest the presence of his genius, it is not the only one, and actors, editors, cinematographers, writers, directors, and others all deserve credit for what they have achieved here.

Cinema, in spite of a(n understandable – and still in some ways rightly influential) detour into auteur theory as the main means of understanding it, has always been a collaborative process. Even for productions the goal of which is to make the maximum amount of money for the least amount of effort, many people contribute such that cinema is often a work of a/the multitude. Indeed, when one lets one’s collaborators do their own work, such that they are not just actors or crew members but what Gilles Deleuze might term intercessors, or people who truly bring their own genius to the pot, then something great can be born. Filmmaking is no doubt about teamwork, even if great teams also have great managers, trainers and captains.

Paradoxically, then, Smith might have it all wrong: cinema was always already (at its best? anyway?) the 2.0 endeavour, while the younger media, including the internet, are still stuck – as per the people versus Mark Zuckerberg court cases brought here – at the 1.0 copyright level. In some respects, Thomas Edison‘s insistence upon claiming copyright for his cinematographic invention stymied early cinema production, even though Edison shamelessly copied Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon (France, 1902). In other respects, by going away from Edison to the West Coast, and by in effect shamelessly pirating his hardware, the film industry got going.

Even though it is easy to decry Hollywood for its overriding power and seemingly (but unfairly) homogeneous products, sometimes perhaps we can interpret it in a different way. Whatever it has become, the film industry in the USA might well have been founded upon a collaborative, multitudinous principle. And software, or the internet, is still in its Edison stage, with Zuckerberg as the (counter-?)Edison of his time. Even if the movies have had to evolve, as Dudley Andrew contends (rather self-evidently) in his latest book, sometimes cinema has evolved in beautiful directions, perhaps because through its multitudinous and emergent means of production it is flexible enough to change. As software, similarly, evolves, hopefully it, too, will have some beautiful iterations that allow the multitude to realise itself.