Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nightcrawler and The Social Network: Sociopaths, Entrepreneurs, and Masculinity

I finally saw The Social Network after joining the conversation about David Fincher's latest movie, Gone Girl. I gave the former a miss when it came out because I read Zadie Smith's scathing article on it in The New York Review of Books, where she describes how the movie's central idea – that Zuckerberg created Facebook so that socially inept, computer-loving nerds like himself could have the illusion of having friends – was based on fabrications about Zuckerberg. Specifically, whereas the fictional Zuckerberg is dumped by a girlfriend in the first scene and starts down the path toward creating Facebook as an act of revenge, the real Zuckerberg has been with the same woman (now his wife) since they met at Harvard, where she was a fellow student. If you google her, she's both accomplished and gorgeous. Whatever trouble he may or may not have had making or being nice to friends, Zuckerberg evidently had no trouble attracting or maintaining relationships with women.

But then The Social Network isn't about Zuckerberg, or about Facebook. It's about the myth of the internet, and of a new masculinity that doesn't look much like the old kind but has all of its problems anyway.

Angry Guys on the Internet and Beethoven in a Hoodie

Remember all of those pop sociology books that came out when the internet was exploding, about how geeks had gone from being at the bottom of the social hierarchy (and, it goes without saying, the hierarchy of masculinity) to being the future of business, but without having learned any social skills? Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is that guy.

He's also, of course, as Smith notes in her article, an irritable and irritating “autistic genius,” which is how we've come to picture genius in the digital era, although on TV this type has been associated with professions ranging from medicine (House M.D.) to physics (Sheldon Cooper). The ancestor of the type is Sherlock Holmes; Steven Moffat's updated Holmes, the first series of which aired the same year that The Social Network came out, explicitly married the modern “autistic” Holmes to the idea of the sociopath. I can't imagine what autistic people think about all of this – but, to paraphrase Jerry Lewis, these are the tropes, let's face it.

As Zuckerberg, Eisenberg never smiles, a striking way of communicating the flat affect and lack of social skills associated with autism. If you google Zuckerberg, he's always smiling. He looks like a nerd, alright – but like a kind of goofy dork, not like Beethoven in a hoodie.

Fictional Zuckerberg is also “an angry guy on the internet,” as someone calls him at some point (is it Rooney Mara, the dumping girlfriend?) in response to his revenge-on-all-women move of inventing on online game in which Harvard students can rate the attractiveness of their fellow – and female, naturally – students. Already in 2010, way pre-GamerGate, the internet is gendered, and way pre-Elliot Rodger, the world is concerned about its presumed denizens: basement-dwelling young men without social skills who are so desperate for sex and status that they've turned misogynous.

This isn't my internet, I hasten to add. I've been a non-angry, non-male internet user since 2004 or so, and in the early days, when I was thrilling to being one of the settlers of the cyberwilderness, I was writing and reading fan fiction, and, accordingly, hardly ever interacted with a male on the internet, angry or not. I kept hearing in the media how it was mostly men on the internet, but I couldn't have told you where they were, or what they were doing.

None of this changes the popular narrative, in which the internet is gendered male, and women are either indifferent or even hostile to it (like Mara in the movie, who is so uninterested in social networking that she sneers at the newly popular Eisenberg, “Good luck with your video game, or whatever”), or endangered by it. Watching The Social Network, I felt the thrill that you can only get when your subculture is recognized by mainstream media when Zuckerberg blogs on LiveJournal – except that the movie associates LiveJournal with “online misogyny” by making it an angry post about the girlfriend who just dumped him. I knew LiveJournal as a fun, messy, transgressive place where women – queer, straight, cis, trans, single, coupled, students, graduates, moms – poured their guts out in journal posts and participated, often raucously, in fan communities. The Social Network is so committed to its message about masculinity, to fusing the tech nerd with the internet user and making them both misogynists, that even though the film is critical of masculinity and misogyny, it feels like having my experience erased – which is no new experience for women.

A Genius at What?

Our cultural concern about angry men is hardly anything new either; the internet just provides us with a new angle. Fictional Zuckerberg is hardly your angry guy on the internet stereotype, though. He's going to Harvard, not playing RPG games in his parents' basement. As we learn in the hilarious scene where the athletic, blond WASP twins use their connections to get a meeting with some Harvard bigwig who finds their request that he intervene to stop Zuckerberg from stealing their idea ludicrous, Harvard is the breeding ground for the entrepreneurs who will be tomorrow's leaders. While the scene itself is comical, it's hard to know how seriously, or ironically, this sentiment is supposed to be taken. Certainly, if the young men who are either brilliant or privileged enough, or both, to be at Harvard do not take advantage of the opportunity to make some kind of cultural contribution, it's a huge waste. Zuckerberg, the business innovator, is doing exactly what's expected of a Harvard man.

And I say “man” advisedly, because despite the recognition that women are among the students (their looks get rated, remember?), this is a movie about the power plays of men. The men do some of the things they do for or because of women, but even in the 21st century, women are not imagined (neither by the movie nor by the men in it) as being among those future leaders that Harvard churns out to justify its existence. And in fact, there were no women among the key Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: the names we know, besides Mark Zuckerberg, are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Google and Yahoo were founded by men (two each).

The Social Network is bookended by scenes between Zuckerberg and a women. In the first, Zuckerberg is spurned by his girlfriend; in the second, he receives some sympathy from a young female lawyer. We are meant to believe that even the lawyer has “people skills,” by virtue of her femaleness, and that Zuckerberg's achievements compensate for not having the access to people that women have because of their people skills or the access to women that he could have if he had people skills. In his only other scene with Mara, the one where she belittles his “video game,” he sees her at a table full of people who are her friends – one of them a black man. Mara's black friend serves as a symbol of those effectively debarred from Harvard and all it represents, despite its “diversity” (the WASP picture is complicated by the presence of the twins' pal Divya Nirendra, who, according to Wikipedia, is the near-perfect-SAT-scoring son of immigrant doctors from India).

He is also a symbol of those with no social capital, who are of no interest to fictional Zuckerberg. In the first scene with Mara, he snobbishly puts down her school and obsesses about the high-status clubs at Harvard while making a strenuous effort to prove to her that he's smarter than she is. The thing is – he sort of succeeds, although she does get in a couple of good psychological diagnoses. (People skills. Women have those. You got that, right?) The Social Network may critique the White Male Genius archetype, but it doesn't question it. Only this new White Male Genius isn't creating art, or adding to our scientific knowledge. Ultimately he's a businessman, even if his product happens to have changed the way human beings socialize. But what's unique about the movie's Zuckerberg is that his story is not one of becoming an all-powerful, Charles Foster Kane-style tycoon. It's one of a new American dream/nightmare, exemplified by Facebook and the way it forces us to be constantly social and visible: of being a loser and becoming cool.

Nightcrawler: American Nightmare

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum is Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. When we first see him, he's a lone, violent thief who's having no luck getting legitimate work although he's seemingly willing to do anything. We don't know anything about his background or how he came to this state. He talks about unemployment and the recession; presumably his employment was precarious, he lost it, and now he can't cross back over to legitimacy.

Bloom doesn't have Zuckerberg's genius, although he does seem to share his “autism.” Gyllenhaal plays him in that general mode, twitchy, odd, and clueless about human interaction. He's given to rigid repetitions of platitudes and long business-speak diatribes. At other moments, flashing an oxymoronic creepy charm, he channels Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates. We see him at first as a victim, possibly, albeit a potentially dangerous one. Definitely, he's a desperate man, and if one is able to identify with him, on the basis of his need and vulnerability and Gyllenhaal's freaky charisma, one can't help but hope that he'll succeed in pulling himself by his bootstraps. That is the bait the movie holds out, I think; and if you take it, you are put in a position of moral complicity as Bloom does what he has to do to go from loser to success.

Lean, mean, and misanthropic, like its protagonist, Nightcrawler is no more interested in creating a complex sociological portrait of contemporary urban life than Bloom is in saving the whore whom he takes on as his “intern” – a young man who's lived on the streets and whose only source of income, currently, as Bloom understands right away, is turning tricks. Given Bloom's isolation, alienation, and general oddness, I, too, like some critics, thought of Travis Bickle (and I think we're supposed to in the one scene where he lets out some animal rage, into a mirror), but Bickle has a kind of innocence that makes his violence all the more horrifying – because it's the expression of his innocence. Bloom has a wide-eyed (saucer-eyed, in fact) credulity with regard to the American religion and philosophy of business and success, but he is no innocent. His credulity and sociopathy are one and the same: he embraces this sociopathic philosophy of exploitation without a qualm, believing in it with the faith of the hopeless, and it rewards him.

Nightcrawler is less a new Taxi Driver than an American Psycho for bust-phase capitalism, proving that you don't need money or power to be a corporate psychopath. Whereas Taxi Driver is, I think, really trying to understand urban male isolation and alienation and how it leads to violence, Nightcrawler is a blackly comic parable. The reason Bloom can't get sex isn't his oddness but his lack of success. We only see brief glimpses of him going about his domestic life in his tiny apartment, laughing at Danny Kaye on TV or watering his plant, but it's enough. A man without money or prestige can't get sex, which makes him doubly unmanned.

When we first see Rene Russo's morning news director, she appears to be a ball-busting, no-bullshit, empowered female boss who offers herself as a mentor in sleaze to Bloom. When he makes a pass at her, the power seems to be largely on her side: despite the fact that she's twice his age, as she points out, she's an attractive woman of normal social skills (when she's not busting balls at work) who seems to be in a position of power, and he's a 30-year-old man who's socially inept and barely starting a career. He's in no way sexually viable. The gender's on the wrong foot, but Bloom is going to set that right. First, he “negotiates” her into having sex with him by reminding her of the things he's learned about her from his internet research (the same way he learned business philosophy), which show that her employment is precarious, and convincing her that his footage is the only thing that's going to save her job. He doesn't persuade her into bed based on these facts, mind you, since he lacks the social finesse for that: he blackmails her into it by threatening to stop bringing her footage if she doesn't comply.

The next time up, he fucks up royally, and she chews him out in front of staff as he used to watch her do to other men. Russo is great in this scene, her voice cracking a little hysterically for the first time during one of her harangues: she let him have sex with her and now if he doesn't “man up,” as she puts it, it will all be for nothing. It's after this emasculation that he briefly goes wild in front of the bathroom mirror. But once he deals with his competition, he makes the next big opportunity he has really count. Russo is so impressed with the results that she coos at him, submissive for the first time, and it's hard to know whether she's just doing what he wants so that he'll give her more of the same or if she's genuinely attracted to him now that he's done what he's supposed to do to prove he's a "real man." Does she even know herself? 

Scrounging for Survival

The point of the movie's satire is not, I think, that the problem with corporations is that they're staffed by individual sociopaths. It's that the fact that Bloom is a sociopath makes him better at following corporate principles than normal people who have ethics and empathy. The movie isn't necessarily saying that all entrepreneurs are sociopaths, only that sociopaths make great entrepreneurs.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort is another kind of sociopath – one without any autistic traits. I don't know about the real Belfort, but DiCaprio as Belfort has such lust for life that he's fun to watch no matter how much you disapprove of him. Gyllenhaal is fun to watch in a different way: for me there's no way not to want him to succeed despite what it entails, because the stakes are so great and so final every time. Nightcrawler – in sharp contrast to both Wolf and Network – shows exactly how difficult it is to not only make a living but get ahead. The competition is incessant and terrific: Bloom's with other freelancers to get and sell the footage; Russo's with other stations. Every fuck-up makes a huge impact on his business – a word I want to put in quotations, except that's what it actually is. It's not much different from scrounging for survival as a thief, except now he has a chance of eventually making big money and getting respect. Because it's America.

The movie's third main character, Rick, is, of course, in a precarious position as well. To show the contrast between Wolf and Nightcrawler: when Belfort meets his second-in-command, the man gives up his life to follow Belfort, like a twisted Jesus, after hearing how much money he's making as a penny stocks salesman; in Nightcrawler, Bloom, who has nothing so far except for a contact at the lowest-rated station in the city and his vision, tells the desperate young man who's taken three buses to meet up with him in response to his ad that he's got the job, and then announces, “It's an internship.” The American dream, in Wolf, is to be making more money than you know what to do with, right away – by whatever means you can get away with. The American nightmare, in Nightcrawler, is to be making no money at all for a long time and still having to sell your soul.

For Rick, who has no job history, the “choice” is between working at a dangerous job for a madman for $30 a night (as he manages to negotiate) or going back to the streets and prostituting himself. Actually, the latter seems almost better, but the former is at least a real job with, he's told, a future, even if it pays less than minimum wage. When Bloom needs his help to do something both shockingly immoral and dangerously illegal, Rick finally “mans up” and manages to demand half of a large reward, and for a moment it seems as though Bloom might want to be a mentor to him and make him a full partner. Maybe, just maybe, homosocial dynamics will triumph, and a man will fare better with Bloom than Russo's character did. Rick, however, makes the mistake of thinking, like we do, that's he's done the thing expected of him as a man, and can now speak to Bloom like they're equals. Women can fulfill physical and emotional needs once they've been made subservient (one of the most horrifying, and hilarious, parts of the blackmail scene is that Bloom specifies to Nina that he is negotiating for her friendship as well as her body). But men who aren't subservient are merely competition. These are the laws of capitalism and masculinity, and the profession of nightcrawler shows them in about as naked a form as it can get – with no golden parachutes or offshore accounts.

On High in Blue Tomorrows

The reason that women aren't Mark Zuckerberg is, possibly, that we're not Lou Bloom. The entrepreneurial spirit has less to do with privilege or perfect SAT scores, Nightcrawler says – both movies say, really – than with being socialized to think that your identity depends on being successful and having sex, with the latter dependent on the former. But that doesn't mean that women can't or won't want to learn how to be self-made like Lou, a point the movie makes when it includes an eager-looking young woman the three new interns Bloom has hired as part of his expanded business in the movie's final moments.

Another movie that one can compare Nightcrawler to in its critique of the American dream and the men whose identity depends on pursuing it is Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, in which the young Jewish protagonist, already feeling suffocated by his new marriage, meets the WASP princess of his dreams on his honeymoon and begins a pursuit of her that's all the more relentless because he understands now that life is not worth living for him if he can't get the things he's been conditioned to want. The subversiveness of the script and direction lies in the way that it's impossible not to want him to succeed even as you're outraged by the things he'll do in order to do it, because he's doing exactly what he's supposed to: he wants what he's supposed to want and he's showing initiative and persistence in going after it. The black comedy of Charles Grodin's performance resides in his character's endless ability to justify himself as, like Lou Bloom, he talks and talks and talks. Whereas The Heartbreak Kid ends with a subtle hint that attaining his dream is a bit of a let-down, however, Nightcrawler suggests that today's entrepreneurs of tomorrow have their needs fully met by the philosophy of business. After all, if your goal is to eternally grow and expand, how can there ever be that moment of disappointment when the dream doesn't live up to your dream of it?

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