Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revenge of the Nerd

Director David Fincher’s The Social Network takes a not-so-promising premise — the story of Facebook — and turns it into an amazing movie. Compare it to, say, The Pirates of Silicon Valley. Good movie, but not great. This was great. And I knew it in the first few minutes.

In the opening scene, Mark Zuckerberg’s intellect rolls over his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend like a tank. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it. He stomps her; she dumps him. “Sorry” doesn’t cut it.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue perfectly captures the way nerds talk and think. Nerdspeak. Sorkin speaks it like a native speaker.

Nerds have more short term memory (a larger RAM buffer) and will refer to earlier conversational threads assumed dropped. Nerds are both anti-social and anti-Machiavellian. In the nerd ethos, thought is code; you follow the argument where it leads; you put all your assumptions on the table — including assumptions about social status, motives and intelligence. Sparing people’s feelings doesn’t enter into it. This sounds like insensitivity, but it really isn’t. If you’ve got an IQ of 170 or so, you insult people without even trying. So you stop trying not to.

To write this smart, you've got to be that smart. Props to Mr. Sorkin.

In the opening scene, you see exactly what kind of brain Zuckerberg has — and exactly what kind of character. The scene is the whole movie in embryo, a logic bomb waiting to explode. Everything flows from there ...

As a result of social rejection, Zuckerberg creates the greatest social network in history.

A college prank to get back at his ex-girlfriend evolves, step by step, into Facebook. We trace this evolution looking back in time from the vantage point of depositions and legal hearings. Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend and two twin, upper class jocks are suing him over the intellectual property rights issues. I.e.; the jocks claim Zuckerberg stole their idea; his best friend claims he cheated him out of partnership in the company. From one perspective, Zuckerberg stabbed them all in the back. From another perspective, he didn’t. Facebook evolved, ineluctably, like so many lines of elegant code.

Zuckerberg may be great with computer code — but he's not so great at moral code. The movie doesn’t dismiss him — or excuse him — as a human computer or autistic savant with a low social IQ. Zuckerberg's not socially unaware. He’s socially indifferent. And proud. His giant, pulsating brain remembers every social slight, every patronizing implication, every sneer. He balances the equation. He gets his payback.

Facebook is the revenge of the nerd.

This film has great performances by Jessie Eisenberg (Zuckerberg), Armie Hammer (playing both twins), Andrew Garfield (as Zuckerberg's dumped partner) and — believe it or not — Justin Timberlake (as Sean Parker, Napster's crash-and-burn founder). Acting that doesn't feel like acting — no milking the scene, no going for the big moment. Director Fincher makes you feel like a voyeur spying in on real people — pretty rare, for a big budget movie these days.

What this film doesn’t have is any detailed investigation of Facebook itself. There a few throwaway scenes — but nothing like those 1960s movies explaining the growth of rock and roll with a montage of teens listening to portable radios on the beach. Facebook is a phenomenon. The movie assumes you know about it — and gets on with the story.

That story is largely fiction. The filmmakers had access to the broad outlines of the story — and no access to the actual details or characters, wrapped in layers of nondisclosure agreements as they were. The Mark Zuckerberg of this movie has about as much reality as Prince Hamlet or Leopold Bloom, which is just fine with me. That’s probably why this film is so much more than a mere bio-pic. It’s the bio-pic of an idea — an idea that stands for all ideas. It’s a universal story.

Fincher’s movie and Sorkin’s script brilliantly shoehorns two plot threads together: (A) the exciting birth of an idea — as in the discovery of Radium or penicillin (B) the human cost and betrayal associated with the ownership of that idea. Facebook was a brilliant idea. The filmmakers are absolutely clear about that.

Whether the kudzu-like social network Zuckerberg created is such a good idea for society is different question — and a question for a different movie.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Coming on like a "Hurricane"

Nilo Cruz's new play, "Hurricane," premiered at the Ringling International Art Festival. The festival commissioned the work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Michael Donald Edwards directs.

The setting: a Caribbean island in the path of a killer storm. The characters: Forrest (Paul Whitworth), an old-school Christian missionary; Ria (Kim Brockington), his island-born wife; Aparicio (Carlo Albán), their adopted son -- a gift from the sea who magically appeared one day, floating in a basket like baby Moses.

Cruz' play opens in discordant stereo. The storm's a-coming. Forrest declaims from the Bible in Shakespearean tones; Ria makes an incantation to an Afro-Caribbean sea goddess; Aparicio climbs a tree in a rite-of-passage ritual to get a zap of spiritual energy from the Hurricane. (Which seems to reflect Mom's religion more than Dad's.) Dad goes looking for Aparicio. When the storm hits, Dad gets conked on the head. And it's amnesia time for Reverend Forrest. 

Forrest comes back to consciousness but not to himself. He's lost his history, his personality and his religion. He thinks he's possessed by the spirit of a woman: Andrea. Like Goethe's Faust, two souls cohabit within his breast.

Aparicio blames himself for his father's blasted brain. Ria makes agonizing attempts to reconnect with Forrest's lost identity. At the end of it all, there's a redemption -- and happy ending -- of sorts.

Great acting on all counts. Whitworth has a powerful, Shakespearean delivery; Brockington conveys a sweet agony as Ria; Albán is touching as a teenager wrestling with guilt.

Edwards bookends the play with two striking visual images; a frozen tableaux of debris, and Aparicio swimming through the air. (No magic. Just Peter Pan-style wire works.)

Great stuff. But the stuff in-between the two images doesn't quite add up.

Cruz' play is an interesting meditation on the loss of identity -- and the foundational role memory has in creating identity. But a meditation isn't a play. Aside from a concussion and its aftermath, there's no real conflict or tension. Father, Mother and Son are all wonderful people. Dad got bonked on the head. They went through some bad times. But they're OK now.

It's not enough. I get the sense the playwright feels the same way. Cruz' play is a sketch; an hour-long slide show of high points -- which it had to be to fit the festival format. Cruz hints at the tension between Christianity and Afro-Caribbean religion but never explores it. He informs us that Forrest rescued his wife from sexual slavery -- and drops the subject. There's a big story here -- too big to shoehorn into sixty minutes.

My hunch is, Cruz will expand the play and dig into the subtext. Dad's loss of memory will have a larger resonance to -- say -- the white man's willful amnesia to his patronizing exploitation of Afro-Caribbean people. An amnesia which applies, even to "heroic" white missionaries.

That's just a guess. As it stands now, the play is a sketch.

It's fascinating now for the complete image that it promises.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it

"Opera Baroque" -- one of the offerings at this year's Ringling International Art Festival -- is adapted from the 18th-century “Czech Opera About a Comically Small Crooked-Looking Chimney Built by Masons, or the Quarrel Between the Landlords and Its Masons.” It's a puppet show. But that's kinda like saying Jimi Hendrix was a guy who played the guitar.

The Forman brothers are pulling the strings. (Actually only two are brothers: Matej and Petr Forman. Milan Forman, in synchronistic coincidence, has the same last name.) The Formans are determinedly working class. They remind me of the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers. They come out -- in blue striped shirts and big smiles -- in a parody of desperate audience ingratiation.

Before the show opens, the "brothers" get into some bits of business with the audience. Making a big production out of it, they polish the glasses of the folks in the front row. One brother emerges as the spokesman. He discusses the translation problem. (It's too much of a problem, so they won't translate.) He advises you to lower your expectations. "This is a puppet show. Many people find this boring."

He explains the opera's plot. Two workers put up a chimney. It falls down. The husband yells at them. Then the wife yells at them. That's it. That's the whole opera.

The dude gets apologetic again. "In Czechoslovakia, wives do a lot of yelling. It is only our country. We're not saying anything about American wives."

A dude in a powdered wig (Vitezslav Janda) sits down at the keyboard.(A synthesizer pretending to be a harpsichord.) The audience forgets to applaud, so the spokesbrother reminds them.

And so, the opera begins. As foretold, the two masons screw up the job. Building a chimney. You'd think it'd be simple, but no. The brothers Forman have added a trio of three demonically bratty brothers to the original opera, along with a Mozart-like piano tutor. The kids can't play "Frere Jacques" ...? The tutor solves the problem by hitting them. The brats annoy the masons? The masons hit them with shovels. Along the way, the puppeteers' hands reach down from the sky like the hands of God himself.

Later on, they stop the action. One brother has artistic differences. He's shouting in Czechoslovakian and ready to walk out. The spokesman explains, "My brother's not happy with the way we did that scene. He thinks it's too rushed. We can either start the opera from the beginning or do the scene in slow motion." So they do the scene in slow motion. After they make such a big deal out of it, here's what you get: The bratty little kid dances around. The scowling mason takes the shovel and whacks him into the stratosphere.

The comic timing is nothing less than brilliant. It reminds me of the classic Warner Brothers cartoon greats -- McKimson, Clampett, Avery and Jones. The brothers are constantly interrupting the action and making you think about the elaborate machinery of the show. I'd call it post-modern, but I suspect they're not operating from an academic playbook. It's just funny, that's all.

The slapstick is gut-bustingly funny in its own right. Of course, there's a satiric target, too: Opera. The stage is a dinky little puppet theater stage. It’s not impressive in any way shape or form, but it’s done up like a grandiose opera hall.

This is an opera about two schleps who can't put up a chimney. The stars of the opera are puppets. It's anything but grandiose. But they play it that way.

It's perfectly hilarious.

And the perfect anecdote to artistic pretension.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Positively Bob Dylan

Last time I saw Bob Dylan was back in the 1992 at the Van Wezel. He was too cool for school, ignoring the audience and playing half-heartedly in sloppy, idiosyncratic arrangements that were all over the place. (Think The Imagination Song from South Park's Imaginationland.)

By comparison, Dylan's concert at the USF Sun Dome was a shot of love. Surprise, surprise.

I didn't expect that much. The Sun Dome is a uniquely ugly example of brutalist concrete architecture. Brutal crowd control, too. Security was ridiculously tight; your freaking ticket was basically an internal passport you had to show every time you used the stairs. May I see your papers please? There will be no flashing of the chimes of freedom here!

Before the concert, I noticed that Dylan had branded his current tour with a weird lightning bolt eye under a crown logo. The Zimmermania booth was selling Bob Dylan t-shirts and Bob Dylan Harmonicas. The dude should branch out into Bob Dylan Leopard Skin Pillbox Hats and Bob Dylan Big Brass Beds. But I digress.

After diverting the audience with a clip from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Dylan opened with, well, Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat, and right away I knew I was in for a treat.

His latest band ain't The Band, but it's a damn good band. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton cooked on steel guitar. The drummer was a machine. Loved the band. (Though, as noted, they're not The Band.) Now that Dylan sounds like Tom Waits after gargling with rock salt, it's wise to wrap that voice in a powerhouse band with a distinct identity.

The new band's identity is strictly R&B. They'd be right at home in the Blues Fest.

Dylan didn't spend the whole concert noodling the keyboard. At times, he actually sang to the audience. Damned if I understood a word. Dylan of 2010 today makes the Dylan of the 1960s sound like Frank Sinatra. He could be singing in Esperanto for all I know. But he sang from his heart and that's what counts.

The Folk-Rock Poet of the Youth Generation also seemed to click with the band -- as opposed to pissing on their heads, cracking the whip, dominating or ignoring them. Hell, at times, I think they're were jamming, improvising and fooling around like a real cohesive group.

Dylan didn't serve up the half-hearted meanderings I remember from 1992. Or the weird, sprung rhythms of his early electric period, either. The arrangements were stripped-down: roadhouse rhythm and blues with a dash of rockabilly. No frills, no kazoos, just driving rhythm like a runaway train. It's what the people wanted. (And what hardcore Dylanites probably didn't want.) Call it: The Give The People What They Want Tour.

The set list offered a grab-bag of audience faves, Lay Lady Lay, Highway 61 Revisited, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Tangled Up in Blue, etc. He put in a few relatively new pieces -- Tweedleedum and Tweedleedee, It's All Good, etc. But they fit in seamlessly with the hard-charging arrangements of Dylan's mainstream classics.

The Unwashed Phenomenon closed with Just Like a Woman and did All Along the Watchtower as an encore. I jumped to my feet, pumped my fist and shouted "Yes!" like a true fan boy.

The audience loved it, too. Whole lotta shaking going on down in the crowd. College kids getting into it.

It occurred to me both songs are statements of judgment and doom. All the Talmudic scholars who picked Dylan's lyrics apart back in the day figured the spoiled brat of Just Like a Woman stood for narcissistic, power-tripping America and the dues we're going to pay; All Along the Watchtower is clearly pre-Apocalyptic. Two dudes strolling the fortress perimeter and waiting for Sauron's forces to ride in.

These words of warning are lost on anyone who doesn't already know 'em.