Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, October 12, 2012

David Denby's "Do the Movies Have a Future?"



David Denby’s “Influencing People” (The New Yorker, October 4, 2010) is one of the best movie reviews I’ve ever read – where best means descriptive, analytical, artful, exhilarating. I blogged about it here, when it first appeared, in a post titled “The Social Network: Denby v. Smith v. Wood.” Now I see that Denby has included a version of it in his new book Do the Movies Have a Future? The book version is called “David Fincher and The Social Network.” Comparing it with the New Yorker piece, I note a number of interesting changes. Here, for example, is the New Yorker version’s tracing of the movie’s subtlety:

Yet, no matter how quickly the film moves, Fincher, working with the editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, pauses within the fast tempo
and lets the emotional power of the moment expand. Relying on nothing more than tiny shifts of emphasis and inflection, the director, to an amazing degree, makes us care about the split between the unyielding Zuckerberg and Saverin, who’s a decent guy but unimaginative and perhaps a little timid.

Now here’s the book version:

Yet no matter how quickly the film moves, Fincher, working with the editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, pauses within the fast tempo and, like a great opera conductor, lets the emotional power of the moment expand. The emotion is produced not so much by emphasis as by extreme precision – tiny shifts of inflection (a hesitation, a glance, a lowered voice); even the actors playing the lawyers add their bit of nuance to what might have been routine scenes of questioning and badgering. In the end, to an amazing degree, Fincher makes us care about the split between two college buddies, Zuckerberg and Saverin, tender friends who understood each other about as well as highly competitive young men ever do. Poor Eduardo! He’s a decent guy but unimaginative and perhaps a little timid.

Notice that the observation about the reliance “on nothing more than tiny shifts of emphasis,” in the New Yorker piece, has been reconsidered. Denby now says, “the emotion is produced not so much by emphasis as by extreme precision.” And he goes on to explain what he means by “extreme precision” – “tiny shifts of inflection (a hesitation, a glance, a lowered voice).” His commentary deepens my appreciation of the movie, as does his point about “even the actors playing the lawyers add their bit of nuance to what might have been routine scenes of questioning and badgering.”

Most of the changes that Denby has made to his great review are minor (e.g., to the line, “The truth, Fincher seems to be saying, is best approached with data, impressions, and interpretations,” he adds a semi-colon and says, “there’s no final way of knowing anything”). But there’s one passage that’s been substantially rewritten. It’s regarding the film's accuracy. Here’s the New Yorker version:

The debate about the movie’s accuracy has already begun, but Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art. Accuracy is now a secondary issue.

Here’s the book version:

 A debate about the movie’s accuracy has already begun: Doesn’t the actual Zuckerberg have a girlfriend? Is it fair to portray him as arrogant and isolated? And so on. But Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created an irresistibly entertaining work of art that’s infinitely suggestive of the way personal relations are evolving – or devolving – in the Internet Age. Spiritual accuracy, not literal accuracy, is what matters, and that kind of accuracy can be created only by artists.

I agree with Denby’s opinion that The Social Network is a work of art. However, I question his statement, in the New Yorker piece, that “Accuracy is now a secondary issue.” Painstaking accuracy is, for me, a hallmark of great art (think Vermeer, Nabokov, Scorsese). The fact that he deletes this remark from the book version of the review indicates he’s uncomfortable with it, too. But the statement he replaces it with – “Spiritual accuracy, not literal accuracy, is what matters” – is no less problematical. I don’t want to sound moralistic about this, but it seems to me that a movie that purports to tell the life story of a real person should stick to the facts. As Pauline Kael said in her review of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, “There is no higher truth than respecting facts” (“Genius,” in her 1973 collection Deeper Into Movies). Denby’s distinction between spiritual accuracy and literal accuracy is slippery; it provides a rationale for biographical falsification.

The good news about the book version of Denby’s review of The Social Network is that it reproduces almost verbatim (there are a couple of minor tweaks) the brilliant passage in the New Yorker piece describing the movie’s visual style:

Despite the half craziness of the themes, the early Fincher movies have a visual distinction that makes them galvanic, irresistible. As critic Amy Taubin wrote, “No one comes close to Fincher’s control of movement in a frame and across a cut,” and I agree with that. Even Fincher’s patented junk and mess, first seen in “Alien 3” and then in the rubbishy, derelict rooms in “Se7en” and “Fight Club,” has a perversely attractive appeal, a glowing awfulness, as if it were lit from within. He doesn’t hide the disintegrating walls, the sordid beds; we are meant to see the ugly poetry in them. Whatever locations he uses, Fincher brings out their special character. At the beginning of “The Social Network,” Zuckerberg runs across the campus to his room at night, and Harvard, its many enclaves lit with intellectual industry, looks glamorous, like an enlivened imaginary city. The scenes of the Winklevosses in their boat, crisply cutting through the water, are ineffably beautiful; the twins are at ease in their bodies and in nature, while the Zuckerberg gang slouch over their computers in the kind of trashed rooms that Fincher’s anarchists and killers live in. The revolution brews amid garbage.

That “while the Zuckerberg gang slouch over their computers in the kind of trashed rooms that Fincher’s anarchists and killers live in” is superb! It’s tonic to see it preserved intact in Denby’s excellent collection.

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