After many repeated viewings of the The Social Network I can finally attest that the film is a very smart and well produced. The opening scene alone exemplifies this by acting as an overture to the rest of the film. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, together, have created an opening scene that hides the themes, motifs, and backstory of the film to create a more rewarding experience by repeating and expanding on these elements.
Of course, the spectator is unaware of such elements at the beginning of the film, but the scene acts as a cinematic overture. The filmmakers have crafted a scene that uses classical filming and editing techniques to suture the audience into the narrative quickly and effectively. By doing so, the themes and motifs become an effective overture.
Looking back at my review of The Social Network when the film was originally released, almost a year ago, I did express interest in the origin story of Facebook, not as entirely factual, but mythological. I also discussed the film’s use of setting as a metaphor for the characters’ states of mind, making the film expressive. For example, the tilt-shift cinematography that opens the scene in which the Winklevoss twins lost the crew race which signifies the twins consistent insecurities of being second and unappreciated.
The film immediately opens with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) conversing over a black frame that slowly fades into a master shot of the two across the table from each other at a noisy bar. After this master shot, the editing goes back-and-forth to over-the-shoulder shots of the two. Each of the over-the-shoulder shots in this scene are either medium shots or close-ups, and each shot is almost entirely the length of each character’s spoken line. Rarely does a shot hold for longer on a character that is not speaking. When this does occur, the shot is not held for too much longer for reactionary purposes, allowing the spectator to empathize with such reaction. Furthermore, the pacing of the dialogue is matched by the editing of the over-the-shoulder shots.
The editing only returns to the master shot towards the middle for a brief moment, allowing Erica a chance to breathe and change return to a anecdote that Mark brought up, and again for the last time at the end of the scene as Erica leaves quickly. Last, the scene never breaks the 180-degree line, supporting the mastery of keeping the spectator engaged in the heated conversation between the two. This engagement draws the spectator further into the narrative because there is less of a need to resituate the spectator within the scene.
The whole process of creating such an intense argument between Mark and Erica masks how the themes within the film are being presented. For instance, Erica sarcastically jokes about how she is interested in men who row crew during the opening scene. Not only does Mark not catch the sarcasm, he takes it to heart. Later in the film, Mark is defending the ownership stake in the Facebook from Winklevoss twins, who are world-class crew members who row for Harvard. (They later row for the Olympics, but this happens after the timeline that occurs in the film).
Social acceptance is another issue that arises throughout the film since Mark builds Facebook to obtain social acceptance. Erica even highlights Mark’s obsession with Final Clubs because of the power they provide its members and overall social acceptance. Mark does not hesitate to correct Erica’s misunderstanding that they are not Finals Clubs, but Final Clubs. When Eduardo begins to climb the ladder of a Final Club, it provokes jealousy in Mark, an issue that arises again during the litigation scenes.
Another example occurs towards the very end of the scene where Erica explains to Mark:
You are probably going to be a very successful computer person, but you are going to go through your life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that won’t be true. It will be because you’re an asshole.
Erica brings up another theme as if it were a curse, the fact that Mark’s social ineptitude will prevent him from getting women, more so, having meaningful relationships. This curse prevails throughout the film as Eduardo and the Winklevoss twins all have doubts about Mark’s demeanor and character.
The editing of the opening scene is perfection. The closer the two characters get to each other, the closer the shots are on each of them. When the conversation takes a turn for the worst, the shots are become medium shots. This alternating of close-up and medium shots allows the viewer to join on the intimacy of the conversation; to feel the same closeness, but ultimately, the same distance that Mark and Erica feel for each other at the different times in the scene. The high quality of editing continues even as in the transition from one scene to another. The moment Mark gets up from the booth the shot cuts to an exterior of the bar where a car is passing by. The car’s movement matches that of Mark, setting up the scene for perfect continuity into the title sequence.
The opening scene acts as an overture that allows the audience to revisit the discussion that Erica and Mark have at the very beginning. As a matter of fact, when these themes reach their conclusion in the film, they allude back to this very opening scene and the concepts hidden within the dialogue. Thus, the thematic content in this scene is hidden until it is revealed by the mise-en-scene in the last scene. The final moments of the film exemplifies this idea. Mark finds himself alone and submits a friend request to Erica on Facebook. This scene reminds the spectator that Erica was the inadvertent catalyst of the plot all along, and much of the conversation in that opening scene has in fact revealed itself as truth.
Film scholars often use a term called suture to explain how spectators are encapsulated into a film without knowing it. Those moments where a spectator believes that the only thing that exists is the actions that happen in a film is suture. When you are aware of yourself when watching a film, you have not been properly sutured into a film. Sometimes, this because the filmmakers have failed to make a film interesting enough. Sometimes it is because you forgot to silence your cell phone. Sometimes it is because someone is talking in the theater. Sometimes it is because the filmmaker wants to fuck with you and make you aware of yourself.
Suture is a theory that is based upon Lacanian psycholanalysis, which in turn relies on Freudian psychoanalysis. Jean-Pierre Oudart’s article “Cinema and Suture” added to Lacan’s idea of suture by suggesting that suture can mask ideology. Understanding or even accepting suture is unnecessary to this post, but for those interested, it can be a fun way to look at whether a film actually keeps your attention and what it may be attempting to convey to its viewer. It does however support my analysis of the first scene; how the editing and dialogue function to raise the themes and motifs long before they are truly expanded on in the film. When you take these elements into consideration it reaffirms that genius behind the film. We are not presented with opening scenes like this often, and it truly is a treasure to to find films like The Social Network pushing the boundaries and putting foreshadowing at the opening scene of the film.