Welcome to the Social Network

in 4th International Festival of Independent Cinema Off Plus Camera

by Tomislav Šakić

In an early Lumières’ actualité, Débarquement du congrès des photographes à Lyon (1895), there is a single, fixed shot of barely one minute in duration in which the so-called “primitive” cinema shows us it didn’t know (or care) about the fourth wall. The passing cameramen are not only looking at the cinématographe (or, they are aware of it but trying hard not to look at it); they are greeting the colleague behind it — and thus the spectators — by removing their hats. The early cinema was the cinema of attraction, and today’s cinema is returning to its roots by trying to face its own demise. It is the end of entertainment cinema as we know it, and the demise leads, in one direction, to cinema of (3D) spectacle and attractions which resides in multiplexes, while, in other direction, it leads to reduction of cinema to another extremity — cinema for the close circuits of festivals, art cinemas and galleries; so-called “festival cinema” (nowadays embodied in the over-hyped “slow cinema”) is nothing more than another “old” art platform whose days of glory are bygone. It can be claimed that film as the art form cannot speak anymore to new generations as it spoke to people of the mid-century or even to people of the TV era; it seems that with the world-wide web, and web 2.0 in particular, merged with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Google, the real world outside is undergoing a drastic change, even a paradigm shift. The cinema as an art form still has to address issues opened up by this change. Namely, if the discourse of television — and even more, the discourse and rhetoric of video (VHS) — was more or less the discourse of film itself (as they used film syntax), the discourse of the internet, as experienced on/through Facebook and YouTube (and earlier in the already forgotten form of the blog), has nothing to do with the discourse and rhetoric of the cinema. During its history, cinema dealt with itself as an artistic form and narrative mode, in a series of films about films, films in films (of La Nuit américaine type), and metafilms. But it did answer the challenge of other media forms as well. They addressed printed media: journalism (most notably in Citizen Kane), radio (quite recently the rhetoric of radio was duly approached by means of cinema in The King’s Speech), theatre (e.g. Jacques Rivette’s films). As for fraternal audiovisual media, as television and video, cinema did involve itself in its rhetoric. The rhetoric of television is of course different from that of the cinema as it involves having a presence in people’s homes, so, e.g., the face on the screen, or the close-up, is no more the most spectacular shot, as it was in Michelangelo Antonioni’s films for instance; television’s close-up was just another life-size presence in the living room, the talking head of your own head’s size. As video is in question, one has only to recall the TV screen which swallows James Woods in David Cronenberg’s classic piece Videodrome (1983), or the all-present monitoring screens, cameras and video tapes in number of films, most obsessively maybe the perversely threatening TV screens in Michael Haneke’s films (e.g. Benny’s Video, 1992, or Caché, 2005), or — mostly down-to-earth — the “killing” video tape in Hideo Nakata’s original Ringu (1998). The video format seemed to be different — interactive — although it appears so unapproachable nowadays compared to all the audiovisual effects available in just a few clicks, when you do not need any more any knowledge to shoot the video with the cell phone, edit it, upload it, share it on social networks etc.

Of course, the border line between private and public space has long been crossed — CCTV and cell phones erased it completely — but in early 1980s Sony Walkman shocked the public because it brought private space (a situation in which you listen to a music record) to the public area, thus revolutionising the community space, what was well depicted in today’s funny academic monograph Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, the exemplar case-study of British cultural studies. One has to recall the city buses from the 80s, with signs which depicted a head with earphones crossed. The kids nowadays probably are not even capable of imagining that kind of prohibition in public spaces, when they are walking the street while being connected online. The “innocent” world of the pre-walkman age is pre-history, and it is hard to imagine these kids trying to grasp Citizen Kane, as they live in the world of online news levelled to a text-message word count. If you do not have a “profile”, instead of an identity; if you are not “liked”, and your activities are not twittered (you are not “trending”), or “RSS-ed” via Facebook or various “feeds”, you do not exist for the “world”. But in one moment, of course, somebody somewhere lost the point. Back in the early 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron pointed out that “the revolution cannot be televised”; nowadays some people are paraphrasing Scott-Heron’s song saying that the revolution can be YouTubed or “twittered”. But the revolution is happening only in the streets, in the flesh and body, not via Facebook and Twitter. The same is true with life. It cannot be mediated through the media or live coverage, be it television or YouTube, whatever Jean Baudrillard has claimed.

Unlike movies (i.e. populist cinema industry) YouTube and web 2.0 are not familiar with the fourth wall. This is the new world (or the world of new kids) which has yet to be assessed by the cinema, itself still aware of the imaginary fourth wall. The cinematic revolution of the Nouvelle Vague was not so much in its style or modernistic narration, it was even more in the new way of representation, the introduction of a new discourse of reality on the film screen (which of course, nothing less than earlier studio cinema, was naturalised convention, from jump cuts to breaking of the fourth wall). Unlike the new wave of youth of the late 50s, which quickly got its own cinema (and gave it the name “new wave”, the phrase originally coined as a reference for the new youth itself), the generation of 2010 is still waiting for its cinema — or maybe it has already got it, but it went under the radar of criticism, itself overwhelmed under the burden of traditional auteurism to notice films such as Sucker Punch, or works by the likes of Zack Snyder. It can be claimed that in  popular Hollywood cinema no film has claimed this territory yet. David Fincher’s over-hyped film The Social Network (2010) was artistically boring as it missed the point completely — not in the end, but from the very beginning it was conceptualised as an old-fashioned movie about a new phenomenon (it happened to be Facebook), the film which in the eyes of young audiences, who are spending their days in the virtual world of cyberspace, probably looks like a piece of papa’s cinema. The Social Network is not the film about the social network, or indeed about Facebook; it is the new variation of The Great Gatsby, only Zuckerberg’s Daisy is not Kane’s Rosebud (as Zadie Smith remarked in her New York Review of Books article Generation Why?) nor Daniel Plainview’s adopted boy — as Citizen Kane or Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), it is just another variation on the mythical topic of the American Dream and the lost innocence, only, Kane’s Xanadu or Plainview’s bowling room here have been replaced by the virtual halls and crystal castles of the world wide web, with Zuckerberg clicking “refresh” button as he hopes for his Daisy to appear (i.e. Erica to accept his friend request on Facebook). That being said, The Social Network is a film which has a traditional narrative structure, its discourse keeping the pre-internet way of telling the story (if internet can tell a story at all). Of course, the aim of its makers was, apparently, to do a traditional story of American success which involves betrayal of friendship and love as a hidden driving motif, and to use the courtroom drama as the basic narrative frame. Fincher’s film did not dare to structurally open its own discourse to the new (virtual) world.

But the quite recent Polish film which won the FIPRESCI Jury award at Kraków’s Off Plus Camera Film Festival, Sala samobójców (The Suicide Room) by first-time feature director-writer Jan Komasa did quite the opposite, bravely addressing all the aforementioned questions. It is a film, although far from perfect, which is a rare bird in world cinema today as it sees the world of its protagonists as the internet-mediated world. Of course, it has to be said that the story itself is not very original: it is just another story of a spoilt teenager who is neglected by his always too busy parents and thus left to the daily care of a driver and the housekeeper. The background story — that the parents themselves are alienated due to their immoral and chameleonic careers in new, post-communist Poland (the mother in business, the father in politics) — and the attached moralistic judgement of transitional Polish society and its supposed loss of ethics and ideals was also already much seen in the films from former Eastern European Communist cinemas, not only Polish — a 2003 film by the Kieslowski actor, Jerzy Stuhr, Pogoda na jutro (Tomorrow’s Weather) — is maybe a good example of this “new” type of cinema of moral anxiety, with its protagonist, a Solidarity member, leaving his hide-out in a monastery after 17 years to face the new Poland, morally lost after its new American, i.e. European dream. Also, the depiction of a generation — the main character is presented as a typical “emo” kid under the guise of a Placebo band member (of course, with black mascara and androgynous appearance) — has also already been seen on the screen.

The artistic bravery of this particular film by Jan Komasa arises from its structure. The story is told through the means of a video game and the Internet, namely Facebook and YouTube. First of all, it is not only a feature, live-action film; it is also an animated film, as the film’s narrative includes a parallel storyline which takes place in the virtual world of the internet, where people’s avatars (that’s now a trendy word) move in the world visualised as a video game. This world is not the Disney world — the new youth of the Internet age namely lives in the motion-captured animation and CGI art of video games and cartoons influenced by Japanese anime. But the question at hand is what the real story of the film actually is — is it the real-world story (about a boy neglected by his parents and harassed at school because he is “different” and maybe gay), or is it the story which happens in the internet world of the chat room from the film’s title, where similar persons, different and estranged (actually depressed and dealing with suicide thoughts) “meet”. We can like or not like the animated episodes of the film (depends if we like anime and video game visuals or not) which run simultaneously with the “live-action” parts, but arguably that visualised world is the visual background of kids nowadays.

Also, the film’s narrative is driven not only by it, but in even greater measure by the social networks. Because The Suicide Room (title actually means “The Suicide Chat Room”, i.e. chat room where suicidal people meet online) is everything The Social Network is not, its narrative being constructed through the web 2.0 interface. The film’s emotional structure has been mediated in a number of new ways. First, the protagonist’s real emotions and experiences, which he is not able to show in flesh and body except through typical teenager’s style of hysterical acting, are experienced by the spectators only in the virtual world, when the character enters the animated virtual reality of the chat room (whose visualisation is far removed from ridiculous visualisations of cyberspaces in films such as Hackers, Tron and similar 80s stuff, badly clued from cyberpunk literature). Also, all the driving points in the narrative are fastened by the means of social networking — daily life in school is followed via Facebook, the sexual activities and problems of one’s identity (the protagonist’s gay experience) are first mediated through the internet — uploaded via YouTube and Facebook, then commented on, liked and disliked. The number of “likes” is what makes this kid successful and accepted by his surroundings — or actually not liked. The communication goes through the cell phones as well, be it in his parent’s communication (never-ending calls, so they have an impression they are present in the boy’s daily life) or in the kids’ communication (text messages with emoticons). The film’s discourse, besides accepting the discursive means of YouTube and Facebook, also allows the textual discourse to enter the film’s own visuals, with text messages and chat windows on the film screen, and with the film’s pictures being the actual shots of the Facebook feeds.

The final attack at the traditional film discourse comes in the end, with the depiction of the protagonist’s death by an overdose (caused by antidepressants). Similar death by (narcotic) overdose in the club toilet has recently been seen in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, where it is mediated through an all-seeing eye of the protagonist, whose eyes are the camera’s own eye (kino-glaz), floating as the lost soul above the world which he is just leaving. Here, in The Suicide Room, the death is the same traumatic lesson to be learned and thus also is not presented on the film screen itself — it is namely mediated via cell phone footage (recorded by some kids in the club’s toilet, where various activities are going on) which was later — we can presume — uploaded onto YouTube. Indeed, we could draw some comparisons and recall how in earlier cinema the deaths were mediated on the film screen as video footage (e.g. in the already mentioned Haneke’s work), or as found footage or documentary footage (be it false or not), like in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Professione: reporter (1975). Maybe the treatment of Youtubed cell phone clips as this era’s found footage is a way to go: the death has become Youtubed. Nevertheless, the question remains after Jan Komasa’s film: is the protagonist now as dead as he is in the real world? Namely, his death act can now be liked or not liked on YouTube, commented, and last but not least, it can be embedded into his Facebook profile, where he still lives, receives messages of consolation and last farewells. Only, he cannot approve new friendship requests anymore.