When one asks “what a film is about,” answers usually take the form of important plot points. “It’s the one about reporters who uncover the Watergate Scandal,” one says. (All the President’s Men) “It’s the one about the Apollo space flights.” (The Right Stuff) Such answers are useful, but they can also be misleading to the real qualities of a film.
While Dead Poets’ Society is ostensibly about the effects of a teacher’s freewheeling ideologies as they function within a stilted 1960’s New England prep school, the real draw of the movie is Peter Weir’s framing of youth culture against images of nature and antiquity. In fact, “antiquity” takes two meanings in Dead Poets’ Society: the ethos of the old guard and the ebbing and flowing of nature itself; one wars against the other in the film, yet both are associated with the same kind of idyllic imagery. A better, truer answer of what Dead Poets’ Society is about, then, becomes: “Robin Williams gets a makeover as a literary type, yet behaves the same as always. Does this mean that one can be goofy and literary at the same time? Maybe so. Also, kids with short, conservative haircuts run through the woods, talking excitedly about poems and girls.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is about a homicidal hotel owner who stalks people while wearing his dead mother’s clothes. But many murderers have stalked many people since then and none have approached the level of almost-pitiable menace of Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates. The film’s power is seated more in the moments just before and after the murders than the murders themselves; what the film is about is “the long shots of Janet Leigh driving,” or “Anthony Perkins’s stillness as he watches Janet Leigh,” or “the swirl of blood in the bathtub.” Appropriately, it was Alfred Hitchcock who coined the term “MacGuffin” to describe an object or event that drives a film’s plot, distinguishing between those elements that move a film from point A to point B and the suchness that comprises the film’s real value.
Certain genres, like Suspense, capitalize more readily on those moments that show up film’s essentially representative aesthetic, highlighting those moments that stand out and speak loudest but which oftentimes have nothing to do with plot. While much easier to detect in genre films, even the most high-brow films have a distinct divide between the “MacGuffin” and the “suchness.” Of course, we care more that Indiana Jones knocks out three Nazis with one punch than anything pertaining to the particular artifact he’s toting back to civilization. But it’s just as true that we care more about Woody Allen’s glasses or the little way he clears his throat before he delivers his zinger than whether or not he stays with Annie Hall, or that Boris Lermentov’s eyes stare just a little too wildly than that Vicky Page gets to live happily ever after with Julian Craster in The Red Shoes. We follow stories because we are slaves to reason, to the logical sequence of cause and effect, to the MacGuffin itself, but we watch movies over and over again for reasons more subtle and harder to pin down. These subtler elements are what a movie is really about.
One reason why The Social Network will be one of the movies we watch over and over again is that its suchness goes above and beyond that of films with similar MacGuffins. For instance, Good Will Hunting, another film about a troubled genius, expresses the talents of its protagonist in terms of potential rather than actual achievement, and this fact figures prominently in the film’s effectiveness relative to other films about genius. The Mark Zuckerberg character in The Social Network is known to have made good on his vast potential by creating the world’s most famous website, but as Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting is yet an unknown quantity, expressions of his genius are afforded less nuance. Will Hunting must be represented as the smartest person ever, must immediately bowl over everyone he meets, never mind that the unlikelihood of this happening somewhat ruins the carefully protected realism of his hard knocks background. It is to their great credit that the film’s screenwriters and stars were still able to effectively make the audience care about their characters, even through their heightened drama.
The Social Network, however, like other films about known geniuses like Amadeus or Pollock, gets a head start on its MacGuffin. Because Zuckerberg’s genius is established and taken as a matter of course, all other aspects of his character constitute a fleshing out of type. Even his very ordinary flip-flops and fleece hoodie become a kind of revision of what cinematic geniuses are supposed to look like. Where Good Will Hunting was saddled with its titular character’s necessary hemming and hawing over whether he would prove ot be a great mind, The Social Network assumes its protagonist’s acumen as a historical fact and is therfore left to develop his personality more naturalistically in relation to the “troubled genius” trope.
However, Good Will Hunting and The Social Network are on equal footing as pertaining to one consideration of their common MacGuffin, the use of the genius protagonists’s insights into the world of “normals.” In either film, normality is respectively represented in the person of a love interest, Minnie Driver’s needlessly British co-ed and Rooney Mara’s mythical ex-girlfriend turned muse. We are offered a window, not only into the hallowed cloisters of the rainmakers, but how their shut off space is opened up and aired out to interact with beauty. Experiencing this suchness, we ask “Isn’t it novel that these brainiacs get nervous meeting a girl? That they feel the same inhale of breath, just like everyone else? Maybe even more so?”
One gets a sense of that scene in The Black Narcissus where the Old General talks about what to feed the nuns, “Sausages… They will eat sausages. All Europeans eat suasages wherever they go.” The Indian general himself signifies all that is exotic in the known world, and yet his unique perspective on what is ordinary makes the ordinary novel again.