Friday, October 15, 2010

Conviction and The Social Network

The most artful element of Conviction is its title with its double-entendre, referring both to Kenny Waters’ (Sam Rockwell) conviction for murder and also to his sister Betty Anne Waters’ (Hilary Swank) belief in his innocence. The movie is being promoted as “the inspirational story of a sister’s unwavering devotion to her brother.” I’d say it’s more a ponderous portrait of a sister’s emotionally incestuous obsession with her brother that makes her incapable of even imagining the possibility of his lack of innocence, despite his bouts of antisocial behavior. In fact, she dismisses her only friend (Minnie Driver) after she asks Betty Anne, “What if his DNA does match”? Betty Anne exists in a world devoid of uncertainty; hence Negative Capability is not something she ever wrestles with in this movie. It’s a shame, for some internal conflict might have made for a more psychologically compelling character and engendered more than the one-note performance that Swank delivers.

It’s interesting that both The Social Network and Conviction are biopics, but they couldn’t be more different and similar at the same time. The former is smart, sharp, entertaining, and an astute psychological portrait of its central character. The latter is more overtly a character drama, but it really isn’t: we see just one side of Betty Anne, the one that lives by the maxim of Iowa Bob in John Irving’s “Hotel New Hampshire”: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” At least Sam Rockwell shows some emotional range. The fact that Kelly Anne is so monomaniacal that she, for all intents and purposes, abandons her husband and sons to pursue her brother’s cause is presented as heroic. But it is narcissistic and desperate at its core.

The Social Network knows this about its central character and shows it, via Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of an Aspergers-ish Zuckerberg, lacking in ability to empathize, even with his only friend. But Zuckerberg isn’t simply an anti-hero in The Social Network; he is also the yearning geek we root for, who longs to be part of the club; who, at the end, keeps clicking on the profile of his lost girlfriend. “The great secret of morals,” Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry, “is Love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.” Betty Anne is fused with Kenny, and when she loses him in the flesh, she becomes fused with her own obsessive guilt and loss; her quest is essentially solipsistic, not altruistic at all.

Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming” that, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” If the Swank film is about a person with conviction, then I’d much rather see the movie about the one with passionate intensity. Oh—but then I have—last year it was Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker, and this year it’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

1 comment:

  1. Yes Sharon! Well done and on the mark again! So glad you saved me $12 (or whatever it is these days) on Conviction, this year's The Blind Side, another treacly example of narcissism trotted out as altruism. I really loved The Social Network and admired Sorkin's ability to summarize this character's personality in that brilliant opening dialogue with the girlfriend. Inside of 2 minutes we pretty much have a framework for this guy, the details about whom are so deliciously filled in for the next 2 hours. Thanks for the blog!