The Lonely Superstar

The following post contains no significant spoilers, but will be best appreciated after you’ve seen Black Swan and The Social Network.

I’m quick to blast the entertainment industry for any idiotic pandering to the percentage of the audience who want to be given garbage and told it’s gold.  That percentage isn’t as high as some seem to think.  But I also like to give credit to deserving work, so allow me to shed my snark for a minute here and get serious about a couple of great movies.

This Oscar season finds Stogie in a contemplative frame of mind, and the 2010 Best Picture nominees provided plenty of food for thought.  It should come as no surprise that two of the best movies of the year explored powerful themes.  But what’s a little surprising to me is that one of those themes, though considered from vastly different perspectives, was examined in both movies.  And that theme is relevant to artists of any kind.  Including screenwriters…

The Social Network and Black Swan have something important to say about what the pursuit of personal greatness can cost you.

Every artist strives for perfection of some kind.  Every artist can relate to the one in director Darren Aronofsky’s triumph Black Swan. Even a downtrodden screenwriter, sitting down before that cold, unloving white screen (or blue or black screen, if you couldn’t face the white one for another second and changed the background).

These lines from the script, credited to Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, capture the struggle within the artist:

“I just want to be perfect.”

“The only person standing in your way is you.”

“You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.”

“Perfection is not just about control.  It’s also about letting go.”

Black Swan unflinchingly depicts the painful physical sacrifices made by a ballet dancer, but also something more universal….  The exhausting effort to reach your fullest potential.  To somehow coax your personal best from the web of self-doubt, inhibition and self-destructiveness that are always threatening to sabotage any act of creative expression.

As a writer, do you try to harness your inner demons and put them to work for your story?  Do you try to make peace with your dark side, proposing a truce to stop the destructive conflict raging beneath the surface of your consciousness?  But giving this dark faction representation in the government of your life can be a very dangerous thing.

In Black Swan, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) draws strength from her dark side in hopes that this will unlock the uninhibited power of her subconscious.  A neurotic perfectionist born to play the delicate White Swan, Nina must open locked doors within her mind if she hopes to land the reckless, savage Black Swan part in Swan Lake.

Is it true that a writer must access repressed pain, desire and aggression to write something great?  Or is a dance with the Devil always doomed to come at the price of a soul?

For Nina, greatness may come at a steep price.  There is almost always a pinch of madness in all great things.  But venturing to the edge of the dark pit within you is a perilous journey.  If you go to that well too many times, you might fall in.

Many successful writers achieved their career breakthrough by writing something fierce, raw and reckless.  They danced the Black Swan.  Once the steadying influences of a career, family and reputation enter their lives, their demons become more distant.  Maybe the demons have to be chased down and rounded up.  Their faces are blurry, less familiar.  These writers do whatever they can to recapture the element of imaginative chaos that eludes them in a more stable, conservative frame of mind.

This is how addiction and other self-destructive behavior can take root.  It will also leave you feeling utterly alone, even in a crowd.

Mark Zuckerberg may not be an artist, but he certainly understands the relentless pursuit of greatness.  The Mark Zuckerberg character we get in David Fincher’s nearly perfect film The Social Network pays a different price than Nina Sayers or the writers I’ve been talking about.  This is not someone who careens into madness, addiction or violence in his search for perfection.  His approach is meticulous, lucid, calculating.  But this character is also obsessively driven to achieve.  And he will pay his price.

As brilliantly portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, there is no room in this character’s heart for true loyalty, warmth or understanding.  Whether it’s simply a broken spring in his head, the result of experience or some combination thereof, this is a man who sees friends as a means to an end.  He justifies his thinly veiled contempt with people’s perceived inferiority to him.  In his mind, being the best makes him more important, more deserving of success.  In turn, their victories must be seen as his defeats.

The Social Network depicts a scenario where Mark’s best friend Eduardo gets into a club that Mark coveted membership in.  This curdles whatever affection Mark felt for Eduardo.  The fact that Eduardo is less deserving than Mark is immaterial; what matters most is that Mark cannot step outside himself and be happy for another human being.  Even if that person is a loyal friend to him.

No one should be happy until Mark is happy.  And it’s an open question whether or not Mark, as depicted in the film, will ever find happiness.  Or is even capable of it.

Our protagonist’s obsessive drive is fueled by slights to his ego, the unfairness of life, and perhaps an awareness of his inability to truly connect with other human beings.  Among the intriguing ambiguities of the character screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has penned and Fincher and Eisenberg brought to life are the glimpses of warmth we see in Mark.  If he didn’t want to form meaningful relationships, he wouldn’t be so motivated by his failure to do so.  (The irony of such a person creating the world’s greatest social networking site is lost on no one, I’m sure.)

It’s not a spoiler to say that the character becomes massively successful, but achieving his goals doesn’t make him capable of warmth and empathy for others.  His pursuit of perfection will never end, but nor will his isolation from the imperfect people who actually make up the human race.

I know folks with a little of Natalie Portman’s character in them, or Jesse Eisenberg’s.  They aren’t happy people.  Unfortunately, our culture is built on competition, on shoving the other guy off the stage so you can be anointed a star.  That’s the way the system works in ballet, business… and screenwriting.

— Stogie Joe