***Note to readers: if you haven’t seen Black Swan/The Social Network there are some spoilers below.
I don’t go to the movies much, but by some miracle I’ve managed to see both The Social Network and Black Swan in the past few months.
And what I found striking was that they were kind of the exact same story.
They are both stories of young, relatively unformed and untested talent and the journey of an individual learning to transcend himself/herself in order to produce something amazing with the help of a more seasoned/flawed mentor.
Relentless determination, it seems, has an interesting effect on the body – both physically and emotionally, and each protagonist undergoes a sort of transformation over the course of both films.
The industries that provide the backdrop – technology and the arts – are both incredibly cutthroat and revolve around a sort of idol/celebrity culture with very very few “elite”.
Yet I can’t help think about how the brilliance and talent of each main character is interpreted by the audience. Seems that Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is seen as mostly arrogant, though heroic in his willingness to do “whatever it takes” to realize his vision for Facebook. Alternatively, the adjectives ascribed to Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers lean more toward the pejorative – “delusional”, “eccentric” or just downright crazy.
Now of course much of this has to do with the stories themselves. Black Swan surely is much darker than the Social Network, and perhaps the physical determination (ya know, eating disorders, abused and disfigured feet, etc.) required to become an amazingly successful ballet dancer are more unsettling than the more mundane mental anguish of your average programmer phenom.
After seeing both I went back and read Manohla Dargis’ review of each in the New York Times. Why is it that Sayers is vilified while Zuckerberg is celebrated? Dargis describes Zuckerberg as “Quick as a rabbit, sly as a fox, he is the geek who would be king…he’s also the smartest guy in the room, and don’t you forget it” while Sayers “looks more like a child than a woman, her flesh as undernourished as her mind”.
Sayers is “a contender, but also a martyr to her art.” Surely one could say the same thing about the tech startup world – the amount that you give up to build a company can not-unrealistically be compared to martyrdom, yet for some reason it’s never described that way.
I wonder if it’s simply that we as an audience prefer to see the plight of an artist as tumultuous and that of an entrepreneur as inspiring. To me they were simply different stories of focus and achievement and the way that these qualities manifest in talented people.
If anything, they were each a reminder that technology is much like the arts – we engage with it hoping for a kind of transcendence that precious few are truly able to deliver.