Even before its well-deserved win for Best Motion Picture -- Drama at the 2011 Golden Globes, 'The Social Network' was being hailed as the "movie that defines our generation."
As loose a compliment as that seems, the movie -- about the creation of the revolutionary social media device Facebook -- was indicative of a brighter, younger, more ambitious generation ambling to create something lasting in cyberspace. The movie certainly resonates.
But over breakfast on Monday, a friend and I were discussing if 'The Social Network' is really the "movie that defines our generation" or if there were better options for the title. The strongest contender in my mind was the 1999 Brad Pitt/Edward Norton vehicle 'Fight Club,' which deftly captured the unrest of young people striving for simple connection and life's meaning.
Coincidentally, both films were directed by David Fincher. Fincher is known for his uncanny ability to pinpoint real, if bleak, human emotions, and for grittily displaying how lost people can get in the world. The discussion then became "Is David Fincher the director who defines our generation?"
Defining a generation is always questionable. Fincher's 'The Social Network' seems to cap off a period from the early-'90s until now, with young people living under the rise of the Internet and increased self-importance. There was an economic recession, two wars and an act of terrorism so harrowing, it changed everything in our daily lives. Fincher's movie career began when this new 'Generation Z' was born and, if you think about it, has chronicled this current generation, the same way John Hughes encapsulated the feeling of the 1980s and Mike Nichols did with the late-'60s and early-'70s.
In 1992, Fincher was still a music video director when he made his feature film debut with 'Alien 3.' The movie garnered an Oscar nomination for special effects but much criticism for, well, everything else. Discouraged, Fincher retreated back to music videos -- that is, until he directed 'Se7en,' in 1995. This is where Fincher's reign as the subtle "director of our generation" begins.
'Se7en' featured a nameless serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who murdered people based on the seven deadly sins. Each of these sins was represented by people from a segment of society -- a drug dealer, a model, a prostitute and a rich attorney.
Brad Pitt's character, a detective assigned to the case, represents those trying to do good in a world full of evil. 'Se7en' was the first glimpse of Fincher's ability to capture our generation's listlessness; we're good people, but we feel helpless.
Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman's advice to the pregnant Gwyneth Paltrow -- to either abort her unborn baby, because the world is no place for a child, or to "spoil it rotten" -- rings incredibly true. Where it was once unheard of not to want to have children, many people of our generation echo Freeman's sentiment: we're uneasy about the future. The world is not a fine place, but we still feel like we have to fight for it.
Fincher continued his exploration of the messed-up aspects of our generation's psyche with 1997's 'The Game,' starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. 'The Game,' a psychological thriller in which the audience and characters never quite know what is real, posed a similar question: What is the meaning of our lives?
In her review of 'The Game' for the NY Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Fincher ... does show real finesse in playing to the paranoia of these times."
Fincher followed up 'The Game' with the aforementioned 'Fight Club,' in 1999. The movie is a strong commentary on our generation's obsession with consumerism and bubbling discontent. Fincher has said the film's violence is a metaphor for the struggle this generation has with "the value system of advertising."
Norton's unnamed "everyman" character is meant to represent his generation, a man who is aimlessly working a job he hates and longing to make more of himself with no possible way to change his life. He starts the fight clubs as a way to feel powerful. Though 'Fight Club' could be mistaken as praise for nihilism, it's much more than that. Here again, Fincher hits the nail on the head: Generation Z wants to control their own destinies, and preoccupies themselves with the importance of both failure and success.
Skipping 2002's 'Panic Room,' which Fincher said was a typical popcorn blockbuster, his next film was the serial killer drama 'Zodiac,' in 2007.
It might seem strange at first to include 'Zodiac' in a list of movies that define the current generation, since it takes place in the 1970s. But serial killers are never out of style, and 'Zodiac's' edge-of-your-seat moments reflected our continued paranoia, first touched on by Fincher in 'The Game.'
Entertainment Weekly called 'Zodiac' "a procedural thriller for the information age." The characters in the film want to solve the puzzle of the killer's identity, but, as the real Zodaic killer was never apprehended, their compulsion is left unresolved.
2008's 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' while loosely based on the 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, gave Fincher the chance to touch on the recent events of Hurricane Katrina. The movie was a bit of a departure from Fincher's usual thrillers, but it maintained the essence of Generation Z's obsession with time and the worry that relationships are temporary and basically futile. For the character of Benjamin Button, who is aging in reverse, these facts are literally true. For us, it's all in our heads.
Then, of course, came 'The Social Network,' whose validity as "the movie that defines our generation" has been discussed to death.
"This is an emotionless generation; one is taught that it's much better to sue than get your cry on. It's a generation that wants to make more money than its neighbor; to think with numbers rather than emotion. A generation that needs it all right now at their fingertips, and anything less just isn't good enough. They're spoiled and they're hard to sympathize with, but they're changing the world one megabyte at a time and it's kinda fun to watch,'" wrote Cinematical reviewer Erik Davis.
Fincher's next film, the 2011 American remake of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,' is still in production, but it's based on a Swedish novel that has basically swept this generation by storm. How many young people were spotted reading 24-year-old heroine Lisbeth Salander's story on the subway this year? The 'Dragon Tattoo' book was as ubiquitious as 'The Social Network' at an awards show.
Salander, similarly to 'The Social Network's' Mark Zuckerberg, is a young computer-savvy anti-social outcast who communicates best online and who rejects the evil, outside world. She's an extreme example of our generation, as Zuckerberg was, too, but Salander makes more sense in the context of the times, rather than is an actual example of it. This is what will separate Fincher from the simple title of "best director of our generation" and to the more complex "defines."
Fincher has continuously captured the loneliness, isolation, paranoia and struggle for connection that exists in the modern world, making him the director that best "defines our generation."
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