IT’S ONLY by the flukes of the global distribution networks that two such radically different American works as Winter’s Bone and The Social Network happen to hit the circuits at the same time, but they present a contrast worth thinking about; and thought is provoked because, in utterly different ways, they’re two very fine films, each fully developed in its own terms. Winter’s Bone creates a very poor, forest-bound community in the Ozarks of Missouri, and for its treatment of the ignorance and brutality that pervade the place you might want to call it Daughter of Deliverance. In a stunningly intelligent performance, Jennifer Lawrence gives us Ree, a seventeen-year-old toughened by struggle. She’s caring for two much younger siblings, a mother in total retreat with dementia, and one friend, a teenage mother. They have nothing but their decrepit timber house; if the absent father can’t be found to face court, they could lose even that. The neighbours are feckless, caught up in drug-dealing – everyone’s cooking methamphetamine; hard-bitten women protect their men; moments of grudging kindness alternate with violence. The uncle called Teardrop – splendidly played by John Hawkes – cares about the kids, but he’s an ambiguous presence; he’s on the meth himself.
So for Ree, there’s no steady ground underfoot. Whatever else is going on, she tries to make sure the kids go to school. But there’s little hope there, and the three central characters are young, vulnerable and deserving. For them, the audience is properly and validly in dread. The skies are very cold, the forest thorny and un-beautiful, and for Australian audiences, the physical world of back-country poverty is highly recognisable: wrecked cars in heaps, desolate yard with broken toys, houses and sheds that won’t be mended. The assemblage of balladry and banjos on the track has everything to do with the creation of place; it’s much more than honky-tonk and hillbilly. Among others, Marideth Sisco sings “High on a Mountain” with a band named Blackberry Winter.
Within all that, this film has a fine, relentless honesty: while we’re let down gently by the story in the end, there is no proposal at all that the wider society will take in Ree and her family, or that they would leave their places even if they could. She might join the army, but she can’t do that until the kids are older; meanwhile mainstream, middle-class America isn’t about to ride in to the rescue with college scholarships or dishwashers. The film was built, patiently over time, by the director Debra Granik and her co-writer, Anne Rosellini, from a novel by Daniel Woodrell; then it won the big prize at Sundance. Its tactics amount to a fair model for independent, low-budget features – these days, US$2 million is less than peanuts. The winning element is integrity, of both style and concept.
The dialogue in The Social Network is surely the quickest-firing since Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn took on Cary Grant in Howard Hawks comedies around 1940. If you don’t get all of it (I didn’t) don’t worry; they’re speaking fast, super-savvy young American, from positions of impossible privilege, in terms both of class (Harvard) and mastery of today’s and tomorrow’s information technologies. The pivot is the devising of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg and friends, and the rapid transformation of inner-circle communication into global big business, in a milieu where a million dollars isn’t really cool, but a billion dollars: “now that’s cool.” By all accounts, the real young Mr Zuckerberg is rather nicer than the film suggests. But then, as the youngest billionaire on the planet, he can afford to be, and we’re left wondering what he might perhaps do to help meet the Millennium Goals. The director David Fincher’s brilliant orchestration of topline college life, and Aaron Sorkin’s razor-edged writing, make no space for moralism; the audience must bring its own concerns to meet the outrageous arrogance and self-enclosure of Zuckerberg’s world. The cast is wonderful, particularly with Jesse Eisenberg as chief nerd and Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, his double-crossed collaborator.
While it’s all entertainment par excellence, there is a certain documentary aspect. Australians might emerge reflecting further on the national broadband network, and the possible view that a public system, free of all hierarchy, is exactly what it ought to be. As for Facebook, the lads tell us that you can’t make 500 million friends without making a few enemies as well; and it is apparent that something odd is happening now to ancient notions of friendship. The girls of the story, forcefully played by Rooney Mara and others, challenge their designated places on the periphery of things, and the feminist questions are not to be evaded. The eerie music track, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, haunts and questions the story throughout. If Facebook is a dance on the surface of history, can it change what’s happening underneath? We leave the young billionaire worrying.
MUSIC of another kind is at the centre of the feature-length documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould. Wrong title, I think; we don’t really find out how the man felt or why he did things, and why would anyone want to? The world’s continuing business with Glenn Gould is with his extraordinary musical legacy. Biographies offer contexts, and satisfy curiosity only so far. This one is conventional documentary, an arrangement of archival footage and interviews with surviving friends and associates. As such, it’s excellent, and as good documentary it raises questions both new and old about the links between pathology and genius, and about why Gould in particular became – as it appears – increasingly self-destructive.
If you want a Gould archive with even more than you can get on CDs, Genius Within belongs there. But there’s a better and very different film, François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993), a series of dramatised vignettes in which, of course, the main actor is not seen playing a piano, while the soundtrack consists almost entirely of music from Gould’s recordings. That one worked on a level of transformation that the present documentary doesn’t reach. •
Sylvia Lawson’s most recent book is The Outside Story (Hardie Grant, 2003), a novel on the early history of the Sydney Opera House.