History happens so fast today that not even art can pause or arrest it. Early on, in a citizenly fashion, I wanted to arrest The Social Network () . “I arrest you for your busy, breakneck, frantic, zesty, information-crammed account of Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook. You have exceeded the speed-of-comprehension limit for non-geeks.”
The film is zesty, though, and when its spell works fascinating. It was bound to be, written by Aaron West Wing Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, whose thinking man’s thriller Zodiac was the shortest three hours in recent memory. Boldly, The Social Network starts with an extended speed-duologue in a Harvard bar between Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg, the dynamic dork from Adventureland and Zombieland) and a girlfriend who wants to break up. It is an accelerated showreel of our hero’s flaws: arrogance, obsessionalism and a collector’s curiosity about human beings that doesn’t include empathy or compassion. The irony at this film’s centre is the founding of a relationship site by a relationship-incompetent computer whizz.
Soon Zuckerman has cyber-corralled every yearbook entry and photo for almost every student in America and the rest is history, still in the making. Based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, the film has leap-forward glimpses of “Zuck” in legal hearings, since he later fell out expensively with two parties: one a pair of Harvard rowing twins who sued him for stealing their idea, the other Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), now restored to co-founder status after a legal battle and undisclosed settlement. The Saverin-elbowing interloper was Sean Parker, former “Napster” founder, played by Justin Timberlake with the right “look who’s boss” narcissism. Parker opened up the California and west coast money mines for Zuckerberg.
Coldly analysed as mise-en-scène, the film is almost nothing but scenes of people sitting over glowing screens, or in lawyers’ offices, or in bars/diners/clubs. Yet it never seems sedentary. The jabber is intensive. History unfolds like a time-lapse flower, accelerated to defy inattention. And Fincher seems mischievously, in some sequences, to have set out to annoy us – Parker and Zuckerman have a long, barely audible set-to in a dance club – as if to ensure there are no unexercised faculties out there in the audience, up to and including exasperation.
The script throws the Important Lines in with the chatter – “We lived on farms, we lived in cities, now we live on the internet” (Parker) – so they never stand out like messages. By the end of The Social Network we have begun to feel the hurryings of time’s winged chariot, 21st-century style. It isn’t hurrying behind us. It is out there ahead, setting the pace, sometimes dragging us in its traces like a charioteer caught in the reins of futurity. As someone says in the movie at a “Eureka” moment, “The site’s live!” It is. The site is called Planet Earth, in the third millennium AD.
And then there is prehistory. The barbarity of stoning as a form of execution – one that identifies nations as “stone age” in every moral and meaningful sense – is done powerful justice in The Stoning of Soraya M () . This harrowing film spares no physical or emotional detail. The French-Iranian author-journalist Freidoune Sahebjam who wrote the truth-based source story – about a real Soraya M framed for adultery in an Iranian village after refusing to divorce a husband seeking to remarry – conditioned the movie rights on a Farsi-speaking script and cast.
Good for him. Cyrus Nowrasteh, an Iranian-parented film-maker based in the US, shot the story in a Middle East village using Iranian or part-Iranian actors, stepping skilfully above the sun-baked subtitles. We might be in this lost hilltop hamlet where justice is at the mercy of a corrupt mullah and swayable mayor. Mozhan Marnó (pictured) as the victim and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Oscar nominee for House of Sand and Fog) as her aunt give stunning performances, erasing the distance between story and spectator. We are swept up by the tides of horror, revulsion and anguish.
Simultaneously, there is not a moment of melodrama. Different speeds suit different narratives. Where The Social Network required wham-bang, this tale needs and gets something like slow motion: a forensic navigation through the cruelties and hypocrisies of patriarchal religionism, followed by an execution sequence structured – almost literally, almost unwatchably – stone by stone. Press-shown a week early (UK opening is October 22) and released by a small distribution company, the film risks vanishing without trace or fanfare. Please make sure it doesn’t. See it and tell your friends to see it.
Clio Barnard’s The Arbor () – another week-early press show about another martyred woman – is a bleeding slice of special pleading set in one of Britain’s own outposts of inhumanity. On a Bradford housing estate Andrea Dunbar, a brief playwrighting prodigy in the 1980s (The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too), grew up and raised her hapless kids.
Is the film a drama? Or a documentary? We’re not sure. Featuring actors lip-syncing to recorded interviews with Dunbar’s children and others, it sometimes resembles Nick Park’s Creature Comforts without the laughs: a victimiser-less crime story in which the casualties – not just Andrea but her daughter Lorraine, who fell into drug addiction, prostitution and early death – are their own executioners. Unless you consider Andrea, who died too early to be tape-recorded, was the ministering devil, pampering playgoing posterity while using pitchforks on her own biological “posterity”.
Finally, the Holocaust. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow () is Sophie Fiennes’s documentary about the German sculptor-painter Anselm Kiefer, who relocated to France to build an avant-garde “city” of tunnels, towers and inside/outside installations, redolent of apocalypse. The best sequences are the abstract camera-prowlings around the labyrinth, set to music by (who else?) Ligeti. The worst are Kiefer being interviewed by a German reporter – some artists really should let their art talk – and the overlong vignettes of Team Anselm chucking dust, broken glass and designer debris around. Ah, I wanted to sigh: how much 21st-century German miserabilism will it take to make up for 20th-century German misery-making?