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Enjoying the Scenery: The Henley Sequence (The Social Network)

David Fincher’s The Social Network is a film that has captured the cultural zeitgeist to a rare and almost frightening degree. It is a story of our time, chronicling the birth of Facebook as an event surrounded by personal conflicts that grew into legal battles over Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of a multi-billion dollar social networking empire. The movie’s tagline sums it all up perfectly: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Indeed.

Two of those enemies are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer in the film). The Winklevoss twins are a privileged pair, both physically and financially. They are tall and athletic, with smooth features and sandy blond hair. They are “Harvard gentlemen,” members of the rowing team, upstanding, idealistic, and courteous to a fault. They remind me of the Hardy Boys: clean-cut, all-American guys who always land on their feet. Until they meet Mark Zuckerberg, that is.

A few months after the Winklevosses and their partner Divya Narendra hire Zuckerberg to finish writing the code for their social networking site, he launches “Thefacebook” and severs his ties with them. They are outraged and bewildered. They have been too trusting. Tyler and Divya want to take legal action immediately, but Cameron is certain there must be some mistake. He believes that they must handle the situation like the gentlemen they are, but their frustration builds as Zuckerberg stonewalls them and the university refuses to take action. With each passing day, Zuckerberg’s lead grows as his site improves and expands to include other schools.

Into the midst of this little drama comes the rowing race at the Henley Royal Regatta. Most of the scenes in the film to this point, aside from a few “coding” montages,  have been about conversations, developing characters, exploring relationships. They have transpired in confined spaces: dorm rooms, conference rooms, classrooms. Even the outdoor scenes have a confined feeling in the midst of the majestic buildings on the Harvard campus. This is something different. It stands out immediately.

The scene fades in on an aerial shot of the River Thames, filmed with a tilt-shift lens. The unique effect makes everything look tiny and artificial, like miniatures or toys. The scene cuts between a few more images shot with the same or similar effect. The focus is blurred around the edges of the shot. People move in slow-motion. Several visual clues give away the British setting. The music is muted, and plays with a slight synthetic buzz, almost as though it, too, is out of focus. There is no other sound on the audio track.

Suddenly, the music shifts into sharper focus with a stronger, faster beat as the camera drops down from the sky onto a long shot of the race. The rowers are pulling directly towards the camera from several hundred yards away. The melody is obvious now: It is a “cover” of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” The music and the sequence build slowly together for over half a minute, constructed from shots of about 4 to 6 seconds in length. We see the boats from multiple angles and distances, and the rhythm of the scene feels in tune with the rhythm of the rowers and their oars. There are repeated close-ups of various rowers as they pull back out of focus, straining against the oar, and then lean forward into focus again.

Now the music shifts again, taking on an urgent, frenetic tone. The rowers grit their teeth and puff out their cheeks as they exhale. The shot length drops to about 1 to 2 seconds as the pace builds. One long shot of the race features a spectator wearing a straw hat in the foreground, prominent but out of focus. He points to the boats, claps his hands, and mouths, “Come on!” The finish line is nearing, but the Harvard team seems frozen 2/3 of a boat-length behind “Hollandia Roeiclub.” They row gamely, but remain stationary relative to the other boat.

Less than half a minute has gone by, and now the shot length is shorter still, with multiple cuts every second. The intensity has reached a fever pitch. Two quick cuts show the numbered prow of each boat knifing through the water. The coxswains pound the sides of their boats and bark commands. A Winklevoss darts a glance at the other boat, judging the state of the race. And then, just like that, it is over. The Dutch team’s victory is shot from the side, revealing the flash of the camera recording the finish as they cross the line just ahead of the “Harvard Crimson.”

The winners, as exhausted as the losers, raise their arms in victory, and then there are three quick close-ups before the camera pans back up to the sky to end the scene. The first is of Divya Narendra, who turns away from the loss with a disappointed frown. Then we see one Winklevoss collapse backwards, while the other leans forward with his head between his knees, chest heaving. They have given the race their all, but have still come up short.

The entire sequence lasts less than two minutes. In the very next scene, the boys learn that Zuckerberg has extended his site’s reach “across the pond,” an almost intolerable revelation in the wake of their crushing defeat, and Cameron finally concedes that it is time to bring in the lawyers. The race scene simultaneously signals a major turning point for the Winklevoss twins, and serves as a perfect cinematic expression of who they are.

This is their world. Like the race they are competing in, it is as well-mannered as it is elite, governed by a rigid code of honor and sportsmanship, and reinforced by long tradition. But this is a false reality, as indicated by the tilt-shift that lends everything an air of constructed artificiality, and it is crumbling around them.

Everything that once came to them so effortlessly is now out of their control. The increasingly-frantic music and ever-shorter shot lengths match the grimaces and tightened muscles that mark their futile struggle to hold their position. Zuckerberg isn’t always as insightful as he thinks, but perhaps he is onto something when he observes later in the film that, “The ‘Winklevii’ aren’t suing me for intellectual property theft. They’re suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn’t go exactly the way they were supposed to for them.”

Cameron and Tyler don’t really need the money. This defeat will not ruin their lives. Their futures are as assured as they always were, but their privileged background makes this a difficult pill to swallow. As they continue to row steadily, going through the only motions they know, Zuckerberg is pulling further and further ahead. Fair or not, he launched first, and in life, as in rowing, first is all that matters. They have lost the race. Deep down, they know it, and now the audience does, too.

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~ by Jared on February 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “Enjoying the Scenery: The Henley Sequence (The Social Network)”

  1. I’m really glad you posted this. I watched this movie for the first time yesterday, and when this montage happened, I was like, “Huh? I don’t get it. Why are we watching this? This movie’s already too long.” While I still think the movie was too long and could have used some serious editing, I agree with you that this montage was a key moment in the characterization of the twins. I also think Zuckerberg’s comment about them communicated the same message, however, and while I did sit up straighter and pay attention a little more closely during the montage, I wonder if it was really necessary.

  2. Great Post Jared.

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