Hollywood debates social media
Film festival news conferences are generally friendly affairs, giving a movie's stars and director the chance to take a public victory lap. But when the cast of Jason Reitman's drama “Men, Women & Children” gathered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, the promotional event took on an edgier tone.
The film explores the way the Internet is shaping (and warping) our lives — and its themes incited a surprisingly sharp debate about the virtues and evils of social media.
Ansel Elgort, at 20 one of the film's youngest stars, boasted that his two million Twitter followers gave him the ability to become his own news platform, while the movie's older cast members — Jennifer Garner, 42, Adam Sandler, 48, and Rosemarie DeWitt, 39 — looked on with expressions of befuddlement, if not horror.
“Is it Tinder or Tumblr that everyone's on?” Garner wondered aloud, echoing a confusion many nonmillennials may feel. “I don't know the difference.”
Weeks later, DeWitt was still struggling to understand Elgort's point of view. “It was an eye-opener,” the actress said recently. “The younger people see (social media) as an opportunity to express themselves and connect. They've never known a world without it. But for the older adults in the room, we were just sitting there with our jaws on the ground. We just don't know what it is.”
Social media is viewed both as a way to foster genuine connection while also fueling feelings of alienation, a way of amplifying communication and narcissism. Since the advent of social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — few of which existed when today's young movie audience was born — the duality of social media has bedeviled academics, artists and everyday people alike, as long-held social norms established in an analog world have rapidly given way to a new age of selfies, likes and status updates.
Now Hollywood is joining the conversation. “Men, Women & Children” is one of a number of recent films, including “Chef,” “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” that show filmmakers grappling with the same anxieties about this new reality as many of the rest of us — and finding it just as hard to come up with a consensus on what it all means.
Many actors, meanwhile, are struggling with how much to share with their fans — which, as a widespread nude photo leak recently demonstrated, is a choice that may no longer even be in their own hands. The same tools that can be used to aid a star's rise to fame can just as easily tear an actor down.
Stars are now routinely asked whether they're on Twitter and Facebook, with the assumption being that the answer reveals something essential about their character or even their level of stardom — you have to be pretty confident of your box-office appeal to pull the plug on social media.
“I think we've hit a tipping point where people accept that social media is not going away, so you have to figure out what your relationship to it is going to be,” said Jon Favreau, who starred in this summer's comedy “Chef” (which he also wrote and directed) as a cook whose career is derailed when he accidentally starts a Twitter war with a food critic. “It can affect your career and your personal life. The stakes are quite high, and the culture is quite nuanced.”
It's a topic that's hit the national nerve — and not surprisingly, it's one that's attracted filmmakers.
“All the rules are changing,” Reitman said. “There's an interesting step we've made societally, as the Internet has brought our hidden desires to the surface.”
In the 1990s, it wasn't uncommon to hear of agents and studio executives who avoided using computers and would have their assistants print out their emails. In those early days of the Internet, films dealing with the emerging digital technology, such as “The Net,” “Strange Days” and “Enemy of the State,” were riddled with paranoia.
Nowadays, audiences are accustomed to seeing on-screen text messages and tweets integrated into plot lines — a sort of literary and visual shortcut that quickly defines a character.
For today's filmmakers, capturing how people interact digitally often involves a lot of messiness, confusion and ambiguity.
“Men, Women & Children,” on the other hand, offers a far bleaker vision. Despite their constant efforts to connect digitally — or because of them — the film's characters, whether a parent and child or a married couple, end up only more detached from each other.
Though many have criticized the film for presenting a one-sided and rather heavy-handed view of the perils of the Digital Age (Times critic Betsy Sharkey called it “an anti-Internet screed”), Reitman insists he isn't out to make any moral judgments.
“To say the Internet is good or bad is like saying the printing press is good or bad — it's a nonsensical argument,” he said. “It's exposing the light and the darkness, the good and the bad.”