Monday, 2 November 2015

It's Not Binary: "Steve Jobs"

There are two specific scenes in Steve Jobs which illustrate both the ways Jobs thinks and how others view his thought process. In one scene Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg)- who co-created the original Macintosh computer- asks Jobs (Michael Fassbender) why he wants people to dislike him. Jobs says he doesn't want people to dislike him, he's just indifferent to whether people like him.  In an earlier scene, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) states that being decent and gifted are not binary. For Jobs indifference to people's feelings towards him isn't intrinsic to behaviour which will cause people to dislike or outright hate him. After Herztfeld tells Jobs he never liked him, Jobs says he always like Hertzfeld. This line is both funny and sad, revealing a complicated man beneath the supposed binary thinking. Steve Jobs is largely about the distinction between telling people how we think and our more complex thought processes. 

The script for the film comes from Aaron Sorkin and it's hard not to draw comparisons to the film for which he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar- the David Fincher directed The Social Network- the film about the founding of the social media site Facebook by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg. Both centre around figures who revolutionized our relationship with technology (and without people like Steve Jobs there'd probably be no Mark Zuckerberg), question the morality and importance of the men at their centres. And what ultimately unifies the two films is they're more character studies than biopics. Neither film is too interested in how the outside world is affected by Jobs' and Zuckerberg's achievement- they zero in on the personalities behind the innovation, using said personalities as metaphors for the technology they helped redefine.

Image result for katherine waterston steve jobs

The narrative conceit of Sorkin's screenplay is it's divided in to 3 segments, each taking place just before a product launch- the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. In each segment Jobs has to prepare to unveil something new to the world while also dealing with personal issues-largely involving his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and their daughter Lisa. Chrisann wants Jobs to provide for her and Lisa financially. Jobs denies being Lisa's father but there's never really any doubt in Jobs' or anyone else's mind that he's her biological father. Jobs' denial of his fatherhood is more about not wanting to accept responsibility than not believing their blood relation. Jobs' colleague Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) persuades Jobs to embrace being Lisa's father- later on in the film Hoffman will tell Jobs that being a father is supposed to be the "best part" of him, not the technology he helped create. Wozniack- who co-founded Apple with Jobs wants recognition for the Apple II team but Jobs feels this acknowledgement to underminw the unveiling of the Macintosh. The film also explores Jobs' relationship with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple and the man who would eventually fire Jobs from the company.

Having all these conflicts arise just before each launch is convenient and not entirely realistic- but the narrative structures serves a thematic purpose- Jobs in a bubble where the personal and the professional can never be completely severed. Moreover, the fact Jobs only appears to know a small group of people highlights hi isolation from the rest of the world. We never see him in any situation that is just purely casual- every thing is related to work or invention.  

Steve Jobs

The film is directed by Danny Boyle- one of the most visually dynamic directors working in the medium today. Aside from a few Boyle-quse touches, Boyle's visual style is much more restrained than in his other works. While I would've liked for Boyle to do more composition and camera movement-wise, the film isn't bland as cinema. Visually, the most interesting technique Boyle brings to the film is how the three segments are filmed in 16mm, 35mm, and digital, respectively, to capture the feel of each time period and the advancement in technology. This works very well in creating a particular sense of place and time without seeing much of the outside world.    

Even the film-makers have admitted that Fassbender doesn't look like Jobs. I actually think this woks in the film's favour. The disconnect between the appearance of Jobs and Fassbender allows us to view the man at the film's heart on his own terms. Fassbender isn't playing Steve Jobs so much as he's playing "Steve Jobs"- just as Jesse Eisenberg was playing "Mark Zuckerberg." Fassbender is one of my favourite actors working today- and as Jobs he never pushes too far in one direction- he's not so off-putting as to stop the audience from engaging with the character but he never goes too soft with his characterization either- there's a humanity to Jobs but even by the film's end he's still working on being a better man.

Sorkin can never be accused of being too subtle but his screenplay is more restrained than expected. Sorkin's dialogue- like David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino- has a particular rhythm that when every one is in sync, really sings. While the film is centred around Jobs the film also acts as an ensemble piece- and honestly I don't think there's an off performance amongst the cast. 

Winslet is both Jobs' conscience and the conscience of the film. Winslet brings a solid balance of warmth and sternness to Hoffman. She's one of the only people working with Jobs who's not afraid to be honest when speaking with him. And in many ways Hoffman is Jobs' only true  friend. 

Daniels (who led Sorkin's The Newsroom for 3 seasons) is excellent as Sculley- someone who easily could've been written and performed as the villain of the film- the man who fired Steve Jobs. In a bravado sequence during the 1988 segment the film cuts between Jobs' and Sculley's conversation in the present, the early days of their relationship, and the night Jobs was fired. This sequence is a mosaic of two men's relationship- how it began and where it was during that period of time. 

Rogen brings a quiet but clear sense of betrayal to his portrayal of Wozniack. Wozniack tells Jobs that computers aren't paintings, to which Jobs always replies "fuck you." But Jobs contradicts this philosophy by not giving the Apple II team credit. If computers are truly art can't Jobs acknowledge artists?- is it because they aren't him? Because it'll distract from his art? Maybe it's because Wozniack's words still stick with Jobs: 

"What do you do? You're not an engineer. You're not a designer. You can't put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius?" 

While this speech comes from Wozniack- it's also the film questioning the love we give our idols without truly understanding their exact importance or the other people who contributed to history. After Wozniack asks this question, Jobs says he plays the orchestra. That may be the most succinct if somewhat simple answer to Jobs' importance to the technological revolution.

Waterston- who I thought gave a potent performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice- is far less elliptical here than in Anderson's film. Waterston makes Chrisann  sympathetic without sanding off the character's edge. Chrisann isn't always the most pleasant person to be around. I don't think she has a proper pay-off but the relationship between Jobs and his daughter Lisa is the more important arc. 

Lisa is played by Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Solo and Perla Hanley- Jardine in 1984, 1988, and 1998, respectively. There's a subtle consistency between the three actresses, and Hanley-Jardine carries the weight of Lisa's complicated relationship with Jobs. I feel the culmination of this arc feels a little too pat and sentimental- and the final moments don't feel they match the more morally complicated character the film was portraying.  

I've seen people complain about the number of Steve Jobs films we've gotten since Jobs's death at the age of 56 in 2011. How many movies does one man need?, they ask. Steve Jobs may not be the definitive account of Jobs' life, or even the last film someone makes about his life. But as a character study, Boyle, Sorkin, and Fassbender have created a dense and entertaining portrait of a man who became- and remains- a symbol in an ever changing industry. Computers may not be paintings but symbols are everlasting.  

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