Once There Was Job, Now There Is Jobs

Alex Gibney’s doc on Steve Jobs set a high standard and Danny Boyle’s fictional take, Steve Jobs, is way, way below that mark. The screenplay is idiotic, to use one of the less jargony words in critical parlance: it’s three acts, all the same. 1 and 2 are product launches that fail and 3 is the iMac, Jobs’ first real big success since the Apple II, which he hates, despite the fact that it keeps Apple afloat, apparently because he had little to do with it, not that he has much to do with any other product other than being an abusive perfectionist that everyone tolerates for entirely unclear reasons.
The dialogue is fast, smart and unbelievable. Characters snap at each other as if they just have to wait long enough for the other person to speak before they can race ahead to their next piece of prepared monologue. No one seems to actually listen to anyone. It’s all pre-scripted and scenes are like a run through, which is what the 20 minutues before the launch motif of this baldly 3 act film actually is. Kate Winslett hustles people in and out of Jobs’ Presence, citing how many minutes of the count down to Launch remain, and offering some words of seldom heard wisdom to Jobs. Characters then parade in and have their little confrontations, from a nearly deranged wife and needy daughter whom Jobs treats like dirt he’s never seen before and doesn’t want to see again, to colleagues who all try to get him to see his feet of clay in one way or another, to no avail. Jobs steams ahead on his fully scripted and totally predetermined course. Sorkin could not have written a flatter more annoying character if he were dealing with the Hell’s Angels or ISIS.
Of course there is a hint of redemption at the end: the iMac will be a huge hit, and we all know that success is all that counts. Plus, plus Steve Jobs shows a litttle tenderness to his now teenage daughter, after blowing up that someone else stepped in to pay her tuition to Harvard, as if he never would have failed to do so (despite the fact that he just did exactly that). Many liberties seem to be taken with his personaal life and many dubious parts of his business practices never appear–that’s what’s convenient about the 3 launch structure; Sorkin and Boyle can just throw the same characters in front of him three times and overlook anything they want to overlook. It’s a biopic without the bio; it’s a stage play without the climax; it’s a dog that can go back into the kennel and stay there. Unlike Gibney’s doc and unlike the great granddaddy of the biopic, Citizen Kane, Steve Jobs has no bark, no bite and very little of anything to chew on at all. What price success is as old a question as capitalist greed, if not human nature, but Sorkin and Boyle have nothing new to say, not this time around.

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Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Alex Gibney’s on a tear. He’s one of the few documentary filmmakers who is releasing more films than most folks can keep up with, including Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown; We Steal Secrets, on Julian Assange; Sinatra; Going Clear, on Scientology, and The Armstrong Lie. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which Gibney narrates, seeks to answer a simple question: why was a man who was as much a terror as a genius, as much a heartless cad as a savior, as much a ruthless busnessman as a tech guru mourned by millions who never met him?
The film follows what is a familiar Gibney tack, dating back to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: successful men are given their due but their feet of clay are thoroughly exposed as well. Hubris radiates from their very being, or as Job’s first long term partner and mother of his first child, Lisa, notes, he was one of those rare individuals who achieves enlightment through his ego rather than despite or beyond it. He never exhibited empathy toward others, and even tried, in slanderous fashion, to deny the paternity of his first child, until DNA evidence made his lies impossible to sustain. (There is an echo here of Lance Armstrong’s vehement denials of drug use until the test evidence became too overwhelming to deny but it is just one of many lies Jobs spins in the course of the film.)
But, we say, all is forgiven: Steve Jobs singlehandedly gave us the iPod, iPad and, most radiantly of all, the iPhone! His product announcements were major media events and he was, without doubt, The Man in the machine, expressing the wonder and awe we all feel at the magic that digital technology can work.
So why the vast wave of mourning?
Gibney doesn’t answer the question so much as use it as a pretext to explore Jobs’ contradictions, the thing he also does with Elliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, the Enron guys, scientology and Julian Assange. He is our best documentarian when it comes to setting black and white contradictions side by side so that icons and heroes remain so, but with a new found sense of their flawed, sometimes fatally flawed human nature.
And Jobs? Wasn’t he the charismatic face of an entire industry? Other names, from Melissa Mayer to Bill Gates, make the news but none have the charisma of Jobs, who was not only a highly savy geek (and what he didn’t know Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and early casuality of Jobs’ callous ways, did), he was also a born salesman. He gave gadgets a human face. He made us not just want but need them.
This moves into terrain Gibney fails to explore: fetishism, commodity fetishism, to be exact. We overvalue an object because, as Marx explained and as advertisters have known ever since, we fail to see the real human labor that went into it and behold it, instead, as a magical talisman of great power or beauty that arrives from nowhere, or in the hands of a god as a wonderous offering. The fetish stands apart and possesses an aura we come to worship or at least experience with awe. And when we want to associate this with a human face–there it is: not the buxom model standing next to the latest sports car, but Steve Jobs, the man in the machine.
In that sense, the mourning for Jobs was mourning for a dead god, a figure who did not so much produce the magic as stand as its iconic face. That this face was Janus-like is not surprising. How can a commodity be both a thing of beauty and the result of mass pollution, grossly underpaid and overworked employees in foreign lands, suicides and despair? How can a thing earn our deep admiration and also be the source of egregious profit ($300 per iPhone, eg!) that, following the logic of the market place, is not even taxed because it’s tucked into overseas accounts? How can Jobs be a guru and a genius but also a man who lies, deceives and intimidates to get his way?
Is he not an emblem for the contradictions of capitalism itself, a system that uses the fetish object as a distraction from the wreckage that lies behind the marketplace? And as the only such emblem in the enire IT sector, it is little wonder that his passing was profoundly mourned. We are left with the image of an dark, secretive industry of anonymous but revered drones that Jobs himself helped create in the famous Super Bowl ad of the 1984 world we will never need to experience as long as there is a cute little Apple to overthrow the authoritarian IBM’s of the world. But Jobs’s Apple became IBM and in doing so, demonstrated, when we pull back the veil his company has done so much to maintain, the contradictions of a system he never even attempted to alter even as he added a potent new domain to its rule. In that sense, Jobs was more machine than man, but that is what fetishism urges us not to see.