Sunday, October 11, 2015

Steve Jobs's Bitter Sweet Symphony

At one point in the impressionistic film about Steve Jobs written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, former Apple partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) challenges Jobs (an astonishingly good Michael Fassbender):  "What do you do?  You're not an engineer.  You're not a designer.  You can't put a hammer to a nail.  So...what do you do?"  Jobs:  "Musicians play their instruments.  I play the orchestra."

Much has been written about Sorkin's innovative use of the sacrosanct feature film three-act structure.  Sorkin's script is audacious because its acts are structured around three thematic variations; i.e., product launches in 1984 (the Macintosh),  filmed in grainy 16mm; 1988 (the NeXT cube), filmed in 35mm;  and 1998 (the iMac), shot in HD digital.  Because of this and Sorkin's trademark smart, crackling dialogue, the script has been described as more "theatrical," but for me the film seems more symphonic in nature.  Jobs not only likens himself to an orchestra conductor, but he invokes Stravinksy's Rite of Spring at one juncture, aligning himself with the avante-garde composer whose work caused a near riot when first performed.

The film actually has, technically, four acts or movements, akin to a classical symphony.  Over the opening credits, there's a prologue consisting of black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke predicting that one day there will be a computer in every household, and showing the audience prototypes that even look like primitive Macs.  

The next act/movement of the film is frenetic, but its Chrisann/Lisa intro is also slowly and painfully drawn out as mother (Katherine Waterston) and Jobs's daughter (in this act, Makenzie Moss) wait--beg--to be acknowledged by Jobs, who refuses his paternity and support of 5-year-old Lisa and denies that he named his computer after her. 

Similarly, Woz, softwear designer Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and even, in his way, CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) also vie for Jobs's acknowledgement of their places in Jobs's success and his favor (sounds Shakespearean, no?), even though Jobs's abiding affection for his colleagues is clear to us.  The one safe and steady constant in his life, the anchor of the three acts, is Jobs's "work wife," his faithful, maternal marketing exec played by Kate Winslet.

Each subsequent act continues with variations on these themes, which escalate in pressure and intensity.  Jobs succeeds, fails on an epic scale, then rises again like the phoenix.  

What's also symphonic about the movie is Boyle's direction, which harmonizes and syncopates in concert with/counterpoint to the script.  Boyle (on the left) is as kinetic in his directing as Sorkin is dynamic with dialogue, although in some of Boyle's films his style, much as I love it, can overwhelm.  Here, the two, writer and director, seem completely in sync, which is probably what has led at least one review I read to declare that Boyle's technique in this film (the camera keeping pace with characters feverishly walking and talking backstage) seems much more organic than the one shot gimmick of Birdman.

If the film stops short of true greatness it may be because Sorkin and Boyle ultimately seem to lose their nerve.  Sorkin appears to distrust the viewer's ability to intuit Jobs's psychology, and he resorts to that Major Movie Crime of telling in lieu of showing.  Sculley yammers on about Jobs's adoption history (finally getting Jobs to spew that he was returned one month after birth by the first family who took him in).  Even the most unsophisticated audience member can make a connection between Jobs's being adopted and his repudiation of paternity, and yet Sorkin feels the need to hit that nail on the head again and again. 

Jobs is a bastard in both senses of the word (from Isaacson's biography we know that Jobs's biological parents were not married when Jobs was born, and that his mother put him up for adoption; they later married and had a daughter, the writer Mona Simpson, but Jobs never met his father, a Syrian who runs a restaurant in the film).

It's not hard to wonder about the connection between Jobs's traumatic rejection as an infant and his unconscious desire to remedy whatever inherent flaw caused this by creating a perfected extension of himself.  We can't help but wonder, too, about Jobs's insistence on a "closed system," which creates  a major rift between him and Woz.  Jobs's system is a safe intact family of hardware that no one can dismantle or change because it can't be penetrated.

Enter daughter Lisa the Penetrator.  If you've ever seen toddlers navigating iPads at the Apple store, you won't be surprised that this little girl becomes immediately engaged with her father's machine, thereby engaging him.  It's no spoiler that Jobs did name his computer after his daughter, and that he ultimately embraced her as his.  

Lisa's character functions as a formal as well as an emotional device, given her growth from age 5 to an antagonistic teen (Perla Haney-Jardine) in the final act, allowing Chrisann's character to be summarily and rather awkwardly dispensed with, as she had functioned in that role earlier.

The filmmakers' wavering/loss of nerve is also reflected in the film's ending, which was reportedly "tweaked" after the movie screened at Telluride as a work in progress.  It veers disappointingly towards the sentimental, yet does not seem fully comfortable or committed there.  It's filmed with a kind of ambivalence that betrays its subject.  Because if there's one thing Jobs never appears to have been, it was ambivalent.

A word of caution:  do not approach this film as a biopic.  If you do, you will be disappointed.  Just as James Joyce's novel was titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, not The Portrait of an Artist, the Sorkin-Boyle film is an impressionistic/allegorical portrait of the innovator/visionary personality who shakes up and challenges the status quo.  Look no further than the portraits Jobs picks for one launch--among them Dylan, Lennon, Martin Luther King.

Jobs never wavered.  As The Verve song puts it, he couldn't change his mold.

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