Saturday, October 24, 2015

Film Review: Steve Jobs

It takes a genius to make a film about a genius, sometimes two. Based on the evidence of "Steve Jobs," screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle fit that description. Freaking geniuses, the pair of them.

How would you film The Book of Jobs? Whatever you imagine, that's not how they do it. Their approach is straight out of left field, but it works.

The closest parallel would be a film about the life of Muhammad Ali. A conventional biopic would focus on the boxing ring -- the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manilla, etc. If Boyle and Sorkin did the movie, they'd spend most of their time following Ali around in various locker rooms.

Jobs' pugilistic arena is the annual Apple product launches. Big convocations in gaping modernist auditoriums. Which felt like some messianic cult.

As a software developer friend once informed me, "Steve Jobs? Oh, I've seen him in action. Various product launches, a yearly ritual, the gathering of the Mac faithful. These resemble tent revivals, although the worship is aimed exclusively in his direction. Steve Jobs could ask his devotees to set their hair on fire, they would comply. He has the mentality of a cult leader and he attracts the typical true believers. He calls himself an evangelist, but he's just being humble. Steve Jobs thinks he's God."

These annual meetings were Jobs' boxing ring and the temple of his faithful. But the film spends most of its time behind the stage -- in the conference rooms and hallways watching Jobs getting ready for some big show, relentlessly pacing like a caged animal. Thinking, arguing. Ginning up the hype. Obsessing over ludicrously arcane details, slights and idées fixes.

It's a portrait of s public man (as iconic as Colonel Sanders) before he puts on his public face. Oblique, fragmented, as many-faceted as a Cubist painting.

But it all adds up.

Jobs character emerges in snippets of dialog, flashes of insight, inferences seen in the cracks of his facade. So here's what I think the movie's saying about his character. An unconventional review for an unconventional film. The dialog is paraphrased. The tense is the useful but much despised historical present.

The film opens at the 1984 launch of the Apple Macintosh, right after the "Why 1984 Won't be like 1984" commercials that aired on the Super Bowl. (Ridley Scott directed 'em. The chick from the Olympics who threw a hammer in Big Brother's face, remember?) Having all seen that commercial, the Mac Mavens pack the auditorium, and they're frothing and foaming in a nerd feeding frenzy. Clap, clap, STOMP! The first personal computer with a graphical user interface ever! Clap, clap, We want Jobs! STOMP! Start the show! But the show ain't starting. Jobs wants his new toy to say "Hello," but there's some damn glitch. Jobs verbally flogs Andy Hertzfeld, his long-suffering chief engineer, demanding the he freaking fix it -- and threatens the man with public humiliation if he fails. Jobs then attacks the next whipping boy or girl -- usually Joanna Hoffman, who's officially his marketing executive, and unofficially his battered human shield. Jobs never hits anybody, but he beats people up. Mental pressure exudes from his eyes like a force field. People shudder and shake in his glance. It's like that scene in Scanners before the guy's head exploded.

But the "Hello" problem is only one track in Jobs' obsessive, multi-track mind. After abusing Hertzfeld, he deflects a desperate plea for money from Chrisann Brennana, a woman he impregnated and rejected, denies that her precocious daughter Lisa is also his daughter, teaches Lisa to draw on the first iteration of MacPaint, obsesses about his absence on the cover of Time, shoots random investigative probes to suss out the true identities of a long list of screw-ups and backstabbers who only think they've covered their tracks, then returns to busting Hertzfeld's balls. And the clock is tick, tick, ticking, man. Like it or not, Job is going to have to step out on stage and do the launch and he still can't make the freaking computer say "Hello." So the tension ratchets up in one, long continuous take. Until Hertzfeld finally breaks it. "Ah, what the hell," he says. "If we can't fix the bug, let's just fake it." "Fine by me," says Jobs. And, with a big smile, he finally hits the stage, all set to hoodwink the adoring audience. End scene.

Yeah. After all that build-up, the filmmakers don't even show the bloody computer say, "Hello." (Which it famously did.)

And so it goes. As it was in the beginning of the film, so it is until the end. Aside from a few teasing clips in auditoriums, the camera stays in the back rooms, tracking the relentlessly pacing Jobs in the moments before he goes on stage.

And so we track the man. Jobs' mind emerges in Sorkin's gob-smackingly well-written dialog. It's more than the flavor of real talk in movies like "Tin Men" or "Reservoir Dogs." It's the flavor of real geniuses talking -- geniuses with an insanely developed sense of strategy playing mental chess with each other several moves ahead. (I went to school with these people, and I can tell you the dialog rings true.)

The rift between Steve Wozniak and Jobs quickly emerges -- a simple fault line. They think different.

Wozniak's rooted in the self-reliant, subculture of all-American do-it-yourselfers. The fire that lit the PC revolution is open code, right? Let's keep Apple open, hardware, software, OS. Revolutions happen in the garage, man! Some kid in Kansas writing software we can't even imagine ...

Jobs is a control freak, plain and simple. His Holy Grail is end-to-end control -- a totally closed system, with proprietary OS code running top-down Apple applications in a box you couldn't open without special tools. (This messes him up at the 1984 product launch.) Two ports only, and fuck the kid in the garage.

But people still think the man was a saint in a turtleneck.

In the popular mind, Bill Gates was the big bad -- the real Big Brother who got a hammer in the face. A monopolist, true, but he let the little guys make stuff before buying them out or crushing them. Jobs was a monopolist to the core, with zero tolerance for the little guys. The cattle baron who strung the formerly open range with barbed wire and drove the sheepherders out. An insufferable dick, despite his cool John Lennon granny glasses. And speaking of ironies ...

This inhuman boss was a humanistic designer. Or some kind of designer, hard to say. Hacker? Not exactly. Engineer? Yes and no. What the hell is he? Damned if I know. Agggh. But I can tell you what he does. Fine! What? Well, Jobs starts from the best possible way a natural-born human would intuitively use something, then works backwards to the product. Or he starts from tech humans hate and builds the opposite. Users despise Dos! Well, humans think visually and spatially. The mind's not wired for code. We open, close and stack files, point at what we want. Hey, the GUI we stole from Xerox does that! Users fear computers? Build a box that looks like it's smiling. Why is the Newton despised? The stylus, dumbass. Humans have five fingers, haven't you noticed? Touch the screen, drag and drop, it's obvious ....

Cool products flow out of this thinking. Or the illusion of cool products. Big price tags either way. Sweet stuff, aimed at the high-end market.

Yeah. Jobs isn't interested in the mass market. He's not into grinding out cheap computers for the masses. He wants to sell designer computers, as they used to say back in the '80s. Pricey, exclusive, select, with exquisite designs. For rich folks with discriminating tastes.

But rich people aren't buying the scary new Macintosh. And normal slobs are still buying the affordable AppleII. Hey, define the problem, solve the problem. The obvious fix ...

Jobs wants the Apple board to dump the Apple II series, put all their eggs in the Macintosh basket, make it cheap as hell, flood the market, pump up demand for a product people don't want yet, then jack up the price when they finally do. How? Jesus. By making the damn thing hip of course. Style! Fashion! Design! Beauty! Art, OK? Can't you see it? Am I the only ...

 Jobs sees the future! He creates the future!

But Jobs gets fired and doesn't see it coming.

For his next trick, Job cooks up the NeXT -- essentially an overpriced, cool-looking cube* with no OS inside, though he's working on it. (Sell first, build after! It's the Wonderland paradigm!) Jobs is aiming for the tech-challenged university market (Apple's turf) fails, then cunningly uses his empty black box as a front for secretly developing a next-generation OS system. Thinking ten moves ahead, he realizes that Apple, after a long drought of innovation, is jonesing for a new OS -- and they'll buy him out and put him in charge to get it.

And the damn scheme actually works. To get his new OS system, Apple takes the carcass of NeXT off his hands and give him a bigass check. And make Jobs the new Apple CEO.

And Job finally gets the end-to-end control he's always wanted.

What gets him there is his mind. Which he treats like a meat computer.

Jobs mind is a problem-solving machine, running scenarios on products, design, marketing, corporate strategy. To maintain his obsessive focus, he pushes people away. His daughter Lisa, Wosniak, Scully, everybody. But they push back, with stubborn human problems. I'm trying to think, people! To Jobs, they're a constant distraction on the fringes of consciousness. Angry ducks, trying to bust his concentration, break his flow, nibble him to death. Humans are quite illogical.

Yeah, the Great God Logic. Jobs is a right bastard, but he thinks he's a Vulcan.

Here's one chain of reasoning ...

Brennan claims with ontological certitude that Lisa is Steve Jobs' daughter when analysis of DNA evidence indicates that there is only a 94% probability. Statistically, the set of possible fathers comprises 28% of America's male population.

Jobs' insight into human thought processes approaches telepathy. In terms of emotional intelligence he's a drooling moron. He doesn't grok loyalty. On a conceptual level. This brilliant strategist fails to grasp that demoralizing your team over a pigheaded position is a bad idea.

Rationally speaking ...

Wosniak wants Jobs to acknowledge the AppleII team when he launches the Macintosh. This is clearly illogical and would be a hypocritical violation of his change-embracing philosophy as the Macintosh is the future and AppleII is the past.

Jobs says no, but Wosniak keeps asking -- at every product launch. Jobs eventually explodes. Spits verbal bile at Wosniak and stomps on the spirit of everyone in the room. His entire team.

But he fills his walls and screens with photos of Gandhi, Einstein and Dylan.

Jobs thinks he's an artist, a visionary, a more highly evolved being. Maybe he is.

He's the greatest mind of his generation. And he's an asshole.

How'd he get that way? Sorkin tosses hints of Jobs' childhood rejection, abandonment, orphanage, adoption, more rejection. But never enough to get touchy-feely.

Hoffman is his buffer. The shock absorber between Jobs and merely human life. She runs interference, transfers Jobs' intentions to lesser beings, translates their irrational concerns to him. This woman holds his world together. And Jobs treats her like shit.

Lisa's the main emotional thread, Jobs' tenuous tether to merely human life. She's also his most irritating interruption. He repeatedly denies she's his daughter, but the brainy, loud-mouth, wildly curious kid clearly is. Jobs named his first computer after her, after all. LISA? Come on. You really believe that's an acronym for Local Integrated System Architecture? That's a bullshit cover story, a lie. Of course she's his daughter! But Jobs doesn't admit it or really connect to her.

The years go by. Lisa keeps after her father, then gives up. After one last insult, she just walks out of his office, and he lets her, shrugs it off. Boiling mad, Hoffman finally stands up to Jobs and threatens to quit if he won't deal with her. So he goes off looking for her ...

This happens on the launch day of the shiny new iMac G3. They're stomping and clapping and the place is shaking like a freaking earthquake. When Jobs gave the nerds in the backroom a sneak peak -- they applauded like it's the Second Coming. Lisa said it looks like Judy Jetson's hairdryer. Now it's time for the nerds in the auditorium to finally see it. Yet again, he's making them wait.

Jobs catches up with Lisa on the rooftop parking lot and they finally connect. Tender scene, but they don't milk it. Father and daughter head back down to the shuddering auditorium. Lisa hovers in the wings as he strides out on stage. Then he turns, and you see he's going to bring Lisa out on stage. You're expecting a sappy, weepy ending, Jobs saying, "This is my daughter, Lisa,"  thunderous applause, a tsunami of heart-tugging violin strings on the soundtrack.

But the movie ends before you get that payoff.

What you do get is a damn good character study. Not a hatchet job, not the life of a techno saint. Just days in the life of a believable human being, gifted, flawed, good, bad, the whole contradictory package. Sorkin and Aaron don't want you to love him or hate him. They're just saying "Here he is." It's a fiction, of course.

But an insanely great one.

*A literal black box. Engineers everywhere must've wet their pants.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Film Review: 'The Martian'

The Martian has landed at a theater near youan adaptation of Andy Weir's novel, originally serialized on a blog. Ridley Scott directs; Drew Goddard (of Cabin in the Woods fame) wrote the screenplay; both are relentlessly faithful to the source material.

The Martian in question is Mark Watney. (An Earthling played by Matt Damon, not Ray Walston.) The poor bastid's stuck on Mars. How it happened ...

Sometime in the near future, the USA is back in the spaceand we've just sent our fourth Ares mission to Mars. 18 “sols” (earth days) into the mission, a freak sandstorm sends the Ares team packing. They scramble for the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle)then Mark gets harpooned by a wind-whipped communications antenna and his life signs stop. Thinking he's dead, the rest of the crew takes off, hooks up with the orbiting return vehicle and head home. But Mark's still breathing. The antenna ripped through his biometric monitor and into his gut. But the coagulated blood and antenna fragment sealed his suit and he survived. After the storm passes, he wakes up with enough oxygen to get back to the base (aka the "Hab.") Mark's got enough food for 400 sols. The next manned mission to Mars is four years away. And Mark has no way to communicate with Earth.

Fortunately, Mark is a botanist. And he knows how to improvise.

Mark gets to work. (Hell, he's got nothing else to doand nothing to listen to but Disco.) So, he first makes water by burning hydrazine (aka rocket fuel). He then turns one section of the Hab into a greenhouse and grows a crop of potatoes in a combination of Martian soil and astronaut caca. After that, Mark figures out where the Pathfinder landed in 1997, retrieves it, and uses its communications array to talk to Earthlimited to a "yes" and "no" dialog at first, until Mark cleverly switches to Hexidecimal codeand NASA sends him a hack for full-text emails.

It goes on like that. Mark solves one problem, then the next. In the tradition of "Apollo 13," this is really a movie about creative problem-solving and how engineers and scientists actually think. So, how do you make problem-solving interesting? By making the hero's impending death the problem, natch.

This movie grips your heart without insulting your intelligence. The solutions Mark (or Andy Weir) cooks up would plausibly work; it's hard science fiction backed up by hard thinking. Problem-solving, yes. Chest-busters, face-huggers, Martian ghosts or lost civilizations, no. And there's no real enemy, aside from Mars, the laws of physics and Murphy's Law. Stuff breaks down, and that's enemy enough.

The Martian is upbeat, not optimistica happy ending is never guaranteed. Engineers are pessimists, as an engineer once said. "The universe will provide?" No engineer ever said that. The truth is, the universe (or Mars) is doing its best to kill you. But you have a decent chance of survival if you keep your head in the game and solve each problem as it comes up. It also helps to have NASA's best minds (and the Chinese equivalent) in your corner as well.

The filmmakers made me care if the guy gets home. (And when I got home, made me decide not to whine about my little problems.) It's a well-engineered movie, folks. I loved every nut, bolt, wire, widget and circuit board. Love the whole damn thing, really.

Except for the !@#$ Disco.