Portrait of a Turd

Steve Jobs  A Film by Danny Boyle

I’m a little slow on the uptake, often don’t read reviews of movies before I see them, so I was into the final third of Steve Jobs  before I realized that this was a drama in three acts, that it focused on three specific moments, that the same characters appeared in all three, that in some ways the whole of Steve Jobs’ life reveals itself in these scenes—though two of them represent failures, and we never see his greatest triumphs—and that all the scenes involve moments before Jobs presents some product to the public.  The structure of the story is unique, and brilliant.  When it dawned on me what I was seeing, I was impressed.

A constant in each scene was the focused, relentless, megalomaniacal mind of Steve Jobs, who was cold, sarcastic, unfeeling, bitter, abusive, self-impressed, to the point that he didn’t seem to think there was anyone else in the world.  I’ve seen scenes of physical torture that were easier to watch than parts of this movie.  It was so focused on the mind of this man who was himself so focused, and so ambitious, and so essentially out of touch with—or antagonistic to—everyone around him.  It was like inhabiting the man’s consciousness.  It was maddening.

I know nothing about the story, am not familiar with the products Jobs created, or with the role of people around him.  I assume that all of these characters are drawn from life.  At his side constantly is an assistant named Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who had a nervous system of steel, an incredible capacity for dealing with his difficulties and short-sightedness.  The drama unfolds as he encounters a central cast of characters, two men who helped develop these products, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the company’s CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and Jobs’ former girlfriend and their daughter, Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) and Lisa Brennan.

The film opens with Jobs’ final preparation for what he expected to be a huge triumph—the unveiling of the Macintosh—but there is a glitch; the computer is supposed to say hello, but that function isn’t working.  Hertzfeld is apparently responsible for the failure, and Hoffman keeps pointing out that it isn’t that big a deal—it’s a small moment—but Jobs has envisioned the presentation and must have it his way.  He’s relentlessly abusive to Hertzfeld, telling him he will announce to the assembled masses, who worship Jobs, that it was Hertzfeld who screwed up—the man goes pale when he hears that—and he finally gets his way when Hertzfeld finds a way to fake it.  The fact that he’s faking doesn’t bother Jobs at all.  What’s important is how things look.

Wozniak developed the Mac with Jobs.  He sees himself as the real brains behind the product, while Jobs gets the credit.  He wants one thing from Jobs, that the man give credit to the crew who developed the Apple II, but Jobs wants only to focus on this new project, and also—it’s obvious—wants to take the glory himself.  That request from Wozniak is the same in all three scenes.  Jobs never relents.

The most emotionally affective part of the movie is the relationship with Chrisann and their daughter.  Jobs was ordered at some point in the past to give Chrisann a minimal amount of child support, but now he’s worth millions, and she’s on welfare.  She pleads with Jobs for more money, and of course he has it, and eventually gives her more, but won’t admit that Lisa is his daughter, especially because he believes the revelation of this paternity may have prevented him from being Time’s Man of the Year.  Lisa, in the meantime, is adorable, obviously adores her father.  He holds her aloof as he does everyone else.

It is just before he presents that he encounters Sculley, who has brought a bottle of wine—at 10:00 AM—to toast this new venture.  Their whole relationship concerns boardroom politics, and though it was the least interesting aspect of the movie for me, probably the one I understood the least, it’s where Jobs becomes a shark, first triumphing, later being fired as Sculley triumphs, then making his famous return.  The relationship between the men is fierce and full of emotion.  Ultimately Jobs wins.

That, essentially, is the story.  Those relationships keep coming back.  The second act is about Jobs opening his own company, NEXT, a venture that failed but enabled him to develop the operating system that helped him return to Apple with the I-Mac and all the products he developed after that.  He continued to encounter Hertzfeld, an emotional man who had known Chrissann and Lisa in the old days and continued to look after them; Wozniak, who continued to live in the shadow of Jobs and to want the credit he felt he and others deserved (everyone thought he was Ringo when he knew he was John); and Chrissann and Lisa, as they get older.

It’s obvious that Chrissann is a bit of a mess; Jobs is probably right not to give her too much money, and a large part of Lisa’s life as she gets older is dealing with this out of control parent.  The most interesting and affecting character in the movie is Lisa, who is played by three different young women, all of them superb (Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, Perla Haley-Jardine).

There’s a suggestion in the third act that Jobs is mellowing.  He has initially refused to pay Lisa’s tuition to Harvard, but apparently intended to do so all along.  Hoffman finally tells him he has to make things right with Lisa or she—Hoffman—is leaving.  She also reveals—why did she wait so long?—how it is obvious that the revelation of his paternity didn’t lose anything for him, Time had never intended him as Man of the Year.  She can prove it.

Jobs has a new look in this final act, the iconic look that we’ve seen on so many magazine covers.  Whereas he had overestimated the success of the Mac, he has apparently underestimated how the I-Mac will do; he’s on the verge of his greatest triumph.  In this situation, he tries to make things right with Lisa.  He doesn’t tell her he loves her and has always loved her, anything like that.  His olive branch comes when they’re standing on the top floor of a parking garage and she’s wearing that primitive gadget known as a Walkman; he says, “I’ll put 500 tunes in your pocket.  A thousand tunes.  I’ll put them in your pocket.”  As if to say: I know I’ve been a total jerk and a terrible father your whole life, (honestly, how could Steve Jobs with all his money not pay his daughter’s tuition?), but the reason I’ve been such an asshole is that I’ve been busting my butt to do something great.  And this is the great thing.  I’m going to put those tunes in your pocket.

I would like to explain why I think that’s a pathetic thing to say, and why I think that, no matter what he says or does at the end, nothing makes him less of a turd.

For one thing, as Wozniak says in a very powerful moment in that third act: It’s not binary.  You can be a decent person and still do something great.

But on the subject of music: There was a time, not very long ago in human history, when, in order to hear music, you had to go to a concert or, at the very least, get together with friends and make it yourself.  Concerts were a rare and valued event, and a memorable concert might be the greatest event of a lifetime.  See My Antonia for an example.

Then there was an interim period when you could hear recorded music in your home, good recorded music, perhaps even a good recording of that memorable concert, so you could enjoy it again and again.  That might also be a good thing.

But now, it seems, every human being can listen to music at every moment of their lives.  I go to the gym, and not only is there music blaring from loudspeakers, but everybody also has a phone and earbuds, and is playing music all the time.  If you say something, they don’t hear you.  They don’t hear the music the Y is playing—that might be a good thing—and they’re cut off from the world when they’re listening.  Music has gone from being a communal experience to a solitary pleasure, which cuts people off from others.

Some people keep using the earbuds when they go outside, continuing their cocoon-like existence.  They no longer hear what I think of as the sound of the world, the sound of life, which isn’t always pleasant, to be sure, but it’s our life.  Nobody’s connected to other people; they’re listening to their own playlist.  And music is no longer special.  It’s something people do all the time.  It’s background noise.

I don’t think I-phones are evil.  I don’t think Steve Jobs was evil, and he created some wonderful technology.  But with these new devices come new choices, and we want to make the choices, we don’t want the choices to make us.  It’s possible not to be on your I-phone every minute of the day.  It’s possible not to use it when driving your car, or walking down the street. It’s possible not to use it to withdraw from life.

And creating great technology doesn’t mean you get to be a turd.  Nothing means you get to be a turd.  You have only one life, and either you’re a turd or you’re not.

It’s said that Steve Jobs studied with the famous Zen Teacher Kobun Chino.  He may have learned Japanese aesthetics, but he didn’t—if this movie is any evidence—learn much about how to live.