The Sociopath in the Machine: My review of Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs documentary

Biographical documentary

Directed by Alex Gibney

There’s no doubt about it. Steve Jobs changed the world. Even if you don’t own a single Apple product, your computer, tablet, and smartphone were influenced by Job’s work and inspiration.

But Jobs the man was a first-class jerk. At the start of his career, he cheated his friend and partner, Steve Wozniak, out of nearly $3,000. As his personal worth jumped from $10 million to $200 million, he lied and fought in court to not pay childcare for his daughter (the mother, his former girlfriend, was on welfare at the time). Able-bodied, he liked to park his silver sports car in handicap parking spaces.

He could get away with it. He was Steve Jobs.

Director Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts this multifaceted documentary with a question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died?

He was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He could rethink the human-machine interface, hire the best designers and engineers and push them to create his vision, then step out on stage and make everyone in the audience desperately want to buy his latest toy. He built a cult around Apple and around himself.

Many of those designers and engineers learned to hate him. He worked them relentlessly and drove them with anger and insults. Few stayed with him long. One member of the original Macintosh team, interviewed for the film, tells us that he lost his wife and his children in the years he worked for Jobs.

Gibney can’t cover Jobs’ entire life in two hours, but he covers quite a bit. We learn about his interest in Zen–which seemed to be very shallow, and discover he was, like me, a vegetarian and a Bob Dylan fan (Dylan’s songs dominate the soundtrack). We discover how he bullied reporters and editors to control his and his company’s public image.

We also learn how he did everything he could to keep his immense fortune to himself. Unlike Bill Gates (only mentioned once in the film), he didn’t believe in helping others. When he returned to Apple in the late 90s, he killed policies that encouraged employee philanthropy.

The last section of the film, of course, deals with his long and largely secret struggle with cancer.

Whether you worship Jobs, despise him, or couldn’t care less, he changed the world that you live in. And Gibney–one of the best documentarians working today–has created an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a brilliant man utterly lacking in empathy.

Oh, and about that original question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died? My answer: Because they never met him.

September Preview

A few things to look forward to next month:

  • After a summer recess, the Alameda relaunches its Classic Movie Series on the 15th with the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii, which I vaguely remember seeing as a kid. My memories of the other two films–Three Days of the Condor and The Seven Year Itch–are also vague.
  • The Balboa‘s Thursday classic series will cover Hollywood in the 60s with four well-chosen films: The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Midnight Cowboy. They’re
    also screening heist films every Tuesday throughout the month.
  • The Castro has a lot of good stuff, of course, including Nashville (9/17), Lawrence of Arabia (9/18-20), Midnight Cowboy (9/24), and a double bill of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sorcerer (9/27).
  • The Castro will also do an all-day Vittorio De Sica series on 9/26. Oddly, it’s skipping his Neorealism masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief.
  • After a summer hiatus, the Cerrito restarts its Classics series with Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.
  • The I Wake Up Dreaming series of very dark noirs will play in Berkeley’s California Theater Wednesdays throughout the month. I’ll be able to see noir on the big screen without crossing the bay!

Finally, I want to clear up some confusion concerning two documentaries on the same subject. This year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented a doc called The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It focused on Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who built a successful Israeli movie studio, moved to Los Angeles, churned out low-budget action flicks at record speed, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse.

I screened that documentary before the Festival, enjoyed it moderately well, and gave it a B.

So I was surprised a few weeks ago to discover that a documentary about Cannon Films called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films would be coming out in September. Had a new distributor changed the name?

No. It’s actually another documentary. According to this blog post by George Rother, “Neither Golan nor Globus participated in Electric Boogaloo. True to old form, they immediately set about making their own documentary, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. It beat Electric Boogaloo
into theaters by three months. I can’t think of a more appropriate swan song for Golan, ” who died earlier this month.

The Actor’s Voice: My review of Listen to Me Marlon

A documentary

  • Directed by directed by Stevan Riley

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this Marlon Brando biography. By using Brando’s own audio recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration, it takes us into his head. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

To anyone who loves motion pictures, Marlon Brando is both a giant of the art and a disappointing enigma. His method-based, down-to-earth, realistic acting style made him one of the most, if not the most, influential actor in the history of the medium. Only Lillian Gish comes close in the way she changed acting. He was, in the 1950s, huge. His films made big box office. His talent was universally praised. Women swooned over him.

But then, in the sixties, he earned a reputation as a troublemaker on the set. He had a comeback in the early 70s with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. But he soon gave up on being a great actor. He only took parts that paid huge amounts of money but required very little effort. He became a joke.

Some people write diaries. Brando spoke his. He recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life. When he died in 2004, he left behind hundreds of hours of these tapes. Director Stevan Riley used these recordings as the backbone to Listen to Me Marlon. We hear him talking about his alcoholic and abusive parents, the characters he played, the tragedies that ruined his children’s lives, and his sexual promiscuity. He gives his side of the story about the famously troubled productions of Mutiny on the Bounty and Apocalypse Now. He explains the difficulties he had finding his character for The Godfather, and how he realized the Don Corleone sees himself not as a monster, but as a loving, gentle patriarch.

Riley supplements the talking with music–much of it haunting–interviews, and scenes from his movies. We have a huge photographic record of Marlon Brando’s life and an even larger one of his work. Riley uses both to illustrate what’s being said on the soundtrack.

Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t show us all that much about what Marlon Brando did. It us tells what he thought. And when you come right down to it, that’s the more fascinating story.

Subject to Debate: My review of Best of Enemies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Today’s so-called culture wars burst into existence in 1968, with clashes over Vietnam, racism, and a new sexual freedom. By concentrating on a series of television debates between erudite, east-coast intellectuals, this breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible explanation of how our current world came to be.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were intelligent, influential, and successful, and both were exceptionally skilled debaters. And their world views were as different as they could get. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, was an extreme right-wing reactionary Christian, as determined to stop sexual promiscuity as he was to destroy the safety net for the poor. Vidal, a very successful novelist, was politically progressive, a defender of both the downtrodden and the new "free love." He was gay, and barely inside the closet.

They hated each other.

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In that tumultuous year, the ABC television network–desperate for better news ratings–decided on something outrageous. They hired Buckley and Vidal to debate ten times over the course of the Republican and Democratic conventions. It was an interesting year to use that approach; riots broke out in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention.

Best of Enemies argues–and many historians agree–that Buckley played a major role in setting America on its current course. He helped turn Ronald Reagan into a popular national figure, and created an intellectual foundation for today’s anti-government, pro-war, elitist, and repressively Christian Republican party.

Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon make another assertion which I hadn’t heard before: That these debates changed television news, taking it from a fact-reporting medium to an opinion-based one, built around argument. Within a decade, televised commentator debates were so common that Saturday Night Live regularly satirized the formula ("Jane, you ignorant slut").

And as you watch the debates (which take up well under half of the film’s 87-minute runtime), you can see the political atmosphere devolving. Here are two brilliant men taking quotes out of context and throwing insults at each other. Being who I am, I was rooting for Vidal. But even though he tended to win the debates, he disappointed me by attacking Buckley’s character, not his views.

Most of the film puts the debates into a historical context, with biographical sketches, news footage of the times, funny stories about ABC’s amateurish convention coverage (their lighting structure literally collapsed), and interviews with people involved.

Oddly for a documentary covering the uprisings of 1968, Best of Enemies avoids the popular songs of the era. That was the right decision, and not only because it avoided a cliché. We generally think of the clashes of ’68 as a generational divide, but Buckley and Vidal were of the same age (both born in the fall of 1925), and way too old for the rock and roll generation.

If you’re at all interested in recent American history, you should see this film.

The version I screened back in April was described as a "working copy." What you see may be slightly different.

The Green Film Festival and Bikes vs. Cars

I’m not going to attend this year’s Green Film Festival. It runs simultaneously with the biggest and best cinematic orgy of the year–the Silent Film Festival. True, Green runs for an additional two days after Silent, but I won’t be in movie-going shape by then.

Besides, I’m a bit off-put by what I call advocacy film festivals. I really don’t want to be lectured to by every film in a festival, even if I agree with the lecture.

But as someone who never drives a car when I can ride a bicycle, I thought I would preview the opening film, Bikes vs. Cars. The documentary isn’t perfect, but the subject is very close to my heart. I give a B.

 

Director Fredrik Gertten follows various bicycle advocates in various cities around the world, concentrating on two large, horribly auto-centric metropolitan areas–Sao Paulo and my native town, Los Angeles. The activists talk both on camera and off, discussing congestion, pollution, bad urban design, and the economic/political forces that emphasize automobiles over common sense. We also visit exceptionally bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Gertten makes good use of small, HD video cameras that can be mounted on helmets and handlebars.

Although I wouldn’t call this an unbiased film, Gertten gives pro-car people a chance to offer their side of the story. A cab driver complains traffic problems caused by bikes (would he be happier if all of those cyclists were driving cars?). The most colorful car promoter in the film is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who removed bike lanes and tore up streetcar tracks in his efforts to heat up the planet. Oddly, no one mentions his crack cocaine issues.

But the film concentrates on its pro-bike heroes. It gets repetitious in the second half, as you hear the same arguments over and over again. Things pick up a bit for the optimistic ending.

Bikes vs. Cars screens at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday, May 28, at 6:00–opening night of the festival.

Geriatric Starlet: my review of Iris

A- documentary

  • Directed by Albert Maysles

You know you’ve seen a really good documentary if it’s about something you couldn’t care less about, but you still enjoyed it. Few things in life bore me like fashion, but there’s nothing boring about Albert Maysles’ last complete film, Iris.

Iris Apfel, a fixture and a maverick in the New York fashion scene, is in her 90s. She dresses herself in loud, bright, and often absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great.

Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in Harlem specialty stores, shows off the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday. She’s almost always smiling.

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I hate to use the expression "free spirit;" it’s such a cliché. But it’s an appropriate cliché here. Apfel talks as she dresses—blunt and funny. She points out that it’s “better to be happy than to be well-dressed.” She dismisses the expensive but conformist clothes found among lower Manhattan executives with “That’s not fashion. It’s a uniform.”

But for all its joy, this is a film about mortality. Apfel now walks with a cane, and sometimes is pushed in a wheelchair. She complains about pains, and a loss of energy. When asked what keeps her up at night, she answers that she worries about her health.

I strongly suspect that Maysles identified with Apfel as a kindred spirit. He was approaching 90 himself as he followed his subject around New York, carrying his own camera as he recorded what Apfel was up to. He too must have been feeling the aches and pains of growing old, ignoring them as much as possible so he could keep on working and having fun.

Iris Apfel is still working, but Albert Maysles never made it to 90. I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for capping a long career.

Marlon Brando at the PFA (and the SFIFF)

Monday night I decided to attend the San Francisco International Film Festival without crossing the Bay to San Francisco. So I caught Listen to Me Marlon at the Pacific Film Archive.

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this. Brando recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life, and director Stevan Riley used these recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

I give this film an A.

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After the film, Riley came up to the podium for Q&A with the audience. Some highlights:

  • The first question was actually an opinion, and a minority one: “For me the whole film was spoiled by the music. It was in your face the whole time and it was lousy music. I disliked every minute of it.” Riley responded very well: “That’s very kind of you to say…I’m surprised you’re still here.”
  • About Brando’s famous rewriting of his Apocalypse Now dialog: “There was a stack of tapes, several hours worth, where he was improvising in the role of Kurtz…he was looking into himself for the nature of good and evil.”
  • About clearing rights for film and TV clips: “That was a bit tricky…there was a big debate at the end about whether the budget could afford it…it was a real coup on the part of the producers, they started with Paramount for The Godfather. We got a real favorable deal on that.”

You have one more chance at the festival to see Listen to Me Marlon. It screens at the Kabuki this Wednesday at 8:30.

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