· Written and Presented by Robert X. Cringely
· Directed by Paul Sen
Even an Apple cynic like myself must admit that Steve Jobs drastically changed the world we live in, and mostly for the better. I’m writing this on a Windows computer, I have a Creative Zen music player, and my smartphone is powered by Android. Yet I doubt that any of these would be in existence today without innovations for which Jobs played a significant role.
He was also a charismatic leader and public figure, who held people in thrall with his product announcements and presentations.
But does that mean you would enjoy watching a 16-year-old, 70-minute, videotaped interview, visually consisting of one continuous close-up of his face?
Surprisingly, the answer is Yes. That charisma, combined with the simple fact that Jobs had some interesting things to say back in 1995, make this a reasonably interesting and informative film. But it could have been much better.
In those long-ago days of the first Clinton administration, technology journalist Robert X. Cringely interviewed Jobs for the PBS series Triumph of the Nerds. Aside from a small portion used in the final cut, the interview was believed lost. Then someone found a VHS copy, and the rest is, if not history, than at least movie distribution.
There’s no filmmaking craftsmanship whatsoever in The Lost Interview. After a brief, new introduction by Cringely, the camera stays on Jobs as he talks. Occasionally an unseen Cringely asks a question. Every so often, the image freezes and Cringely (the 2011 version) provides a little narration to help bring us over to the next part of the interview. Since the image was transferred from VHS, it looks horrible.
But 1995 was a great moment to capture Jobs in amber (or at least videotape). He had been fired from Apple a decade earlier, soon after his triumph with the Mac. Apple was on the skids, and Jobs’ second startup, NeXT, had failed to set the world on fire. The following year, Apple would buy NeXT, and Jobs would triumphantly return to the company he’d co-founded, leading it to greater successes.
Jobs talks about how he first became interested in technology, about the Apple I computers that he and Steve Wozniak built by hand, and the astonishing success that followed the release of the Apple II. He remembers first seeing a graphic user interface at Xerox PARC and realizing that that will be the future of computing. His only complaint about Microsoft (the truly big giant in the industry in 1995) “is that they just have no taste." He predicts, accurately, that the Web will change everything, but assumes that Apple’s days as an important company are over.
He’s at his best early on, when he describes how he and Wozniak–then teenage buddies–slowly and almost accidentally turned their hobby into one of the most important and successful businesses in history. He also does well when he discusses how companies (including Apple) go wrong. Companies, especially successful ones, become driven by marketing, or by process (which he doesn’t really explain that well). Either way, they forget about improving their content, which is–after all–what it’s all about. Not surprisingly, he has nothing nice to say about John Sculley, the PepsiCo Vice President who became president of Apple and fired Jobs ("I hired the wrong person").
I’ve never been a Jobs fan–or an Apple fan. I don’t trust charisma (except in performing artists, where you don’t have to trust it). And I don’t like Apple’s "walled garden" approach to technology, where the company that makes the box gets to decide what you can do with it. That’s limiting and it leads to vertical monopolies. Nevertheless, I found the interview interesting and informative, at least most of the time.
But there’s a limit to how much time you can watch a single close-up, and the Lost Interview begins to where out its welcome well before it’s through. With a little extra work–perhaps inserting illustrative photos over the course of the interview–Cringely and his team could have made an invaluable documentary, capturing an important figure at a career low point that would soon end. Instead, they merely give us a record of in interesting conversation.
Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview will play for two days—this coming Wednesday and Thursday—in selected theaters around the country. Locally, it will be play at the Opera Plaza (San Francisco), the Shattuck (Berkeley), and the Aquarius (Palo Alto). The Aquarius will host the film’s only seven-day run.
Note: This post has been altered since I originally wrote it. I removed an unnecessary paragraph that contained an inaccuracy.