The biggest film festival in the Bay Area--and longest running one in the Americas--kicked off last night, and of course I was there. Got up there nice and early, hugged a bunch of my 2-weeks-a-year friends, grabbed my tickets, grabbed my press pass, grabbed a burger and a beer next door, and settled into my front row (slightly-off) center seat (a lovely couple I see at the festival every year got there first and grabbed the absolute center seats.)
Then the obligatory introductions and thank-yous to all the sponsors (big news: there's a new sponsor beer this year, Fort Point Beer Co., which I tried at the after party and is delicious! Although I will miss the resealable tops on the Grolsch bottles, which allowed one to theoretically sneak beer from the lounge into the movies. Not that I would ever do that.) And finally we got to the opening night film.
And that film was Alex Gibney's newest doc, STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE. I've been a fan of Gibney's work ever since TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (DocFest 2007) and I've always been impressed with his ability to take complicated issues and make them understandable and entertaining. And then with Jobs being such an iconic and controversial figure--all over the world but especially in Silicon Valley--this was just too promising to pass up. And it's well made and entertaining, but with Steve Jobs I'm afraid Alex Gibney has finally run up against an enigma he just can't fully explain. It starts with footage of a young, nervous Steve Jobs prepping for a TV interview (I assume if not his first, at least very close to it) reminding us that he wasn't always the confident tech giant he turned out to be. Then we cut to his death, and the outpouring of grief and memorials from so many people who had never actually met the guy. Gibney expresses puzzlement at this. Obviously his devices made such a profound impact on people's lives. But still...these are people who never actually met him. And for those who've been paying at least a little attention, the guy was kind of an asshole. And the film definitely shows that side of him. It starts at the very beginning creating Breakout at Atari with Woz (who was working on it on the side, not actually employed at Atari) and telling him that their $7,000 bonus was just $700, and giving him just $350. It's just a weird sort of intense desire to win, that he would screw over a friend who was happy to work just for the challenge of the work--Woz insisted that if Jobs had simply said he needed the money he would've let him keep all of it. And there's a pattern that runs through his behavior--when he's giving IBM the finger in the early days, he looks like a rebel upstart taking on Goliath. But once Apple becomes Goliath, he's still giving the finger to...well, it's no longer clear. To whatever rules there are. Silly things like leasing cars for 6 months at a time so he never needs to get license plates (it was legendary that a silver Mercedes without a license plate meant it was Steve Jobs' car.) Or more troubling issues like the whole Foxconn working conditions thing. Or just weird, troubling anecdotes from people who left Apple to work elsewhere--which eventually became a class-action suit against several companies for colluding to not recruit each other's employees. And then the fact that he explicitly rejected the idea that he should use any of his fortune for charitable work (contrast to Bill Gates, thought of as the evil one when Microsoft was the giant, but now seems to be using his fortune on a personal mission to save the world.)
But this movie isn't all about how evil Jobs was. It's about the enigma. There are plenty of testimonials about how he was a brilliant, personable, charismatic man. There is, of course, mention of his "reality distortion field" (e.g., that if he told you the sky was green, you would start to believe it.) And wrapped into that puzzle was his zen practice and love of Japan. Which is never really resolved, beyond the observation that he had the focus of a monk with none of the compassion of one. That he somehow had a brilliant mind that achieved some form of personal "enlightenment" but definitely without freeing himself from his own ego. And so in the end, that question--why were so many people grieving a man they never met because of the gadgets he created? Well, it's never really answered--at least not to my satisfaction (confession, and I probably should've revealed this sooner--I'm not part of the Apple cult, I proudly own an Android phone, never owned a Mac, never even owned an iPod. So there's clearly something there that I just don't get) And it ends with an interesting observation that perhaps the enigma of his life is reflected in his devices--that these clever devices that connect us with the world also isolate us from the ones we're setting next to. That there's amazing promise but something lacking on the human side--just like Jobs. But you know what...that's true of my Android phone, too. And I just can't imagine people reacting the same way if any of the Google founders pass away. It's still just a puzzle.
But speaking of the human element, we were then off to the party to hobnob with big-wigs and high muckety-mucks at Madame Tussaud's wax museum on Fisherman's wharf. Drinks, a few snacks (apparently I missed more food on the second floor, as I went straight to the third floor VIP section) greetings of friends and more drinks. Then I had to take off early to catch BART back home.
And now the festival really starts.
Running Time: 127 minutes
My Total Minutes: 392,862