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Speak of the devil

Michael Fassbender stars in "Steve Jobs."


'STEVE JOBS': Michael Fassbender portrays the Apple chief.
  • 'STEVE JOBS': Michael Fassbender portrays the Apple chief.

Over the weekend I was thinking about "Steve Jobs" — the movie, not the person — and I remembered a sentence from something I couldn't place: "The avant-garde need not be moral."

Who said that? I thought it might have been someone like Stravinsky or Andy Warhol or Oppenheimer or, I don't know, Steve Jobs. It sounds like something he would have said — a way to excuse the vagaries of his personal (or professional) life, to refocus our attention on his products. It's one of those aphorisms that seem ineluctably true as soon as you hear it. But then you roll it over a little in your fingers, and it begins to look thin and confusing, not at all self-evident. Whether or not it's true, it begins to look like the worst sort of rationalization.

In turn, this reminded me of a news item from last month. Tim Cook, Jobs' successor as CEO of Apple, was asked about "Steve Jobs," and suggested that its production was "opportunistic." Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the film, replied, "If you've got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour, you've got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic."

Anyway, I was wrong. It wasn't any of those people; I looked it up, and the "avant-garde" line was from a review of an album by the rapper Cam'ron. I don't know if that makes any difference.


Aaron Sorkin, from a recent interview with New York Magazine:

"I can't write if there's someone else in the house, even in another room with the door closed. Because I'm talking out loud as I'm writing — I'm performing all the parts, I'm jumping around, smoking. At some point, when you're ready, you just gotta start having this argument with yourself."

It's an interesting way to think about this movie: one man's argument with himself.


The "biographical fallacy" is the idea that an artist's work can be meaningfully interpreted through the lens of his or her life. That the relationship is direct and causal. This is very often an easy thing to criticize and find funny about biopics, how heavy-handedly they sketch the pathways from personal tragedy (or whatever) to artistic breakthrough. But "Steve Jobs" has a different problem, because Jobs himself, in life, was the one committing the biographical fallacy, staking his claim to every Apple innovation by referencing some personal vignette — an acid trip, a calligraphy class, an absent biological father. So the project of the film becomes about something else, about the dissonance between Jobs' narrative and the narratives of others. And the dissonance is great. It's awful. The movie-Jobs is some sort of radical solipsist monster. It's not that he wants us to dislike him, he explains at one point. It's that he's indifferent as to whether we dislike him or not. And so we do.

As Judy Garland said once, supposedly: "If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?"


Aaron Sorkin again, in New York Magazine:

"When it comes to a line of dialogue, a couplet, a scene, a speech, or an entire act — I care as much about what it sounds like as what it means. I don't care more about what it sounds like than what it means, but I care as much."

The film is all high-wire drama and momentum, three acts each building up to seminal product launches, the story of a life in three afternoons. Every character is in possession of a blinding insight into Jobs' personality, which they usually deliver in near-theological syntax: "Things don't become so because you say so," etc. Every interaction is about friction (at a macro and micro level), conversations doing battle with and flowing into one another. It's a ballet of arguments, a kind of Silicon Valley "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

I think the ending is supposed to be a happy one, though I couldn't say for sure. It occurs around the time the iMac computer was introduced to the public in 1998. I never had an iMac, but my friend Robbie did. It was blueberry-colored, and looked more fun than my family's computer, which was a Dell or something. I cared a lot about how things looked. I didn't care more about how they looked than how they worked, but I cared as much.

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