Deconstructing pictures of JOBS

JOBS

Now that I’ve covered most of my thoughts on the independent Steve Jobs biopic JOBS, whose premiere is today at Sundance Film Festival, it’s time to cover form i.e. production values.

Let’s review the official pictures that we’ve seen emerge from the film’s promotional campaign.

The first picture was that of Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs sitting on his desk:

Kutcher as Jobs

 

Which was trying to reproduce the below picture from 1981:

Jobs in 1981

 

Most people here would first see a striking resemblance between the two men. And I have to say, it’s really well done indeed. At a quick glance, they do look a lot alike, and it becomes obvious why Kutcher was picked to play the part of young Steve. But of course, being the obsessive-compulsive type with those pictures of Steve Jobs, I couldn’t help but notice a few things:

1. Physical build. The two men certainly have some things in common. But Kutcher’s build is very different from Jobs’s. Jobs was very wiry when he was young (in his hippie, fasting days especially), and in the mid-1980s, but he put on some weight at various points in his life. Not that he ate too much fat, of course; but probably more because he, like your fellow webmaster, was more into work than into sports. You can tell that in the picture above; and you can tell that Kutcher used to be a model, too. Basically, I wonder if Kutcher’s very athletic build will be credible as the impersonation of SJ on the big screen. Noah Wyle was better suited in that regard.

2. The watch. Look closely. In those days, Steve was a young millionaire, and showed off a little with his BMW motorcycle and his, yes, gold watch (after all, it was the 1980s). The watch that Kutcher wears is actually not bad, because SJ owned one very similar —only a few years later. So we’re dealing with a little anachronism here. Here is an example from 1984 that proves it:

1984 watch

 

3. The THINK poster. I would have been surprised if they had gotten that one right. But it’s the first thing that jumped to my eyes when I saw the picture of Kutcher. You see, that poster was not random. Its history was actually very well documented by Jef Raskin’s nephew —it is a variant of the Apple Syntax poster from 1980 (link from the Wayback machine). The original one featured Pascal syntax tips, and Steve Jobs was directly involved in its design. The version on his desk was using the same type as the Pascal header of the poster (3D letters with the Apple rainbow colors), applied to the IBM motto, THINK.

The Pascal poster

Unfortunately, the production crew of JOBS seemed to have bad eyes and to lack this information, as the type on their THINK poster seems to be dead flat.

My verdict:
Historical accuracy rating: 8/10

 

The second picture released by the JOBS team was one of the co-founders at the West Coast Computer Faire of April 1977:

Kutcher as Jobs in 1977

 

And, for context, two photos from the 1977 faire:

 

1977

 

Steve Jobs was actually wearing his first suit that day, after the advice of Regis McKenna and Mike Markkula. I have very little to say here, the resemblance is striking and the costumes almost identical. (The same can’t be said of Woz though). Of course, I did find a couple things to complain about 🙂

1. The badge. A blowup of both pictures will get my point across:

Badges 2

You might think I am too harsh with the movie, but this is actually non trivial. The West Coast Computer Faire was actually Apple’s grand entry into the personal computing market, the first time they were ever considered seriously. And McKenna was instrumental in getting the young scruffy Steves to look like businessmen on that day. So having handwritten, diagonal names on their badges is actually far from the truth of what that show was. In addition, Jobs’s first name on the badge was “Steven”, not “Steve” (I’ll admit I’m picky with that one).

2. The booth. This is not about Steve, but the Apple booth, but again a small misconception on the importance of the West Coast Computer Faire for Apple. The movie makers couldn’t have guessed it from the black and white pictures (since they didn’t ask your fellow webmaster for advice) but that booth was actually lit by neon lights to look serious and attract visitors. Markkula put up heavy money for this, for a startup. Check this out:

Neon lights

 

3. The hair. Steve’s was a lot dirtier 😉

Historical accuracy rating: 9/10


I won’t comment on the third picture, since it takes place in the garage, and we don’t have any pictures from that time. But I will talk about the latest news from JOBS, the movie clip that got out on Thursday, two days before the premiere (and on the eve of the 29th anniversary of the Macintosh introduction).

I’d be interested to know what you guys think of this. I must say I was a little disappointed. With the great production values and all this talk of a ‘wow’ performance from Kutcher, I was actually expecting something close to the reality of Steve’s youth. That’s not what I saw in this clip.

Where do I start?

  • the weird, forced intonations. “That changes e-ve-ry-th-in'”. Steve spoke fast, especially in those days. And he certainly didn’t speak to Woz the way he did keynotes in the 2000s;
  • the depiction of Wozniak as basically a corporate stooge, in a suit, saying “Hi Charlene” to a colleague. He did like the comfort of a salary from working at HP, but I don’t think anyone could say Woz was the corporate type;
  • the exchange on “the operating system” as if the term was new and coined by Wozniak. Yes, seeing what you typed on a keyboard on a TV screen was extraordinary. But this had nothing to do with the expression “operating system” which had been around for a good ten years then. As an example, Gary Kildall’s popular CP/M had been developed in 1973, three years before the Apple I…
  • “nobody wants to buy a computer”… coming from Woz? It’s true that the idea of selling was stranger to him. But certainly not the idea of personal computing, since he was so familiar with it after attending the Homebrew meetings, where it was pioneered.

Woz actually confirmed what I felt in writing to several blogs, starting with Gizmodo, I quote:

Totally wrong. Personalities and where the ideas of computers affecting society did not come from Jobs. They inspired me and were widely spoken at the Homebrew Computer Club. Steve came back from Oregon and came to a club meeting and didn’t start talking about this great social impact. His idea was to make a $20 PC board and sell it for $40 to help people at the club build the computer I’d given away. Steve came from selling surplus parts at HalTed he always saw a way to make a quick buck off my designs (this was the 5th time).

The lofty talk came much further down the line.

I never looked like a professional. We were both kids. Our relationship was so different than what was portrayed. I’m embarrassed but if the movie is fun and entertaining, all the better.

As he says:

It’s only one clip. The movie should be very popular and I hope it’s entertaining. It may be very correct, as well. This is only one clip. But you’ll see the direction they are slanting the movie in, just by the dialog style of this script.

I hope he’s right.

Historical accuracy rating: 4/10

Kutcher has a date and Sorkin has a pitch

As promised, here is my take on the news about the two upcoming Steve Jobs movies. For those suffering from chronic memory loss, these movies are:

  • JOBS (ex-jOBS, a.k.a. “the Kutcher picture”), an independent movie directed by Joshua Stern starring Ashton Kutcher
  • and “the Sorkin movie”, my codename for a Sony Pictures Entertainment project using the rights for Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (bought for $1 million), whose script will be written by Aaron Sorkin (scriptwriter of The Social Network)
These past two months, there has been news about both movies in the tech press.
 
The Sony project opened the news cycle with a little off-the-cuff comment from its rockstar scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, who unveiled in an interview that he had laid the ground for the basic narrative structure of his biopic. “This entire movie is going to be three scenes, and three scenes only, that all take place in real time,” he said, actually three half-hour-long scenes preceding Steve’s taking the stage at three product unveilings: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube in 1988 (four years later) and the iPod in 2001 (thirteen years later, and ten years before his death… OK).
 
Two weeks later, the JOBS marketing crew unveiled a photograph of Kutcher trying to mimic an actual picture of Steve from 1981. (It was followed by two pictures released last week, more on them later). That picture was actually accompanying the news that the movie will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, on January 25… wait, that’s tomorrow! Then, three weeks ago, on January 3, the release date for JOBS was announced: it should be in theatres in April of this year.
 
I thought I would take the opportunity offered by these three pieces of news to write on both projects, as I have been increasingly thinking about them recently.
 

Narrative

The most obvious and perhaps most interesting difference between these two movies is their timeframe. Indeed, JOBS will focus mainly on Steve Jobs’s youth, from 1971 (age 16, in high school, when he was friends with Woz) to the comeback at Apple (or even later… 2000? when he became Apple’s CEO?)

 

Kutcher as Jobs

Kutcher as Jobs

 

For those of you have seen the only fiction movie about Steve Jobs yet, Pirates of Silicon Valley starring Noah Wyle as Steve Jobs, the choice of period is very similar. Pirates starts in the Berkeley riots of the late 1960s, to show the friendship between Steve and Woz, and ends at the Macworld Boston keynote in July 1997 (the famous “Gates as Big Brother” keynote). But the bulk of the action happens in the early 1980s, during the development of Macintosh, and there is no mention of NeXT or Pixar (the years 1985 to 1996 are actually not showed at all). Pirates is different though, as Bill Gates is as important a character as Steve Jobs in that TV movie.

As a result, the narrative in Pirates is alternating between telling the stories of both characters, and Steve only gets half the spotlight, with short but symbolic scenes such as the West Coast Computer Faire, Apple’s IPO, his relationship with Chris-Ann and Lisa, celebrations and arguments with the Mac team, or his 30th birthday. The TV movie was actually successful portraying a dramatized but fairly accurate picture of the two fathers of modern personal computing, and SJ himself acknowledged it by inviting Noah Wyle disguised as his modern self to introduce the Macworld NY 1999 keynote.

 

Pirates of Silicon Valley

Noah Wyle as Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley

 

It’s an open question whether JOBS can pull off such an accomplishment. Since we know the movie is at least showing Jobs in India (age 19) and in 1997 (age 42), the question is, what in these 25+ years will be showed, and what will be forgotten? I hope it won’t be as bad as the Isaacson bio, which managed to dedicate one whole chapter on the week of the departure from Apple, and one other chapter for the whole decade at NeXT… But I have my doubts on the portrayal of the NeXT and Pixar ventures. NeXT is crucial in Steve’s history, as it was, after all, the first time he was truly the man in charge, and its failure was the basis for the resurrection of Apple. As for Pixar, of course, there wouldn’t have been a return to Apple without the media attention and riches that the animation studio brought to Steve.

I am not implying that giving a compelling yet accurate picture of a life so eventful is easy. I have myself agonized (and still am) over the writing of Steve’s biography, which simultaneously follows different threads: the Lisa drama at the time of the IPO, the struggles with NeXT and with Pixar concurrent to the discovery of Mona and the wedding with Laurene, etc. To do all this in a 120-minute format is next to impossible, and something’s gotta give. I hope that JOBS doesn’t let go of the main drive of Steve’s life, his passion for technology. I wonder, for example, how the trip to Xerox PARC will be depicted (if at all). Same with the NeXT Cube introduction. This is one area where Pirates of Silicon Valley was actually not bad.

 

For the Sony movie, the answer to the question “what will be ignored” is actually quite simple: “almost everything”.

Indeed, as I said in the intro, Sorkin’s intention is to have the movie play out in real time (meaning every minute on the screen is a minute in the movie), with no flashbacks or cuts of any sort. Three times thirty minutes, the thirty minutes that precede Jobs’s entry on stage for three key product introductions in his career: that of the Macintosh, the NeXT Cube, and the iPod.

 

1984, 1988, 2001

1984, 1988 and 2001 – the three pillars of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts

 

First of all, what was the point of buying the rights of Isaacson’s bio to write such a script? All the facts there are to know are in the recordings of those events (including that of the NeXT Cube intro, which I have been longing for for the past five years now). The rest can only be in allusions or short appearances of characters, and will not be from the bio for sure. Actually it is obvious already what will not be in such a movie: anything having to do with Jobs’s family (Lisa, Mona, Laurene, Reed, Erin or Eve); or even, anything Pixar? I don’t see how they could fit in the narrative as Sorkin describes it. And how could the complexities of the character be reflected in such small segments? I just watched Scorsese’s The Aviator again to get some perspective —imagine if the whole movie had been reduced down to just the premiere of Hell’s Angels, the plane crash, and the Congressional trial, for instance; how would that give a rich description of Howard Hugues? Needless to say, I am skeptical.

Yes, it is hard to do a full-blown biopic, and if Sorkin listened to me, he would have to do a Lord-of-the-Rings-type trilogy, even a tetralogy (1955-85; 1985-1996; 1997-2007; 2007-2011 would probably be a nice breakdown). I am (and you are, if you’ve read this far) probably one of the few people on this planet who would bear to sit for 14 hours to re-live the life of Steve Jobs on the big screen. But I understand that Hollywood is an industry and that such an endeavour would not make much business sense. The problem is that I’m not sure Sorkin’s approach makes much sense, either.

Let’s give the man credit and suppose that he pulls this off. After all, he does have a good track record. So suppose his three-scenes-before-keynotes approach works well —still, I can’t get around his choices for those three keynotes. The idea, I assume, is to give snapshots of Steve’s personalities at very different moments of his life. The plot could be organized around such lines: first, the arrogant young millionaire at the peak of his early success; then, a fallen-angel type of deal with NeXT, the thirty-something entrepreneur back with a vengeance (and perhaps a healthy dose of moving scenes relating to Lisa or Mona); and finally the 45-year-old ready to take over the world.

To start with, it is bold to begin the movie in 1984. I personally like the idea to ignore the oft-told tale of the hippie days at Reed or in India, and the garage days of Apple. But to start with the Macintosh launch means probably skipping over the rough early 1980s, and how they transfigured young Jobs, with the intense learning of business, the riches and the fame from the IPO, the inner conflicts with Lisa (the girl) and Chrisann, the Eureka moment at Xerox PARC, and the fanatical days of the development of Macintosh after the failure of Lisa (the computer).

The jump from 1984 to 1988 makes more sense — some might say it’s just four years, which can be summed up with the crisis and departure of Apple, and the development of NeXT… oh, yes, there’s also that side project, a little startup called Pixar (don’t count on that one). Yet in these four years, Steve changed a lot, and I have to give credit to Sorkin for dedicating a third of his script to a crucial turnaround point in Steve’s life, which is all too often plain forgotten. I’m actually quite excited to see how NeXT could be presented in that segment. Will it be all about “revenge”? Yes, revenge was part of NeXT, but the ambition of the Cube was so much more. In a lot of ways, Steve of 1988 was a prototype to Steve of Apple 2.0. I wonder if Sorkin gets that.

Much more radical is the switch from 1988 straight to 2001. How will that account for the ten years of struggle at NeXT and Pixar? The new family life? The late triumph of Pixar? The comeback and subsequent coup at Apple? Again, I suspect NeXT and Pixar will be left in the background, and that Sorkin will try to drop hints at the future of Apple instead… that’s why the choice of the iPod keynote left me dumbfounded. Like I suspect many others, I would have bet a fiver on the iPhone introduction instead. Not only because the iPhone was perhaps Steve Jobs’s greatest masterpiece, and its introduction blew the whole world away. But also because he was actually conscious of that, and made that keynote as dramatic as can be. Everyone who watched it remembers how he started the iPhone section of his presentation by telling he couldn’t sleep the night before, because he knew that Apple was about to make history once again.

 

Steve Jobs at Macworld 2007

 

Not so for the iPod. Far from it. For those that doubt it, just watch the keynote again. I wouldn’t say it’s dull or boring, because the product was damn exciting — but you could tell neither Jobs nor the audience (mostly press and Apple employees) expected it to be da bomb that it turned out to be. And as a result, the iCEO wasn’t nearly as charismatic as he was at Macworld 2007. The scale of the keynote certainly played its part too, it was only in the small auditorium of Cupertino vs. the huge hall of Moscone West.

I don’t think that Sorkin will reflect that lack of showmanship and excitement in his movie. In fact, I expect him to put a lot in that segment that shouldn’t, that couldn’t have happened in 2001. I actually think this is what the success of his script boils down to: the sum of the choices he will have to make, because of the format he’s chosen. There’s a very high bar for him to make good ones. My hat’s off to him if he manages to give birth to a masterpiece within these self-imposed constraints.

 

A paradox

The two Jobs movies were not born under the same star.

One was conceived in 2011, after Steve’s resignation but before his passing. It is an independent movie whose creators come mostly from TV and have no track record with feature-length films, including its lead star, Ashton Kutcher, who started out as a model. It will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the first choice for most independent features. The other is based on Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography. The book was written with Jobs’s full cooperation, but it was rushed to market after his death, to successfully become one of the best selling books of the year. Very soon afterwards, the rights were sold to major studio Sony Pictures for a couple million dollars. One of Hollywood’s most highly-regarded writers was put in charge of drafting its scripts. It will certainly be introduced with a huge media campaign à la Hollywood.

Here comes a paradox.

On the one hand, history suggests that movies in the hands of major studios tend to feature high-profile movie starts, be overkill in production values, and unimaginative with their narrative. On the other hand, independent cinema tries to compensate its lack of visual debauch and its usually obscure cast (due to scarce funds) by being more audacious with its subject matters and plots.

This is not what we’re starting to see here. The independent movie has a movie star in its own right. And from the first images we’ve seen, the production values seem to be impeccable. The costumes and sets are almost perfect reproductions of the 1980s and the early days of Apple. Kutcher was even cast probably for the reason that he looks so much like young Steve Jobs! But his talent at impersonating our hero will have to be tested. I have honestly never watched anything from his filmography, and in fact, I had never heard of him before he was picked for JOBS. So I can’t judge him before I see the movie. However, I can’t help but hear a lot of bad rap, especially along the lines of “almost anything can be played by actors —except intelligence”. I will give Kutcher the benefit of the doubt, but this is definitely the fear: perfect form, and no substance, a movie that looks like a documentary but misses the essence of its main character. I hope this isn’t the way JOBS will go down into history.

The Sony movie is also breaking clichés on cinema. We’ll have to see if Sorkin’s plan is followed through by the studio, but if so, needless to say that the narrative of the movie will be quite unconventional. That’s right —a lot less conventional than its independent counterpart! It will be the big production that takes the most risk. I still have my doubts as to what Sorkin can make of the Steve Jobs story. Will he —can he— get it? Again, the final word will come when both movies are out. But the outcome might be quite unlike what one could have expected!

Needless to say, I am quite excited by the prospect of watching and reviewing those two movies. Please, dear moviemakers, hurry up!

Happy 2013! a.k.a the End of 2012 Steve Jobs News Roundup

Dear reader,

The new year starts as it should, with the continuation of one of my worst habits: the posting of news roundups that gather the equivalent of what should have been five or six separate, timely posts. Still, I will write such an article, because it does contain some interesting trivia that you might have missed.

 

Let’s start with the one-year anniversary of Steve’s passing. Although I did post on that sad day, it was only later that I found out the following anecdote: The favicon was at half mast during the anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death (from a great site, Little Big Details, which I recommend you check out).

Apple's favicon at half mast

That’s right, on October 11 2012, the favicon of apple.com was “flying at half mast”. Nice touch, and a reminder that the company continues to care about the smallest details (and to delight you when you happen to notice them). Of course, this was only the icing on the cake, and what a cake.

 

Another piece of news came from Steve Jobs’s “other” company, Pixar. The Disney-owned animation studios had the graciousness to name the newest addition to their campus “The Steve Jobs Building”. The building has a modernist look which SJ would probably not have disapproved of — it’s even possible he was involved in its design, like the rest of the campus, but this is speculation on my part (Source: Pixar Times).

 

PixarSJB

The Steve Jobs Building at Pixar in Emeryville

 

The day before the anniversary of Steve Jobs’s death came another piece of news that might be of interest to the “Steve Jobs community”: Chris-Ann Brennan, Steve’s high school girlfriend and the mother of Lisa, will be publishing a “memoir”, according to the NY Times blog. I wonder about its quality and content, since Chris-Ann has been known to be unstable and eccentric (this was confirmed in the Isaacson bio). It looks a lot like a get-rich-quick plan, but I won’t make hasty conclusions before I’ve read the book. While waiting for the book, you can still read the article she published in Rolling Stone’s commemorative issue after Steve’s passing: Jobs at 17: Nerd, Poet, Romantic (cached version, the actual article starts about 80% of the way).

This confirms the theory I have long held that Steve’s death would be followed by people untying their tongue, now that their fear of him (encouraged by the occasional threats) is gone. So far it has been mostly the usual suspects talking to the press or writing, but I do see a trend of former colleagues who begin to open up, too. Avie Tevanian in BBC’s documentary, or Tony Fadell, are two examples.

 

Chris Ann Brennan

My only confirmed picture of Chris Ann Brennan, from Facebook

I sincerely hope the trend continues, and that one day those who worked really closely with Steve start to speak up. Can you imagine a book about NeXT by former NeXTers, for example? I would be thrilled to see that happen. It would perhaps compensate for the usually negative image of Steve Jobs as a man, relayed by the people who had broken all ties with him and thus did not feel bound to respect him. Not to mention the shallowness of the Isaacson bio.

  

As far as pictures go, I’ve dug up a few interesting ones in these last weeks of 2012. Starting with this gallery of Apple I photos from Time Magazine’s Harry McCracken. ‘Wait’, you might say, ‘but I know plenty of pictures of the Apple I!’ And you’d be right, dear reader, but these are special. They come from Paul Terrell’s private collection. If that name rings a bell, it means you’ve done your homework: he was the owner of the BYTE SHOP, the electronics store (I daren’t say computer store) which was Apple Computer’s first client, back in 1976, before the garage — it was actually the order of 100 computers from Terrell which made the garage necessary, and made dollar signs flash in front of young-and-not-so-hippie-anymore Steve Jobs’s eyes.

The Byte shop

The first picture of the Byte Shop I ever saw, from the TIME gallery
(notice the groovy typeface for the logo) 

 

I will soon add those Apple I pictures to the site, along with a few I already added, from a few years later:

New pics of Steve Jobs

 

This batch of (too small) pics came from Vectronic’s Apple World (a treasure trove for old advertisement of the fruit company). They show Steve around 1980-81, when he was 25, a.k.a. The Moustache Years. The top left is from a series we’ve seen before, where he is riding his BMW motorcycle. All others are news to me: the top middle and right show him at a “PR agency” (perhaps McKenna’s, where he met his then-girlfriend Barbara Jasinski?) The bottom left and middle ones are probably in his ski destination of choice, Aspen. And the last one, the only large one, is obviously at a school. I will add more very interesting pictures of young Steve soon, so stay tuned!

 

In echo of my previous post, there was also some more talk of Steve’s famed yacht, Venus, in the last days of December. The talk was really not that interesting, and Philipp Elmer-Dewitt made a great short summary of it (as he does) on his blog: Steve Jobs’ yacht: The anatomy of a news cycle. Basically, French designer Starck was paid a percentage of the cost of the yacht. But the boat ended up costing less than planned (which is noteworthy), and so Starck was paid less than he expected — €3 million short (€6m instead of €9m). Apparently, Laurene quickly settled the case with him and the yacht, which had been temporarily seized by the Dutch authorities, was released a few days later. Big deal.

PED’s analysis is interesting in that it stresses how such small events become hugely inflated by the blogosphere and even mainstream media, just because they give an excuse to have ‘Steve Jobs’ in the headline and attract click$. This is something I have observed as well, and it sometimes really becomes ludicrous. The article on Examiner.com Psychic makes contact with Steve Jobs, says things not well in afterlife certainly takes the palm in that category.

I can hear your voice – “But that’s not all! He forgot about the movie! … I mean, the movies!” No, dear reader, I will speak of those movies. But they deserve their own post, and it will come very soon.

Although the blog has been quiet lately, I have been paying close attention to all things Steve Jobs all along, and even updated the site silently. Just last week, I added 22 new anecdotes and 2 new quotes to my growing collection. Rest assured that this will continue: as I’ve written before, I have some great content coming up soon.

 

Oh, I almost forgot… Happy new year! 🙂