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Category Archives: Reviews
You have no fucking idea what it’s like to be me.
— Steve Jobs
While I have deliberately avoided reading most of the critical reaction to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the broad consensus seems to be that Isaacson had the biographer’s opportunity of a lifetime, and blew it. Despite having unprecedented access to one of the most relentlessly private of public figures, Isaacson’s is a book without insight: his Steve Jobs is the same collection of contradictory impulses he has always been, a self-centered, unlikeable man who somehow created products that people adored, changing whole industries in his wake. In a world full of assholes, critics complain, what set Jobs apart? What made it possible for him to do the extraordinary things he did?
Let me say first that I agree in principle with the critics: Steve Jobs is a lousy book. I believe I arrived at the conclusion via a different route from a lot of other people, and I’ll get into that soon. First, let’s consider the argument, articulated well by Thomas Q. Brady, quoted on Daring Fireball:
I know lots of people that could be described [as “self-absorbed, immature, emotionally unstable control-freaks”], and none of them started a company in their garage that became one of the most valued corporations in the world. What made Jobs different? This isn’t really answered.
Actually it is, at least to a point. There is the asshole half of the Jobs equation, and then there is the other half, which Isaacson documents and which everyone already knows about: his fanatical obsession with spare, minimalist design; his belief that he was destined for greatness and his determination to achieve it; his tremendous persuasiveness; and his knack for infusing technology products with an underlying human friendliness. Unlike Jobs’s more unsavory characteristics, these are not common traits. Combine them with the ones above, and the story of Steve Jobs begins to seem, if not inevitable, then at least somewhat plausible.
Our civilization has spent centuries debating the origins of genius — even the definition of genius — and yet with each new transformational figure that comes along, we start the debate all over again. The truth is that genius has no formula. It cannot be predicted, reconstructed, feigned (for very long) or dissected, at least not in any way that is remotely edifying. You can quantify the factors that make it possible for people to be successful; for instance, Jobs acknowledged how lucky he was to grow up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who could nurture his talents and fire his ambitions. Had his parents opted to raise him in the suburbs of Wisconsin, we’d likely never have heard of Steve Jobs. But creativity — or inventiveness if you prefer, since we don’t tend to associate creativity with non-artistic pursuits — is a process that ultimately operates beneath the threshold of awareness. Indeed, it can operate in no other way; inspiration is not an algorithm.
Many people seem to have expected Isaacson’s book to provide the missing piece of the puzzle — the key that would finally unlock the secret of his genius and forever solve the enigma of Steve Jobs. They were never going to get what they wanted, because it didn’t exist. There was no “one more thing.” The enigma is its own solution.
I don’t want to give the impression that any inquiry into the inner workings of a genius is futile, or that Isaacson should be let off the hook for writing a superficial book about a man who was anything but. I merely suspect that no one could have written an entirely satisfying book on Steve Jobs, because the things people want to understand about him aren’t really explicable. What made Jobs different? How did he look at a Rio MP3 player and conceive what would become the iPod, where everyone else just saw a clunky, half-assed music player? You can posit various intermediary reasons — because he was driven to achieve perfection, because poor design caused in him something akin to physical pain — but what do those explain? What are the reasons for the reasons? The truth is that Steve Jobs did what he did because his unique blend of innate qualities, combined with the people and places that helped to shape his worldview, allowed him to. His career was the result of a confluence of circumstances so unlikely as to appear impossible. “What made Steve Jobs different?” is more a rhetorical question than an actual one. It is a way for our mathematically hampered brains to acknowledge the baffling unlikelihood of his achievement — the incredible fact that in this world, a man like him could exist at all.
So having put that issue in perspective, what is my primary objection to the book? I will put it in straightforwardly Jobsian terms:
The writing sucks.
This is a dull book, and I don’t mean that in a small way — I mean that in a big way. Isaacson’s prose is as flat and limp as a boned fish. Writing about the most fascinating inventor and visionary of our time brought out no poetry in him, no spark, no consciousness that a man of Jobs’s caliber merited an uncompromising effort. Steve Jobs is a Bill Gates kind of biography: unflavored, drily factual (which is not to say it is accurate), pedantic and, despite the occasional adverbial interjections the author makes to demonstrate he hasn’t been completely taken in by his subject’s point of view, cringingly deferential.
The purpose of a biography — of any kind of writing — is to make its subject come alive for the reader. Empathy and imagination are two of the writer’s most powerful gifts, and to the biographer they are essential tools to bridge the gap between the subject’s consciousness and the reader’s. On my bookshelf near my desk is a copy of Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis (the dust jacket of which features a laudatory blurb by Walter Isaacson). I opened it, flipped around for a few moments and came upon this passage, describing the young Charles M. Schulz making his first drawings:
Having dutifully put away the table arrangements, he would bend over the paper, tense, almost sick with excitement, as his pen followed the arched back of the panther threatening Tim Tyler last Sunday. Sometimes he drifted just far enough outside the forms of the cartoonist he was imitating to find himself watching in surprise as his pen point twisted a mouth or curved an eyebrow in a way that seemed somehow distinctively his. But design, proportions, pacing still belonged to the masters, and his drawings still lacked the professionalism that he was ever more aware of pursuing.
Michaelis gives himself license to depict Schulz’s artistic process from the artist’s own point of view; reading this passage, you feel one with Schulz, sharing his struggle and triumph as he experiences them. Note the forceful, dramatic verbs: “his pen point twisted a mouth or curved an eyebrow.” Even the picture Schulz draws adds drama and tension to the scene. The arched back of the threatening panther reinforces how much is at stake here: for Charles Schulz, getting this right is everything, and his best efforts still land him short of where he knows he needs to be. A driven, almost monomaniacal artist is born virtually before our eyes.
There is nothing in Steve Jobs that comes within a hundred miles of this. Despite (or even because of) the 40 interviews Isaacson conducted with his subject, which are reproduced on the page in great undigested gobs, we never feel close to Jobs or get swept up into his story. This I think is the real reason so many have found the book unsatisfying. It’s not because Isaacson didn’t tell us “what made Steve Jobs different” — he explained that as much as it probably can be. It’s because we never get a sense of what it was like to be Steve Jobs, and thus never understand how truly different he was, or wasn’t, from everyone else.
Is this merely a matter of Isaacson not knowing what questions to ask, as some critics have said? No, because interviews are only one of the biographer’s tools, and not necessarily even the primary one. Better interviews would have resulted in a better book than we have now, but I doubt even then that it would have made a great biography. If anything, his easy access to Jobs actually undermined the finished work. Isaacson seems to have believed that simply quoting his subject at length would, ipso facto, provide the definitive word, with a contrasting recollection by a former associate thrown in for balance. This is the stuff of magazine profiles, not biographies. A great biography of Jobs would have required an author willing to get inside his subject’s head by whatever means necessary, a writer with the determination to make his subject his own and the writing chops to convincingly show us the world as he saw it.
Maybe someone someday could still write that book using Isaacson’s materials, should he be generous enough to make them available. In the meantime, we’re stuck with the longest commemorative issue of Time magazine ever written.
June 1989: My friends and I are just a few of the hundreds of people crowding the halls at Orland Square theater, shuffling nervously with our popcorn and cokes, waiting to be admitted to a special Thursday night advance screening of Batman. The manager appears and hollers above the din: have your ticket stubs out; you need to show them again before being admitted to the theater. We grumble, but secretly we’re thrilled. This added inconvenience only confirms our belief that we’re about to witness something special: not merely a movie, but an event that really is as important as we had thought.
Most of you reading this probably don’t need to be reminded how wildly anticipated Batman was, how it seemed to promise the restoration to greatness of a character who had languished for decades in camp-TV hell (more on that later). Superman had been the movie of our childhoods: vast, sweeping, touched with reverence and just enough self-deflating humor, it sought to fill you with wonder, an ambition worthy of the greatest superhero ever. Batman, though, would be the movie of our adolescence. It wasn’t going to delight us-it was going to kick ass.
And for the most part it did. Beginning with the massive stone bat symbol that ended the opening credits, Batman was a movie of Gothic excess. From the shadowy Expressionist spires of Gotham City to Jack Nicholson’s calorie-burning turn as the Joker, everything in Batman is both exaggerated and obscured, vibrant and colorful yet hidden in shadows. Watching it joyfully that summer night, it was hard to think how it could’ve been improved: Michael Keaton was a surprisingly capable Batman (or at least a capable Bruce Wayne; as those OnStar commercials have shown, anyone with a decent chin can play Batman), the script was funny (“This town needs an enema!”), and best of all, the movie was dark-just as we knew Batman ought to be.
Except it really wasn’t.
There’s a curious disconnect between the way enthusiastic Batfans (including me) embraced the movie and what’s actually visible on screen, lo these many years later. Certainly, Batman is hardly the sunny, optimistic adventure that Superman was. Roger Ebert disliked the films partly because he always assumed that it would be fun to be Batman, as if anyone other than a borderline psychopath would look forward to donning a silly costume and placing himself in mortal danger every night. Burton, at least, wasn’t that naive, and the few moments of Batman that really qualify as “dark” are the ones where Keaton is allowed to show the toll that being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne’s psyche. We see him in his Batcave, dressed in sombre black and watching a party in his own house (Wayne Manor is more wired than the Nixon White House) from a bank of security monitors, fearfully eavesdropping on his guests; we see him rocking himself to sleep in a pair of gravity boots after a romp in the sack with Vicky Vale. Bits of disturbing ambiguity flash up here and there: when he tells Vicky that parts of rambling Wayne Manor are “very much me,” is he simply referring to the Batcave and its trove of gadgetry? Or is there still a corner of the mansion where Bruce Wayne remembers the happy childhood that was stolen from him?
Such moments are rare, and the rest of the movie is about as “dark” as a vintage Warner Brothers gangster picture, the ones that relished their anti-heroes’ nefarious exploits for 80 minutes only to gun them down mercilessly at the end (remember kids, crime doesn’t pay). From the boozy Det. Eckhart in his Columbo raincoat to Robert Wuhl’s intrepid newshound to Jack Palance as the aging-but-ineffectual crime boss, Batman calls again and again on the stylistic language of B-movie film noir, but without the deep moral ambiguity that suffused that genre at its best. In short, while it might be closer to pastiche than straight-out camp, Batman is far less dark and serious than its gloomy compositions make it appear. Even Danny Elfman’s score, still often held up as the ideal “serious” superhero movie score, is a tongue-in-cheek genre exercise; I can’t hear it without picturing vintage black and white footage of Packards and Cadillacs swinging around corners, tommy guns blazing from their windows.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But I do think it’s time we all lightened up a bit and realized that if Batman took its title character out of the camp ghetto, it didn’t take him very far. Moreover, I realize as I get older that the original “Batman” TV series is nothing to be ashamed of: it’s superbly designed, funny, intelligent, and far more sophisticated than just about any other comedy on the box today. (It had the worst test scores of any ABC show up to that time, and wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of getting on the air now.) It also saved a comic series that was teetering near cancellation; the Batman films, for all their self-conscious distancing from the TV series, probably wouldn’t exist without it.
And finally, in one of those funny accidents of history, the whole process is primed to start up again. With Joel Schumacher having sunk the series into a new morass of cheesy puns, hyperkinetic editing, leather fetishism and banal homilies, Batman needs rescuing today far more than he did in 1989. Supposedly a film adaptation of Frank Miller’s terrific Year One series is now underway that promises to take Batman once again back to his dark, turbulent essence. When that summer comes I have a feeling I’ll be there again, my popcorn and coke (and ticket stub) in hand, once more eager to witness the rebirth of a legend.
Originally written for Entertainment Geekly in June 2003.
I admit it: when it comes to this kung-fu stuff, I’m pretty much a novice. I know Jackie Chan and Jet Li and Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen, and innumerable viewings of Iron Monkey have even enabled me to sort-of recognize Yu-Rong Guang. That, my friends, is about the extent of it for me. Like any acolyte, I’m acutely aware of my lack of knowledge, and so I embrace both the masterpieces and the dreck as one who can learn equally well from either.
Godfather’s Daughter—or The Godfather’s Daughter Mafia Blues to give its original Hong Kong title—lands pretty neatly in the middle of those extremes. It begins about 15 minutes before it ought to and stubbornly tries to turn its perfunctory gang-war plot into a mini-Leone-style epic. The skinny: the good crime family, headed by Li Hwa-yu (Alex Man, playing the titular Godfather), is soon set upon by the bad crime family, headed by the young and ambitious Kuyama (Ken Lo). Anna (Japanese star Yukari Oshima), the Godfather’s daughter, tries to fight back on her proud and rather dithering father’s behalf, and is aided by new gang recruit Wai (Mark Cheng), ostensibly there to keep her out of trouble. Li is eventually killed, and it’s up to Anna and Wai to Even the Score.
There’s quite a bit more, including subplots about betrayal and embezzlement that chiefly serve to illustrate how ill-suited the elder Li is to lead an aggressive criminal enterprise, though the film plainly wants us to see him as a man of honor suddenly forced to contend with savages who don’t respect the rules. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Not to worry; we’re here for the fighting, and it’s worth the wait.
The star of the film, though she doesn’t appear until the 15-minute mark, is Oshima. Oshima is cute in a pert, unglamorous way; her Dorothy Hamil cut and fuzzy pink track suit seem chosen for their plain functionality rather than their stylishness. All the more satisfying, then, to see her turn into a writhing, ass-kicking dynamo about halfway through the film. A sexier performer wouldn’t have been as effective; unlike, say, Jennifer Garner in Daredevil, who’s so physically perfect her fighting skills seem just part of the package, Oshima looks like a gal who worked to be able to do what she does, and sure enough, she works her tail off in this movie. Her first show-stopping fight scene takes place in a health club, where she leaps and twirls around the equipment while fending off half a dozen attackers, getting thrown through the occasional wall or glass table in the process. Her fighting is balletic and yet laced with savagery; it’s Oshima’s anger in the action scenes that gives Godfather’s Daughter its most intense moments.
Fighting alongside Oshima is Mark Cheng, whose laconic presence keeps the movie watchable in its dull first act. Cheng’s fighting is cleaner and less wild than Oshima’s, but he’s still terrific to look at, a worthy action hero in his own right. His main role in Godfather’s Daughter is to show up and rescue Anna in the nick of time, a routine that got a bit tiresome after a while. Still, no complaints—this is definitely a duo that keeps your attention.
Ken Lo rounds things out as bad guy Kuyama, spending the movie in an array of rich gangster clothes with one conspicuous exception, the aforementioned health club fight wherein he appears shirtless and in tight sweatpants. Lo is strikingly good looking, and I assume the decision to show him fighting nearly naked wasn’t made on a whim. Fans of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II remember Lo, of course, as the kickboxing colonial stooge who kicks Jackie onto the bed of hot coals and then proceeds to nearly kick him to death; there was something downright scary in Lo’s fighting in that film, as even Jackie couldn’t quite anticipate where the next lightning-fast kick was going to come from. Sadly, nothing Lo does here compares to his work in that film. His chief role, as I say, is to look handsome and dangerous, and he certainly does that well enough. Even his climactic scene is a small let-down: he fights Cheng with a katana, or short-bladed Japanese sword, and the scene would’ve been more effective had we not just seen Oshima fight off another character wielding a chef’s knife in a claustrophobic Hong Kong apartment; the feral menace of that scene makes much of what follows an anti-climax.
Minor reservations aside, Godfather’s Daughter is a fine example of a pretty good HK action movie: nothing stellar, a little slow or silly here and there, but with enough great action and martial arts to make it worth your while. And the DVD, I must add, offers some great Chinglish. “Beat her as she brings us trouble!”