The Lifespan of a Film

Steve Jobs (2015)


There’s a poster in my office: white background. A contemplative figure in black and white. Lowercase title in Helvetica type. I think a lot about Steve Jobs, the movie I’ve seen more than any other. A poster is not a movie, but it’s a way to try and hold onto it. Like quoting, making memes, or buying a Blu-ray. You try to hang on, but things slip away.

* * *

Imagine this. There’s a video shop in your mind where you walk across the drab gray carpeting, past the laminated VHS and DVD cases of every movie you’ve ever considered. Of course, there are the Movies You Must Watch and the Movies Everyone Has Watched in the most prominent displays. Nearby are the Movies Everyone’s Talking About Right Now—last year’s collection has already entered the bargain bin. But you’re past the prestige entrance, with its cardboard cutouts and movie snacks; now your eyes scan more shelves as you plunge further.

Here are the Movies Your Friends Told You to Watch Ages Ago. Below them are the Movies You Said You’d Watch When They Were in Theaters, But by Now Have Lost the Energy to Try. There, beautifully displayed, are the Movies You Think About Because of Their Gorgeous Posters. So, too, the Movies You Wish Were More Deserving of Their Gorgeous Posters. Below the flickering fluorescents you see them, the Movies You’d Watch But Are Waiting To Watch in Order, the Great Movies You’ve Seen side-by-side with their Lesser Sequels You’d Get Around to if Not for Really Poor Receptions. The Movies That You Used to Enjoy but Honestly It’s Just Getting Annoying Because There’s So Many of Them and Everyone Who Ever Talks About Them Completely Sours Your Relationship with Them. You tilt one off the shelf, you put it back. You wonder about the ethics of choosing one over the other, justifying yourself when there’s nobody you have to justify yourself to.

If you’re like me or my wife, you have the One Movie You Keep Coming Back To. The one that’s like the proverbial river that the same proverbial man can’t come to twice. Or maybe it’s like a shrine you visit on your pilgrimage, annually or otherwise. These movies form unique relationships with us. When my wife was younger and going to the video shop that wasn’t in her mind, she’d run down the ramp, find the old familiar spot, and rent Thumbelina every time. I asked why her family never just bought the VHS, and I never got a good answer.

The shops have closed down or become Airbnbs, but our relationship to film doesn’t change. Every movie is a rental. When we turn it on, it’s ours. And then the lights come on, the projector whirs to a halt, or the DVD ejects, or the streaming service asks us what we’d like to watch next. Movies live, move, and exist when we watch them, and then the illusion is over and they’re back to being VHS covers in our minds, dead objects in shells or cans or ever-shifting databases of content—just the idea of a movie, until the pictures are in motion again. So those of us who’ve found love or fascination or magic keep renting them and renewing. We keep up our resurrection act, bringing these films back to life, renting them enough that it feels like we own the things.

There are those rare films, the ones that feel like nobody else could possibly have seen them as much as you have. You own it; it’s yours. By watching something enough times—by talking about it, posting, thinking, subsuming—you become one body with that film. It’s yours and you are its. Usually, this happens with the underloved, overhated films, torn apart by the wide world and beloved by the few and the devoted. Or else, with the obscure, underseen movies, the ones that you’ve never heard another soul mention, unless you told them first.

It’s also possible to feel this devotion to the movies that came and went within their limited lifespan. The shelves are teeming, the options continue to feel endless. And once a film no longer seems relevant or like it’s part of the cultural conversation, it’s easy to let it get piled behind all the other Movies That Have Been on Your Watchlist for Too Long. So sometimes, you latch onto one that wasn’t considered bad and may have even gotten critical acclaim and awards acknowledgements, but which has otherwise disappeared. I know I have.

* * *

In 2015, I saw the movie Steve Jobs one time. I woke up on a Sunday afternoon and my mom asked me if I wanted to do something together. As I usually did, I checked the theater showtimes and noticed that the Steve Jobs movie was out. I’d liked the figure of Steve Jobs for some time and thought the movie might be interesting. We saw it, it confused me, it reminded me of The Social Network, and we went home.

In 2016, I saw the movie Steve Jobs zero times.

In 2017, I saw or listened to the movie Steve Jobs some 20 or 30 times. I’d come across YouTube clips of fast talking, sharp editing, and bold music, and I started watching them over and over again. I came to the movie for the first time in two years and then I came to it again and I came to it again. I’d finish watching it and start over immediately. I downloaded the movie on my phone so I could listen to it on the subway. I saw references to the movie everywhere, even if they weren’t really there. I watched the movie wherever I went. I got married. I kept watching it.

Being consumed by a film is like learning a new vocabulary word: you start to notice it in every sentence, you find yourself referencing it often. Too often. Oh, that actor played Steve Jobs’s daughter in one segment of the movie. Paul Rand? I heard his name in a throwaway line. And here’s a movie rife with throwaway lines—it’s writer Aaron Sorkin’s style to try to elevate his work with references to better art, including (elsewhere) Don Quixote, a work that opens with a prologue concerning books so full of unnecessary references “that they amaze their readers, who consider the authors to be well-read, erudite and eloquent men.”

I’d tell my friends that I’d watched Steve Jobs again. They’d ask why I was so consumed by such a culturally unremarkable thing, and quickly add that they didn’t really want a reason. It wouldn’t matter. The movie came. It went. It earned two Oscar nominations and a disappointing box-office return.

By the time 2015 ended, it should have been relegated to the past, right? Steve Jobs was a movie that existed to be compared to another Steve Jobs movie, never to exist on its own. A movie with hot-button discussions about insulting Apple and the family of Steve Jobs, it was perfect for Deadline articles about squabbles, and Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert appearances with brash statements and apologies. This is how most movies that make any impact now live: announcement, discussion, cast photos, controversies, trailers, reviews, backlash, backlash, backlash, different reviews, the movie comes out, and within two weeks, we can let it go and move on to the next thing. Check what’s in the theater this weekend, roll out of bed, start again. Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin go on to direct movies that get forgotten. What else can we watch?

* * *

But why watch anything else?

Like a musical without song, Steve Jobs is all rhythm and cadence, interplay and harmony. It’s a symphony of voices, all at odds with each other. Watch the film and then listen to composer Daniel Pemberton’s score; there’s something missing from the synthesized, orchestral, and computer-designed arrangements. Vocal lashings punctuate the movie with the kind of precision that Sorkin’s works have become infamous for. With enough viewings, the film becomes a choreographed work of sparring partners hitting their marks and delivering their lines with a precise bite and venom.

I was captivated by the musicality of the language, by the sharp wit that sounds as if everyone is either the smartest person in the world or has been training for weeks at a time for the arguments they’re in. The more I watched Steve Jobs, the more I realized how much it tapped into everything I found fascinating about the person who inspired the movie—he just kept pulling off his magic tricks. A computer so thin, it fit in a manila envelope. A music player so small, you could keep it in the small pocket of your jeans. Three revolutionary devices that were actually a single powerhouse called iPhone. And they all came with the magic words: “It just works.” Here was a movie that didn’t show any of those inventions, yet fully understood the value of the trick. Even if it didn’t understand the technology behind it, it understood the value of the showman, the magnetic Jobs personality.

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is the focal point of Steve Jobs. Which is not to say simply that he’s the subject. Within the view of the camera, he’s the point of refraction and reflection. He’s the center of all. The camera tracks him through hallway and stairwell. It crouches with, closes in on, and revolves around him. He’s the sun, and everyone else his minor planets and moons in orbit. Everyone other than Steve is in the periphery, in one way or another. We so rarely leave the man, and when we do, it’s only to see those straining to leave his gravity or mesmerized by the spell of his brightness.

He cannot help but control the soundtrack of his reality, too. There are moments of reflection, where he seems to enter a trance, and Pemberton’s score goes along with him. The endlessly urging momentum slows, and the entire atmosphere is suffused with an externalized anguish that we must feel along with Steve. His ecstasy inflates a room with triumph, his impatience ticks wildly, and his tenseness holds everyone in its grip. And then, there’s the one musical hint that maybe he’s been behind it all, when he cues the score with a clap.

Even the structures he resides in cannot escape his controlling hand. Bob Dylan lyrics take over the floor as Steve reconsiders which quote to reference in his keynote. He tells a story about Skylab and the satellite blasts across the wall of a hallway. As Steve transitions between sections of the movie, the material of reality changes with him. The 16mm film runs out at the end of 1984, the 35mm reel gets unspooled as 1988 concludes, and in the introduction to 1998, the HD footage briefly pixelates. Steve evolves, and the medium must shift along with him.

When he’s not unconsciously manipulating his environment, Steve does it at will. He tinkers with lighting and wardrobe. He makes last-minute adjustments on a whim. In ‘84, he changes his shirt so that he can pull off the magic trick of pulling a computer program out of his breast pocket. In ‘88, he grabs calla lilies from the San Francisco Opera House restaurant to replace the flowers on display with his computer. In ‘98, he’s still tinkering with which picture of a shark will accompany a joke in his keynote later that day. At every moment, Steve is either controlling or wishing he could be. He’s magnetic, he’s manipulative, he’s at the center of everything that sparkles and captivates in Steve Jobs.

I’ve watched him so much.

* * *

Plenty of movies reach the end of their lifespans before we’ve even started to find what makes them great. They don’t have a shelf life. They disappear from consciousness and we each feel like we’re the only ones trying to bring them to life. We may try to capture or approach them by filling our folders with screenshots and GIFs, our displays with cutesy versions of movie figures, or our shelves with beautifully designed home media releases, finding a way to spare the movies from death in some way. They begin to develop a new life in physical mementos, references, and memories of special screenings, but the leftover traces of a movie never do fully add up to the movie itself. We rent these movies and bring them back to the store in our minds, and come back later to find them exactly where we left them.

Orson Welles once said, “Film is a dead thing—a ribbon of celluloid—like the paper on which one writes a poem.” Years later, when asked about the quote, he added, “You don’t get anything back from the audience; [film] can’t nourish itself on that audience. A movie doesn’t come to life because it’s in a theatre. And while film may remain unchanging, stuck in the past—like Marion Crane, doomed to die no matter how many times we watch her—I beg to differ with Welles. The life of a movie must come precisely from the audience; without being perceived by one, a film might as well be a dead flounder for all the good it does sitting in a can. W​​hen the lights go down and the movie plays, a film comes to life. Movies live while we watch them, in their movement and—when shot on film, and crystals of silver salts being exposed to light turn into dye clouds that create the speckled movement we call film grain—in the physical materials they’re made of.

Two-thirds of Steve Jobs was shot on film, but the grain—evocative as it is of the eras and their technology—is not what brings it to life for me. Every time I replay the movie, I keep going back to the musicality. Sorkin often talks about the music of the scene being what he’s looking for. Of one particularly difficult segment to bring to life, Sorkin said, “It wasn’t singing yet.” Whenever I listen to Pemberton’s wonderfully creative score—like the film stock, it changes in each era, in style and instrumentation—it feels like it’s missing something. The dialogue is all part of the tone of the film, and even listening to Steve Jobs with no visuals can be like the experience of listening to a great album. Sure, it’s spoken word mixed with orchestral or electronic music, but it sings.

I’ve tried reading the screenplay, but my mind wanders back to the sound and the music. Michael Fassbender didn’t try to imitate Jobs, but his line deliveries are fascinating. I’d keep getting hooked on the way he says, “They won’t know what they’re looking at or why they like it, but they’ll know they want it,” or the way Kate Winslet drops an exasperated Polish “Jesus Christ” in the so-fast-you’ll-miss-what-they’re-actually-saying first scene. It’s like having a song stuck in your head, but nobody gets how you learned the words or why you’re singing along in the first place.

Steve Jobs was my go-to. My old familiar. Mine. That’s how I felt. You watch the rental enough times and think you can get away with not returning it to the store. You’ll pay the missing-movie fee and just hold onto the copy that nobody else wanted anyway. Maybe this movie could belong to me. After all, I’m the one keeping it alive, aren’t I? That’s probably arrogance speaking. Nobody owns a movie, not even the people who made it.

A movie is. It exists, ready to be brought to life, to be appreciated by someone, anyone. For about half a decade, that was my relationship with Steve Jobs, a movie I wouldn’t shut up about because it never stopped speaking to me. Pretty much every year, when the best-of lists come out and the ranking begins, I revisit Roger Ebert’s own top-ten list, where he writes, “If I must make a list of the Ten Greatest Films of All Time, my first vow is to make the list for myself, not for anybody else.” He argues that the greatest movies appeal to emotions and are the ones that make us feel, “and so my greatest films must be films that had me sitting transfixed before the screen, involved, committed, and feeling.” A movie like Steve Jobs, that held onto me and wouldn’t let go, forcing me to revisit and re-enter its living, breathing, heightened reality. If a movie can escape a seemingly inevitable death with such insistence, why wouldn’t I hold right back on?

So I held on. And I held on some more. I might have started to let go by now. Eventually it’s time to go back to the shelves. What else is there to see?