Sunday, October 18, 2015

‘Steve Jobs’ And The Secular Ritual Of Going To The Movies

(By Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, 15 October 2015)

“Please remember to turn off your electronic devices.”  That’s a familiar refrain before movie screenings these days, but it had particular piquancy at the Monday night preview of “Steve Jobs,” the highly anticipated drama about the Apple co-founder, and the guy who made those electronic devices so hard to turn off in the first place.  Jobs, played in the film by Michael Fassbender as a gifted but haunted Shakespearean figure, never set out to destroy the movie business; indeed his purchase of George Lucas’s computer animation company — a little outfit known as Pixar — helped usher in a mini-Golden Age of storytelling and audacious creativity to the medium. But there’s no doubt that, in designing devices so intuitive and beautiful that they became extensions of the user’s psychic and physical self, Jobs also helped create a generation of second-screeners, happy to consume sound, images and stories on their TVs, laptops, phones and, heaven forfend, wristwatches.

Which makes it doubly piquant — deliciously ironic, even — that, when Washington’s newest Landmark Theatres location, Atlantic Plumbing Cinema, opens this weekend, it will be showing “Steve Jobs” in all six of its small, plushly appointed auditoriums.  “It is a fun irony,” said Landmark’s president and chief executive, Ted Mundorff, who noted that Apple didn’t impact the film industry directly, but it greatly influenced consumers’ expectations regarding how and when they see movies. Just as symbolically zeitgeisty as the all-Jobs program at Atlantic Plumbing is the fact that Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema is opening “Beasts of No Nation” the very same day it’s being made available on Netflix.
But amid all these technological death knells for the theatrical experience, it’s possible to glimpse a startling degree of saving grace — at least for Landmark, which specializes in films that appeal to people who consume movies the way they consume cuisine: not concession-counter junk food and Big Gulps, but artisanal fare and small-batch cocktails. (Which, not coincidentally, are being served at the theaters’ cafes).  There’s a critical mass of those audiences in Washington, which is why Landmark is doubling down here, opening Atlantic Plumbing this weekend, renovating the newly acquired West End Cinema and preparing to open a theater in NoMa. The company is part of a theater-building boom in the area that includes the Angelika, ArcLight and iPic theater chains, all of which are responding to the fact that — Netflix, peak TV and Jobs’s seductive devices be damned — we’re still going to the movies.

That fact isn’t lost on “Steve Jobs” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who started as a playwright and became famous for such TV shows as “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Newsroom,” and who is dedicated to making the kind of smart, sophisticated, mid-budget dramas for grown-ups that are increasingly rare in Hollywood — which, partly in response to the siren call of shrinking home screens, has been striving to make movies bigger, louder and more infantilized.  Sorkin was caught up in a tech-centric maelstrom of his own last year when hackers — believed by the U.S. government to be based in North Korea — tapped into the computer system at Sony Pictures Entertainment; executives’ contentious e-mail negotiations regarding his “Steve Jobs” script were among the most publicized outtakes from the episode (the film wound up going to Universal Pictures). One of the hack’s most poignant revelations was how precarious films such as “Steve Jobs” are within a blockbuster-driven business model.
“They are precarious,” Sorkin told me in a phone conversation. “Ironically, this movie had a relatively smooth path to the screen. I’m not exactly sure why, but this kind of movie is a bigger gamble for a studio. The studio would feel more comfortable spending $150 million than spending $30 million. With $150 million, they know exactly how to market it and who to market it to. With this, there are some questions about who exactly is the audience for this movie.”  With “Steve Jobs” and others like it, Sorkin said, “the job of the movie isn’t to make a ton of money for the studio, the job of the movie is to not lose money.”

Which brings us to yet another delicious irony: “Steve Jobs” is making money. It earned more than half a million dollars when it opened in limited release last weekend, making it the 15th-highest earner pre-theater in history. After opening in Washington and 24 other markets, it will arrive on more than 2,000 screens next week, garnering earned awareness in word of mouth, strong reviews and Oscar buzz along the way.  This is the same strategy that made “Birdman,” “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything” local hits last year and that Mundorff, for one, is counting on again as awards season gets underway in earnest. “Our box office goes up every year,” he said, noting that overall industry earnings increased by 4 percent in 2015. “And I’m not seeing any trend going the other way.”
This is usually the moment when a frequent advocate for big-C cinema makes an impassioned case for the technical and aesthetic superiority of the theatrical experience. There’s no doubt that “Steve Jobs,” directed by Danny Boyle with an ingenious visual design using old-fashioned film stock and digital photography, benefits from the scale, detail and immersion that theaters provide. Almost word for word, Mundorff and Sorkin expressed an identical, shared belief in the transportive powers of sitting with a group of strangers, waiting for the lights to go down and for the screen to flicker to life.

But that experience isn’t — or at least isn’t only — an aesthetic one. It’s an emotional one. It’s not only the sounds and images that come to overwhelming life on the big screen that people crave. It’s the strong feelings — empathy, disdain, pity, longing — that envelop them as a result. That same need for sentient connection, not just information or cool graphics, is something Jobs understood better than anyone, as he endlessly fussed over round-cornered rectangles and fonts, in search of a machine people would not only utilize but love.
He succeeded brilliantly, of course, which is one of the reasons he’s worthy of a movie. But “Steve Jobs” leaves viewers with the lingering question: At what cost? One casualty of the wired-in, zoned-out culture Jobs was part of creating is precisely what the movie about him is helping to preserve: an occasion to make ourselves vulnerable. The secular ritual of going to the movies is one of the rare times when we can be alone, together, entering the same collective trance. Whether we emerge delighted, unsettled, astonished, we can’t go under fully until we’re bereft of our own devices.