Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Steve Jobs and the Cinema of Invention

By  · Published on October 11th, 2011

Amongst the many reactions to Steve Jobs’s death last week, I found one comparison that people drew to be quite compelling. In order to find a fitting historic analogy to illustrate the cultural significance of Jobs’s life, comparisons ran the gamut from Nikola Tesla to, erm, John Lennon (“think different,” I guess?). But several people, including, Roger Ebert, brought to light continuities with Thomas Edison.

Edison, like Jobs, was an industrialist: part inventor, mostly capitalist. But specific to his own life, Edison spent most of his career securing patents and making improvements to existing technologies rather than building something from scratch. Edison’s reputation associates him with a great deal more invention than he was actually involved in. I’m not trying to be cynical about Jobs. Far from it. In fact, I’ve been more than a little annoyed with the backlash to consumer mourning about Jobs than any initial hyperbole associated with Jobs’s death in the first place. I don’t give a flying shit about executives in pretty much any industry, but saying “he’s just a CEO” does not negate the great intellectual worth and cultural interest of Jobs himself.

Jobs, like Edison, developed a cult of personality that extended well beyond the person.

As a non-techie, I’m (in all earnestness) not sure exactly what Jobs accomplished, but I do know that he’s the only person in my life who died that has his stuff all over my apartment. The smart phone, for instance, seems to exist to a degree independently of him, but through the popularity of the iPhone, it is associated predominantly with him in the cultural imagination. Jobs’s massive reputation exceeds any potential limitations that an inquiry into historical detail can surmise. Those decrying/policing the disproportionate or even unjust mass reaction to Jobs’s death, or those making the case that the myth was different from the man himself, are forgetting the one essential thing that makes Jobs like Edison but unlike most successful industrialists: he was a celebrity.

In being an inventor first and capitalist second, Jobs embodied what is most romanticized about American history since the dawn of the twentieth century. While the slimy suits of Wall Street may now be answering for their decades of unchecked power, exploitation of the middle class, and exchange of money with Capitol Hill, Steve Jobs continued in the tradition of the Industrial Revolution and the postwar era (the times that arguably first emboldened the notion of American exceptionalism) by actually, you know, making stuff that people wanted.

This is perhaps centralized and best understood in Jobs’s contribution to the creation of the personal computer, a device that has now become so ubiquitous that it hardly seems remarkable. But until the 1980s, “personal computer” seemed a contradiction in terms. That such a device said “hello” when turned on rather than giving us a series of ones and zeroes gave way to a sea change in a our relationship with technology that has only accelerated since. Following Rachel Maddow’s tribute, the emergence of a personal computer meant we were no longer alienated from computing technology, but instead open to have an interpersonal relationship with devices that we slowly let infiltrate our daily lives.

What exactly does this have to do with the movies? In the habit of venerating filmmakers as the biggest influence on cinematic products, the roots of cinema’s creation often become blurred. Cinema owes its inception to industrialists and inventors, including the Lumiere brothers and William Dickson, but most publicly, Thomas Edison. Edison, of course, was one of our first filmmakers, and through his kinetoscope experiments he had his role in dictating, at least for a little while, exactly what this new invention could be and should do. Cinema was a technology whose content was determined by scientists and inventors, not artists. Yes, there was spectacle and entertainment to be found, but art was out of the question. Yet even in Edison’s hands, the medium couldn’t resist artistry simply by how inherently compelling the moving image can be, even if he was capturing something as quotidian as a sneeze, as dumbfounding as boxing cats, or as horrifying as an elephant electrocution (which Edison used as propaganda to discredit a competitor’s alternating current). In capturing anything from the everyday to the surreal to the atrocious, Edison’s films exhibited the nascent medium’s potential for a range of expression.

Edison tried to contain access to this technology by creating the Motion Picture Patents Company, or the Edison Trust, which controlled who had access to the materials and rights to make films. In an overreach of power, Edison tried to exact control onto an entire medium that had yet to realize its potential in a move that could have prevented further exploration. Potential filmmakers rebelled, fleeing to the West Coast where their activities couldn’t be easily enforced under patent law, and a storytelling industry was born.

The inventor has had an admittedly different role in late 20th-early 21st century society. Jobs’s public persona is far more positive than Edison’s has been, and his role in cinema, while significant, is less linear and hard to pin down. Cole Abaius did an excellent job explaining Jobs’s influence on filmmaking this August in terms of, amongst other things, the unprecedented utility his computers have provided for independent filmmakers. And then, of course, there’s the enduring cultural behemoth that is Pixar. However, despite Jobs’s sole but quite significant executive producer credit, his most apparent influence resides in the opportunity he’s credited for providing in the digital construction of films. This is consistent with his reputation as an essential figure in bringing to life the notion of the personal computer: manufacturing access where there previously was none is a populist, ennobling move, and the centralization of this mentality with the persona of Jobs himself basically mandated his massive role within our culture.

Sure, there is something to be said of the actual limitations in the devices that allegedly provide so much opportunity (seriously, still no Flash, iPhone?), but as with the persona of any celebrity, we’re dealing here with the murky mix of myth and reality. The major difference between the respective personae of Edison and Jobs is restriction vs. opportunity. Edison was exclusive in a way that cut creativity short; Jobs’s technologies were designed for inclusiveness, which is why design has been so important to Apple’s success (artist, meet inventor).

Jobs’s company might own the copyright of the editing and special effects programs used to make Daybreakers (2010), or the computer I’m using to write this article, but that same company doesn’t own the work ultimately produced. Unlike Edison who saw everything that arose from the medium as belonging to him, Jobs is credited for realizing, perhaps by cinema’s example, that the most adaptable, socially pervasive inventions are those whose possibilities may not be initially realized by the inventor.

The relationships between cinema and technology are incredibly complex. Technology provides both restrictions and opportunities for cinematic expression, but almost always alters what we perceive movies to be. But one thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the representation of technology in film. While technology certainly shapes the way our films look, sound, and where they’re seen, the role of technology in our narratives highlights the pervasiveness of technological evolution and at the same time gives us a means of understanding how we perceive the world through these deliberately constructed perceptions of the world.

One of the earliest films, the Lumieres’ Photograph (1895–96), simply consists of footage of a man having a photograph taken. If films are supposed to represent experience, than this film points remarkably to how importantly it has been from the beginning of cinema to represent the role of technology itself as part of our experience. There are simply stories that can no longer be told the same way in the wake of innovation. What would Elevator to the Gallows (1957) be like if it was made in the era of the smart phone? I’d answer that question now, but my Louie Malle collection is still syncing onto my iPod.

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