Culture

Idolatry and Parody at the Movies

Steve Jobs, Trash, and Knock Knock

The culture’s veneration of Steve Jobs — co-founder of the Apple microcomputer empire, pitchman of every gadgeteer’s dreams — confirms this era’s secular idolatry. The new movie Steve Jobs confirms how bad a big-budget bio-pic can be.

Half of the film’s impact comes from its pedigree: It is based on the official biography by the prominent journalist Walter Isaacson and directed by the Oscar-winning British filmmaker Danny Boyle from a screenplay by TV potentate Aaron Sorkin. It is as impossible to ignore their collaboration as it was impossible that it would work. These men of the zeitgeist identify with Jobs’s hubris and show hip reverence in line with today’s sycophancy, rather than exploring the cultural quandary of why the world has sold its soul to a manufacturer of sleekly designed products — a new religion disguised as a technological revolution.

The film’s worshipful triumvirate uses a flashback structure to tell Jobs’s life story as if preserving it in digital-era holy writ. (Boyle likes large-scale graphic displays, mixed-media imagery, and lookee camera movements.) History is recalled — and therefore unquestioned — through three stockholder presentations, years apart (for the Apple computer, the Next, and the iMac), where the iconic Jobs (Michael Fassbender) struts his stuff among mere mortals.

These presentations are like evangelical tent revivals. Jobs’s showy arrogance and the stockholders’ hosannas evoke Sermon on the Mount rapture. Geeks and investors genuflect before the man who burnished their dreams. Meanwhile, backstage, we see the mess of his private life: He demeans his co-workers, including inventor Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), and his publicist, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), and resists the emotional claims of his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss as Lisa at age five, then Perla Haney-Jardine at age 19).

But what exactly did Jobs do to earn such ceremony? Sorkin’s awful script raises then glides past that question. In his recent films The Social Network and Moneyball, Sorkin created a lives-of-the-saints series geared to tabloid obsession. Jobs’s celebrity becomes Sorkin’s tautology: Jobs is great because he’s great. Big Boss. Supersalesman. Visionary Capitalist. (This mystique helps explain the adoration for Pixar, the digital animation company Jobs sold to the Disney corporation, and why its mediocre, formulaic films are greeted with messianic fealty.)

#share#Like any Hollywood hack, Sorkin has assessed the culture’s acquiescent tendency. His TV writer’s idea of characterization is talkiness. (The best scene shows Jobs enduring parental frustration with a willful child.) The blabber in Steve Jobs is non-stop — with Sorkin’s particular spin from TV’s The West Wing and ER series: walking-and-talking. The characters rarely express the emotional temper of a situation; they’re always on the move, spouting “gotcha”s at each other.

If Steve Jobs were concerned with characterization or psychology, it would have to confront the values of this technology-and-celebrity-crazed era. Instead, as in The Social Network, a spoiled-brat billionaire evades judgment while being given a big-screen altar as a cultural icon. The brief, Citizen Kane–like backstory of Jobs’s childhood abandonment, adoption, then detachment from his Syrian father explains little. Fassbender’s sharp nose, square jaw, and blue eyes create a Jesus impression during a college-days flashback. Ironically Fassbender personifies a WASPy rather than Semitic ideal to suit the film’s status quo agenda. Boyle reduces this Rosebud insight to an emoticon.

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“Trash”

Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is surely one of the most flagrantly irritating films ever. But it has been remade — and improved — as Trash. Set among Brazil’s sprawling, mind-boggling favelas, this story of impoverished children surviving menace and squalor shows more discretion than Slumdog.

Here, a quartet of cute-enough ragamuffins (Raphael, Gardo, Rato, and Pia) outwit a bad cop (“The police treat us like trash”), help a team of Catholic missionaries, and inadvertently dispose of a corrupt politician. A different Brit, Stephen Daldry, who also directed Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, shows genuine rapport with his adolescent characters, whereas Boyle’s child exploitation was insipid and insensitive, just more of his empty flash. Trash honors Daldry’s heritage; it’s basically a Third World version of Oliver Twist. There’s social comment in every teeming, fetid image, backed with spiritual yearning. A convict’s Bible contains a code that leads to embezzled funds, and when the kids set things right, little Raphael pledges, “I’m thanking God for being alive and for our victory.” The climax, promising “the day the people take the streets,” with temporary redistribution of wealth, doesn’t offend since it mythologizes a sociological nightmare in modern “make-it-rain” terms.

Trash’s fable, presented through dire “realism,” evokes Oliver Twist and Great Expectations as much as Scripture — not fake folklore like the 1959 Black Orpheus (praised in Obama’s memoir). Daldry’s lesson is that classic literature and classic humanism can still have global significance. He ennobles the idea of innocence, a concept Steve Jobs sentimentalizes.

*      *      *

“Knock Knock”

“Art Does Not Exist,” reads a lipstick scrawl across a mirror in Knock Knock, a new sex-and-horror film that secures Eli Roth first place as this year’s most politically exciting American filmmaker. After his daring satire of Occupy anarchists in The Green Inferno, Roth returns with an even more pointed, accomplished parody. Keanu Reeves plays Evan Webber, an architect (“all the way from 1 percent land”) working at home while his sculptress wife and two kids are away. His world gets overturned by two nubile jailbait intruders, Bel (Ana de Armas) and Genesis (Lorenza Izzo). In Knock Knock, Evan’s temptation exposes contemporary class and sex attitudes, making B-movie mockery of high-art pretenses. How brilliant is Knock Knock? That lipstick graffito replacing God with Art hits a 21st-century bullseye.

Think of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona threesome as conceived by a real filmmaker with political consciousness.

Think of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona threesome as conceived by a real filmmaker with political consciousness. Bad boy Roth ignites a naughty, sophomoric social burlesque (Reeves’s straitlaced family man is helpless before Izzo and de Armas’s wicked caricatures of Penélope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson). They take seduction to surreal, taboo-breaking, prelapsarian extremes. Genesis’s taunt “It’s just sex” shocks Evan’s belief system. “If your body is capable of doing it, then you were meant to.” That’s progressivism brought home, made uncomfortably sexual.

#related#Roth touches on bourgeois sanctimony and exoticism to get at the hypocrisies of both the Left and the Right. He defies the blanket nihilism of Michael Haneke’s home-invasion film, Funny Games (both the American and the European versions), by testing Evan’s civility along with his liberal façade. Somehow, since the Hostel films, Roth has developed compassion and complexity. As Knock Knock’s sexual joke turns nightmarish, Roth works up pity, not just horror. The monstrousness of Bel and Genesis has an unexpectedly poignant source. (Maybe Camille Paglia could explain this twist in a way the Left would accept, but conservatives should get it immediately.)

Asked if he believes in destiny, architect and former DJ Evan answers, “I believe things happen by design.” He hedges, protecting his subconscious as some do with the term “intelligent design,” and Knock Knock ruthlessly undoes his secular pretense. Evan’s desperate outburst about sexual betrayal goes to the heart of personal integrity as well as family and social cohesion. With art and technology as the new gods, Roth spoofs today’s rampant punishment culture — a sickness that tells more about our godless condition than anything in Steve Jobs. A naughty jeremiad, Knock Knock proves that we become the butt of our most radical jokes.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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