Judge Gordon Sullivan never got over the decline of the rotary phone.
"Inventor, innovator, iconoclast"
Though no one really knows where the quote comes from, in discussions of usability, someone remarks, "The only intuitive interface is the nipple; everything else is learned." I'm often reminded of this assertion whenever I encounter an Apple product. Though there are things I love about my iPhone (and things I hate), I am often mystified by certain design choices (like why I can't input a time numerically but have to spin a little wheel of numbers). All this is to put at the outset my own ambivalent feelings about Apple products, and by extension their architect Steve Jobs. I think both Jobs and Apple have been responsible for some wonderful advances in user interfaces, while also putting up a wall of mystery between consumers and their technology. However, whether you love Steve Jobs or hate him, he deserves a better documentary than Steve Jobs: Visionary Genius.
Steve Jobs: Visionary Genius follows Jobs' life from his earliest childhood days through to his stormy career at Apple and the various other companies (like NeXT and Pixar) he helped found or support. The various innovations he originated or shepherded are discussed as well. Copious archival video of Jobs is combined with advertising images and interviews with those in the computer field.
Whatever else you want to say about Steve Jobs (and there is plenty to say, good and bad), the man put design first. He understood that how we use technology is just as important as what technology we use. He sought to simplify design and find elegant solutions to difficult problems. Though I don't always agree with his choices (I happen to like buttons), I appreciate that he had a unified aesthetic and maintained it.
Sadly, Visionary Genius refuses to acknowledge that aesthetic visually in this documentary. I can state with near total certainty that Steve Jobs would have hated this documentary. Where Apple products tend to be quiet, this documentary is loud. Where Steve Jobs sought simplicity and visual elegance, this documentary shoves all kinds of different, conflicting visuals onto the screen.
The disc opens well enough, with a simple menu featuring a single photo of Jobs along with the option to play or select scenes. However, once the actual disc starts, it's visual chaos from the first moment to the last. I appreciate the extensive use of archival footage—Steve Jobs is almost certainly one of the most visually documented CEOs in history—but the way it's incorporated is visually ugly and distracting. Some of the footage is shown on an iPad on the screen. Though that's a clever idea in theory, in practice it just makes the whole documentary look like a bad infomercial. Clips that don't use that visual trick often look excessively processed, which is similarly distracting.
The documentary also takes a very positive tack towards Jobs and his life. Obviously, Visionary Genius announces the less than critical approach to Jobs from the outset, but a bit more balance would have been appreciated. The interviewees (who are largely members of the technology/media community, not confidantes or associates of Jobs) praise Jobs up and down, making the case that his work is the most significant in media in the last three decades. However, without the balance of a more negative side to the story, all the interviews sound hyperbolic in their praise. By the end, I half-expected Jobs to rise from the dead based on how positive the portrait of him was.
This DVD is similarly fairly underwhelming. The 1.78:1 image looks overly processed, but it's generally clean and bright. I didn't see any serious compression artifacts or other authoring problems, so this is likely how it's supposed to look for broadcast. Talking-head interviews and Jobs' speeches come through loud and clear in the stereo mix, with a decent balance between spoken word and the use of effects and transition music.
There are, sadly, no extras. I think fans of Jobs would be better served with a collection of his keynote addresses over the year. Even just a few of those presented on this disc could have bumped it into the "must buy" for some fans. Even some extra interview footage from the various talking heads might have helped things as well.
I don't mean to be too harsh on this documentary. For the 50-minute TV-style product that it aims to be, it succeeds no better or worse than any other similar document. Those who know little about Jobs will learn quite a bit, and even the most fanatic Apple fans will enjoy seeing Jobs so often on screen.
If you know nothing about Steve Jobs and don't want to wade through Isaac's biography, Visionary Genius will present you with a rose-colored view of Apple's guru. For those looking for something a bit deeper, only disappointment awaits, as neither the documentary or the DVD have much of substance to offer.
Guilty of being neither visionary, nor genius.
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