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December 26, 2011 / glencoyote

Brokenness: Analog and Digital

I’ve been thinking about the pathways of our lives: the one we are on and the ones not taken. Specifically, how Frostian branching imagery feels too limited, too controlled, too much like traditional narrative. I want an image that incorporates brokenness. Like cinematic earthquakes, I want the path to be able to disappear beneath our feet and leave us – where? – on a new path, unselected, uncontrolled, and unconnected to the previous one. In other words, I want pathways that describe broken lives. The movie Hugo and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, both explore the paths of broken lives. In Hugo the hero seeks to heal brokenness and his courage leads not only to his own salvation but also the healing of others. In Steve Jobs, the abandoned child dies before his time, having lived a life of great accomplishment and acclaim, but leaving behind the wreckage of a life lived in denial of brokenness.

Go see Hugo. It is a sweet-sad movie about the ways people can be broken and how they can be healed and it is filled with visual magic and deserving of much more than its current $42 million in box office. In both storyline and cinematic presentation it combines surface innocence with poignant, complex undergirding. Hugo sweeps you into a world that is dreamy and crystalline, tender and hard. Scorsese has created a masterpiece of sentimental filmmaking.

At the symbolic heart of Hugo is the storyteller’s use of the mechanical clock – the analog world of gears and levers – to provide a metronomic pace that captures the inevitable flow of real time, while using silences and framing (literal and figurative) to create the counter flow of loss, hope and regret that allows the story to step out of the narrative and into memory time. Much has been made of the film’s homage to Georges Melies but the tenderness in this movie is not only for a forgotten pioneer of moviemaking but more broadly for the brokenness of people who can only be repaired by the connections made by those willing to see past their wounds.

When Hugo (a sad eyed, melancholy Asa Butterfield) communes with the broken automaton that is his last connection to his dead father, his orphan desperation is the voice of all who have ever hoped to regain what was lost and who suspect that their continued failure is rooted in their own brokenness. The Paris train station that Hugo lives in serves, on a grand scale, as a protective fort – the kind that all children construct – a place both to hide and pretend.

Being a Hollywood story, Hugo finds people who are willing to claim him and so he lands safely on a new path that might bring happiness. He is still young so we cannot be sure. And in any case, what are the stories that are not being told? What of the orphans who are never claimed? What if being claimed is not enough? What if needing to be claimed is the greatest weakness?

Steve Jobs is a different story. Great fun for anyone interested in the history of the personal computer and the story of Apple’s enormous success. Also, for anyone of Jobs’ generation, his story is also the story of how we have been shaped by the digital world and how Jobs’ take on technology reflects our own roots in a more visionary time. Isaacson wrote this book during the last couple of years of Steve Jobs’ life and its immediacy is another strength – Isaacson doesn’t over work the structure and the judgments are mainly in passing – everything feels fresh.

Despite a personal interest in the life of Steve Jobs, I have nothing to say about his actual biography. For all my enthusiasms he is more a fictional character, because Steve Jobs also tells the life of an abandoned boy and effectively conveys the messiness of punctuated life paths. It is a story of heroic single-mindedness, extraordinary business success, and of a life lived with a monastic commitment to shielding the present from the past and the hero from the people who might wound him, even as he lays waste to all that get in his way. Isaacson describes the “reality distortion field” as Jobs’ ability to ignore anything that might impinge on getting the results he wanted, and that distortion field was applied most vigorously to his own life story. It is a Dickensian tale in which the oppressor and the oppressed, the adult and the child, are the same character.

The orphan in Hugo knows that he is alone because of the deaths of his parents. Although not responsible for those deaths, Hugo, not surprisingly, still carries them as though they were self-inflicted wounds. Steve Jobs was placed for adoption so he always carried the question of why he was given up. To one degree or another, all adopted children assume their wound is self-inflicted. It is not a chosen path but one imposed. Despite loving and supportive adoptive parents, it is clear that Jobs is disconnected and vulnerable from the beginning. He connects with his own purpose but lacks empathy and is manipulative in his relations with others.

In his own defense, Steve Jobs’ mantra was his commitment to honesty – and the story of Apple has many moments when honesty in defense of the product, the vision, both takes courage and makes an enormous difference. But brutal honesty that makes piñatas of people is just Jobs’ way of saying that you can’t hurt him. It is the preemptive toughness of the permanently wounded.

At the end of Hugo, it is asked whether anyone will claim the child. Hugo’s selflessness has earned him the heart connection that voices an affirmative. Steve Jobs sidestepped selflessness and would answer for himself – a defiant who cares?

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