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Thread: GENERAL MAGIC (Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude 2018)

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    GENERAL MAGIC (Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude 2018)

    SARAH KERRUISH, MATT MAUDE: GENERAL MAGIC (2018)


    GENERAL MAGIC'S FIRST DRAWINGS FOR A NEW COMPUTER-PHONE

    There's no success like failure

    Usually we get the success stories. General Magic, instead, is a film about a rather spectacular failure. This is big company in Silicon Valley that boomed and went bust between 1990 and 1996. It's above all the portrait of a team, remarkable individuals with an intense shared enthusiasm. Only the sense of timing was off.

    They had reason to be excited. They were anticipating nothing less the creation of the "smart phone," now "smartphone." Their effort went bust - because it was all too soon.

    This is yet another ordinary documentary about an exciting subject that needed filmmakers of depth and originality but did not get them. It's slick, enthusiastic, colorful, and has the participation of the main players, with ample access to films made of the action and the people from the outset of the company, and the usual contemporary talking head storytelling. It's bland, spread thin, but still interesting and informative - just not as good as it should have been. And like so many Silicon Valley films, it is suffused with a spirit of evangelism that is all too unquestioning, too lacking in the perspective that might - except for a few moments - allow one to ask whether this was really the Second Coming, or maybe just a very clever gadget that while cool, also takes up far too much of our time and our lives.

    At the end there is a film strip showing some of the starting team. Over them are captions showing what they've become since. I've copied them down. I got:

    GOOGLE CIRCLES. CTO TWITTER. VP ENGINEERING eBAY. SVP BLACKBERRY & SAMSUNG. HEAD OF GOOGLE SPEECH RECOGNITION. CTO & CO FOUNDER LINKEDIN. CTO ADOBE CREATED DREAMWEAVER. HEAD OF GOOGLE.ORG. CEO PLANET OUT.COM [FIRST LGBT WEBSITE]. HEAD OF SAFARI BROWSER. HEAD OF AI AT APPLE. WEBTV FOUNDER & CEO. STEVE JOBS PR. FOUNDER ANDROID. HEAD OF AFRICA CONNECTIVITY FACEBOOK. PRODUCT DESIGN LEAD PINTEREST. iPOD HARDWARE ARCHITECT. NEST FOUNDER & CEO. And so on and on. "Everyone on this team is brilliant," says the latter. "That was the training ground for us for what has shaped us today."

    Some, notably the founder and CEO, Marc Porat, were severely set back for a while by the failure of their dream. But these captions show how the majority of them - just about all, really - have bounced back to become outstanding successes in the tech world. Marc Porat has stayed a littoe out of it, focusing on founding companies making energy efficiency building materials.

    Most of this film is involved in introducing these people and laying out a blow by blow, year by year, account of General Magic's bright flame and burning out.

    They deserve the credit for first working on a large project smartphone (IBM had one in 1992, but it may have been a smaller effort.) What we get is an account of brilliant young people with such boundless energy and enthusiasm that they put in fourteen-hour days, for years, set up cots beside their desks and didn't even go home, or eat properly. They were young; they survived, even thrived. It was an exhilarating for these young techie types from all over. The troubles, which are probably what ultimately defeated the project, were of two sorts, which I'll call mechanical and systemic. The physical hardware wasn't quite ready to be shrunken to the convenient size of a pockatable phone we see in today's iPhones and Androids. Beyond that the internet wasn't really there, nor was there a world to access, to make people want to pay $800 for the rather clunky device. ($800 was more money back then, too.) So after the six years of development, the first model on the market sold miserably. One guy recounts that he looked over the purchasers of 3,000 units sold and found they all went to friends and family. It didn't make it to sales to the world outside.

    As with so many Silicon Valley stories, this boggles the mind, at least of the non-techie. (Full disclosure: I don't even own a smartphone.) How, I mean, could this be? The best answer is to point out that tech world time lines are special. In the computer world, the Eighties is the Dark Ages. The Nineties is the early Nineteenth Century. The world was not "ready" for a smartphone in 1996.

    But it is hard to know what the Next Big Thing will be. That's why it's the Next Big Thing. And it's hard to know when the Next Big Thing is going to come, when it can come. General Magic's smart phone device was like a wine opened before it was ready to drink.

    But things aren't so exact. As many comments during and especially at the end of the film by former members of the team show, work on this great creation is a mass of individual inventions and tweaks that all fit together somewhat interchangeably. Hence it's natural to see a lot of the work on General Magic's phone not as wasted but as contributions toward ongoing projects, part of a collective technology. Failure, the voices say, is only one way of looking at it. Failure is necessary. There are many failures on the way to any success. This big failure is part of many big successes. Maybe Bob Dylan can come in handy here: "My love she speaks like silence. Without ideals or violence ... She knows there's no success like failure. And that failure's no success at all." What does it all mean? The big picture is more complicated than the details.

    If only it were so selfless and cooperative. Actually, there is an Apple betrayal story here, as there has been in several documentaries about Steve Jobs already. That betrayal was one of the things that set back General Magic, also perhaps what caused this vintage to be bottled and sold too soon. If only the General Magic phone could have been kept cogitating and percolating for another, say, ten years? Steve Jobs got to announce the real Second Coming, the iPhone, of course, in 2007. The ensuing twelve years is a very long time in tech time. Smartphones have now conquered the earth, and come to dominate human life. Only I and Fran Lebowitz don't have one.

    General Magic, 90 mins., showed at Tribeca Apr. 2018. It releases on Showtime July 9, 2019 and in theaters July 12. Metascore 72%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-09-2019 at 06:07 PM.

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