The great words of the year? “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
They are the last words of Steve Jobs, reported by his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson, who was at his bedside. In her eulogy, a version of which was published in the New York Times, she spoke of how he looked at his children “as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze.” He’d said goodbye to her, told her of his sorrow that they wouldn’t be able to be old together, “that he was going to a better place.” In his final hours his breathing was deep, uneven, as if he were climbing.
“Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were: ‘OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.’”
The caps are Simpson’s, and if she meant to impart a sense of wonder and mystery she succeeded. “Oh wow” is not a bad way to express the bigness, power and force of life, and death. And of love, by which he was literally surrounded.
I wondered too, after reading the eulogy, if I was right to infer that Jobs saw something, and if so, what did he see? What happened there that he looked away from his family and expressed what sounds like awe? I thought of a story told by a friend, whose grown son had died, at home, in a hospice. The family was ringed around his bed. As Robert breathed his last an infant in the room let out a great baby laugh as if he saw something joyous, wonderful, and gestured toward the area above Robert’s head. The infant’s mother, startled, moved to shush him but my friend, her mother, said no, maybe he’s just reacting to . . . something only babies see.
Anyway I sent Ms. Simpson’s eulogy to a number of people and spoke to some of them, and they all had two things in common in terms of their reaction. They’d get a faraway look, and think. And if they had a thought to share they did it with modesty. No one said, “I think I can guess what he saw,” “I know who he saw,” or “Believe me, if he saw anything it was the product of the last, disordered sparks of misfiring neurons.”
They were always modest, reflective. One just said, “Wow.”
Modesty when contemplating death is a good thing.
When words leave people silent and thinking they are powerful words. Steve Jobs’ last words were the best thing said in 2011.
The unexpected cinematic gift of the year? “The Iron Lady,” the movie about Margaret Thatcher, starring Meryl Streep, that’s opening in this country on Dec. 30.
When words leave people yapping and not thinking they are often political words, but there isn’t much that is, really, political about this film. Its makers don’t seem that interested in politics, or particularly well-informed about it. They were interested in the development of character, thought they had seized on a great one, and were right. It’s a well-meaning and at times deeply moving meditation on old age and the enduring nature of love. It is good, not great, and contains within it a masterpiece.
“The Iron Lady” locates class as an important and largely ignored element of Mrs. Thatcher’s struggle. The leftist intelligentsia of her day, which claimed loyalty to and identification with the poor and marginalized, was shot through with snobs and snobbery. Underneath their egalitarian chatter was (and to some degree still is) a hidden, hungry admiration for and desire to be associated with the well-named and well-connected. The top of the right, the Tories, who said they stood for tradition, the rights of the oppressed middle and the greatness of England, was heavily populated by a more familiar kind of snob, those who took more overt pleasure in their titles and pedigree, and wealth. They were not eager for change.
Both left and right looked down on women, especially style-less grinds and grocers’ daughters who thought they were the equal of the boys. The movie suggests Mrs. Thatcher’s defiance of the snobs while depicting her defeat of the snobs.
Mrs. Thatcher’s political views are never granted any sympathetic legitimacy, though the movie subtly allows there may have been some legitimacy. Perhaps the great flaw is that it has too great a fear of exactly locating her greatness, and the meaning of her greatness. This is not so much a political as an aesthetic flaw: In the classic movies about Elizabeth I, for instnace you knew why you were watching the movie, why she was its subject, and how she changed history.
And yes, the film descends at the end to a bit of the Devil Wears Prada, as the prime minister berates her cabinet. I’ve actually seen her upbraid people. It was softer and sweeter and all the more cutting for that.
The masterpiece is Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher, which is not so much a portrayal as an inhabitation. It doesn’t do justice to say Ms. Streep talks like her, looks like her, catches some of her spirit, though those things are true. It’s something deeper than that, something better and more important. She tried to be Margaret Thatcher, and there’s a real tribute in that.
The left in America has largely thrown in the towel on Ronald Reagan, but in Britain Thatcher-hatred remains fresh. Why?
Because she was a woman. Because women in politics are always by definition seen as presumptuous: They presume to lead men. When they are as bright as the men they’re disliked by the men, and when they’re brighter and more serious they’re hated. Mrs Thatcher’s very presence was an insult to the left because it undermined the left’s insistence that only leftism and its protection of the weak and disadvantaged would allow women to rise. She rose without them while opposing what they stood for. On the other hand, some of the Tory men around her had been smacked on the head by her purse often enough to wish for revenge. What better revenge than to fail to fully stand up for her to posterity?
And so her difficult position. But one senses that is changing.
Final note. We are at a point in our culture when we actually have to pull for grown-up movies, when we must try to encourage them and laud them when they come by. David Lean wouldn’t be allowed to make movies today, John Ford would be forced to turn John Wayne into a 30-something failure-to-launch hipster whose big moment is missing the toilet in the vomit scene in Hangover Ten. Our movie culture has descended into immaturity, deep and inhuman violence, a pervasive and flattened sexuality. It is an embarrassment.
In Iraq this year I asked an Iraqi military officer doing joint training at an American base what was the big thing he’d come to believe about Americans in the years they’d been there. He thought. “You are a better people than your movies say.” He had judged us by our exports. He had seen the low slag heap of our culture and assumed it was a true expression of who we are.
And so he’d assumed we were disgusting.
Credit, then, to those who make movies for grown-ups. I end with words I never expected to say: “Thank you, Harvey Weinstein. WELL DONE.”