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The Boston Phoenix Power Trips

"Silicon Valley," and "After Stonewall"

By Robert David Sullivan

JUNE 21, 1999:  If it had been created by gays and lesbians, the computer industry would be one big happy family, driven by nothing but a sincere desire to make the world a freer place. And if Bill Gates had been a little more graceful at the roller disco, he would have become the richest man in the world by cornering the market in Donna Summer albums.

At least, that's the impression I get from two films covering different social revolutions of the past 30 years. The much-hyped docudrama Pirates of Silicon Valley (which premiered June 20 on TNT) reduces the battle between Apple Computers and Microsoft to a pissing contest between two stereotypes, with victory going to the more insane player. Pirates writer and director Martyn Burke tries to depict Apple founder Steve Jobs as a spoiled, ruthless jerk who abandons his pregnant girlfriend and attacks one form of conformity (the blue suits and nuclear families of IBM) only to impose an equally narrow mindset on Apple employees (making them work so many hours that a family is impossible, and firing guys who can't look cool in T-shirts and jeans). Trouble is, Jobs is played by Noah Wyle, and his scenes are like an episode of ER in which the kindly Dr. Carter barks at interns (but in a cute, "please pet me" way) at the end of a long shift. I kept waiting for Carter -- er, Jobs -- to realize that he's been taking the wrong prescription medicine so that we could get back to the saga of Carol Hathaway and her own illegitimate kid.

Jobs is no match for Dr. Evil, a/k/a Microsoft billionaire and world ruler Bill Gates. The übernerd is played by Anthony Michael Hall as a dropout from the Norman Bates School of Social Skills, with the high-pitched voice of a 14-year-old and a sex life that seems limited to sticky copies of Playboy. When he hits on women at a roller-skating rink, it seems he's trying to reassure his Microsoft partners that he has a human soul. We know better, having already seen Gates grinning from a huge video screen like 1984's Big Brother.

Often corny and cliché'd, Pirates nevertheless wipes away the sentimental view that the Apple-Microsoft battle was about different business philosophies. Both Jobs and Gates amass power by working other people to death, buying technology from geeks who don't know the value of their own inventions, and tricking corporations into buying products that don't yet exist. The parallel tales of egomania don't leave you with many characters to root for. Certainly you can share Gates's contempt for the IBM idiot who says, "The profits are in the computers themselves, not this software stuff." And it would be hard to get behind Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnik), the voice of reason (and chief narrator) of Pirates. His weak attempts to stand up to Jobs suggest he was just too lazy to lust after power.

The absence of heroes in Pirates of Silicon Valley is considerably more believable than the surplus of saints in After Stonewall: From the Riots to the Millennium. Narrated by Melissa Etheridge, the sequel to the gay documentary Before Stonewall (1985) is a valentine to a united gay community that has matured through several decades without the infighting and second-guessing that has characterized the women's and African-American civil-rights movements. This is a complete fantasy, of course, but it is apparently the intended message in a film that will likely be seen by millions of heterosexuals. After Stonewall avoids the pros and cons of "assimilation" (the issue that has colored most of the gay intellectual debates of the past decade) and ignores the broadening of gay politics to include groups like the Log Cabin Republicans. Neither could you guess from seeing this film that gay people were among those who wanted to shut down bathhouses as a way to limit AIDS, or that a sizable part of the gay political community dismiss the right to marry as a pathetic attempt to imitate straight people.

No gay or lesbian individual is criticized in After Stonewall, despite the inclusion of such lightning rods as safe-sex scold Larry Kramer and political lobbyist Elizabeth Birch. Perhaps some activists participated only after being assured they would not be criticized on camera. Or perhaps filmmakers Vic Basile and John Scagliotti included only those who would honor the queer version of Ronald Reagan's famous Eleventh Commandment ("Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican"). This approach is especially regrettable because the film doesn't have the dramatic pull of Before Stonewall, where one could more easily accept the premise that all gays and lesbians had the same goal -- that is, not getting clubbed to death. After an hour and a half of self-congratulation by a tiny group of gay activists, After Stonewall scores some emotional points by lingering over the murder of Matthew Shepard and ends with an older lesbian musing about how nice it would be to live in a queer nursing home. The presumably inadvertent message is that the gay civil-rights movement has entered its twilight years, a time for trading war stories and staying away from topics that might excite the heart. I pray that the religious right is just as tired.

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