Review: 'MacHeads,' a documentary on the Mac faithful

The new documentary, by two Israeli brothers, is an interesting look at the passion behind the millions-strong Mac community. But it lacks clarity.

'MacHeads,' a new movie about the Apple and Macintosh culture, will premiere Wednesday at MacWorld. MacHeads

It's a long-established truism in technology journalism: That stories about Apple are pretty much guaranteed to do better than just about any other subject.

And why? It's certainly not because of the total size of the user base of Apple products. Rather, as has been very well chronicled in newspapers, magazines, online and in books, the passion felt by the community of Apple users far outstrips its size.

Now, with the release of MacHeads , you can add movies to the roster of media documenting the full fervor of the Mac faithful and their particular brand of do-it-yourself brand evangelism.

MacHeads, a 54-minute film by the Israeli director and producer team of Kobi and Ron Shely, has its world-premiere Wednesday with a screening at Macworld, a suitable place for a film about 25 years (or more) of Mac fanaticism, especially because much of it was filmed at Macworld 2007.

It's also a bit of an ironic location to launch a cinematic discussion of hard-core Mac fandom, given the recent announcement that Apple will end its participation in Macworld after this year, a development that could well spell the end for the last large-scale physical gathering of the very people the movie is about.

In a way, however, the end of Macworld as we've known it plays right into the hands of the Shely brothers, as one of the chief arguments their film makes is that the newest generation of Mac users depends much more on the Internet for community than Macworld itself or the users-group meetings that have taken place in any number of cities around the world for so many years.

Either way, though, one thing is made abundantly clear in MacHeads: As long as there are Mac users, new or old, on working computers or museum pieces, the so-called cult of Mac will stay alive and well.

As a movie, I found MacHeads to be rather uneven. It struck me as haphazardly edited, and it struck me that the filmmakers were never completely clear with themselves whether their movie was about Mac users, their passion, Apple, the computers themselves or the transformation of a small, yet unbelievably vocal community.

Probably, that's because it's about all of the above. But where MacHeads succeeds in amply demonstrating the extent of the feeling the faithful have for their beloved Macs, it suffers from an obvious lack of clarity.

Still, it's kind of fun listening to the so-called MacHeads opening up to the world about their obsession. It's also not at all unfamiliar. I myself am writing this on a Mac, and between my wife and I, we have five Macs, two iPods and two iPhones. And she would probably recount proudly that she nearly dumped me early in our relationship when I told her that I was considering buying a PC for my next computer.

In the film, this distaste for all things Windows takes many forms, some funny and others even more funny.

Early in the movie, for example, the well-known sex author and blogger Violet Blue, says, with only the slightest hint of irony, "I've never knowingly slept with a Windows user. Ever. Ever. That would never, ever happen."

Later, DigiBarn computer museum co-founder Bruce Damer talks about Apple taking on IBM and PCs as "the force fighting against the beige banality."

While the Mac--in its many iterations--is the technological focus of the devotion of the MacHeads, Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs is clearly the human form.

And together, Jobs and the products his company makes comprise a church of sorts, with thousands, if not millions, of followers.

"If you go online and look up the definition of a cult," Shawn King, the executive producer and host of Your Mac Life, says in the film, "Mac users are a cult. You know, complete fealty to one leader."

Fealty and devotion often have a physical component, and for some Mac fans, that's a tattoo. MacHeads, then, features at least two cases of users with Apple logos emblazoned on their legs.

But some Mac users clearly think of their computers as an extension of themselves--a sentiment that some might laugh at, but which others will understand fully.

"Only Mac people really put stickers all over their laptops," digital media strategist Deborah Schultz says in the movie, "and I think it's indicative that this is kind of something that is close to me like my clothing and it's an identification."

These days, with Apple flying high on the strength of the massive success of the iPhone, the iPod and the Mac line, it's easy to forget that in the mid-90s, the company was on the verge of failure. And for the 25 million or so Mac users at the time, events at the time like Macworld were a place to come and share their hopes and fears about their future computing.

"You have to be an optimist to be a Mac user," said former MacAddict columnist Joseph Holmes in the film, "because there were those tough times when we thought, you know, maybe I'll have to use a Windows system. Maybe there won't be a Mac in a couple of years. It was kind of tough."

Or, as fellow Mac fan Debroah Shadovitz put it, "We would have entered the dark ages if Apple went away. We couldn't let that happen."

As is the basis for endless business school case studies today, of course, Jobs returned from the Siberian exile of forced life away from Apple, and brought the company back to glory, first with the iMac and then with the company's next--and maybe biggest--game changer, the iPod.

Oddly, MacHeads hardly covers the iPod, and its importance in making Apple what it is today. I think that's because the whole point of the film is to focus on the passion of a niche group of tech users, and the iPod has been such a mainstream hit that it is the dominant portable music player today, hardly the kind of device that establishes the us against them mentality that many of the Mac fans in the film evince.

Yet, the movie feels like it has a hole without a discussion of the iPod, and I think that's evidence of the lack of clarity I talked about earlier--the indecisiveness as to what the film is really about.

Because this is well-covered ground, there is little in MacHeads that would surprise anyone who is familiar with the cult of Mac. Yet, because that community is so visible and outspoken, the movie is bound to have an audience--at least of the already converted. Whether it will appeal to those outside the fold is less likely, to me, at least.

No matter, though. Apple's fan base alone is large enough to give the Shely brothers a sizable potential audience, even if many of those people really just want to see how their kind is portrayed on film.

After all, in the end, what makes the cult of Mac powerful, and interesting, is the people.

"It's the community that you want to talk about," says Shawn King in the film. "Don't love Apple, love the community."

 

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