January 7, 2014
Tomorrow's techtopia pulls today's heart strings:
Some time ago, a friend of mine was having trouble with his longtime girlfriend. One day, while having some boneheaded conversation about the psychological implications of bullet trains or something equally inconsequential, he says, “Gotta run, she’s home. We fought again this morning.”
“You’ll kill each other before you even see a bullet train. What this time?”
“What everyone’s fights are ever about,” he said. “Someone didn’t meet the other’s expectations.”
That stuck with me. And it came to mind a couple times while watching Her, the latest from esteemed visionary Spike Jonze about an introverted writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with a computer operating system. The first was when Theodore and his old college friend Amy (played by Amy Adams, whose expansive talent is anything but in short supply this season) heart-to-heart about her latest marriage spat – her husband’s comment about shoes on the carpet had led to warfare – and again when Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) pours out her resentment toward Theodore for, what she feels, was his desire to turn her into an L.A. housewife who spends her days in the kitchen wearing nothing but a plastic smile.
Relationships, simply put, are the worst. In the words of Donnie Jonah Hill Azoff, everyone who’s married is unhappy. It’s kind of a disaster, the stuff Why Get Out of Bed is made of. The more you love someone, the more impossible you both seem to get, and the more you begin wondering whether being alone would feel less lonesome.
How much control do we have over our ability to make the ones we love happy? How much control do our loved ones have over their ability to make us happy? And to what extent, if any, can people carve a healthy balance of meeting their loved ones’ needs while not mistaking unfair expectations for reasonable ones?
At first glance, Her can be reduced to a satirical reality check, echoing warnings from wiser generations about the dependence young’uns have on technology. Today’s young people don’t crave real human interactions, their people skills are devolving, social graces a travesty, etc. A wake-up call to where society is headed if cell phones continue to be allowed at the dinner table. On a time crunch and forgot your anniversary? In this not-too-distant future, couples can employ total strangers to write intimate letters of love everlasting to their partner. Save time, AND let the experts tell her she’s special even better than you can! Stuck in the single life limbo but can’t bear the thought of another awkward first date? Thanks to the latest developments in technology, your late-night pillow talks with the cat are over! This state-of-the-art, personalized operating system puts a Digital Age spin on mail-order brides.
The case is strong enough, but it’s a tired sermon. And Jonze has never been interested in tired sermons. Her hands over complicated and ambitious rhetoric, reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and prettified with Lost in Translation cinematic overtures (influence from a certain ex-wife?). Eternal Sunshine, a story about two star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the same quirky coin, leaves a sneaky happily-ever-after vibe similar to Her. In the final scene, we see Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) giddily agreeing to give their failed relationship another shot.
“I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you,” Joel says.
“But you will, but you will. You will think of things, and I’ll get bored of you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me,” says Clementine.
Okay? These people were damaged so unbearably by each other that they underwent a memory-erasing procedure just to get on with their lives, and because they don’t remember how their mutual heartbreak unfolded, the pain is no longer real. But they’re still the same people, will go through the same tormented process, and end up in the same dark place they did from the start. How could this be “okay?” Moral of the story is we’re doomed to share bleak, unfortunate lives with someone lest we die alone, so settle down with someone you hate the least? This is a cynical take from a cynical man who clearly has lost all hope.
Possibly. But maybe it’s an uplifting story of giant proportions about two people who were led back to each other through undying love, despite even their own best efforts. And maybe Her is a pessimistic reflection of our perpetual emotional voids and obsession with materialism and technology, which drives us to seek connections not from the warmth of human arms but from the battery heat of our laptops. But maybe Her rejuvenates faith in our ability to overcome our deepest personal losses. Our most painful personal failures.
Though he’s perceptive and emotionally in tune – his job as a personalized Hallmark machine requires it – Theodore comes to feel intimately connected to a computer program. Weird, yes. But he’s a damaged man who just short-circuited a bit. Amy also cultivates a friendship with an OS to keep her from an inescapable pit of post-breakup loneliness. Theodore’s marriage failed, and we’re led to believe, from the only scene he and the statuesque Mara have on screen together, that most of the blame falls on his inability to deal with the real issues of his real marriage.
Given the confines, obstacles like the ones Joel and Clementine, Amy and her husband or Theodore and Catherine experienced could never present themselves to Theodore and his OS, who gives herself the name Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha won’t be annoyed if he treads the carpet with his shoes on, and the same can certainly be said for Theodore as Samantha does not have feet. Neither will she be cooking naked anytime soon. Compromise and personal sacrifice nourishes growth and respect, and ironically it’s Samantha who asks “How can you share your life with somebody?” The short answer is, she can’t. She’s a safe haven for our scarred Theodore.
He tells Samantha “I’ve never loved anybody the way I love you” and that may be true, but not the way he’s tricked himself into believing. He doesn’t love Samantha the way he loves Catherine. He loves his Samantha, not Samantha’s Samantha. She was literally created in his image, a blank slate, a piece of digital clay completely moldable to whatever he willed her to be, consciously or otherwise. And while Johansson’s impossibly sultry, smoky teenage voice would hypnotize most anyone, Theodore’s jaunt with Samantha doesn’t go through the emotional evolutions demanded of human relationships.
Who he really loved in a way he’d never loved anybody, was Her.
Even the title speaks volumes. An obvious alternative title like Samantha would have (while boosting Google searchability) lent itself to human connotation and individual identification that an operating system doesn’t deserve. Name your pet, you become attached to it as you do people. But Her isn’t about Theodore and Samantha. Her is whoever, or whatever, helps you find yourself between the words of your story, the “her” all of us need to jump from one stepping stone to another. We don’t know who “her” is – she’s an intangible fantasy of all things nurturing and loving. The concept of a “her” stirs up thoughts of the ideal, the unreachable, the perfect. If “her” were made real by assigning an identity, the magic is lost.
Does this reflect abject cynicism or does it instill hope for the Theodore in all of us? I’m still wrestling with it. And in the end, like Samantha, all we build is memory. Either way, beneath Her’s stunning cinematography and questionable fashion senses is tough meat to chew. My only regret is I haven’t seen it twice.
Melissa Weller is a Los Angeles-based entertainment columnist. Follow her @MELdoinWELL