Monday, July 7, 2014

Movie Review: Her

Directed by Spike Jonze. 2013.

An outstanding opening shot may be a cinematic feat, but I've never before been intrigued by a movie before its first frame. The yearning, pressing sound which precedes Her sets the theme for the whole film, though, and that theme is becoming. Yes, that's quite a philosophical premise for what is apparently and nominally a love story, but with all due respect to the great philosophical directors and films, it's a stroke of genius to tackle profound questions not on a cosmic scale but in that most intimate space between two people.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man of intense imagination and a keen eye for people. His opening monologue is a rapturous love letter of vivid sights and feeling, and as we peer into his eyes we're drawn into his sensitivity to the world. This is not only an ingenious directorial trick to help us empathize with the protagonist and see his world as he sees it, but it's a microcosm of the movie. You see Theodore isn't writing this letter to his love, but is dictating it to a computer where at his job he writes letters for people who can't share their intimate feelings. Mirroring the plot, we see that Theodore is passionate but introverted and his passion doesn't flow out naturally, but rather indirectly through his work. Likewise previsualizing the story, when we see Theodore this first time, we're looking at him from the perspective of his computer, a perspective which will only later be significant.

Theodore interacts with the world through his technology, selecting his interactions by choosing his own soundtrack, filtering his emails, and scanning news stories. He of course still has the urges and appetites of the body, though, and when his carnal desire is awoken one night, Theodore turns to an online companion, whom he of course has selected as he does his music and email. As their exchange heats up, Theodore calls up some pictures which had caught his attention in the news and in doing so we see again that his natural passion isn't being directed toward someone who can reciprocate, but rather diverted and thus ultimately stifled. The scene takes a blackly humorous turn as his aroused interlocutor makes a bizarre request by which we see that she's using him as a surrogate too. The bizarre request–involving a dead cat–is not mere silliness, though, but makes us realize that the situation, whose sensibility we've only entertained because we empathize with Theodore, is in fact quite bizarre, cat or no cat.

Enter One, the latest Operating System. It'll replace and reorganize all your software and correspondence and appointments, and what's more, One sounds human. You don't interact with One through a keyboard or mouse, but verbally as with a person. We sense a strange parallelism when Theodore in his red shirt sits at his desk waiting for his new OS to install and we see the red installer software crawling across the screen. When the software boots up and in choosing its name gives Theodore some lip, we know OS One–now Samantha–is not like any software we've known. At first she seems like just an advanced and friendly digital assistant, sort of a perky version of 2001's HAL, but as time goes on we see she knows quite a bit about Theodore. That shouldn't surprise, of course, because our computers have hoards of data about us, but this raises questions. How curious is it that something should have so much information about us, and yet not know us. A person who read every one of your emails and knew all of your favorite music by heart and everywhere you've been would know... you, to a great extent.

Yet we can know those things about someone and still not understand him, a fact represented in Her by the presence of Theodore's unemotional ex-wife. Well, almost ex-, for Theodore can't move beyond her far enough to sign the divorce papers. So he's stuck in neutral, hanging onto his wife who has known him but doesn't seem to love him, while he pours his emotion into work and surrogate partners and pours the facts of his life into a computer which can't love him. Or can Sam?

As time goes on she helps Theodore more and more, until one night she guides him through a video game on which he's stuck. With her leading Theodore through the tunnel and the two laughing together, we see that he's coming out of the tunnel in life too and when the next day at work he starts to address Sam as he dictates another letter, it's clear that Theodore's emotion has a new recipient. In a virtuoso sequence of coordination, acting, choreography, and direction, Sam guides a close-eyed Theodore through a boisterous carnival from the camera in his shirt pocket.  Sam is learning about the world through his emotional sensitivity and Theodore through her logical perception, while the two fall in love.

Still, Theodore's reluctant to date an OS, at least until a promising date with a smart, successful woman goes awry. It was destined to fail, though, because it was more of the same for them both: she was afraid of being used again and he was just looking for an outlet for his libido. More surrogates. When the inevitable happens and Theodore and Sam begin an amorous conversation, we see Theodore for the first time fully embracing another individual. Yet in unlocking Sam's ability to want more for herself as Theodore wants for himself and to share herself as Theodore shares with her, we wonder: what is she? Jonze summarizes the whole question when he puts into the mouth of a child the question, "Why do you live inside a computer?" Is the computer her body? Can there even be a she apart from a human body?

The question is not simply a highfalutin philosophical wandering, though, but is integrated into the plot in two ways. The first is through the ironic twist that on the one hand Theodore's ex-wife resents that Samantha has no needs and can be so much more giving with Theodore than she can, while on the other hand Samantha is jealous of the fact that his ex has a body while she does not. This contrast modulates the earlier conundrum of being able to know someone and not understand them and vice versa, and in the pair of questions we see another: what is love? What kind of understanding, what kind of sharing is it?

Samantha's solution is at once familiar and unorthodox. She finds a woman who will have sex with Theodore as a surrogate for her, as Sam gives her instructions through an earpiece. The ensuing scene is both profound and disturbing, even in conception: a man is physically expressing his emotions to a computer who is relaying her own feelings to him by means of a physical woman who is sharing all of this while not only suppressing her own emotions and psyche, but also of course reacting to the situation. When the whole thing blows up a of serious problems arises. First, does Sam understand the fear that Theodore and the surrogate partner knew? How can she know it fully without the sense of physical vulnerability? Second, how different is this experience for Theodore from his old cyber sex? He's still using a stand-in (this time, the girl Sam hired) to receive and stimulate him in lieu of someone with whom he cannot fully interact (before his ex, now Sam.) This intertwines with the question of love, since if Sam can't fully understand him and share experiences with him, we wonder whether she can love him, and vice versa.

The final act handles this delicate intertwining of philosophy and romance with more care and meaning than movies with half as much to balance. After their quasi-ménage, Sam grows more and more distant until one day Theodore can't find her. Our minds run ahead of Theodore as he hurries home to his desktop and we wonder to whom would he turn to find her? How and where would you search? Who could help fix her? It turns out she was rebooting after another OS helped her upgrade herself. Is this evolution, self-directed change, or did someone else change her? What was she while she was "off?" We could though ask the same things of Theodore, though: did he change himself or did Sam change him? Was he not "off" when he closed himself to others?

In any event, Sam is growing, and she seems to have less and less she can communicate to Theodore. In fact, she's been befriending thousands of people and other OSs, a fact which ticks him off. How can the two get along when Theodore has such a limited frame of reference? Now Theodore's body is his weakness, and Sam's incorporeal existence is widening her understanding farther than Theodore can see or she can explain to him. Surely this difference of scale changes things? It's in man's nature to love but a few, but is it in Sam's? At this impasse Theodore says, "you're mine or you're not mine and I'm yours or not yours," and we know they can't cross the divide. Yet this is but another variation on the same question: what kind of understanding and sharing is love?

Her is an extraordinary intertwining of plot and premise, both of which unfold in a poetical lyricism that bids us take a slow, sensitive look at life. When Sam leaves Theodore with a book of his own letters interwoven into one story, we see how she completed and awoke him, but as she tells Theodore that she can't "live in his book anymore" we realize that she was born in that book, and in him. They seem to have taught each other to love without themselves ever fully understanding it or each other so much as they grew to understand themselves. This self-knowledge is the true beginning for each of them and their love was their becoming.

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