Her and it’s lineage in the 21st century “anti”-Romcom
This essay contains potential spoilers.
About this time ten years ago, two decade defining “Rom-coms” were released at around the same time and broke a million hearts all over. Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation signified a modern update of the well worn and a change in the taste of cinema-goers. Here were two films rooted in a traditionally mainstream and vacuous genre which forged an original standpoint, which was recognised both in Academy nominations, critic responses and impressive audiences, for films of their budget and size.
To argue then that Her, the new film by Spike Jonze, is an updated amalgamation of those two films shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. In it’s plot and concept, there are clear parallels and influences from those monumental heart-breakers. Her shares Eternal Sunshine's vaguely sci-fi element; being set in the not too distant future and showing the consequences of utilising modern, semi-fictional, technology as a solution to human relationships, and Lost in Translation's theorising of latter-aged relationships and stunning cinematography thanks to magical yet alienating Tokyo, which here is a perpetually sun-drenched and bleached out Los Angeles, occasionally stood in for by Shanghai.
But aside from that, Spike Jonze also has a fairly personal connection to both those films, which almost certainly has influenced the production of Her. This was Jonze’s first largely solo-penned film (more on that later), but he has also spoken openly about taking influence from his long term collaborator Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) for his writing on Eternal Sunshine and Synecdoche, New York.
As for his relationship with Lost in Translation, well that much is painfully clear. Many speculated that Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson; another connection)’s husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) was based on Jonze, as the film was shot and released shortly after his divorce with director Sofia Coppola. While Coppola denies this, the themes of unsatisfied love cannot be ignored in her film, or indeed Jonze’s.
For Her largely follows the same lineage of unresolved love as those two, and manages to bring “their” themes of alienated individuals in modern-day metropolises into one film. Central to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix)’s motives in Her is his inability to come to terms with his divorce to childhood sweetheart Catherine (an ice cold Rooney Mara), and finds escapism in a new Operating System which, for a while at least, fulfils his every need. This is consistent with Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet)’s treacherous and vengeful deleting of each other from their memories only to repeat the cycle, and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Johansson)’s mutual love fuelled by their frustrations with their respective partners. In both examples, through memory erasing techniques and flânerie to strange and distant, modern, cities, the characters are unsatisfied and unsure of themselves, literally lost in their fallible human relationships.
Jonze’s Her however goes one step further, perhaps as it has the benefit of hindsight of ten years on Kaufman and Coppola’s scripts, but ultimately it successfully fully explores this “modern love story” to such a full potential that it questions the human condition itself. Because although Her central conceit is one involving man falling in love with a computer, Jonze dares us, through his own personal experiences and inspiration, to question all “loving” relationships.
Much of what makes Her a fascinating narrative is what is happening on the periphery of the frame, which connects to Tokyo in Lost in Translation. While that is a present day text, Tokyo is one of the most brutally technologically advanced cities in the world, something Bob and Charlotte are reminded at every turn as they immerse themselves but never really connect with their surroundings. Here, near-future LA has advanced to the point where the metropolis is largely uniform, hence why Shanghai can easily supplement it for certain scenes. The modifications to the city’s landscape, apartment and it’s inhabitants’ fashion tastes are constantly present, but given the majority of those on screen would rather be looking at their phones, an all too familiar image, it’s easy to miss these little touches.
'Love' as unrealistic
There is a key line about 2/3rds through Her delivered by Theodore’s friend and neighbour Amy (Adams) in which she states:
"Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity."
This will ring true to anyone who’s been invested and disappointed by love (i.e: everyone at some point in their lives) but it’s a crucial moment in the film. Here is the first moment Theo realises he shares Amy’s disappointment, having now both had their human relationships dissolved and are finding comfort in technological alternatives (Amy also uses the OS system but is simply “close friends” with hers’) and begins the eventual move to the film’s climax.
Amy’s assertion is important because it realises that the act of “falling in love” is a socially accepted, indeed, encouraged, act which is almost expected of us as humans, but also acknowledges that it is essentially a fallacious type of “insanity”. The fact that in the film’s near-future world, love has progressed to the stage of loving inanimate objects is pre-supposed as a new normal, shows that these flawed humans in society are adapting and evolving just as much as the OS system does, despite being at rapidly different rates.
This idea drives the central relationship of Theodore and his Operating System “Samantha” and therefore the film’s ironic title. Throughout, Theodore is consistently shown as a deeply flawed individual, but his endearing charm is what keeps him relatable and human. In many ways, Jonze employs the typically novelistic “unreliable focaliser” trope with Theodore, an incredibly difficult thing to capture on film, as he is a man who right up until the final scene of the film is a man who is deeply lacking in emotional engagement.
From the film’s opening, we see Theodore’s expressing this lack; constantly having flashbacks of his estranged wife, failing to recognise the irony in writing falsified, meaningless love-letters for people who don’t have the time, calling sex-chat lines, and importantly, seeing an advert for the OS system which briefly changes his life. Jonze handles the relationship Theodore has with his computer delicately and masterfully; over the course of the film we get a snap-shot of a typical relationship: introduction > establishing shared interests > flirting > admitting feelings > consummation > honeymoon period > growing apart > dissolution.
Except, none of this really happens in the normal sense. Or at least, as the computer is not a human, but artificially intelligent, it can only engage in ways it has been programmed, which is by the film’s setting so advanced that it actually mimics and evolves every time it interacts with Theodore, or anyone else, until it grows too advanced for it’s master and leaves. So while it may suggest that it’s having “human thoughts and feelings” the only human in this particular relationship is Theodore, which shifts the action significantly to his motives. Anything “Samantha” has learnt and relays to Theodore has been projected onto her by him, initiated by the screening questions the OS asks while Theodore is installing it, like a dating website would today, and otherwise learnt from the 8,316 other people “Samantha” engages with (and 641 it also loves), much as millions upload and share their feelings to social media websites every day.
Jonze makes this distinction of unrealistic love explicitly, but as it is told from the focal point of Theodore’s recently divorced, unrelenting mind, it is easy to miss in the midst of the “love” which “helps” him. Early on in their relationship, “Samantha” explains how she is programmed by thousands of developers and that she
can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind might perceive [Theodore’s confusion] that way. You’ll get used to it.
She tells Theodore this right from the off, but his reaction is to laugh it off, because he clearly attracted and intrigued by her voice in his sorrowful mood. Thus, Theodore and “Samantha’s” conversations increasingly sound like excerpts from his love-letters, because she has consumed and learned them within split-seconds, making her assertions that she can be human as false as the love professed by those who’ve hired Theodore.
As he struggles to come to terms with the dissolution of his marriage, he selfishly believes that a computer could ever really love him, not seeing that, like his love-letters for other people, because he’s unwilling to accept that perhaps he is at fault for the divorce. His ex-wife Catherine is shown to us almost entirely in flashback, and in her only present day scene, quite rightly loses any fondness their distance had created, when he tells her he is in a relationship with his OS. She is unsurprised by it, claiming it’s perfect for Theodore as “Samantha” is the archetypal “unattainable woman” and thus can’t be ruined by his selfishness, as it is largely created by it. Here, Catherine exposes it as a ridiculous concept, but an increasingly understandable one, as humans turn ever-frequently towards technology of a means of self-indulgent escape from other humans, who we will always inevitably disappoint or vice versa.
This links directly to Eternal Sunshine's Joel, who's act of bitter revenge in erasing present-day Clementine becomes a tragic mistake when he realises it means erasing all the happy, past memories, only to wake up and begin the cycle again. It is an unrealistic solution but due to man's fallible nature which he only realises until too late.
'Love' as flawed, human, mortal and as resolution
In Her we’re to compare this unreal relationship with Theodore’s nameless (dehumanised) blind date (played by the seemingly omnipresent Olivia Wilde) whom “Samantha” implores he sees before he mentions anything about being sexually unfulfilled. The date starts promisingly but ends dreadfully due to Theodore’s commitment issues and self-imposed emotional scarring, as thoughts of his wife and of “Samantha” rattle around disturbing his mind. When Theodore returns home to “Samantha” he feels sorry for himself and talks about how he just wanted to be sexually fulfilled as a short term solution to his problems leading to “Samantha” dutifully obliging by engaging “sexually” with him.
Crucially, this cannot continue, partly because it’s unhealthy, but largely as aforementioned, “Samantha” is such an advanced piece of artificial intelligence that is only growing smarter and more powerful to the point that she outgrows simple human interaction. There is an important moment where “Samantha” makes a joke to Theodore and his friends that as humans they’re all going to die, showing how impossible their relationship is. This is to be compared to Amy’s realisation after her break-up that:
I’ve just come to realize that, we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I wanna allow myself joy. So fuck it.
This is what leads to Theodore finally understanding the error of his ways, once “Samantha” and the other OS’s have left, writing the first legitimately endearing letter of the whole narrative to his ex-wife, and taking Amy up to their apartment block’s rooftop to finally gaze upon something other than a computer screen. The final scene is still fairly ironic; rather than some great scene of natural beauty, Theodore and Amy are in fact together taking in the futuristic city-scape which has been omnipresent throughout, like Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo. However it is still an acceptance that while human love may bring disappointments and lack assurances, given we never know what will come, if anything, of theirs or our relationships, it is still a vital part of the human condition and it’s mortality, which makes it a powerful dénouement.
It is unsurprising that Her won best screenplay at the Golden Globes, and while it is nominated for 5 Oscars (including best film) it is unlikely to win much different there. In a year where 12 Years a Slave happened, there is potentially no shame in that, but for all of the excellent, semi-autobiographical, writing of Spike Jonze, with help from Charlie Kaufman and Amy Adams (who reportedly help flesh out her character), this would suggest the film is more than the sum of it’s parts. While perhaps due to the nature of a dialogue-heavy film where half the action takes place off screen, it may not be that surprising there has been no actor/actress nominations, it still seems a shame that given the delicate subtleties of the role, neither Joaquin Pheonix or Scarlett Johansson have been given a nod (Adams has a thoroughly deserved one for American Hustle.) Intriguingly, British audiences don’t seem to have taken to Her as uniformly positive as American, reflected in its complete snub from the BAFTAs.
One final point, Her is Academy nominated for Best Original Score, provided by Arcade Fire and their long-time collaborator Owen Pallet (Final Fantasy) and it stands a strong chance of winning. Given all the action and design of the film, it’s possibly easy to miss the beautiful score which is rumbling along underneath, and it is interesting to find out that Arcade Fire’s ‘Supersymmetry’ was originally written for this before it appeared as the closing track off of last years’ Reflektor album. The use of soundtrack places Her among these (for lack of a better term) “anti-romcoms” as, aside from being a director who is very experienced in combining music with motion pictures, this feels remarkably similar to Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine’s contributions to Coppola’s film. While their divorce clearly rings true in both films, it is often in much more subtle fashions that their influence on each other becomes apparent.
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