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Growing Together with ‘Her’

Judyta Frodyma

Dir. Spike Jonze
Entertainment One
Now playing at the Phoenix Picture House, Walton Street

This week ORbits presents two companion reviews of Spike Jonze’s film Her. You can read the first review here [1].

At the end of the day, what you rush home to get to is an electronic reproduction of life. You cannot touch it, it doesn’t smell and it has no taste […] it turns out to be this purely passive contemplation of a twittering screen. […] [People are] in no real communion with each other at all. This isolation of people into a private world of their own is really a creation of a mindless crowd. And so, we don’t get with each other. […] (Alan Watts, What is wrong with our culture)

About two-thirds into Spike Jonze’s Academy Award nominated film, Samantha introduces her boyfriend, Theodore Twombly, to a new friend of hers, Alan Watts. In itself, this tripartite encounter is trivial, but for the philosophical purpose of the film, it taps into its foundational question: what is real? On the surface, Samantha (voiced by the husky and playful Scarlett Johansson) is not—she is an operating system (OS), a charming artificial intelligence, a bettered, conscious Siri. Alan Watts was real—he died, we are told, in the 1970s and what we are hearing is a personality reconstructed from his writings. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), however, is real, in the sense that he is human and alive, possessing a body, though on the movie screen, he is only a man portraying another man. The intersection of these three characters is the crux at which all the film’s multiple facades collapse in a profoundly unclimactic way.

Theodore is a gentle man. For a living, he writes (dictates) physical, intimate letters on behalf of other people. His co-worker complements him, saying he is “part man and part woman. Like there’s an inner part that’s woman.” He is going through a painful divorce with his ex-wife Catherine, has a limited social life, and is generally quite introverted. One day, purchases a “conscious operating system,” seemingly on a whim. From his first interaction with her, Samantha surprises him with her existence: she reads, in milliseconds, a book on baby names and then ‘chooses’ the one she likes best. As she grows and progresses towards a technological singularity, she struggles to explain her world to Theodore—a world in which she can hold 8,316 simultaneous conversations with other OS’s, Alan Watts among them.

Watts was a British-born philosopher and theologian whose work was focused on bringing Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, to the West. Watts’ countless books and lectures include questioning a technological, twentieth century existence and our reliance on body-mind dualism. Samantha represents this problem: she becomes human in her way of relating, but does not possess a body. Her existence is akin to only that of a soul, even though our collective cultural consciousness immediately rejects the term because she is artificially created. Though not implicit in the film, Watts proposes that this is the very conception Western culture has of ourselves—that we are made; somehow brought into existence from the pre-existing stuff, much like Adam was made out of clay. What defines us as human, then, is our capacity to grow—to learn and change, to expand our self-hood. The problem that Her jostles with goes beyond the classic question in science fiction: what happens when an artificial intelligence—a man-made thing—suddenly gains a selfhood and begins to evolve? The product is not a dystopian mega-computer (this isn’t Kubrick, after all) but a warm, humane exploration of the very intricacies of growing together.

Her is set in a not-so-distant future Los Angeles. It’s pleasant. Most of the things we have come to accept as products of a twenty-first century life are recognisably there, but the film has to it a warm, nostalgic glow, from the high-waisted woollen trousers, round spectacles and thick moustache Theo wears to the soft, pastel colours and lighting that make up the palate of the whole film. (Nominated for Production Design, the film lost to the abysmally overdone Great Gatsby). Technology as we know it features strongly, but it is incorporated: free of ugly cables and clunky devises, it presents not an increasingly isolated world of glowing screens but a happier, relaxed and meaningful way of communicating. One scene portrays Theodore walking down the boardwalk past strangers who are engaged in conversations mediated through their earpieces, whether with other humans or their OS’s, is unknown. And frankly, I don’t think it matters: they’re no longer alone.

The question of human relationships in the film depends on how you read Samantha. If you take her as a legitimate girlfriend for Theodore, then what you experience is the bittersweet oscillating of two minds. Her, then, is a film about growing with our partners, even if that opens up the chasm of possibly being out-grown by them as well. It is through Samantha that Theodore comes to accept his divorce to Catherine—with all its poignant flashbacks and crazy, intimate moments. Amy, Theodore’s closest friend, puts it best when she says love is “a socially acceptable form of insanity.” Growing apart—and growing differently—is part of that insanity. Growing apart is just another way of relating, painful as it might be. If you read Samantha as a ‘thing’, as a programmed entity within a computer, the film becomes a sinister commentary on our increasing dependence on machines for remembering, organising, and even relating. It becomes a poorly thought-out work of science fiction.

But that is not what Her aspired to be. The film is, first and foremost, a work of art. Much like Terence Malick’s productions, it does not need to bear in it the reminder of a political world, and doing so would not contribute anything of substance to the plot. Based on Watt’s philosophy, the concern of the film is not about society as a whole, but about being in the moment. Spike Jonze has taken two phenomenal and opposing ideas that have come to be representative of our present age—that of mindfulness, and that of alienation by technology—and married them in a way that produces, if nothing else, a new form of human experience. Samantha teaches Theodore how to be present, here and now. That joy of showing the world to another is a rare experience, if only because we all come with our own beliefs and baggage. It is Theodore’s relationship with his estranged wife, Catherine, that shows us the real value of his relationship with Samantha, when by the end of the film, he writes her a letter:

Dear Catherine, I’ve been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. […] I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that.

When a memory of a person becomes just that—a voice, a glow, a feeling inside you—that memory does not differ from what Samantha was, the way she seemed to come out of everywhere and nowhere at once, filling up a room. Her is a stark portrayal of the rarest and most common of human relationships. Was their relationship ever going to last? No. But did they end up bettered on account of it? I’d say so.

The film’s “soft scepticism” may be “hyper-gentrified” but it did not strike me as part of the project to present a version of the near-future so real that it was cluttered with the stress and noise of everyday life. If the film did contain poverty-stricken suburbs and the effects of the social disease of capitalism, it would not have been able to achieve precisely what it does: tapping into the familiarity of being isolated amongst others. It is a Wattsian view of the world, neither dystopic nor utopic (nor myopic, for that matter). Her was not meant to be a documentary prophesying the effects of technology on modern day lives, but simply a commentary on living in the present. After all, we only know what is real this very moment.

Judyta Frodyma [2] is reading for a DPhil in English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.