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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

It’s not serious…

This is an initial review of Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

18 February

This is an initial review of Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

Loneliness, loss, fear, and guilt are a sample of what is going on in the life of Theodore Twombly (named after the artist Cy Twombly¹ ?), and, to an extent, the film meditates on those emotions, but also, at the same time, engages thoughtfully with AI (artificial intelligence) and what some call The Singularity, which they say will come soon and where there will no longer be a divide between human intelligence and AI : more acutely than with Air Doll (2009), where our focus and our sympathies are solidly with Doona Bae as Nozomi, this treatment of the Pygmalion-type story is more even handed.

Moreover, the scenario interestingly juxtaposes a technical world, where Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) plays a game that projects into the space of his room and, almost as now, everyone walking along is talking to someone else who is not there, with his job. He works for Beautiful Handwritten as a ghost writer for those who want another person to receive a real letter in his or her script (rather than an e-mail) – and we learn more as the film progresses (including that some books are still printed, too).

A familiar enough notion from at least as far back as Shakespeare (let alone various versions of Cyrano de Bergerac, Flaubert (?), or Woody Allen), but here the writing appears, Harry Potter like, directly onto the page from dictation, and, moreover, in script as if the intended writer had written it. One should probably not take for granted what it is that satisfies Theodore in it : he clearly does value what he does, and does not appear to yearn to be any other sort of writer. (He is known to Paul (Chris Pratt) on reception as Letter Writer No. 612, from whom he receives immodest praise, which initially appears to hint at homoeroticism, rather than an unbiased appreciation of his art.)

What we have already contrasted is the notion of what is real and what is a lovingly created fake (for that is how Theodore comes to talk about his work), this in a world where he can be lying in bed awake, select – based on choosing from a sample of messages – a similarly sleepless woman to talk to and, within a minute, be chatting up and having phone sex with a stranger (as it turns out, a rather strange stranger)². On another level, his flat seems to bear continuing witness to the separation that his wife and he have gone through, because there are pine dining chairs facing inwards, as if missing an absent table, and there are books in disarray on the shelves, suggesting that his wife’s and his books had once been integrated, and, without them, there is no cohesion.

In crude terms, the digital world, which puts him in touch with a fellow insomniac, seems more sorted out than the analogue one of life in the flat after Catherine. His occupation, in a bachelor sort of way, is with video-games (where the player has to explore the virtual territory, but not employing a multi-player mode) and looking at the nightscape. (It is Los Angeles, which was beautifully rendered at night in Drive (2011), but melded in some way with Shanghai (which is credited as a location, along with having its own unit).) With Theodore’s job, digital and analogue are more integrated, because the former allows the production of a physical object, even though, as an artefact, it is an illusion.

Enter Samantha, who is no illusion, and who comes into Theodore’s life when he is sold a new ‘operating system’ as a result of a large video display by OS. (Arguably, she / it is an application (some would say ‘app’), not an operating system ?) Neither knows what to expect of the other, and that exploration is the nub of the film – Theodore only seems to know that he does not want something when he has it, as with the date that Samantha encourages him to go on (and which we see at the time, and, afterwards, from his perspective), whereas she does things and presents him with various faits accomplis of increasing audacity (even the acquisition of a body by adoption).

The film evokes all parts of Theodore’s married life with Catherine (Rooney Mara), from which some of his guilt and all of his sense of loss stem, in montages of carefully thought-out snippets. He has the naivety – though also, unlike him, the insight – of the title-character in Lars and the Real Girl (2007) in thinking that Catherine will be pleased for him to hear about Samantha – this tells us how deeply involved he is, that he is telling all the world. For their analogue / digital dating feels daring, as the first gay or lesbian kiss in some long-running serial might have done, and Theodore embraces Paul’s suggestion, on meeting his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen), of a double-date.

Having Scarlett Johannson as the unseen Samantha avoids her physical angularity, which would not complement Phoenix’s own, and allows her voice to float wonderfully and be highly attractive and reflexive. The joy of the film is that Theodore’s and her conversations feel like a real interchange, so one wonders whether it was done with her on set, to take her cues, rather than put in separately. In a sense, she feels more real than Theodore does, because, no matter that we never she her, she jokes, feels, uses inflexions and speaks wise words, to name but a few, and seems to embody life.

The resonant topic of a creature of any sort growing in capacity and in knowledge³ is even made more potent by not having a simulacrum, such as an avatar – instead, we have just the voice, which, by nuance, intonation and what it says, has to convey the sense of discovery and of a remote, yet somehow intimate, other. What the film aims at representing is a variety of experiences of otherness, and, in its course as in its ending, achieves far greater subtlety than films such as, for example, Piercing Brightness or The World’s End (even if they may also aim at other effects).

The main thing that flaws this film, other than it very slightly outstays its welcome through the number and length of episodes towards its end, is Phoenix’s sometimes imprecise diction (as in The Master (2012)), at which times he appears to be speaking without opening his mouth properly, and subtitles would help, if the words are significant.

A very minor defect in a fine performance, though Johannson’s is impressive and probably betters it. (Oh, and, for the fastidious (as Theodore has to be with his writing), the case of the title – unless in answer to the question ‘What do you want ?’…)

More here : The Agent Apsley meditates further on the nature of Theodore...

Epilogue :


¹ IMDb does its usual trick of not knowing what his surname is, throwing one back one one’s own resources…

² Nothing new there, except the interfaces offers direct and immediate connection (when we hear Theodore’s user-name).

³ It is familiar, say, from Agent Smith in the trilogy beginning with The Matrix (1999) (which, in turn, has its roots in Akira (1988) and, amongst other things, what becomes of Tetsuo).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)


pks said...

"this in a world where he can be lying in bed awake, select – based on choosing from a sample of messages – a similarly sleepless woman to talk to and, within a minute, be chatting up and having phone sex with a stranger (as it turns out, a rather strange stranger)"---actually I feel that this idea has been lifted from the film "Logan's Run" (1976). There is a scene where, out of boredom, Logan (Michael York) scans a certain frequency where people are looking for casual sex with strangers (it works by something that looks like teleportation)---this is how he meets the heroine of the film, played by Jenny Agutter. I did think "Her" was an excellent film.

The Agent Apsley said...

Thanks for your comment - I must have seen that film (maybe edited for t.v.) as the synopsis on IMDb and the title seem familiar, but I did not recall the detail. It will be interesting to see how Her fares at the Academy Awards...