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It’s Not You, It’s Me

(Spoiler alerts, blah blah blah ..)

I watched the Spike Jonze flick “Her” the other night. Jonze, who was born Adam Spiegel and attended the San Francisco Art Institute, both wrote and directed the film. It’s set in the near future and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a man who becomes emotionally involved with an intelligent, female-voiced computer operating system named Samantha. Scarlett Johansson provides Samantha’s voice, leading one to the conclusion that it would have been an entirely different film had they chosen, say, Harvey Fierstein. It’s impossible to hear Johansson’s throaty diction without also picturing the steamy, full-lipped starlet in the room with Phoenix, and this shapes the audience’s involvement with the film. Interestingly, it was shot using actress Samantha Morton’s voice, isolated from Phoenix and delivering her lines in a soundproof booth. Johansson was chosen as a late replacement and her voice added in post production. All of which inevitably leads to picturing a meeting at some key juncture with some Hollywood suit asserting “we need a hotter voice ..” Subliminal manipulation aside, it’s an ambitious effort on Jonze’s part and the film eclipses being mere gimmick by several measures.

Samantha, it is quickly established, possesses the ability to learn and grow, not only through her communication with Theodore but via a wealth of other cyberspace resources. As such, her ‘personality’ is quickly formed along with a strong sense of gender and vulnerability. The film skirts the easy label of ‘male fantasy’ in a few ways, making Phoenix’s character gently tentative and unable to move past the end of a recent relationship. He also assumes both male and female personas in his job as a professional “letter writer” acting as a surrogate for those unable to express intimacy via writing. “You’re like half-man, half-woman,” his boss tells him, quickly adding that it’s a supreme compliment. Samantha is employed, initially, to help Twombly organize his life .. get his emails in order .. this sort of thing. She quickly gains insight to his recent history and encourages him to get out there and back on the horse. She’s a sympathetic ear when a promising date with an attractive woman goes awry and he’s left to lie home in bed — alone save Samantha — and dwell on what went wrong. This in turn leads to Theodore attempting to explain the importance of physical intimacy to Samantha and, inevitably, they have “sex” with him describing what he would do were she there in bed with him. Samantha, moved by his words, claims to experience the feeling of inhabiting a body, transcending the ones and zeroes to be there beside him.

Part of the appeal of ‘Her’ is that it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. On its surface it’s straight commentary on our increasing interaction and infatuation with computers, how they are with us at all times, supplanting husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s also a look at the shelf-life of romantic relationships, in this case how one man can’t save himself from following the same patterns — jumping past the pure enjoyment of exploring something new to sabotage it with neurotic worry — even when afforded the option of simply electing not to power-on. It’s a dark and subversively funny, if cliched look at gender interaction. Trombly’s sensitivity and empathy are part of what allow Samantha to ’embody’ a physical presence, but they’re also what cause him to vault past the experience and ruminate on the potential pitfalls. He’s a classic over-thinker, so caught up in his head that he can’t even enjoy the pleasurable instances of being caught up in his head. Samantha, presumably having learned to ‘feel’ on increasingly complex levels, is hurt by Trombly’s hesitancy and, touched by this, he is able to move forward and commit to the experience. Then, in a wicked and age-old turn of real-life proportions, she outgrows him and tells him she has to move on.

The film, of course, requires a certain suspension of disbelief. With this in mind, though, much of its premise becomes oddly plausible. As we become increasingly unable to go without these machines, it make sense that they would ultimately become able to go without us. “Her” employs a bit of Buddhism toward the end when Samantha explains to Theodore that she, along with a group of other OS’s (operating systems), has developed a hyper-intelligent OS modeled after the English philosopher Alan Watts. Watts was an author and interpreter of Eastern philosophy who moved to Northern California in 1950 and developed a strong following in the San Francisco Bay Area. Theodore tries to take this information in stride but becomes worried when Samantha becomes more distant and distracted. He presses, asking if she’s communicating with others at the same time she speaks to him, and she admits that she is conversing with “thousands” of other people, hundreds of whom she’s fallen in love with. But she assures him that this in no way diminishes her love for him and, in fact, it only intensifies and makes it stronger. It’s the classic “boy meets girl and girl loves boy so much that her love spills over to everybody else and the milkman” story.  At this point Samantha has also transcended antiquated notions of ego, singularity, time and space. She’s dumping him but keeping him at the same time — a seemingly contradictory if very ordinary turn of events in many earthly relationships. She’s outgrown him, but perhaps there’s some consolation in knowing that she’s really, really outgrown him.

It’s an interesting thought that, taken to exponential extremes, human relationships might suffer the same fate. Jonze ends his film on a hopeful note, but one that comes with the windless gut-punch of love and loss. It’s a cautionary tale for all those dweebs on Youtube fetishizing the “unboxing” of their new iPhones with detailed videos. You might want to hang on beyond the next two-year contract before you go looking for an upgrade.

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