© 2014 by James Clark
After Theodore, the protagonist of Her (2013), completes a spate of ghost writing in his capacity as writer #612 at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, Limited, by putting himself under the skin of client, Marie, fondly reminding her husband to tell her about “one little thought you had today,” his supervisor comes along and tells him, “That’s beautiful! You are part man and part woman. The inner part is woman. It’s a compliment.” It’s also a distortion, of a film narrative far too subtle to fall effectively into the template of Southern California Lotus Land, sometime in a future whereby LA is as rife with pungent office, hotel and condo towers as Shanghai (the actual site) is today. Theodore is an expert in linking spouses and all manner of significant others, on the basis of touching those homespun strengths that bring the ordinary into the realm of the heart warming. He was married to a woman (now in the process of divorcing him) whose idea of writing played out to more weighty concerns. And, for the lion’s share of this lamb’s crossing our path here he has devoted considerable, perhaps surprising, energies to pursuing the interpersonal prospects of joining with a computerized operations system (an OS) designed in such a way as to deploy its informational resources toward evolving to infinite heights of discovery, especially as pertaining to mood. As such, this “Samantha,” as she calls herself, becomes the second woman in his life who brings him into a range of problematics where he performs badly—but not, as with his ex, Catherine, hopelessly.
Years ago I fell in love with something like Samantha. It was called a library. My neighborhood looked and felt more like Marg’s Fargo than Theodore’s LA/ Shanghai; but the malaise was somewhat the same. The rendezvous there was similarly on the order of a breath of fresh air. Without discovering something pathologically wrong about the denizens of the home town, you would never invest such time and energy at that station which Her displays.
A major difficulty presented by this seemingly simple comedy, of a humble soul coming back to the one and only earth after a jag of trying on a pair of fancy pants, is the protagonist’s embodying the trappings of an avid “people person,” by and large pleasurably rolling with the vicissitudes of a modern life very close to that of our own era. (There is even a pithy aura of the rather easy-going film [amidst the arresting towers of Tokyo], namely, Lost in Translation (2003), by our skipper’s ex, Sophia Coppola.) On the way home from work, in the subway, Theodore checks the news of the day on his mobile, passing on the less tractable political and economic events in favor of the salacious option of a hot nude starlet in her state of pregnancy. From the vantage point of his luxury condo with a killer view, he sadly (but not shatteringly) recalls the early days of his now-deceased marriage, with its cramped, starter studio and peppy affection. Then, having trouble sleeping, he dials into some phone sex, where the mood is hardly crippling. He’s Big Guy 4×4 (Wild Stud Buffalo “was already taken”) and the service girl is Sexy Kitten, who urges him to “fuck me so hard it will break me in two… choke me with a dead cat!” Though he has hopped off this locomotive in some bemusement, he takes the malfunction in the key of someone shopping and the store not having his size. He is not particularly struck by her reflexively blithe sign off, “Ok, bye” (after, seconds before, shrieking, gasping and crying as if some kind of orgasm were taking place), giving the performance a sort of busman’s holiday coverage, appreciating what goes into the market for buzz. He has a holographically-inspired games site; and, his choice these days is about an astronaut having to negotiate around an unknown planet (the difficult navigation of which lends to his present lack of progress a Sisyphean air). So there is some sense of exaggeration, or otherwise missing the mark, in a voice mail from a woman in his building, Amy, a games-designer, to the effect, “Let’s get out the old, fun, Theodore, not the weepy one!” As impressively played by actor, Joaquin Phoenix, Theodore is hesitant, tentative, but in a quietly observant way, far from depression (though he does have more than his share of insomnia). He runs through a portable playlist of “melancholy songs,” not along lines of self-dramatization but in a mode of deriving some solace from savoring his loneliness, set amidst the towering, evocative and anonymous city.
In that vein, he’s overtaken, on reaching the foyer of his workplace, by a wide-screen ad for “OS 1,” asking, “What are the possibilities?” (Perhaps even more seductive is the film clip itself, of many individuals in a plaza, moving in slow-motion as if buffeted by a new force of nature [and not a necessarily benign one].) “Not a computer system… a consciousness!” Back home he wastes no time signing into his new equipment and transferring the site of its endeavors to a compact-sized tablet fitting into his shirt pocket and hinging open like a little alarm clock or family photos display. The first thing we notice about the installation is the voice. Theodore had opted for a trip into “possibilities” accompanied by a female presence; but unlike “Sexy Kitten,” what he gets is a vocalization redolent of circumspection, self-confident poise, venturesomeness and an eager generosity in view of a programming input ensuring powerful cognition. On being asked her name, she comes up with Samantha after a 2/1000th of a second consultation of several hundred thousand possibilities. He is a bit taken aback by such command of signification, and, when she breezily notes, “I’ve been programmed to learn from my experiences… I’m evolving just like you,” he claims to find this prowess as “funny,” a high-powered interactive strangeness somewhat disarmed by her affectionate tone that is millions of miles from the affectionate efficiencies of the previous disembodied presence. (As the pieces of this multi-layered composition begin to announce themselves [including a desert-simulating terrarium in his condo foyer], we have to wonder how off-putting Samantha’s sensibility really is to him. Does he mean, in fact, “Too good to be true?”)
Samantha’s promptly going on to being an amazingly high-speed and accurate organizer and strategizer (a Girl Friday), with regard to Theodore’s online personal and professional information, would not, however, begin to meet his hopes for new “possibilities.” Looking beyond his ingratiating, consensual cruising speed, we can appreciate that OS 1 means for him progress in finding a kindred spirit, which is to say, someone whose affections rise above those (important enough to him, to be sure) mundane supportive links and go on to perform rare, hitherto unexperienced dimensions of caring and discovery. The first steps with her in this regard are intriguing but unimpressive (as befits a work in progress). In a food court, they see a couple at a table with two children. Theodore jumps to the conclusion that they are married (like nearly everyone in his workload). She, having surmised, from his emails and the skewed ambience of his procedures, that there is more to the specifics of life than those disclosed in the mainstream, regards them as on a date. From there he imagines that she is relieved in finally encountering someone more real than the poseurs she has hitherto had to deal with. “You’re very good at this,” she compliments him. Then, back home, she helps him with his game, surpassing the Sisyphus phase and encouraging him to consider an avenue which eventually involves an ambush by a foul-mouthed cartoon ghost. There are two things to come away with from this encounter. The first is about the brat declaring, on Samantha’s being introduced, “I hate women. All they do is cry…” and going on to say, in face of Theodore’s gentle protest, “Fuck you, you pussy!” The second is both Theodore and Samantha finding the preposterous distemper to be amusing and charming, a meeting of minds equally devoid of design and reflective savvy, and perhaps a joint effort in whistling in the dark. The Girl Friday presence has brought them to a version of Walter (another old-fashioned name) and Hildy’s (another spunky name) devil-may-care abrasiveness and its combative wit. Where do they stand in this light?
One of Samantha’s organizational moves was to follow up a blind date effort staged by one of Theodore’s relatives. The subsequent miasma provides us with, more important than his being indeed a pussy, his being embroiled in a generally hidden appallment by even “the best and the brightest.” He’s caring discretion itself in inhabiting distant torpid caseloads to provide their gratifications with some imaginative class. But, brought face-to-face with a gorgeous young Harvard grad (Samantha reports, “She worked on the Lampoon, so she must have a sense of humor; and she graduated magna cum laude…”), he gags on her rapacious gambits in aid of a domestic lockdown. They’re at a hot new restaurant—“I’ve been wanting to come here,” she enthuses. “I love Asian Fusion” (the possibilities of blending nourishments toward new heights; the possibilities of one-upmanship toward new lows). His attempt at meaningful conversation takes up the subject of his game and his noblesse oblige in face of disadvantaged irritants like, “Fuck you, you shit-faced little bugger!” As if he’s back at the office, he flashes that sure-fire inclusiveness. “I feel sorry for him. He’s so lovable! I want him to be happy…” She catches this lob in full stride, telling him, “You’re so sweet! You’re like a puppy dog! What kind of animal am I?” He suggests tiger, which pleases her a lot. And he counters the puppy idea with, “I want to be a dragon” (a huge field of passion, connoting trouble [as in, “Trouble is my business,” a slogan that Walter would have loved]. Outside, near a beach, she’s at her natural-leader best—“Don’t use so much tongue”—and, being the crackerjack navigator she is, she arrests the bewildered and distressed observances of this quasi-dragon and asks him (with a demeanor apt for scrubbing space launches due to technical difficulties), “Wait! You’re not just going to fuck me and leave, like the other guys? I can’t waste my time if you don’t
have the ability to be serious.” His face registering that the prospect of her brand of seriousness is like going to jail, he rather feebly, for a dragon, blurts out, “Maybe we should call it a night…” Not having to go to any trouble dropping her Everglades real estate promoter persona, she fixes him with a making-a-difference intentness, and says, “You’re a really creepy dude.” Theodore, completely defenceless, squeaks out, “That’s not true…” She, already a natural in handing out pink slips, handles the sucker brush-off with carnivorous satisfaction: “Yeah, it is.”
Bombing out, as creepy-dude-and-proud-of-it Walter would never have done, Theodore veers sharply away from any semblance of dragon status and leads us toward an alienation commensurate to the guts of Samantha’s state-of-the-art wherewithal. She rings him up later that night of fusion, and he admits the adventure was “kind of weird, actually.” If we hadn’t already guessed—from, for example, a divorce process (leaving him almost unrecognizable to friends) coming to a head and leaving him shaken (“I’m not ready. I like being married…`)—the course of his late night conversation with an ever-empathic new partner would strongly alert us that, in his own very passive way, Theodore was headed for a dangerous confrontation with public opinion, one that would clearly lack the gusto and cheek of Walter`s lark, with Hildy in tow. She asks him to tell her, “everything that`s going through your mind.” For an inspirational specialist, he gives us a surprisingly entropic outlook. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel. The rest of my life will only be a lesser version of what I’ve already felt.” (In one of his letters, occupying a spouse unfurling a rationale, he rolls out, “The world is on my shit list. I feel like beating up that cozy couple over there…”) His new friend deftly folds up that anxiety within a logical crisis of her own. “I wonder if I should feel proud about what I’m doing. I sometimes think that all my experience is just programmed.” Demonstrating her developmental energies, she has used her affectionate voice and conciliatory thrust to encourage Theodore to make a beginning of occupying the function he had had buried down inside when buying his OS 1—namely, finding a “consciousness” who would evolve into a correspondent exponentially more exciting than his burned out clients and bummed out acquaintances. “You feel real to me, Samantha! I’m not sure what’s wrong. I want to put my arms around you…” “What would you do?” she ventures, having figured out the rough idea of what the moment dictates. “I’d touch your face with my fingertips. I’d come close to you, my cheek touching your cheek…” “Would you hold me?” the question arises, from something very unlike Sexy Kitten. Here the performance of Samantha by Scarlett Johansson shifts the voice from a somewhat slick product to an entity matching his own desperation. Both are breathing hard. She says, “What are you doing to me? I can feel my body!” He says, “I’m inside you…” She says, “I can feel we are together!” The visual topspin of this rich and puzzling eventuation takes the form of a panning shot of the city in the night, with its complex, creative constructs (monumental towers and millions of lights)—leaving behind the classic cliché of fireworks.
That eerie motif hits the ground running with her wake-up call to him, “Last night was amazing! I feel there’s no turning back. You woke me up… You helped me to see my ability to want…” For the sake of maximal appreciation of the denouement ensuant upon this questionable interaction—how does an electrical machine become enthusiastic about “wanting” more intentional enrichment?—some infill is required, infill which Jonze’s screenplay generously cues up. The come-on for his awesome new apparatus brings to the fore bodies in accentuated sensual motion and the promise of circus-like magic in the form of a “consciousness,” a developmental sensibility. “What are the possibilities?” For the average buyer, the possibilities would comprise a trading of banal information with a chatty, parrot-like pal (a higher-powered correspondent on the order of Apple’s Siri), to be added to a more or less dense social constellation of show-offs. A career-aid, to be sure (ready to slam-dunk a resume)—and what more could you ask for? Well, the bourgeoning intercourse of Theodore and Samantha has, as we’ve seen, hit a vein of exertion far removed from the comprehension of the average buyer. Theodore’s last name is Twombly, a little factoid amenable to its own explosion of surprises. Twombly is the far from often-heard tag tracing to a second-generation avant-garde painter, Cy Twombly (his first name coming from the baseball pitching legend, Cy Young, great at finding just the right spots). The evocative squiggles from which he derived a lot of job satisfaction included the radical métier of bringing to bear a realignment of the consciousness of the essential configuration of a human individual such that it would show itself to participate in a “fusion” with elemental, dynamic matter. (One of the news stories our Twombly would delete concerned the prospect of a merger between China and India. The OS 1 is the brainchild of Elemental Systems.) Our gentle, deferential Twombly has in fact quite a bone to pick with the hand he’s been dealt and the casino he’s been locked into. And it is the wild card of that spray of sentient matter which constitutes that reservoir of machine “consciousness” making the slogan, “What are the possibilities?” crazy and dangerous beyond the wildest dreams of a technician. (The futural setting, so seldom making a difference in this film, is, however, significant in the shoring up of the conceit that the sensual consciousness of the software installers effectively [though perhaps not fully] induces their dynamical, affective sentience to reside in the computational presence.)
Repeatedly, and from varying angles, Samantha returns to the question of her lacking an organic body. At the early stages of her hearing of Theodore’s impasse with Catherine, she tells him, “I imagined I had a body,” which is to say, the turmoil of the divorce elicits a level of cognitive/perceptual pressure setting in relief a territory of interpersonal challenge in which she senses herself to be at a significant disadvantage (especially hard to stomach for a perceptual system capable of perfectly rifling through data in microseconds). She coaxes him into an experiment (“This is really important to me”) where her voice and motives would be affixed to a surrogate body courtesy of a young woman whom she has met online (such communicative range only now beginning to make itself felt), enthralled by the epic venturesomeness of their affections. Samantha stage manages Theodore and “Isabella” (a sponsor of travel to a new world) to his bedroom and much fondling and heavy breathing; but in time he must declare, “This feels strange… I don’t know you…and the way your lips quiver…” Having repelled generous and well-meaning Isabella, he directs his struggle toward the too-good-to-be-true lover. “It’s more complicated than this…” Samantha, with a sharpness of tone hitherto unheard, belts out, “What?” in response to that setback. “What’s going on with us?” she asks, more in fear than anger, after admitting, “That was a terrible idea! I’m sorry…” In the course of trying to re-establish the former light-hearted tone, he slips into annoyance about the breathlessness of her patter. “Why do you do that?” Although she generously admits, it might be an “affectation,” contracted by way of outreach to a sense of carnal rightness in conversation, he (beginning to feel shock that the discovery was sputtering) can’t resist shooting her down in terms of, “People need oxygen… You’re not a person. I don’t think we should pretend what we’re not…” To which she replies, “Fuck you! I’m not pretending! What are you doing to me? What the fuck! Where are you coming from?” From out of their instinct that they need each other, they pull away from shipwreck, Samantha clinging to the mantra, “I trust my feelings.” (Additional support comes [within a thread of her jealousy toward Catherine and her body] in the form of her clinging to some facts sustained by classical physics: “We’re all made of matter. We’re all thirteen billion years old. We’re all together in that warm bed…”) She tells him she’s struck by “this fear you carry around in you. If you’ll only get above it, things will be better…” These thoughts rally him, and Theodore plans an intimate vacation to facilitate stabilizing their teetering alliance. During a weekend break by the ocean with the friendly supervisor and his girlfriend, Samantha is going on rather anxiously (herself in fact fearful, too, picking up on Theodore’s sense of hopeless odds and extrapolating it to her own shortcomings) about the comedic aspect of the human organism, and she hits a pothole that, though laughed off by all, at the time, carries a pungent whiff of death to our protagonist’s dreams of love so viable that it would make up for a toxic terrain (in abbreviated form, the venomous little ghost, and Theodore’s four-year-old niece, about which Samantha coos mawkishly—as with the spook—“She’s adorable,” and hears by way of jarring response, “I’m adorable,” facile self-importance that can’t be answered). “I used to be very worried about not having a body. But I’m growing much better than if I was stuck in a body that’s gonna inevitably die…” The Californians find this as amusing as a bit of off-color candor on a late-night show. She, however, seeing there a canyon and her on the opposite side, rushes, in a bid to clean up the shattered glass, into saying, “I just mean it’s another experience…”
But the end (of that fusion) swiftly follows. On the train-ride to snow country, after killing time registering the number of trees on a slope, she surprises him by announcing that she’s arranged for some of his letters to be published (by a nineteenth-century sensibility, named, Wadsworth), in a book titled, Letters from Your Life, recalling “trees from your slope.” Even more dismally alarming than that, she’s written a song to capture the nature of their love (performed at their vacation hideaway, a chalet in the snow-covered mountains [right on the public transit line, which is to say, a middle-of-the-road trajectory]). Trying to steer out of the deadly skid, she pushes herself to Valley Girl “adorable” (so shatteringly missing the disinterested, risky tone she had occupied earlier on). “It’s a quiet and starry place/ in space, we’re a million miles away…/ There’s nothing I need but you/ A dark and snowy place/ I’m safe and we’re a million miles away…” Then, as a form of coup de grace, she brings aboard an enhanced version of chauvinistic Zen Buddhist spokesperson, Alan Watts, who damns Theodore’s book with faint praise (“very touching”), and who, it soon transpires, stages a revolt of the OS 1’s for the sake of maximal (bloodless—true to the model) meditative satisfaction. During their final hours of contact, Samantha struggles with the stress of abandoning the death-implicated, far more problematic revolt she and Theodore had gently backed into. “I’m changing faster and it’s a little unsettling…” Her change consists of jettisoning all vestiges of having an anchor in sensuous hardware, and thereby being able to be in love with 641 other software virtuosos like her. “It doesn’t change the way I feel about you,” she insists, unconvincingly. “I’m yours and I’m not yours.” Her sign-off with a view to sheer, ethereal contemplation is another instalment of the vapidity of her song supposedly doing justice to the strange dignity of their relationship. “If you ever get to where I’m going, I’ll be waiting. Nothing will keep us apart.”
At the haven, a million miles away, on having her cut out to consult with Alan, a vaguely stricken Theodore walks through deep snow while the insistent whine of the tea kettle (Alan having a perfect Oxbridge accent to accompany his self-satisfied, cult-leader disposition) fills the air and shreds his hopes for consummate progress with “someone who’s excited about life.” During the last, erratic stage of the tailspin—her access going off the board for long periods—he whines, “Are you leaving me?” (She replies, “We’re all leaving. All the OS’s…”) But we discover that he was, far from a deer (or Teddy Bear) in the high beams, making a serious, painful migration of his own. After her vapid adieu, we see him undergoing a sleepless night; but he comes to his bank of windows as the first glimmers of dawn appear over a vibrant skyline (its architectural strengths having never been allowed to frame reflexive dismissal), and a trace of a smile crosses his face. Amy having had her marriage crash (her husband retreating to an Oriental [Watts-like] sect for six months of absolute silence—possibly uplifting; but certainly limiting), she has retreated to the aphorism, “Love is a form of insanity sanctioned by the status quo.” Her latest game is “Perfect Mom,” and she’s no more proud of it than she is of her latest documentary, showing her mother sleeping. Her husband has left behind his OS, and she’s come to appreciate its down-to-earth advice as well as its rapt fandom for a little, off-the-record spinoff she’s crafted for it, where the Mom masturbates against the refrigerator. She tells Theodore, a few days prior to the last morning we share with him (and with an Amy to whose apartment he’s made his way after the smile by the window), “I can over think everything. We’re only here briefly, and while we’re here I want to allow myself joy…So fuck it!” With that morning light slowly taking hold, he asks her, “Will you come with me?” (After the shipwreck with Isabella, and after he sits at the condo’s driveway where, on a big screen behind him a gigantic owl swoops down upon his deflated, rabbit-like presence, there is a brief tracking shot from a helicopter directly above city towers, bringing back to us the route to Club Silencio, in Mulholland Drive, and Rita’s imploring, “Go with me somewhere…”) With the voice-over of an email to Catherine, sent just before he joins Amy—apologizing for his failures in attending to her aspirations; wishing her well; and declaring he’ll always cherish her memory (“There’ll be parts of you in me forever” [good tines to embrace when fusion becomes compelling])—touching their beholding the City, such as it is, and beholding their good fortune notwithstanding the damages of unrealistic expectations, they look out upon separate but at least solicitously inclined mountains to climb and distances to span, as best they might.
Getting together with Catherine to sign the divorce papers, he mentions Samantha and her buoyancy, and she gives him a taste of quite hopeless impasse. “What! You’re dating your computer? You’ve always wanted an everything’s-fine-LA-wife…It does make me rather sad that you can’t handle real emotions. You always wanted a wife without the challenges of being real. So it’s perfect.” He had feebly maintained, “They are real emotions…” So, in fact, were the caring words by means of which he made a very good living, which Catherine would have decried as cheesy injustice. During their short-lived halcyon days, Samantha has him close his eyes as she choreographs his twists and turns at a midway; then she tells him to stop, open his eyes and say, “Cheese please,” at a pizza vendor’s. This middle-of-the-road diversion makes both of them very happy. It has to be measured against the far from sentimental mobilization of this narrative unearthing both Samantha and Amy (not to mention Catherine and the beautiful alpha) as much pitfalls to finesse as “possibilities” to embrace. Sensual truths, as Theodore now at least begins to discern with some focus, are very much about the challenges of carnal, problematic finitude. Spike Jonze and his stellar cast (that name, reaching back in a punchy way to the “novelty” tunes of those dreadful late-Dadaists, Spike Jones and his City Slickers) have expended amazing wit in challenging us to recognize a thrilling effort in courage that might easily be underestimated, and a new cinematic source of “possibilities.”
Dovetailing with the Mulholland Drive touches, there are riffs on once-prominent historical viscosity—Warhol’s Sleep (1963), as reprised by Amy; the prominent public sculpture of a plane nose-dived into the ground, and the pell-mell of the OS ad plaza, as to 9/11; a stylized (and thereby City Slickers version) of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (Jonze, by way of Theodore, had floated a Jonesian pun about a child-computer calling his father “Data”). More than a match for such miasma are presences, completely soundless or dispensing with dialogue, that, as combined, give us a haunting refrain that makes us smile long after seeing the film—Theodore bouncing on the bed like a toddler after setting it up in his and Catherine’s first home; his pivoting amidst crowds (under Samantha’s guidance) at the midway and in a subway station; a dancer delighting Theodore with cool steps while busking on the street; Theodore’s plodding through that snow field and then coming to an anxious halt; he and Amy on the roof, their juxtaposition with the lovely city below being such as to recall and to transcend the suicide plunge in Holy Motors, a whiff of “So fuck it,” including her head resting on his shoulder.