Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Me and HER

Most people don't know this about me -- not because I've made a secret of it (I'm not ashamed or embarrassed or anything like that; it's certainly not the stigma that it used to be), it just rarely comes up -- but I met my wife online.

It wasn't through eharmony or some other dating website, but through the Internet Movie Database. That's right. Years ago when I worked at the video store in Oregon, I spent a lot of time on the IMDB message boards discussing movies with total strangers. Amidst all the various conversations, Kristin and I each found the other fun and interesting. We became Myspace friends (that's how long ago this was), corresponded individually and subsequently graduated to talking on the phone. Eventually we became really good friends (chatting sometimes for up to eight hours straight). I looked forward to receiving a private message from her or hearing my phone ring and knowing it was her. After several years of this, the big step came when I flew out to Indiana where she was attending school and spent a week with her. It was a great week and it cemented something that I had known already for a while... I loved her. Somewhere along the way I fell in love with her (and she with me, thankfully) and within a couple years of that trip we were married and have been ever since. We'll be celebrating five years this August.

I mention my unusual courtship to illustrate that I am only too familiar with the phenomenon of being attracted to someone without ever actually having met them in person. I had a few photos of Kristin but otherwise she was a personality without a body, a voice over the phone, a collection of words on a screen... and yet I still loved her. After we became a couple we still had to stay separated for months at a time as we lived 2,000 miles apart, so our interactions over the phone became the sum and substance of our relationship. We did things "together" (watching the same movie on DVD simultaneously, going for a walk somewhere, etc) but, aside from a weekend every few months where one of us would fly out to see the other, we never occupied the same physical space.

It is for this reason that the movie Her hits uncomfortably close to home for me.

For those who may not already know, Spike Jonze's Her takes place in a near (and very plausible) future society where technology has become so advanced that it has drained much of the humanity out of humankind. It is a world both stunningly beautiful and eerily cold. Filmed in Shanghai, the architecture is amazing (and gorgeously rendered by the superb cinematography of Let the Right One In's Hoyt Van Hoytema) but it's sterile. There is no garbage, seemingly no crime, no hint of the messiness of our common everyday experience and, I must admit, having seen so many dystopian futures in movies, it's a refreshing change (visually the film resembles Andrew Niccol's GATTACA, but with a completely different ominous underbelly). Amongst these flawless towers of glass and concrete, a mass of human beings move in and out, completely isolated from one another. I noticed that in every crowd shot, although we have no sound, people's lips are constantly moving indicating that they are dictating something, talking to another person or, as we will later see, interacting with their operating systems. The story of Her could easily be told -- with very little alteration -- about any one of these people, but it chooses to focus on Theodore (no last name) played by a sweet but pathetic Joquain Phoenix. Theodore is a very sensitive yet socially awkward man who works for an organization that composes hand-written letters on behalf of other people (the term "hand-written" being a misnomer since they are printed on a computer and simply designed to look inscribed... which, of course, is consistent with one of the film's main themes about simulation replacing reality). Theodore's letters are among the company's most emotional and heartfelt, but his love life outside of work is a wreck as he is in the process of divorcing his wife of many years. Theodore purchases a newly invented operating system that is actually sentient (a "female" entity that dubs herself Samantha and who sounds a lot like Scarlett Johanssen) and soon forms an attachment to it/her. Interestingly, that attachment is returned by Samantha and soon love blossoms between them. However, as I learned myself from falling in love with a disembodied voice, difficulty soon follows as both members become dissatisfied with the nature of the relationship and want... more.

The conceit is a simple but brilliant one. Similar concepts have been explored before but in my experience not with quite the same brutal honesty and startling vulnerability that Her does. Some have likened it to Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (another melancholy sci-fi love story) and the comparison is apt, but I was actually reminded more of a different film, a strange but soulful little work called Lars and the Real Girl where Ryan Gosling plays another sensitive but awkward loner who forms a "relationship" with a blow-up doll and his whole community, out of sympathy for him, participates in the act. Both films focus on unusual romances between lonely men and the objects (and I emphasize the word objects) of their affection. Both premises seem like potential fodder for some pretty outrageous comedy but in fact neither film is especially funny... nor is trying to be. Although they certainly have their moments (one such sequence being Theodore's phone sex encounter with a bizarrely disturbed woman -- hilariously voiced by Kristen Wiig -- early in the film*), their general tone instead is one of sadness. They seem to be lamenting the absurd lengths to which human beings will go to simply form some kind of a "connection" that feels meaningful and they are posing the question of whether such connections are even possible the more reliant upon technology we become (i.e. as things move further away from the real and toward the virtual).

(*Note: The disastrous phone sex sequence is contrasted by a later scene where Theodore has sex with Samantha and it is a much sweeter, more intimate encounter. Jonze signals the difference by cutting to a black screen as we simply hear Theodore and Samantha "copulating." It both respects the characters (giving them their "privacy") and also equalizes them in that they both become mere voices in that moment.)

I should probably confess up front that outside of that amusing Siri commercial with Marty Scorsese ("Is that Rick.....? Where's Rick?" "*HERE'S RICK.*" "Nah, that's not Rick."), I know virtually nothing about anthropomorphized operating systems. That probably makes me the ideal audience for this film as I have friends in computer programming who have serious issues with it. In my mind the verisimilitude of the artificially intelligent OS is somewhat beside the point. The OS essentially serves as a metaphor, a placeholder for whatever entity we decide to invest ourselves in emotionally. It may require more imagination at certain times, but I was surprised at how much Her suggests the activity of loving someone/thing takes place in our own heads. While watching it I was reminded of the Scottish philosopher David Hume who held that we are unable to make direct contact with (and therefore have no actual knowledge of) reality but we can only make contact with our own ideas (which are derived from impressions formed by sense perception). I began to wonder the same thing about love. When we love someone, are we really loving them or are we just loving the idea of them that exists in our own mind? If the latter, then the degree to which my version of them corresponds to the actual them depends on how much I am willing to change myself to accommodate them. A film like Her manifests that question in an exaggerated but very provocative way.

Of course, none of these ambitions would mean anything if the film weren't splendidly produced. Spike Jonze's thoughtful writing and confident direction, the aforementioned visuals, the performances by the actors (both Phoenix and Johanssen do phenomenal work) and the bittersweet music score are all top shelf and make the movie's ideas all that more potent.

Although it took me well into the next year before I saw it, I am tempted to agree with those who call Her the best picture of 2013 (my previous pick being Rick Linklater's Before Midnight, another film about the various difficulties in long-term relationships). I was pleasantly surprised at how much it took the various positives and negatives associated with love (the joys, the miseries, the pettiness, the selfishness, the neuroses, the sacrifices, etc) and put them on the screen in an extremely powerful and evocative way. It made me uncomfortable at times. It was unsettling, but it was a very revealing look at human nature and, not least of all, it made me very grateful for the love I do have in my own life... at least, I think I love my wife. I don't think that I love only the "idea" of her that I've created in my own mind, an idea that first formed back when she was just an anonymous poster on IMDb and which got a bit more nuanced as she became a voice on the phone and eventually a flesh-and-blood person I could hang out with. Maybe I don't actually love Kristin. Maybe I am just, in a way, loving myself.

*thinks for a moment*

No, I think Hume was wrong. I don't love the idea of my wife. I love her... and I loved Her.


  1. That's great, Damian. I'm looking forward to how this hit homes with HER.

  2. Your review has interested me and mom to want to see HER!

  3. It's a strange little film and it requires a suspension disbelief enough to accept an artificially intelligent operating system, but it's definitely worth seeing.