An app built for two
The premise of Spike Jonze's Her--a lonely man named Theodore Twombly (who sounds bizarrely like a story by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) falls in love with his operating system--seems to arouse interest in certain members of the audience, mild-to-intense distaste in others. But more on that later.
Hoyt van Hoytema's muted cinematography softens the hard edges and bright colors of some of Los Angeles and Shanghai's more futuristic locations (LA for most of the interiors, Shanghai for many of the exteriors); the sound recording seems to have been done with a microphone wrapped in wool, and there are times when Jonze drops the sound entirely in favor of Arcade Fire's ethereal music. It's the future--maybe five, ten years from now--but for all the accessories and architecture and technology on show the whole thing could be taking place inside Theodore's head.
Jonze intensifies this feeling by shooting Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, in a totally unguarded performance) mostly in huge closeups, catching every twitch of his brow, every curl of his lips (Jonze ruins--complicates?--the overall impression by gluing a Groucho Marx mustache on the lip: same time you feel for him, you want to pull off that 'stache and drop it in formaldehyde). His visage isn't so much shoved at us as it is a constant presence: a supermoon, a satellite inescapably close, looming over the horizon.
Then there's her--Scarlett Johansson's voice as Samantha, Theodore's operating system. She's got the breathy, excited style of delivery of a Marilyn Monroe, coupled with a child prodigy's insatiable curiosity and fearless way of asking questions; she also has a loud, horsey laugh that if anything makes her all the more accessible (Monroe with a horselaugh!), all the more endearing. The choice of Johansson and her vocal performance in this film is yet another interesting issue--but again, more later.
It's poignant; after all is said and done, I found myself moved. I see what a majority of critics have found in this film about the unlikelier possibilities of love, about the impossibility of love. I thought Phoenix's interpretation a convincing portrait of a reasonably intelligent, moderately sensitive, unutterably lonely man, and--well, I could relate. I knew where he comes from, what he feels, why he does what he does.
In a way Jonze is putting our inner selves in touch with his inner self. The aforementioned Johansson wasn't Jonze's first choice; Samantha Morton was the original voice of Samantha (aha!), was later replaced in postproduction. Interesting to note (I'm hardly the first to do so) that Johansson starred in Jonze's ex-wife Sofia Coppola's breakout hit Lost in Translation, playing a young woman (reportedly Coppola herself), trying to maintain a passionless marriage; here she's the object of desire of Jonze surrogate Theodore, who in turn is recovering from a failed relationship. Was the last-minute choice of Johanssen Jonze's belated recognition of the personal nature of the material? Is Jonze like Coppola (presumably) trying to grapple with marital issues on the big screen? Can side-by-side screenings of both titles by titillated fans be far off?
But there's more to it than just relationships. Talking to people about the film, I find (keeping in mind my findings are strictly anecdotal) that more men than women respond positively to this picture, that not a few critics have found the story misogynist. The way Samantha is cast and the way Johansson plays her, you can't help but think she's playing a male fantasy figure, down to her desperate (and heartrendingly pathetic, not to mention disturbingly comic) attempts to please Theodore, especially sexually. Is Her slanted to appeal mainly to male audiences? I doubt if Slate's Dana Stevens or The New York Times' Manohla Dargis would agree, and yet I remain uncomfortable in my admiration.
It does make me feel better that Jonze's film is, beyond the love story, valid science fiction--that the film fairly rigorously, fairly extensively speculates on how a truly living artificial intelligence might act, and feel, and (above all) evolve. At least in the way Samantha surprises and dismays and (in the end) outgrows Theodore I can assuage my guilt over the (ostensibly sexist) pleasure I feel, watching the film.
Or am I looking at the issue the wrong way? Should, as I suggested, twin bills be instituted, wife's work followed by husband's (or vice versa, or screening concurrently?)? Or should we look for a sequel--Him, starring (who else?) Scarlett Johanssen, directed by Sofia Coppola, with voice by, I don't know, Benedict Cumberbatch? Who knows?
Noah Berlatsky in an article in Salon compares Jonze's film to the works of Philip K. Dick--in particular, Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later turned by Ridley Scott into Blade Runner), about a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard hired to hunt down seven renegade androids--and yes he has a point: Jonze's is a simplification of Dick's theme, the blurred line between human and otherwise; where Jonze makes everyone's consciousness (including Samantha's) contingent on Theodore's, Dick questions the validity of Deckard's point of view constantly: from a woman's; from an android's; from a 'chickenhead's' (insensitive term, but Dick's use of the term underlined J.S. Isidore's outcast status), even from a fellow bounty hunter suspected of being an android.
I differ in not having as big a problem with the relatively benign future Jonze proposes--in Dick's the world is seriously underpopulated and life of any kind is highly valued--I'd put the latter's vision at an extreme dystopian end, and argue that there's room for plenty more, even those not as grim and grimy.
Interesting that Berlatsky calls Jonze's film threatening: "a future in which we are all...buried in that one guy’s mildly quirky, eminently predictable dream." Dick has actually imagined that future as well, in the far less comical, far more nightmarish The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Which I'd love to see realized onscreen--but maybe not by Jonze.
First published on Businessworld, 2.27.14