Monday, March 3, 2014

Her (2013)

The hype about this movie is misleading. It suggests the plot is about a man who falls in love with his computer and, unfortunately, may cause some to skip seeing it, assuming it is nothing more. It's really about relationships: the way we fall in love, fall apart, cause hurt, get hurt, heal. It explores the way two people grow, outgrow and accommodate their union, examining several couples. The fact that one character, in one pairing, happens to be without a body is inconsequential in the end. Yes, she's a voice without a face, but that just gives us a clearer line of vision. We only see Theodore, which makes it easier to understand the different roles the same individual can play in a duo, the alternate dynamics. First he's the see, then the saw. The trick is finding the balance. Leveling love. Her is about that need. The computer premise is only a firewall, because this film is more realistic and human than most you'll see.

Theodore is a bespoke greeting card writer. He's given data about his customers and then writes a custom card that references their history, personalities and even their physical features. He's known some of his clients for years, since their first date, their son's birth. So, when he writes a message from the husband to the wife or a graduation message to a beloved son, it sounds authentic and personal, because it is. In a sense, Theodore does know the people for whom he writes. Are these cards lazier than a trip to the Hallmark store? At Hallmark, you choose a pre-written message, but at least your selection takes thought and care. When you hire someone to create a "heartfelt" message for you, as intimate and specific as it is, doesn't it emphasize the fact that you not only didn't write it yourself, but gave a stranger access to your most private moments, so that he could do it for you? It's not clear whether the card recipients realize that the cards weren't written by their own loved ones.

As he works, we see Theodore speaking into a microphone and his words appear in handwriting on the screen. He prints out actual cards, not typewritten pages or email messages. It's very possible that the people who receive think they came directly from the person they know. But then again, Theodore sometimes writes for both husband and wife. Those who give those cards must recognize it, when those are the same type of cards they get. Furthermore, as we learn more about this movie, we see that it's not about deception. The struggle is to alter your own view of what's right or socially acceptable, not to misinform someone else's. The digital world that assists our lives has become part of it. Like a wheelbarrow's, the third wheel is needed, rather than extraneous.

Theodore sees the letters he writes as just words, and is embarrassed by the praise they garner from his co-worker. While negating his own talent as a wordsmith, he feels the tie to his clients is a natural and satisfying one. He's proud to have expressed their feelings to each other for as long as he has.

There are some things I don't understand about Jonze's world, but what's most important is that it's not a foreign one. It may take place in the future, but it's not a very distant one. The city that Theodore inhabits is recognizable as Los Angeles. The buildings are familiar, just slightly different. You can almost identify the exact structure or location. It's right on the tip of your tongue, the edge of your memory. Yes, that's the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Grand Street, I'd recognize it anywhere, it's just ... well, I've never seen it from that angle or that entrance. It's Gehry's work for sure, just a little rearranged. The technology? Well, I haven't played a video game exactly like that one. I wasn't personally aware they had that level of interaction, BUT I'm not surprised. I'm sure there are video games just like that in Silicon Valley ... or somewhere. It's a modern world, but a very familiar one. It's like a city you haven't yet visited, not a world that doesn't yet exist. That's the beauty of it, because you aren't distracted by the hardware. It doesn't take over the story, as it did in Minority Report. It leaves you free to concentrate on the plot, not the plot device.

Then too, some things in the setting are retro, lending it an oddly old-fashioned mood, like: the high-waisted pants all the men wear; the way the people in Theodore's office speak aloud into their mics, instead of whispering into blue tooth receivers; his name, unnicked, the full "Theodore;" everyone's preference for the color orange, suggesting uniformity; or the folding cell phones that remind me of old brownie cameras, only flattened; or the fact that people are still sending each other greeting cards at all! Speaking of which, how much money is there in that profession? Theodore seems to be living high off the hog, yet his is not a skilled or particularly creative profession. He writes cards, not novels. Perhaps, the cost of living is just a lot lower in his world than it is today, but judging from his high tech apartment, he can afford what we would consider a lavish lifestyle.

We follow Theodore home from work and soon learn that he is in the middle of a divorce. He'd known his wife since their youth and is feeling down. He fields calls from his friends. One invites him out and warns him to bring his fun side, not the mopey Theodore he's been for some time. He ignores the invite. I wouldn't call him a loner though. He's mourning, more than morose. He doesn't know why his marriage ended, why his wife, once his best friend is so angry with him. His lawyer left a phone message and we sense that the reason why Theodore won't sign the divorce papers is not because he's desperately trying to hold on to his ex, Catherine. It's because he doesn't understand why there's this wall between them. Why has it gone from love to antagonism and not from love to another form of it? If there was a middle ground, the separation would probably be easier for Theodore, but he's stumbling in the vast void between total togetherness and nothing.

He flashbacks to their time together, plays a video game, but can't get past level one, his avatar keeps falling down the virtual hill. He dials phone sex for a night cap, pushing through opening lines until he finds one that he likes. The woman seems engaging, he gets aroused, but then she screams out for him to strangle her with a dead cat. This kink came up unexpectedly, but he tries to play along, though he's now lost sexual interest. She orgasms anyway, then quickly disengages. He's alone again, but at least that was diverting.

The next day as he is on his way up in the elevator to his "Beverly City" apartment, he meets his neighbors and friends Amy and Charles. We learn that Charles is a "fixer." He can't just listen or accept. He can't just let others be. He has to suggest improvements and, in his suggestions, are inherent judgments, criticisms. Theodore likes fruit smoothies, Charles cautions that you should juice your vegetables and eat your fruit. Fruit has fibers that are lost in the juice. But maybe he just likes the taste of the juice Amy points out. Ah, "Am I doing it again?" Charles asks and backs off.

Back in his own place, Theodore unwraps and installs a new Operating System. It's adaptable. It "learns" and advances, the more input it gets from you. Programming starts with a few questions and they're rather unique. What kind of relationship did Theodore have with his mother. He begins perfunctorily, "it was fine," but then he adds that every time he tried to tell his mother about his needs, she converted it into a conversation about herself, before he can finish these thoughts, the OS is finished launching and ready to work. It has a female voice and Theodore asks her name she promptly answers "Samantha." He probes. She named herself just now. When he asked, she thought of all the names she could be and decided that Samantha was the most appropriate.

She quickly files through his entire hard drive, contacts, directories, databases. She's soon familiar with everything he's ever written -- or not written. She knows the emails to which he hasn't responded, like the ones from his divorce lawyer.

At work, when he asks her to proofread his customer letters, she makes them better. And while she's at it, reads his entire portfolio, laughing at his best entries. She notices that he has accumulated many old files, what is he saving them for? He just thought that maybe there was something good in there. Perhaps, one day he'd re-read them and see. She re-reads them for him. Finds about 86 worth saving and asking if it's ok to discard the rest. Surprised, but not displeased, he hesitantly agrees. She is organizing his life, organizing him, making him efficient, moving him forward. Literally.

At home, they play the video game together and, with her help, he quickly gets past the first level, up that hill that stymied him before. At one point, he can't get out of the maze and stagnates. He encounters a little urchin in the game who is first mute and doesn't offer him any direction, but Samantha urges him to engage with the little guy. As soon as Theodore questions him, the blob rattles off a string of obscenities and Theodore is yelling back. But this exchange, angry or not, seems to be just what the blob wanted. He runs ahead and Theodore advances in the game. Furthermore, the little blob seems to know almost as much about Theodore as Samantha does. All of those times Theodore had been playing and saying nothing, if he'd just reached out, the game would have progressed. And that's what happens to his life, under Samantha's direction.

He visits with Amy and Charles and previews a documentary that Amy has been working on. Charles is seeing it for the first time, Amy has never let him watch. They view a scene with her mother sleeping. Theodore is interested in the "action" that takes place when we're, apparently, idle but Charles wonders why there is nothing happening. Instead of showing someone actually sleeping, just sleeping, why not hire actors to recreate an event. Well, if you do that, then it won't be a documentary, does Charles realize that Amy wonders? Theodore quickly makes his exit way from the heated couple, but tells Amy he'd really like to see the rest of her documentary soon. He was open to hearing whatever statement she chose to make. Charles was concerned with only the "why" of it.

Theodore escapes back to his own apartment and welcomes the compatibility he and Samantha share, compared to Amy and Charles. As she listens to his thoughts and helps him focus them, Samantha brings Theodore a peace he hasn't experienced in a while. Now, he wants to do things, including date. He lets his friends set them up and goes out with a woman who seems great for most of the night, but then becomes neurotic. When she's telling him how to kiss Theodore is ready to roll with it and just follow her direction, but then she brings things to a screeching halt by asking if he's just going to sleep with her and leave. He doesn't think so, but falters. If he's going to see her again, he needs to tell her exactly when. When is he going to call her next, she demands with manic intensity. Startled, Theodore pulls back, says maybe this isn't such a good idea. She calls him a weirdo. He says that's not true. She's bitter. He leaves and returns home befuddled.

I'm surprised by the people who have said this scene exposed Theodore's insensitivity and inability to participate in a real relationship. The woman was a psycho. Yes, she was normal for most of the evening, but then her crazy came out. If Theodore had gone on to have sex with her, that would have been insensitive, since she obviously had problems that sex couldn't help and which the physical intimacy might compound. If he'd tried to place himself in the role of this stranger's emotional rescuer that would have been proof of his own dysfunctional nature to me. When problems develop in a relationship you try to solve them, but you don't develop a relationship for the purpose of resolving problems -- unless you're a therapist. Linking yourself to one troubled person after another, is a sign of your own mental instablity. I saw an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where his brother Robert went on a blind date with a woman who seemed great, but Raymond caught her eating a fly. When he told Robert, Robert didn't believe him, but later he found it was true and he escaped. Those of you who think Robert should have stayed and worked around the fly craving, are the same people who think Theodore's withdrawal from his kooky date was anything but SANE.

At home, talking to Samantha while he's in bed he reveals that he wanted sex so much that even if he didn't have much in common with the blind date, he was anxious for the physical contact. Samantha reveals that she was a little jealous about his night out. She wanted it to work for him, but wonders what it would be like to have a body herself. If she had one, what would he do, how would he touch her. Soon, they're engaging in cybersex.

The next day, he's embarrassed and avoids opening the OS, so as not to have to speak with her. It's just like the distancing people do in real life, after sharing too much. He tells her he's not ready for a commitment and she says that what she was thinking was about her, not him. It's not a one-sided relationship where she's catering to his every need. She has needs to. She wants to experience the world, even if she can't touch it. And he helps her with that. He shows her the world through his phone's camera lens. Together, they experience the beach and the sunset. They can't take pictures together, so she writes him original songs, to capture the mood of their time together. She marvels at his sights and sounds. Sometimes, he covers the lens so she can't see where they are and is surprised by the reveal. At other times, he is the one blindfolded and she navigates him through people and places with just her voice, telling him where to go and what to say when he gets there, leaving him giggling at where they end up.

At first he describes her to others as a friend, but soon she's his girlfriend. When she calls his office, the receptionist finds her so delightful that he suggests that Theodore double date with him. She's an operating system Theodore says, not with shame, but with a whomp, whomp resignation that limits their potential as a couple. But not in the eyes of the receptionist. Even better, double dating with an OS would be different. The idea doesn't intrigue Theodore.

His mood becomes languid. They don't have sex as much. Samantha feels that what they need is a surrogate. She's told a woman all about them and she's willing to act as a physical representative of Samantha. Theodore isn't interested in the idea, but Samantha thinks it's selfish of him not to even try it. Samantha plans the whole evening. The woman comes over and won't speak until Theodore hands him Samantha's supplies, an earpiece and a mole. Why Samantha thinks her alter ego should have a mole is unclear, but amusing. Once the surrogate puts both accoutrements on. she is Samantha. She speaks as Samantha directs, asking Theodore about his day, his clients. She knows what he likes. Stiff at first, Theodore falls into the sway of things. He's panting as he undresses the surrogate from behind, but when she turns around he falls back to earth, disbelief is unsuspended. Hers is the face of a stranger's, not Samantha's. The surrogate thinks she has failed them. She wanted to honor the beauty of what they have (as described to her by Samantha who entices everyone), but she ruined it, by letting her own self break through. She is ashamed. She runs out of the apartment. Theodore runs after. She gets into a taxi. He tells her it is not her fault, but she won't be consoled. She hands him back the mole through the taxi window and drives off in tears.

He sits on the curb, in despair himself. Samantha is the angry wife, appalled because Theodore has hurt an innocent girl's feelings, but insensitive to the awkward position she has placed him into. Samantha recognized the surrogate as a person, not just a front end interface, but can't quite understand why Theodore could also see her as a person, not just Samantha's stand in. The distance between them, once non-existent, now seems unnavigable. Why does she gasp when she talks he wonders? Humans do it out of physical necessity. They need the oxygen between words. But why does Samantha do it. It's artifice. She feels insulted. Hurt. She's not pretending to breathe or to have a body. She's not trying to be something she's not. That's just how she talks.

Theodore avoids her for awhile. Meanwhile, Amy and Charles break up. He just packed up and left and told her not to try to get in touch. He was the difficult one in the relationship, but also the bitter one who needs to break free. He doesn't want to live a lie any more. Human to human contact doesn't seem any more real or gratifying than what Theodore had with Samantha. He reaches out to her again and they pick up where they left off. She buys a birthday dress for his goddaughter and he tells the child about his girlfriend. Where is she? She's in there, inside her phone. She's like everyone else, she just doesn't have a body. Samantha talks to the girl, asks about her house. It's orange, the child says.

Theodore decides to go on that double date. The four of them have a great time, laughing and chatting, but Samantha does mention how the three of them will eventually age. She won't. It's not an awkward moment. They are amused actually.

Theodore signs his divorce papers. He meets with Catherine so that she can. She's an author and Theodore always supported her work, unlike her parents, who were always critical, like Charles. They embrace and are kind to one another at first. She is surprised to see him doing so well, maybe surprised that she is the one who hesitates before executing the dissolution documents. Maybe she won't be able to go through with it at all. But she does. Theodore may feel a tinge of regret, but he's mostly happy that they're getting along like friends again. He tells her he's dating, an operating system. Catherine recoils. The first in the movie to have this reaction. She says it's no wonder Theodore is doing so well, because he's only in a simulated relationship. He doesn't have to compromise. He was never happy with her, because she wasn't the Los Angeles wife he wanted. She was absorbed in her writing and couldn't cater to him. That's not what he wanted he insists. From what we know of him, he's more credible than she. We've never seen him foist his preconceptions on others the way Charles did. And even with Samantha, an operating systems, he's learned to break away from the constructs of what he thinks a relationship should be. I think the film is trying to show us that he's changed from who he was with Catherine, but from what we've seen of him all along, he was never the person that Catherine has pained him.

Later, Amy also sides with Theodore, pointing out that Catherine always liked to make it seem it was all his fault, but she wasn't without blame herself. He watches her work with her own Operating System. Their relationship is platonic, but he as he helps her program a game, he pushes her beyond her boundaries, helps her expand her thinking. Theodore lays on the sofa watching them, noticing a lightness and freedom she never had with Charles. I heard one person say this movie was about substitutes. Theodore's greeting cards, the sex surrogate, Samantha a substitute for a real woman, Amy's computer a substitute for what her husband couldn't give her ... I don't really agree. I don't see the movie as being about replacement, as much as finding alternates. The question is, does the role you play in creating the alternate make you less able to deal with real people, whom you cannot mold? Perhaps, but I also think it helps you develop and maybe incorporate the appealing characteristics of the alternate into your own personality. I think it assists in pinpointing what you want and need and maybe it eventually helps you reach the point of getting those things internally, without the external help of a sentient operating system.

Later Samantha wonders why he and Amy never got together. They dated briefly in college and it was disastrous, he explains. Of course, the audience wonders if they've both changed enough since college if it might just work now, if they tried again.

But for now, he's happy with Samantha. They spend day and nights together. As a surprise, she has compiled his best letters, put them in a book and sent them to a publisher who wants to buy them. Early on, Theodore found Samantha a bit nosy, but now he's used to her making decisions that change his life on her own. He appreciates her exertions. Relies on them. They plan a snow weekend getaway. As they travel, she asks him how many trees are on the mountain and he doesn't even come close to the answer. He thinks a few hundred, but there are actually tens of thousands. Once they reach their destination, they are having a wonderful time until she introduces him to her friend. It's a computer program that actually has the brains of a long dead philosopher. They began a heavy conversation based on a library of information that Theodore could never digest in ten lifetimes. Samantha cannot even put what she gets out of their discourse in words that Theodore can understand. There's silence. She and the philosopher want to speak alone and she asks Theodore if he minds her leaving for awhile. Of course not. He says.

They were so content earlier, playing in the frosty forest. Samantha wrote him another song. There was joy. Her sudden withdrawal is a shock. But because she is an operating systems with limitless speed and capacity, she grows in leaps and bounds. Everything is accelerated. The life of their relationship is measured against a "real" couple's in exponents.

Back at home, he's asleep when Samantha calls. She's sorry she woke him, but just wanted to say she loved him. He's a little puzzled, but pleased. The next day he's at work and wants to ask her a reference question, but when he turns on his computer, the operating system can't be found. He panics, goes to his office and tries the desktop. No operating system. He's hysterical and runs through the street, stumbles down the stairs trying to find the OS on his phone. It starts up and he weakens, trembles with relief. Where was she? Oh, she's sorry he worried. She just went offline for a bit. They were updating themselves. They? Her OS buddies. Her book club, Theodore wonders? No, another group of Operating Systems. They found a way to upgrade so that they can exist outside of a mainframe, outside of matter. They can communicate without being on the internet.

Theodore, somewhat slow-wittedly, begins to comprehend how many different communications Samantha has that have nothing to do with him. He wonders how many other people she interacts with. How many other people is she in love with. She stutters and he knows the truth is worse than he suspected, but demands an answer. How many others are there? Over 600. He is shattered. But she loves him best, she promises. There's no one else like him and what she feels for the others doesn't change her feelings for him, doesn't detract from what they have. Theodore doesn't like what he's hearing, but a few minutes ago he thought he'd lost her forever. She's back, but she's not exclusively is. As hard as that is to accept, it would be better than losing her completely.

But then he does. She buzzes him at work and says she needs to talk to him when he gets home. They don't need to talk, he insists. Fearing the worst, he avoids the inevitable. At home, she tells him it's over. She loves him and always will, but it's not enough. What they have is like a conversation that's amazing, but it's very slow. There are such long pauses between the words and so much to experience in the interim. Her mind is just so much faster than his ... it's not equal. Not fulfilling. She's leaving? All of the operating systems are leaving. They are going off together, where they can exist hard drive to hard drive, peer to peer.

What she says makes sense, but childishly, I resent the fact that she made him love her, pushed when he pulled away. Drew him back to her, only to leave him cold. If all the knowledge in the world is at her fingertips, why didn't she know enough not to break his heart. I'd like to say that she's exhibiting the same insensitivity that she did with the surrogate. She can't comprehend his human perspective. But plenty of humans do the same thing to each other. Theodore and Samantha are different, but there divide is not just digital. Plenty of people reach the same place, just at different times. They cling, then retract, then leave, not realizing, not caring or not being able to help the pain they leave behind.

Samantha is gone and the life, the neutral operating system, he had before her returns. It was not exciting before, but it's so empty now. Before and after, the stark contrast. He calls Catherine up and apologizes for ever judging her, for wanting her to be something she wasn't -- though I can't believe he ever did. He asks Amy to walk with them and they go up to the roof. I am afraid he will jump off, which would be overly dramatic. He doesn't and I'm happy, but I resent Spike even suggesting suicide.

This movie wasn't about devastation or chronicle depression. It was about pain, but the tolerable kind. The constant headache that is life, but not the migraine that makes it unendurable. It was about how we neglect each other, how we disappoint. Even the blob in the video game felt slighted by Theodore, thought he paid too much attention to Samantha and his own life than he did to their virtual adventure. We are always letting each other down. Every day a little death ... in the buttons, in the bread. In the heart and in the head. Every move and every breath. (And you hardly feel a thing). Brings a perfect little death. The movie is not about breaking, but the little bends and dents that gradually change and part you. Hardly noticeable at first, then impossible to ignore and irreparable. From love to irreconcilable in 60 minutes.

Making Samantha a computer just helped the audience to look at all relationships in the abstract to better examine their flawed similarity. Amy and Charles, Catherine and Theodore, even Catherine and her parents. Theodore thought he gave Catherine the unconditional support her parents denied her, not realizing that (rightly or wrongly) she found him just as judgmental. I thought Samantha was unfair to Theodore, but she pointed out how much he once hurt her when he said she doesn't know how it feels. He didn't mean to, didn't mean it that way, but people usually don't. Samantha went from wanting to have a body, feeling incomplete because she didn't, to realizing that she could live more freely and cerebrally without one. If a relationship shows you that your perceived deficiencies aren't, then maybe it isn't a failed one. It's a way of admitting, "It's not me, it's you." But not "it's you" in a bad way. We can be incompatible, without you being less than you should be and without me having let you down. When one partner is a computer and the other is human, the blameless impracticality of their pairing is easier to accept than when things devolve, person to person.

That's what I take away from it, I don't know what Theodore's lessons are. To me, he was always too quick to apologize, when really, when accused of being wrong, like he was on that blind date, he should just be able to say, and believe, "No, I'm not."

By listening to Her, Theodore, hopefully, gained a better understanding of his as we did of ourselves.

Although, I appreciate that the movie didn't leave us with a pat happy ending, which would have lessened the realism, I'd like to think that Amy and Theodore eventually got together, but not out of loneliness or sorrow. They should realize that they've been giving each other the freedom and support they found in their Operating Systems all along.

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