Saturday, January 11, 2014

Spike Jonze's Her and the Intimacy Machine

Her is concerned with our relationship with machines, how one can be closer to one's iPhone than with a family member or a lover. As if to balance out this alienating subject with the audience's desire to connect with a movie, Spike Jonze crafted many many intimate scenes, mostly with the nebbish Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) opening his face emotionally to the camera as he interacts with a highly intelligent operating system named Samantha with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. (There is something slightly nightmarish, especially after one sits through The Master, in watching Phoenix go all soft and sensitive as he dominates most every close up shot with his mustache.) In Her, characters or operating systems are constantly asking each other "Are you okay?" and "What's wrong?" the question arising from the barest hint of hesitation in the other person's voice or affect. Since Jonze wrote and directed the film, one can ask "What kind of geeky cinematic muzak hipster chic is this?" I kept hoping the film would evolve into full scale horror, but even as it flirts with science fiction and melodrama, the movie eludes genre classification.

Often, Her works best when it raises questions it never answers. In this indeterminate and seemingly prosperous near-future, have all of mankind's and nature's ills (war, climate change, poverty, ignorance) been solved? Why does Jonze keep reminding us of an essential nerdiness in this vision with its rounded glasses, its high-waisted pants, and its many characters being so bloody sensitive to each other's needs? I enjoyed Lee Marvin rampaging around in the 1967 Point Blank last night on DVD, and in comparison Her comes across as bizarrely emasculated. At one point, Olivia Wilde, as Theo's nameless blind date, describes him as being puppy-like, and while Theo takes umbrage, the label does suit him. Theo, like the movie itself, can lean towards the safe and the bland, even as its most radical implications lie in its Lost in Translation-esque cityscape mise en scene, its elaborate pastel color schemes, and its crowd scenes where nearly everyone interacts with a private computer voice whispering in his/her ear as he/she walks on by.    

One can imagine that future humans may look back on our period in history as a fundamentally bizarre time when people routinely allow themselves to be mesmerized by devices, often to the detriment of their relationships not only with others, but also with the world around them. Something has lately begun to creep me out, because I hear it so often: a colleague or a family member suddenly laughs out of the blue in the next room due to some video on the Internet. What are they laughing at? What is a movie, anyway, but an intimacy machine, a means for filmmakers to coax emotion out of an audience? Spike Jonze implies that we are heading to a near future when humanity gets most of its emotional satisfaction from simulated situations. Have we reached a tipping point of near-total dependency on the reproduction of artificial images to make us feel important or alive? How does one define the appeal of Facebook, or the pleasure one gets from a reaction to a tweet?  Can these moments seem preferable to a conversation with a person in analog space and time?

Ultimately, Her made me feel self-conscious when I walk out of the cineplex and immediately want to check my iPhone. Afterwards, when I entered the living room, my wife (who was watching a movie) immediately assumed that I wanted to gaze at the MacBook and pointed to it. As Neil Postman asked back in 1985, how much are we amusing ourselves to death as we look at screens all day? And how much are future films, when they bother to reflect our dull postmodern condition, just going to depict humans increasingly and delusively isolated by intimacy machines? 

3 comments:

David C. said...

A movie for thinking.
David from observandocine.com

Anonymous said...

"Amusing Ourselves to Death" was published in 1985, not 2005. Neil Postman died in 2003.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for the correction, Anonymous. I must've been looking at the publication date of a recent edition.