Sidenote: This write up is going to be the template for the rest of the month. It will follow this general path: Abstract of production and plot, Background of my relationship with the film, Comments on the 3 stand out aspects of the film, Deep Cuts of the film thematically, Double Features that the film could be paired with.
Abstract – Written and Directed by Spike Jonze; Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system (and hijinks ensue voiced by Scarlett Johansson) after his marriage to Rooney Mara falls apart.
Background – Before I saw Her I think I had the same reaction everyone has when they hear that the movie is about a guy who falls in love with his operating system. Expecting it to be a quirky comedy, I went in with fairly low expectations in spite of the very good things I had been hearing. I was completely astounded by what came on screen. Within a month I went to the theatre to see it again with a friend of mine and it is easily my favourite film of 2013. When I decided to do this month long project in a specific way, I knew that Her would be one of the films chosen because, above all else, it is a beautiful film. Visually, sonically, emotionally, the film is honest and beautiful.
Comments – 1: The standout role of this film is Scarlett Johansson. Her character (Samantha the operating system) is a fully fleshed out person despite having no screen presence and it is not hard to believe that Phoenix’s character could fall in love with the character she created. Remembering in particular that he has no idea what Johansson looks like in real life, the character had to be spectacularly real to work and Johansson hit it out of the park.
2: The cinematography and art direction from Hoyte Van Hoytema (DP), K.K. Barrett (Production Design), Austin Gorg (Art Direction), Gene Serdena (Set Decoration), and Casey Storm (Costumes). Taking a page from Kubrick this film is carefully constructed with every visual element controlled and made to fit its place with perfect precision. The colours are all in pastel and every set and costume are perfect so that each and every shot looks integral to the production. It will be hard to comb through the screen shots I took of this film to find my favourite shots.
3: The supporting cast of Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Amy Adams and Chris Pratt. Fully formed characters that fit this universe perfectly and make it very easy to accept how it differs from our current world. There is distrust and angst but there is also hope and joy within all of these characters. Amy Adams in particular should have received recognition for her performance which as of now is a career best.
Deep Cuts – Phoenix’s profession in the film is writing affectionate letters for other people. He writes love letters from both sides of a relationship, he writes letters from parents to their children, his job is to put into words the feelings that people have trouble expressing. Early in the film Phoenix is lying in bed awake and calls a phone sex line which goes from arousing to jarring quickly as the woman on the other end asks him to “choke her with a dead cat.” Once falling in love with Samantha, Phoenix is berated by his ex for not being able to maintain a real relationship which forces him to question if his relationship with Samantha is real. Is all of this a condemnation of our continuing problems with intimacy in a digital world? People need others to put their feelings into words. People resort to anonymous phone sex to get rid of loneliness. People fall in love with their computers.
I would argue though that the film is actually arguing the opposite. Phoenix’s job is not simply a random service when people have forgotten to write something sentimental at the last minute. He describes that many of his clients have been using his services for years. Perhaps this letter writing is a positive for these relationships? Later in the film Samantha surprises Phoenix by getting a collection of his letter published and the publisher sends a letter saying this.
“I’ve just finished reading your letters, twice actually. I was so moved by them I shared them with my wife when I got home. Many made us laugh, some brought us to tears, and in all of them we found something of ourselves.”
These letters are positive, they are intimate, and they are universal, the result of a cultivated gift rather than an abused system.
The dead cat scene has two corollaries later in the film, the first is when Phoenix and Samantha first have sex. It is purely their voices but unlike the anonymous phone sex of the earlier scene, this is intimate. These two people know and care for each other and their intimacy is real even if she lacks a physical form. The second corollary is when Samantha finds a “body surrogate” to fill the physical role that she cannot give. They try to be intimate, the woman being silent and acting out what Samantha is saying, but the set up does not work for Phoenix. The physical intimacy is not important to him as when he and Samantha are intimate alone together. That verbal intellectual interaction is better than having a surrogate body. It highlights that aspect of intimacy that we sometimes forget and reminds us that technology can enable us to connect better than we do. Technology as a medium is not killing intimacy. That is the film’s message.
Watch with Blade Runner for opposing yet strangely related views of a future Los Angeles.
Watch with Lost in Translation for related tales of loneliness and intimacy.
Watch with Up in the Air for the honest, if not entirely satisfying ending.