Wednesday, December 04, 2013

System Malfunction: Spike Jonze's Her

Many thanks to my friend and fellow cinephile-in-arms Carson Lund for helping me edit this piece.

Her is so obsessed with trying to tell a story about “how we live now” that any of its profound ideas seem quite self-evident. By playing the romance between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, introverted to the point of limitation[i]) and his new operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson[ii]), as a serious relationship, Jonze certainly asks us to explore radical territory by thinking about our new(-ish) relationship to technology. However, it becomes quite apparent that despite this bold premise, it’s more of a sleek surface to create an allegory of loneliness. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with such a choice, except Jonze emphasizes his narrative through utter banality, a conventional romance about letting go of the past. Despite the uniqueness of the central relationship, Jonze is complacent in simply following through the various conventions of meet cute scenes, vulnerable people talking about their vulnerability, and various day trips that play to broad gestures of emotions. These sequences rely on montages that could come out of his 90s music videos—pleasantly shot in mutedly light colors for pleasant compositions, but rarely perceptive ones—pandering to a little more than a cinematic equivalent of BuzzFeed. It’s an emotional simulacrum without depth. 

The potential of Her is brimming, yet Jonze’s decision to instead romanticize this relationship as conventional as possible gives little room for exploration. The basic plot should be a daring feat, to make us emotionally believe in this relationship as a possibility while investigating the teleological elements of a digital society— not only how our technology has changed but how it has changed our own social relationships. But Jonze swerves toward the easy route at every corner. Samantha is a “perfect” system built to every need of Theodore, which should provide a mountain of territory to explore in the world of customizable technology, but even such a possibility is brushed aside with a few jokes (“What’s your relationship with your mother like?” — we’re still making this joke?). Every opportunity feels squandered. The first “sex scene” between Theodore and Samantha has potential to explore that strange relationship between our physical and mental drives. But instead he fades to black and then giving us an overview shot of Los Angeles that strikes as wholly arbitrary and tonally awkward, a “magical” moment that left me cold. His satire of the Appleization of culture is certainly present in the film’s mise-en-scene, but the film’s too cloying dialogue (“I thought this song could be like a photograph for us”) suggests there is less critique than an embrace of the style like a Millennial steampunk. Even more gaping, the satire of video games and phone sex is fish-in-a-barrel levels of irrelevance.

This is not to say Her is completely devoid of clever or interesting ideas. The use of a Shanghai-Los Angeles juxtaposition creates a unique dystopic landscape. Some discussion about Theodore’s ability to “project” emotions and lives onto people—whether through his job or while walking around with Samantha—is certainly something crucial to the narrative and gives a unique insight about how we often read people.[iii] And while that original sex scene is disappointing, a latter one involving a “threesome” gets into an emotional and morally thorny territory examining authenticity and replication. But most of this is just backdrop or dismissed for the sake of allegory—he seems only mildly interested in these ideas, using them like the candy colors that fill the film’s various locales. Her eventually finds an easy out to its central relationship before ending on a contrived and banal final monologue and one of the most laughably obvious shots of the year (“All you need is love” complete with a cue of Feelings courtesy of Arcade Fire’s obnoxiously cute score).

Jonze’s films have always placed emotional territory before intellect, but I wish he would search more for the intellect within these emotions—how and why we process them, and what radical possibilities can be unlocked by them. This is what we see in the forbears of melodrama—Griffith, Mizoguchi, Sirk—and the filmmakers who continue to use the styling of melodrama today—Wong, Garrel, Gray, and Wes Anderson. Jonze uses palatable “cute” surfaces as covers to his raw feelings, but this embracement of brash and unrefined material strikes me as more dubious than revelatory. Simply observe the montage of Theodore’s past relationship with Catherine (Rooney Mara, underutilized), a series of unspecific details of kissing, snuggles, and eventually fighting that give us little reason to invest in his need to let go, given how little we understand about the relationship.[iv] A woman asks Theodore directly what he loves most about Samantha, and he rambles, “It’s just so many things…it’s larger than that” (this is taken as an serious, intelligent response). In Her, Jonze assumes simply having showing emotions is good enough, which is why everything under its surface is palpably thin.  

By embracing such a radical premise and guiding it through emotions, what’s surprising is how conservative Jonze’s film actually is. His views of both technology and relationships fall into old adages that feel quite simplistic in comparison to the film’s radical potential. In the end, Her is the first film of the new decade that already feels dated.

[i]While every film requires a different type of performance, I cannot help but feel Phoenix’s internalized gestures are undercut by Jonze’s filmmaking of him mostly in relaxed medium shots that never utilize his physical body. His cinematic language is so obvious that Phoenix resonates with very little internal life, as opposed to recent performances in Anderson’s The Master and especially Gray’s The Immigrant.
[ii] An emotive and striking performance given the limitations imposed on the actress to just her voice, but one that stretches the plausibility of its premise.
[iii] The film’s best scene happens to be one featuring Olivia Wilde on a first date that goes from perfect to horrible in a matter of seconds, an interesting take on how easily our emotions read into a single line or moment.
[iv] There are huge issues of gender at play here with the way that Jonze’s writing of female characters into one-note archetypes (especially Mara’s Catherine and Amy Adams’s Amy), all too perfectly constrained and left with unexamined lives. I hope another critic can tackle this glaring issue at some point.


Scott Nye said...

To get to the last point first, while I agree that maybe Mara is underutilized, I also think part of the problem with her character is that she's used too much. Other than providing the impetus for seeds of doubt about the nature of Theodore's new relationship, I don't think we gain a lot by her presence, either in flashback or in their lunch scene, that couldn't be gathered purely through Phoenix's performance (which I actually found to be quite good, limited more by the nature of the material than Jonze's direction or Phoenix's own choices).

But anyway, I think Amy is a very solid supporting character, a reflection in many ways of Theodore's shortcomings (we can imagine Theodore's marriage ending for similarly banal reasons as hers) and loaded with her own hang-ups and private obsessions (the bit about her documentary, which she sees loaded with meaning yet is so obviously prohibitive to any other viewer, is quite good). Any "unexamined" potential is purposefully left alone because, well, she isn't the protagonist.

As for the film's lack of intellect, you know, I see where you're coming from, but disagree. While Jonze is rather spectacular at realizing the potential emotion in the very moment he's depicting, I think the very nature of the premise allows the audience to constantly question the validity of it. There are indications in interviews and such that Jonze is not quite as attuned to this, and maybe he's not, but given where Theodore and Samantha's relationship ends up, he clearly has concerns about the close-knit relationship between man and machine that, refreshingly, extend beyond the easy "ick" factor.

You note the moment where Theodore says "It's just so many's larger than that," but I totally disagree that this is meant to be serious or intelligent. Theodore is sincere in it, and some around him are receptive, but Jonze is walking a fine line in both presenting that statement as totally reductive while acknowledging that it reflects a very common feeling of people in love. This is compounded by Theodore's profession, as a guy who finds the words to express emotions in a way most people are incapable of, and when confronted with even the illusion of the real thing, he has nothing to say.

You mention the scene with Olivia Wilde, which I may agree is its best, precisely because it reveals some sort of loss of basic communication that more deeply investigates the film's themes than its more blatant set-up. I found the dialogue in the film to be pretty weird, at once totally direct and almost vulnerable and intensely guarded, which is a beautiful reflection of the modern age. Wilde's line about not being able to spend time with someone who isn't in it for the long haul is absurdly direct, almost inappropriate, for the moment at hand, and reflective of a certain well-what-can-you-do-for-me attitude common to many people, never mind a very familiar Los Angeles stereotype.

As for this - "His views of both technology and relationships fall into old adages that feel quite simplistic in comparison to the film’s radical potential" - I don't feel like the film would be as effective if it didn't fall into somewhat simplistic presentations of romance, providing a familiar hook in a very odd context. Any time you speak of a film's "potential," you're in troubling territory - dealing not with the thing at hand, but with a non-existent version - but in this case, its relative conservatism is, perhaps, part of the point. For all some things change, others never will.

Peter Labuza said...

I'll also start with your last point, because I agree with you that criticism's investigating potential is often a thorny territory. However, HER has all these moments investigating romance and technology, accept it's all quite banal. So I don't think I'm necessarily wrong here to fault it for that.

It would have been much better to leave Mara completely underseen. And to remove the final letter to her, which reads like a college student's understanding of love. I didn't really see much in Amy—I think Adams probably brings a lot of life to her—I still can't help but feeling like it's all a lot of lip service (what happens to that documentary? What about her video game? These are brought up and dropped when convenient).

Jonze avoids the "ick factor," but he make this a world where dating an iOS is kind of like dating a trans person. It's not that he should explore it more, because its all a metaphor, but it's not believable because the romantic elements of it are too cutesy and too succinctly crafted.

Your comment on Theodore's profession vs. his real life is interesting, because it reminds me of how weird that simply is. Why can't a man of so many words express his own life? If anything, shouldn't he be overly articulate? Again I get the metaphor, but I also find it cheap ("A man could capture the hearts of so many others...except for himself!")