Friday, May 9, 2014

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Spike Jonze's Her will be probably be remembered as the most old-fashioned futuristic movie ever made. Set in in an unspecified future where checkered shirts and high-waisted pants seem to be the latest fad, it follows a lonely ghostwriter as he embarks on a love affair with the female-voiced, ever-evolving operating system of his personal computer.

His name is Theodor Twombly, a withdrawn middle-aged man who works as a writer for a company that specializes in vicariously composing greeting cards and love letters. Recently separated from his childhood sweetheart Catherine, he is stuck in an emotional limbo that makes him incapable both of putting the word end to their divorce suit and of beginning a new relationship. Things take an unexpected turn when Theodore decides to replace the OS of his computer with a new-generation software endowed with the human-like ability to improve itself on the basis of experience. During the installation process Theodore opts for a female voice, while the OS names herself Samantha, thus making the first of a series of free-will choices that will soon qualify "her" not only as a near-perfect human surrogate, but also as a passionate if incorporeal partner for Theodore.

The advances in artificial intelligence (which the plot doesn't explain, but wisely postulates as a given) imply that the story takes place in an indefinite near future, and yet we wouldn't qualify the film's scenario as "futuristic". In fact, all the elements that could possibly suggest a distance between man and technology have been meticulously erased, thus creating a universe where natural and artificial melt together harmonically, and the issues raised by progress are reduced to their most abstract, philosophical core in the burgeoning romance between Samantha and Theodore. It's an imaginative variation on the "retro future" backdrop we have already seen in other movies, though not always to depict a rosy vision of the future (see for example Alan Rudolph's 1985 Trouble In Mind, where a combination of elements borrowed from the Science Fiction and the Noir genres results in the dystopian Rain City).

In tune with Jonze's optimistic (or utopic) viewpoint, all the technological devices onscreen are really at the service of mankind. Keyboard-less computers are shown interacting verbally with users. The lack of cars serves the double purpose of avoiding potential references to a well-defined epoch, and removing one of the major sources of stress in modern life. Consistently with this vision, director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema has opted for a color palette that carefully avoids blue and exalts warm colors, casting on persons and objects a reassuringly vintage light.

The viewer's imagination is constantly solicited as Samantha evokes with her sultry voice a whole world made up of images and sounds that she wants to share with Theodore. In a beach scene she improvises a piano melody that in her intention should express the way it feels to be with him in that moment, and immortalize them together like an ephemeral photography. A serious cinema scholar would say that the piece of music she's playing is at the same time diegetic and extradiegetic, which means that we and the characters are listening to the same song: It's as if Samantha was creating not only the perfect song for her partner, but also the film's soundtrack itself, and by doing this she was claiming the right to be considered real.

In another scene Theodore and his ex-wife Catherine are having lunch in the garden of a restaurant. In the few seconds while Catherine is signing the divorce papers, Theodore is haunted by remembrances of their married life. As a sequence of images from the past pass by on the screen, the soundtrack once again gives us precious hints about the film's conception, as the chirping of the birds and the murmur of the customers inform us that the scene unfolds in the protagonist's mind, and more importantly that what Theodore experiences in his real life and what happens in his mind are essentially the same thing. Her is making a hopeful statement about technology, and it does so by showing how permeable are the boundaries between imagination and reality, memory and experience.

The body as tangible, biological entity finds little space in the film. At the film's start Theodore has a sexual intercourse with an unknown woman in the form of a phone conversation, while the first sex scene with Samantha begins with Theodore whispering sensual words to her, then gradually fades into the intimate darkness of their imagination. Again in the beach scene, Samantha observes (in what is perhaps the strongest focal point of the movie) how strange would the human body look if one could erase from his or her mind any remembrance of it, and see it for the very first time. Her remark is accompanied by a sequence of images of separate anatomical parts making human body seem like an incoherent conglomeration of afunctional limbs. Note also that the only "graphic" sex scene between the two leads happens by means of a female go-between recruited by Samantha in a chat room, with the only result of making them feel even more physically disconnected.

Her brought to my mind more than once Marc Webb's 2009 clever romantic comedy 500 Days Of Summer, whose leading character too was employed in a greeting card firm. However, Theodore's oldest ancestor could possibly be Miss Lonelyhearts, the (male) protagonist of Nathaniel West's 1933 eponymous novel, who worked for a New York newspaper as advice giver to desperate readers in the America of the Great Depression. The nature of a job like this immediately establishes the character's emotional fracture, since it requires the impossible task of summoning up detachment and involvement at the same time.

But there is perhaps another way to view Her. If we forget for a moment that Samantha is pure voice, it can be viewed as a story between a middle-aged man and a girl who is much younger than him, with all the issues that age difference entails. In fact, Samantha has all the hallmarks of an inexperienced girl who "has an excitement about the world" and is discovering love for the first time. In this light we can also understand Theodore's fear of other people's judgment. The picnic scene with open-minded friends Paul and Tatiana is also enlightening, since Samantha makes an awkward commentary about the perks of not being "stuck inside a body that's inevitably going to die" − a sentence that, if weakened a bit, can be read as a remark about her greater life expectancy as compared to those present.

What I especially love about Her and Jonze's movies in general is the way they keep me always on the verge of shouting about the ridiculousness of it all, without quite ever reaching that point. With a storyline summarizable as "love affair between a man and his computer", a less talented writer (or a less talented filmmaker) would perhaps have lost conviction halfway through. Jonze instead falls in love with the idea and sticks with it to the end, unafraid of bringing the premise to its most extreme consequences. And we can't help but admire his fervor, and go along the journey with him.

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