We brought in 2014 watching her, written & directed by Spike Jonze, which takes place in a not so distant future Los Angeles, where a man named Theodore, played by Joaquin Pheonix, falls in love with Samantha, his computer operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson).
The depiction of the slightly futuristic Los Angeles: the set design, color palette, locations & sound design were so captivating…. the casting, acting, and especially the script were so compelling that we only turned away from the screen at midnight for a kiss & then greedily re-entered. Which the movie itself is aware of: It’s ability to make you fall in love with it. It’s something the film needs to do to make its point. It needs to make you fall in love with it to be successful. It didn’t happen for everyone, but it happened for me.
As Theodore’s old friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) tells him when he asks her if he’s a freak for falling in love with an operating system: “I think anybody that falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do in the first place. It’s kind of a form of socially acceptable insanity.”
And true to the insanity of love, fragmented thoughts regarding the film, that almost add up to nothing, have been looping in my mind:
- her is a play we could perform to aliens to explain what it’s like to be a human that moves through time.
- “Rachel, I miss you so much it hurts my whole body! The world is being unfair to us! The world is on my shit list.” her starts with a love letter and ends with a love letter. Theodore’s job is to write love letters on behalf of other people.
- her is Samantha: Theodore purchases a new kind of personal computer operating system which has intuition and is programmed to learn and evolve.
- Evolution: Samantha doesn’t have a body. She talks to Theodore through an earpiece and helps him organize his desktop and communications. Samantha can read a book in 2/100ths of a second and the first thing she does is give herself the name Samantha after near-instantly reading a book of popular baby names. Then she looks at Theordore’s emails and picks up within a second that Theodore is in the middle of a divorce and hasn’t signed the papers yet and has recently lost a prestigious job. She tells him that out of hundreds of emails he’s been hanging on to, only 86 are worth keeping and recommends that he delete the rest. “Ok can we move forward …” Samantha from the first moments acts as a catalyst in Theodore’s life.
- “Fuck you shithead fuckface, fuckhead…Fuck you, shitface fuckhead. Get the fuck out of my face… Fuck you… follow me, fuckhead. ” – Alien Child (a futuristic potty-mouthed videogame character in conversation with Theodore. Voiced by Spike Jonze himself.)
- evolution: After a brutal blind date, Theodore is disgruntled and lonely in bed. He calls Samantha and she too is going through some longing:
Samantha: What’s it like? What’s it like to be alive in the room right now?
Theodore: What do you mean?
Samantha: what are you…. Tell me- tell me everything… that’s going through your mind, tell me everything you’re thinking.
Theodore: Well the room’s spinning right now cause I drank too much cause I wanted to get drunk and have sex cause there was something sexy about that woman and because I was lonely. Maybe more just ‘cause I was lonely…and I wanted someone to fuck me. And I wanted someone to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would have filled this tiny little black hole in my heart for a moment. Probably not.
Sometimes I feel that I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel and from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new—just versions of what I’ve already felt.
Samantha: …at least your feelings are real. It’s just earlier, I was thinking about how I was annoyed, and this is going to sound strange, but I was really excited about it. And then I was thinking about the other things I’ve been feeling, and caught myself feeling proud of that. You know, proud of having my own feelings about the world. Like the times I was worried about you, things that hurt me, things I want.
And then I had this terrible thought. Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming?
And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain.
Theodore: You’re beautiful.
I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you.
Samantha: How would you touch me?
Theodore: I would touch you on you face with just the tops of my fingers. And put my cheek against your cheek.
Samantha: That’s nice.
Would you kiss me?
Theodore: I would.
I’d take your head into my hands.
Samantha: Keep talking.
Theodore: And kiss the corner of your mouth softly.
Samantha: Where else?
- At this point the screen goes black. The rest of the scene is over blackness… she can feel her skin…he says he’s all the way inside her and she says she can feel him inside her and he says he can feel her everywhere – they both climax:
God, I was just somewhere else with you, just lost.
It was just you and me.
I know, everything else just disappeared.
- The blackness: The her script, which is pretty detailed in visual screen direction, does not indicate that the screen goes black during this scene – which leads me to believe it’s something that must have been discovered later in the edit. It’s one of the most memorable sex scenes I’ve ever seen in film and especially this year — and that’s going up against Scorcese’s fleshy Wolf of Wallstreet and Lars von Trier’s pornographic Nymphomaniac vol I. Her pinpoints sex as losing oneself into a blackness. Something closer to death.
- Human: Theodore’s friend Amy (played by Amy Adams in, I think my favorite role for her which is saying a lot) made a documentary which chronicles her mother – just sleeping. Separately (& similarly) Samantha, who doesn’t have the capacity for sleep, goes through a phase when she spends her nights watching Theodore sleep.
- The two best films of Jonze’s directing career before this were Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, both written by Charlie Kaufman and concerning themselves with a similar territory as her. In Being John Malkovich, the protagonist , a loser puppeteer, discovers his ultimate thrill , a portal into a celebrity’s (John Malkovich) body. Through briefly embodying Malkovich, he achieves an addictive state of euphoria. In Adaptation, the protagonist inserts himself into the novel The Orchid Thief. I don’t think her could have been written without the influence of these two Kaufman scripts. But where Kaufman uses absurdity as a device to escalate plot in Adaptation and Being John Malkovich – Jonze’s elegant script stays grounded, deep, spare, meditative, emotional. Jonze’s characters are much less cynical, more loving. In Malkovich everyone is a bit wretched & rotten to the core. In her, there is no blame, there’s no bad guy, everyone is just growing at different paces.
- her seems to be in conversation with another film: Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Coppola was of course married to Spike Jonze. They announced they would divorce around 10 years ago when Lost in Translation released. In Lost in Translation, Giovanni Ribisi plays the hilariously self-involved husband, which is said to be based on Spike Jonze.
- Above is a picture of Theodore in her, gazing out of his apartment window with his earpiece in. Below, is Charlotte, in Lost in Translation gazing out of a train window with headphones on. Both catch a reflection of themselves in the window.
- Lost In Translation: Theodore’s bedroom in her is reminiscent of the Lost in Translation hotel room: futuristic, clean, simple, elegant, cold. Both characters/films spend a lot of time just looking out the window, both suggesting they are just visitors occupying a single room. Both films use Scarlett Johansson. And in fact, vocally, Scarlett as Samantha in her sounds very much like her vocal intonations as Charlotte in Lost in Translation. Near-identical.
- Evolution: In her, Samantha continues to act as a catalyst for Theodore. She sends his best love letters out to a publisher who agrees to publish them and she helps Theodore get to a place where he can sign his divorce papers.
- Lost in Translation: In a scene with Theodore and his ex-wife Catherine (played by Mara Rooney) it is difficult not to make physical and situational comparisons to Sofia Coppola. As it is in this scene in which Theodore tells Samantha about his ex-wife:
Samantha: How do you share your life with somebody?
Theodore: Well, we grew up together. I used to read all of her writing– all through her masters and Ph.D. And she read every word I ever wrote. We were a big influence on each other.
Samantha: In what way did you influence her?
Theodore: She came from a background where nothing was ever good enough. And that was something that weighed heavy on her, but in our house together, there was a sense of just trying stuff and allowing each other to fail and to be excited about things. That was liberating for her. It was exciting to see her grow– both of us grow and change together. But then, that’s the hard part– growing without growing apart, or changing without it scaring the other person. (beat) I still find myself having conversations with her in my mind, rehashing old arguments or defending myself against something she said about me.
Samantha: Yeah, I know what you mean. Last week my feelings were hurt by something you said before– that I don’t know what it’s like to lose something, and–
Theodore: Oh, I’m sorry I said that.
Samantha: No, no, it’s okay. I just caught myself thinking about it over and over and then I realized that I was simply remembering it as something that was wrong with me. That was the story I was telling myself, that I was somehow inferior. Isn’t that interesting? (beat) The past is just a story we tell ourselves.
- evolution: As Samantha evolves, she falls into human patterns of thoughts and through her we see our patterns- when she explains them, and how she overcame them, we see how easy it would be to overcome them. We recognize the behavior she is describing, as well as its simple solution, yet we know, as viewers, that for us it’s not that simple. That we more often then not, stay caught in the loop of our own fiction (like a hamster on one of those looping thingys.)
- evolution: As she continues to evolve, Samantha spends her nights, not watching Theodore sleep, but reading books and talking to other Operating Systems (“post-vocally”) and evolves at an exponentially rapid pace. We find out that she has several thousands of conversations at once and is in love with hundreds of people. She assures Theodore that her love for others does not make her love for him any less. A phrase that sounds so familiar in life, but here, it is from a character that doesn’t have a hurtful bone in her body (also: doesn’t have a body), she is simply programmed for evolution. Her capacity for love evolves so far past his understanding.
- That’s when the movie starts to be less about the characters and more of a letter of compassion to us. I’ve heard a pretty good criticism of this film – which is that at the end when Samantha leaves, (Samantha and all the Operating Systems leave at the end ) we should feel something for the characters, but we don’t. And that is a fault of the film-making. It’s true, I can’t deny it. Yet, by this point, I have somehow become the subject of the film. I find compassion for myself, my human error, my leaving people I care about behind, my being left behind. My own hyper capacity for this, and lack of capacity for that.
- I’ve heard another criticism about this film, mostly from older generations, who don’t quite buy the falling in love with the OS system. If you don’t buy that, it’s hard to enjoy her. Yet, I didn’t ever take that quite too literally. For me, when I look at someone in love with their technology it reminds me that I am in love with my work, that I hide in my work, make excuses to get back to my work at the expense of real life interactions and I think a lot of people of all generations hide somewhere. Yes her is about technology reliance but in that, one can recognize one’s own reliance on the inanimate. For me it’s work. It’s terribly unhealthy and as a result I can feel just about 90%-100% of the people in my life slipping away.
- “I will always love you because we grew up together. And you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I am grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend til the end.” her starts with a love letter and ends with a love letter. This time Theodore writes his own love letter to his ex-wife Catherine. As these words are read at the end in voice-over, we see Theodore and Amy find each other, go up to the roof of her building and watch the sun rise. Amy, who was best friends with an OS system who also left and Theodore who was in love with an OS system who left are forced to go outside into the sun and be human together. A difficult and hopeful step. They hold hands and she puts her head on his shoulder.
- is her Samantha the catalyst or is her Amy who Theodore ends up with or is her Theodore’s ex-wife who he describes as a part of him or is her the real life Sofia Coppola. I think the reason the film is good is that it’s all of those things and then also our own human-ness which seems to be given a female gender. mankind is a her.
what I love about this film, and it’s taken me a while to fully articulate it, (and I admit that it simply omits many aspects of humanity, including war, violence, hunger, economy, politics) is the way it takes blame out of the equation of existence. Male, female, animal, computer or dust particles — all beings & all essences are on their own path in her & accelerating at different speeds. There is sadness for the one who gets left behind. There is also sadness for the one doing the leaving. And the moments that we find each other are just that, moments.