A story of connectivity and the feeling of wholeness is Spike Jonze‘s Her. The 2013 film starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson was written, directed, and produced by Jonze who is better-known for the cinematic treasures like the quirky Being John Malkovich (1999) and the tangled anecdote of Adaptation. (2002).
If I could beg of Jonze to describe to me his most endearing relationship, I would want him to talk to me about this aforementioned feeling of connectivity; of wholeness, of partnership, of belonging, of love that is so extremely tangible in Her. Her is a story about an individual longing for a connection amidst the digital age. It explores the emotional response to a world we’re moving towards (or a world we are, arguably, already in). With headphones in our ears and all eye contact avoided, we move from place to place connected to our devices – living our social lives through the applications under our thumbs.
After losing the one person he believed he’d be with for a lifetime, Theodore (Phoenix) ponders the way he once felt with his ex, Catherine (a quiet and lovely Rooney Mara). We see there is a physical connection, skin on skin, and layer upon layer of emotional interaction that is the memory of her. In this portrayal of recollection, Jonze asks audiences to recall our own relationships, encouraging us to remember the good parts of past affairs; the parts that make us human – the vulnerability, the honesty, the ways we can clash wholeheartedly… Jonze is asking us to believe that these moments can exist again despite feeling that, once we’ve let go of them, they have disappeared for good. Using Theodore’s loss and new-found digital love, Her brings us through the explorative and introspective moments of relationships that we’d normally only ever share with our journals, if we even care to notice they exist at all.
The catch is that Her does all this using an OS named Samantha. An operating system (Johansson). In essence, a tool. We watch Theodore as he falls in love with a computer program, and we find ourselves falling with him.
Jonze’s ability to propose quirky and complicated questions about the ways in which people relate to one another and to the world is like a flood of fast moving water through organic space. This all feels normal. His films are like memories I keep close to me. I leave his work longing for the connections that he’s helped me establish over the past 2 hours. Her is unique in its genre because of one simple tool: its ability to depict a deeper understanding of the inter- and intra-personal relationships. Like somersaulting in an ocean wave, we are brought inside, around, and into the mind of Theodore via his job, Catherine, close friend Amy (Adams), and an OS.
It is Theodore’s job to write love letters on behalf of one person to another. This fabrication of expressing love is a comment on the way our generation sees the world; as a convenience, instead of a hindrance. In this environment, it is wholly accepted that this fabricated love is real. In the exaggerated style that Jonze has established, is this an accurate representation of love in the 21st century? I’d say so.
But the root of this film is this question, proposed by Samantha:
“How do you share your life with somebody?”
How do you share your life with somebody? I’d hazard a guess that I don’t really think about it. I took this question as Jonze, in his most literal moment of Her, asking us how to reflect upon the methods of communication we use in our daily lives. Do we call those we love? Do we meet them? Do we interact? Do we feel? Do we connect physically? He’s shoving technology and all its disadvantages in our faces with this one question.
The trope of it all is that, while technology offers the opportunity for a digital connection, it’s actually the reason we’ve become so physically detached. Last week I went for dinner with my 13-year-old cousin who, when her phone rang, she looked over to her mom and said, “Are you calling me?” “No,” her mom replied. “Why is it ringing then?” my cousin proclaimed, and I immediately over-exaggerated her reaction with an, “Oh my god! My phone is RINGING! What do I do?!!?” But this is where we are. We would rather type a message than talk it out and this is what Her is asking us to look at. Is this a better life? Seeking out real, cognitive, and authentic relationships via digital devices? Is this even possible?
Her is successful in its blunt exploration of digital life because it’s set in the not-so-distant future. Like allowing this to be an excuse, Jonze makes it clear that the technology commonly used in the film is unlike any application we use now, but its use and our understanding of it is still very plausible. Although Samantha operates as her own character with her own identity, she is still ultimately a tool and a reflection of Theodore’s own travels of recovery and discovery. She represents the capabilities of the digital age but Jonze doesn’t give us the downside. This is what he gives us:
First, he gives us a familiar reaction. Theodore’s panicked disconnect from his application failing to load is the pinnacle moment that anyone with a digital device can relate to; the way it feels when what we’ve come to distract ourselves with fails to load. Then, as if it’s so obvious a direction, he gives us to Amy. Theodore turns to Amy – a real person. A friend. And the normalcy of it all is comforting. The feelings of separation and space are reflective of a loss of connection, digital or actual, and, at once, the two are merged. But who is there when all else fails to load? We are – our physical selves and the conviction that a digital hug will never be as comforting as a real one.