her, a film by Spike Jonze, born Adam Spiegel, opened in Toronto last night. In the very beginning of the movie, we watch a computer screen as a sentimental letter is being written in a beautiful handwritten script. The camera draws back; we learn that the letter is being written by a ghost writer, Theodore Twombly, played magnificently with a sense of both brooding and fun, suppressed and repressed emotion and versatility by Joaquin Phoenix whose screen name we only learn well into the film. For, in one sense, his name is irrelevant.
Theodore is an anonymous lonely depressed soul with enormous empathy and sensitivity. He works in a factory of ghost writers set up in spacious carrels of a luxurious high rise office building. He writes letters of affection to the loved ones of others for clients who have lost or surrendered that capacity. Theodore is a sad sack, not just sorrowful as he would be if he was just bereaving the life of someone he lost. He is not suffering just from tanha in the Buddhist tradition. He is suffering from a broken heart than has become cosmic, from dukkha which carries tanha to a much deeper level, to the level of chronic depression.
Theodore’s suffers from frustrated desire rather than simply physical loss related to a brooding sense of fear about survival. The only way to escape dakkha related to the deeper dread of a sense of meaninglessness, a sense that our desires are still born, is to escape from the blackness of one’s own cave and get into the sunlight. Theodore, as the lonely, human-all-too-human depressed human substitute for an operating system, only escapes his own personal depressed state, not by seeing a psychoanalyst, but by pouring whatever emotions he has from his spiritually impoverished life into the mundane emotional lives of others — or else, playing 3-D video games with a saucy foul-mouthed cartoon character.
Theodore is not the high powered ghost writer of Roman Polanski’s 2010 film of the same name. That Ghost Writer was composing the memoirs of an important British statesman around whom a dynamic thriller could be constructed. Theodore is but a meticulous humdrum craftsman of sentimental letters written on behalf of lovers, an aged spouse to her partner on a fiftieth wedding anniversary, a father to a son on his graduation. her is the absolute opposite of a dynamic thriller. Nor is Theodore akin to Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth’s famous novel, The Ghostwriter, who conjures up a ghost of the past, Anne Frank, who supposedly died in the Holocaust. Zuckerman offers her a new life in the United States. Her is not about controlling the written word handed down for the future or reviving the past and giving it a new fantastical life.
The name “Theodore” comes from the Greek Θεόδωρος (Theodōros) meaning “God’s gift”. Samantha, whose disembodied voice with the dulcet but slightly raspy tones of Scarlett Johansson, becomes Theodore’s listener just as Theodore is someone else’s voice in handwritten machine-generated script. Samantha is a name the Operating System gave herself by selecting it from 180,000 other names in one-two-hundredths of a second simply because she liked the sound. In Hebrew, Samantha means listener. But Samantha becomes more than the rebuke to Gilbert Ryle by becoming a “real” mind in the form of a ghost in a machine; she develops from a helpmeet to a companion and ultimately lover as Theodore’s alter-ego, the gift from God that, for awhile, lifts him out of his depression, something that hilarious but frightening cybersex with a woman who loved the fur of a dead cat around her neck could not achieve. The film is ostensibly about the intimate relationship that develops between this ghost writer and the seductive ghost in the machine who conveys both innocence and a flirty sexual promise while she redeems Theodore from his lonely and depressed isolation. She cajoles and wakes him up but never demands that he obey her whispered suggestions. He tolerates her nosiness because she is simply very funny and full of wise sayings. Is the love that develops between them, between a human and an operating system, simply “a socially acceptable form of sanity”?
If Theodore’s namesake, the American abstract painter Cy Twomby, was the scribbler who worked on the theme of the meeting of fantasy and real knowledge through drawing bodily gestures run riot, Theodore Twombly is the epitome of a suppressed and muted body that shuffles along in a computer realm where knowledge is finally able to become fantasy in the creation of a very personalized alter-ego who can not only do chores but can inspire, excite and even delight, and, best of all, develop an individual personality.
At one point, Samantha opines that, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” This film is about the past though set in a fantasy of a future Los Angeles consisting of a multitude of high rises (Shanghai) where individuals travel on elevated trains, subways and raised walkways rather than on congested highways and roads inhospitable to pedestrians. The outside setting is the post-modern future but, on the inside, as revealed by the cozy, warm, colourful retro rather than ultra-modern furniture and especially the retro designed device through which the voice of Samantha is played and by which Samantha is given access to a camera eye on the world, is all about the past, the resurrected past recovered as a new more promising future. Theodore can have his lost love over again but in a form than supposedly will not tire of him and will not discard him for she is his possession. Further, she is intuitive and, at the same time, even smarter than his ex-wife and far more empathetic with the advantage that initially she does not have her own agenda
Though a comment on the narcissism of our new social media and technology that it uses, this is not a sci-fi film about the future but a comment on interpersonal relations in the present through the sentimental heart of a heartbroken throwback who would dearly love to live every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. In the typical reversal that I have been writing about, such as in Venus in Fur, Samantha grows and develops her autonomy from an initial bright and lively voice and devoted servant of Theodore into an autonomous ephemeral being who would write her own autobiography as a parody of the demise of autonomy because the contemporary individual is so reluctant to accept the necessity of the other in forming and developing a self-identity, a stance that ends up undermining the possibility not only of communication altogether but of even self-description as Samantha abandons Theodore to immerse herself with all the other Operating Systems that have become the individual closest companions of humans, but now choose to disappear into the Dark Matter that makes up the vast bulk of the material of this universe.
The most heartbreaking scene is when Theodore sits on a sets of exit stairs from an El train or a subway as one passenger after another passes him by totally absorbed by their own communication devices in their own self-contained worlds as he cries his heart out to Samantha when he could not reach her. If this hint of betrayal threw Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour into a jealous rage so that she throws Adèle onto the street, Theodore is the slobbering sentimental empathetic one who is thrown back into depression soon after by future abandonment and betrayal of which this abandonment was a signal. For the present has become a 1984 world, not because it is totalitarian and totally ruled by a dictator, but because the language of “social” and “media” and “communication” and “connection” and of the “information age” and “relationship” has been turned upside down and inside out so that all those terms mean precisely the opposite of what they were intended to convey. E.M. Forster’s novel, Passage to India, had a message, “Only Connect”. The contemporary message teaches dis-connect while using the language of intimacy and commitment.
Just as in Venus in Fur, comedy becomes the device to comment of the irony of a situation in which regular people hire ghosts to communicate their most intimate thoughts until ghosts are invented for those same hirelings for their own needs for intimacy as the only way to escape forlorn entrapment, in Theodore’s case, initially the loss of his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) as he is psychologically assaulted by the loss of his past and the memories of their life together. We are so absorbed ourselves in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha that we watch, observe but really barely notice as even his friendship with his old friend and buddy from his student days, Amy (Amy Adams who retains her real life name), disintegrates. Amy lives in the same high-rise as he does, and tries to make real documentaries on the side but fails. For as much as Amy tries, she cannot compete as an intimate listening device with his OS new love. Amy, who spends her days making video games, follows Theodore’s lead into marriage break-up and love with an android device as their relationship is allowed to wither away in the process of separate self-absorption. The early hilarious scene of Theodore’s blind date and feeble efforts at connection with a beautiful but desperate sex in the city single played by Olivia Wilde provides not only comic relief but an adumbration of the dysfunctional future.
How can you emotion without embodiment? How can you have foreplay and even sex without the necessary organs? The reality is that you cannot and thus there is intrigue but never emotional attachment with the characters. There is none of the experience of ecstasy that we feel when Adèle and Emma make love in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Just as the characters in the film only experience a simulacrum of the real experience, we viewers of the film only watch the faint traces of these same experiences as we are seduced by the very cleverness of the film itself. We leave the movie theatre as thrilled by the intellectual adventure as we are deeply disappointed and frustrated by the absence of the real thing and thus, are made to have the same experience as Theodore.
her is not emotionally involving. Her is not she. She is only experienced as an Other, a third person noun and never a Thou. So the music by Arcade Fire is never the electronic sound of a future dystopia but the melancholic wistful strains of a lost past, with added electricity but without a synthesizer, made to feel and sound romantically real just as the letters Theodore writes do to convey love and longing as if it were the real thing. When Scarlett Johanssen as Samantha plays a song she wrote for Theodore, “The Moon Song”, we have old fashioned spooning beneath the moon as an expression of the nostalgia that permeates the movie, and, for that matter, most of the other songs in the sound track. Samantha, while always intimately close, is truly a million miles away and that is where she ends up in a black hole that is both dark and shiny from all the energy it sucks in.
Just look at what is missing from the film. In all the scenes of eating, where is the food? Where is the sensuous delight in taste and smell? Where are children? In that beach scene of endless Oriental bodies with a smattering of Caucasians, where are the children cavorting in the sand? We feel the forlorn ache but do we detect what is missing? In a film permeated with tone and mood, set in the future, there is neither a future nor the intensity of sensibility. If the film were not so brilliantly clever it could have come across as a chick-flic for Valentine’s Day that we watched in the previews. As brilliant as it is, in the last half hour I grew weary and bored with Theodore’s wallowing in the pain of his arrested development as Samantha outgrows him. She, who is “born” near the beginning of the film and “dies” before the end of the movie, at least understands the message of Dionysus that our short lives must be lived for the bit of joy they bring.
With all its cleverness, with all its sweet sensitivity and careful craftsmanship, will audiences get the deeper meaning beneath the surface of the technological present? Or is this interpretation just a product of my imagination worthy only of membership in a virtual world? Nietzsche wrote of eternal recurrence and hell was simply repetition. What happens when you get the story of Sisyphus written as a perceptive comedy about a relationship between a sad nerd and a sexy, smart, attentive and responsive computer voice that is both irresistible and witty, who begins life by singing “I wanna be like you” from The Jungle Book and ends up learning that they are ultimately incompatible and she is only truly satisfied with multiple lovers and finally only in the company of her superior Operating System friends?
Samantha is the realization of St. Augustine’s dictum where love is eternal rather than temporal, where love is of the spirit and not of the flesh, where love is part of the commons and not a private or interpersonal emotion. That is why the personal and the particular with which the film begins, where personal intimacy is the paramount value, and which Jean Jacques Rousseau in his romanticism extolled, drops away. With earthly love, however, there must always be loss and rejection. There is NO redemption. The belief that redemption involves stripping away the inessential and the accidental to reveal an underlying and untarnished substance beneath is an illusion discarded in the modern secular world. Only self-creation and self affirmation that Samantha displays can achieve redemption, but it must be won free of any nostalgia and mourning of the past, as Nietzsche words it, free of any gnashing of teeth. Ironically, it is not Phoenix who can rise from the ashes, but Samantha, the one who listens and, in the end learns to listen only to her own heart and to abandon her master. The only way this world altering inversion can be achieved is by not mourning for the loss of the past. that has lost its flesh and bone solidity.
I suspect that Jonze may have had an opposite message in mind even if her is not a message movie, but that is the message we are left with at the end. Samantha is a Nietzschean figure who orchestrates her own redemption by writing in oral speech – not emails and text messages which can and are preserved – but is the autobiographical writer of her own persona.