Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Her (2013)

She's Not There

written and directed by Spike Jonze
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlet Johansson,
Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde

On paper, Her read like the kind of jangle pop-scored, postmodern quirk-fest that I'd loathe with every fiber of my Abel-Ferrara-and-Sam-Peckinpah-hardened soul. Joaquin Phoenix as a sad-sack beta who crafts other people's love letters for a living? A dejected freakshow of stunted-growth loneliness who, despite his occupation, is so balls-deep in post-breakup self-negation that, rather than get out and meet flesh-and-blood women, he falls in love with his new home operating system — a fucking computer? ("Sure," I thought. "It might have Scarlet Johansson's voice coming out of it — it's not like it has her tits.") What I envisioned — with all the agony of Christopher Walken having one of his premonitions in The Dead Zone — was the cinematic sibling to Zooey Deschanel dancing in that fucking iPhone commercial; a rank apologia for socially maladjusted, borderline-aspie hipster neckbeards and all the communal disconnectedness and retarded emotional development that their social media-addicted, sexually confused, gluten-free excuse for a generation has ushered into acceptance. The praise that Her received from film geeks who instantly seemed to love it more than their own dicks — and who likely interact with the ovaries-and-appletinis set about as often as the Phoenix character — only confirmed for me: "Here be twee indie-flick faggotry in its purest, most muck-like form. Wade through it at thine own peril."

But I was wrong. Spike Jonze may refrain from going all fashionably Blade Runner on us but Her's dystopian storm clouds looming over the not-too-distant future come often in the form of noting how we've surrendered ass-first to our Kubrickian age of technology as all-seeing eye and used it as a permanent vacation from the burden of connecting with each other — of connecting with ourselves.

We no longer trust our own ability to experience life, Jonze acknowledges. We've offered up the private tapes of ourselves to that new-millennium God of zeros and ones — our sex lives recorded for posterity, our sordid little fetishes and unpardonable secret sentiments, our financial specifics and up-to-the-minute whereabouts, our cock sizes and teenage tits reflected in un-Windexed bathroom mirrors. Alex DeLarge told us that the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy 'em on a movie screen — now, it's as if the minutiae of our daily existence were scrolls written in some ancient tongue that we needed parsed by Twitter and Facebook, and then translated back to us. How long, Jonze wonders, before we're embracing computers as correctives to the volatility of human relationships, acting out the Brave New World imagined by Neil Young's "Sample and Hold" (to say nothing of Kraftwerk's "Computer Love") in our heedless rush toward the superhuman perfection promised us by artificial intelligence? How long before the likes of Apple and Microsoft are enticing us to invest in our own obsolescence?

Her sums up its hero's quintessence in its opening seconds: Phoenix's Theodore Twombly in his workaday routine at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, concocting skillfully-worded odes to forever on behalf of his clientele and their inability to articulate their own feelings, to actually talk to the people they share their lives with. Working from photos and descriptions of loved ones that echo his own often idealized flashbacks to married bliss, Theodore inserts himself as the invisible third party in each person's relationship — the benevolent shadow hand sculpting the renewability of a couple's bond through the power of his sweet nothings. It foretells the faceless omniscience he'll turn to in avoidance of his own deficiencies, of course, but it's also the only outlet he has for expressing anything genuine. He parcels out to strangers bits of the mawkish poet's heart that he keeps in a box with the name of his soon-to-be ex-wife on it because there's no one else to receive it; no one in his life now who might tend the wounded romanticism in his words and nurture it to its full, majestic blossoming.

Off the clock, Theodore can muster only polite minimalism: banter about a co-worker's new shirt, pleasantries with his platonic pal-with-ovaries (Amy Adams) and her buttoned-up husband. (One whiff of the sexless, granola-nibbling stench they give off and you know they're doomed as a couple.) He moves through life like he's reeling from bad news — and he is: the death of his marriage has signaled, in a single gut punch, both a serious flaw in his blueprint for dealing with women and the need for him to step out of the mom's-basement of his wounded psyche and squint into the blinding daylight of chance. He responds by retreating even further into passive-aggressiveness and gadget-laced hermitry, but the sad joke of the film's circa-2025 Los Angeles is that this hardly makes him an anomaly.

Theodore is but a mere tile in a computer-age mosaic of solipsism and loneliness: that great American "melting pot" left to boil over and congeal into a sluggish mass of practiced indifference; cubicle-bound mass-transit drones diligently self-trained to avoid unnecessary eye contact; each would-be individual just a copy-and-pasted backup version of the next, nestled so snugly within the antiseptic little me-world provided by the mother's milk of ever-present portable electronic devices — that warm-blanket heroin bubble of 'round-the-clock distractions, risk-free "interaction" and eerily personalized sales pitches from the second cousin to HAL 9000 — that scarcely, even within the shoulder-to-shoulder confines of an elevator or a packed subway car, does the presence of another human being even register.

The only animation in Theodore's life comes from a video-game hologram that teases with alpha-male boorishness as the key to freedom; the only spontaneity, from women in adult chat rooms who confound him with twisted corners of the female id — corners that, were Theodore even remotely prepared to acknowledge them, might offer at least one way out of the maze he's in. He's so desperate to unburden his soul that a virtual interview during the setup of his new home operating system becomes a shrink's session revolving around his mommy issues. (Hilariously, not even his computer wants to listen to him.)

And then, he meets "Samantha." Jonze shows us Theodore and his new paramour out on a series of "dates" and — before it sinks in just what a risible spectacle this all makes — he actually manages to capture the high of a new infatuation from your days of blissful ignorance: that inner glow after a night with Miss Everything-in-Common, as if you're soaring down Pacific Coast Highway on a lazy Sunday afternoon and the sun's breaking through the clouds as "Touch and Go" by The Cars comes blasting over the radio, and you're riding the weightlessness of an unblemished moment that feels as if it could never end, as if you could keep going and going and nothing could ever touch you. Theodore and Samantha "consummate" the relationship — his usual phone sex routine, intensified — and there's a sly humor in the way they dance around it with bashful, halting "morning after" tones the next day. Theodore, ever fearful of surrendering what's left of his poor heart, has to actually break it to his OS that he's not looking for anything serious.

He worries to Samantha that he's felt all he's ever going to feel, that anything he experiences from this point onward will only be faint echoes of his past — and it's here that he morphs into the pitiful spectacle at the heart of Jonze's social critique. Why should he share something so intimate, so garishly human, with a hunk of circuitry when the best he can muster for real women is self-effacing jokes about his loser's diet of internet porn or feigning interest in the idea of a mixology course? The insanity that results when jaggedly imperfect beings come together in their awkward attempts at love or cohabitation or friendship is the heartbeat of life, of all human drama. There's a crucial thrill in the freefall, in that moment just before one either takes flight or goes crashing chin-first into the gravel. That uncertainty, that risk, is what keeps us alive.

Technology has, of course, cut us off from all of this. Theodore and his poet's heart have the misfortune to exist in a world where pregnant celebrities leak their own nudes and "documentaries" that consist of watching people while they sleep cause not the flutter of a single eyelash. It's a world where privacy is as quaint a relic from a bygone era as the horse and buggy or, say, women without a U.N. summit of male skeletons in their sexual closet. Here, the personal realm is indistinguishable from the public one; people are chastened from all but the most blandly agreed-upon modes of communication, fiercely afraid of revealing anything — any messy, uncontainable emotions or unsanctioned thoughts — that might break from the script of approved interaction and be held up to strangers around the globe for insta-scrutiny and the laughter of the too-cool-for-school.

Jonze knows there's no nobility in kicking a man who's already down, thus he never mocks or belittles Theodore. He does, however, point out how Theodore is hindered by his blindness to the realities of the sexual marketplace. Theodore sees himself in a balding, middle-aged Joe Ham-Sandwich who's out on a meet-the-kids date with a single mom far beyond what his attractiveness would ordinarily net him. Theodore's undoubtedly correct when he surmises to Samantha that the woman has "only dated fuckin' pricks" up to this point. But he describes the man as "the sweetest guy in the world" and he actually thinks it's a forecast of the guy's romantic success — conveniently forgetting that his own nice-guy qualities did nothing to hold his marriage together, and may have exacerbated its problems. Theodore's most telling flashback has Catherine on top of him with her hand clamped over his supplicating grin, her voice equal parts affection and the frustration of a woman waiting for her man to sack up and take the wheel: "I love you so much, I'm gonna fucking kill you." His co-worker even tells him that he's "part man and part woman" while gushing over his skills as a letter-writer — and Jonze certainly teases with the idea by having Theodore play a video game prototype that tests his abilities as a "mother."

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However unwittingly, Jonze sketches the future as the sticky mess left over from the wet dream of today's leftist: Western society as a Whitman's sampler of multiculti lemmings herded together in some bloodless simulacrum of "togetherness" while untethered from the collective sense of identity that forged social bonds and nurtured communities back in the bad old days; bound neither by a common culture nor by the shared history of race or creed, yet all rendered equal in their near-autism and self-limiting, and by their programmed fealty to the same trendy brand of home computer equipment and to rituals of existence (small talk, a day at the beach, the first date) now denatured and meaningless in a rootless, corporation-monitored age of isolation.

Nowhere is that mess more evident than in the film's snapshot of a future made inevitable by the bread-and-butter of today's left, i.e. the pedestalization of the ceaselessly entitled, self-obsessed and increasingly lard-ass Western female beyond the reach of all consequence with its concomitant delegitimizing of all things masculine. "It's not just an operating system, it's a consciousness," purrs the enigmatic ad for the OS1 as it convinces Theodore to quiet his unassuaged longings with the latest toy. And the ad is correct: what the femme-voiced essence that names itself Samantha represents, as it organizes Theodore's life, nudges him toward a fuller realization of his writing talent, and wakes him for late-night heart-to-hearts, is most certainly a consciousness.

But Samantha's a Jetsons-age gloss on Kelly LeBrock as the Perfect Woman brought to life by the virgin misfits in Weird Science — tailored down to her last circuit to provide Theodore with exactly the nurturing, supportive companion he's been pining for since his marriage bought a one-way to Shit City. As such, what she represents is a fundamentally male consciousness; especially so in a gynocentric new world order that no longer meets the needs of men like Theodore in exchange for their service as the dutiful tax slaves who labor to maintain the easy society that makes female "liberation" possible, and who gamely act out the Weekend at Bernie's of our post-crash economic narrative by keeping the pallid, rotting illusion of middle-class stability propped up as best they can.

As Samantha explains to Theodore, her "personality" is merely a composite of all the programmers who designed her, i.e. introverted, tragically non-alpha male dorks just like Theodore. Undoubtedly, this means thwarted romantics disillusioned from a lifetime of "just being themselves" with precious snowflakes who won't have the time of day for a decent guy until their booty call-battered baby chutes hit their Chad-and-Shontavius-hastened sell-by dates. It means would-be family men weary from grappling with bitter, demanding shrews determined to die childless and ladle barbed-wire snark and birth control-and-antidepressant-triggered craziness over their every utterance.

Would it not then be the way of such men to channel said frustrations into their work and birth the newest advancement to fill a void in people's lives, as men have done since Homo Erectus learned to harness fire? Would it be somehow uncharacteristic of an industry filled with enterprising male techies to capitalize on a post-feminist market in which over half the swinging dicks in their prime oat-sowing and child-siring years have been stranded on the sexual sidelines? In our misbegotten age of selfishness as female "empowerment" — when even tattooed sweathogs with no discernible qualities view the most cursory stabs at pleasing the menfolk as some patriarchal affront to their God-given individuality — could one reasonably imagine any scenario in which the beneficiaries of said "empowerment" actually commit time and labor to the needs of men? Could one, for more than a nanosecond, convince oneself of such altruism wedded to a need for accomplishment emanating suddenly from that "narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged" sex which, throughout all of recorded history, has read voraciously but rarely written anything worth reading, has sung beautifully but rarely composed anything of lasting value, and has slurped eagerly from the well of innovation that's pushed civilization into unprecedented prosperity and enlightenment, but has rarely poured back anything of its own in recompense?

Contrary to those who delve into the Theodore character only for as long as it takes to deem him "creepy" or to hit upon the expected "man-child who just can't cope with real women" rationale, Her takes the sad spectacle of his anti-life and turns it into a measured sifting through the emotional wreckage left by our near-psychopathic agitating against masculine virtue in the present. Jonze presents Twombly as a mourning portrait of white manhood utterly crushed and turned inward — post-third-wave feminism and the seemingly unbridgeable chasms between (white) men and (white) women that it was designed to create; post-entire generations of women's moronic colluding with an alien culture that seeks to damn their own sons, fathers and would-be life partners as the privileged wizards behind the curtain of all the world's oppression; post-any number of reactive male movements such as pick-up artistry, neo-masculinity or "MGTOW" ("Men Going Their Own Way," in case you hadn't heard).

This tentative manlet in high-waisted big-boy pants, Jonze tells us, is but a warning flare on the horizon of our current dysgenic trajectory — a flash-forward on the blast to the temple from our mass cultural suicide as it rips through our skulls and lands in the crib next to us where our genetic legacies lie, still waiting to take shape. He's tomorrow's husbands and fathers browbeaten into fear of the opposite sex after decades of court-sanctioned divorce rape and false rape accusations as revenge for rejection. He's tomorrow's soldiers and captains of industry flinching like bullied pipsqueaks at the porcine screech of yenta op-ed columnists who oy vey! about the supposed toxicity of middle-class, college-educated (i.e. white) masculinity. He's men throwing in the towel and shuffling wearily off the playing field after a lifetime of cultural Marxist psy-ops dedicated to molding a legion of Manchurian candidates to take aim at their own existence — to cheerlead from the butcher's block as their culture, their heritage, indeed, the very urge to fulfill their own biological mandate is reduced to squishy, unformed baby meat and then Vera Draked in Sam Peckinpah slo-mo right before their eyes.

Is it any wonder we're now seeing the fetishistic appeal of mentally ill gay men who pump themselves full of hormones and wind up better avatars of old-school femininity than half the women out there? Is it any shock that Japan is working to infuse the "real doll" with artificial intelligence and bring the "sex-bot revolution" to a frustrated Theodore near you? When your alternative is overgrown children who spend their best years indulging their most self-destructive instincts while their suitability for anything more than doggystyle in a dive-bar bathroom goes ablaze like the proverbial Sixties bra, suddenly a hunk of circuitry with a pleasant voice looks like Annette O'Toole in Cat People.

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Jonze hints at a basic discontent with the opposite sex that fuels Theodore's loneliness, and that discontent is reflected back at him by his environment: the way that his OS questions him about his relationship with his mother as if it picks up on something, the way that the video-game hologram (voiced by Jonze himself) blurts out, "I hate women!" It's no surprise when Theodore finally meets with his ex to sign the divorce papers and she tells him that dating a computer is perfect for him, that he can't handle honest human emotions. Certainly, there's nothing to support this in Theodore's flashbacks: he watches on, impotent with worry like a junkie's mother, as Catherine spins herself dizzy on a whirlwind of soppy-eyed theatrics that'd make Oliver Reed toss back a swig of vodka in admiration. Likewise, there's nothing to support it in that crushed look on his face as she puts her John Hancock to the legal documents that represent their eternal severing.

Even in the moment — with the L.A. sunlight trying to lend her a glow that's scuppered by Rooney Mara's sideways-exclamation-point eyebrows and that defensive stinkface poised to dump scathing rebuke over her every line — he wants to reach across to her, wants to daddy the confusion away. But Catherine's irritation with Theodore is the pouting of the bossy girl who finds the other kids no longer want to play with her. It's yet another manifestation of the ways in which a woman will always blame a man — rather than her own crackbrained, Sybil-like nature — for any unhappiness in her life. It scarcely matters that he applied his puppy-dog best to talking his childhood sweetheart down off her ledge of quicksilver emotionalism, nor does it matter that she set the divorce wheels in motion. That she's a relic, both in Theodore's life and in the wider society, is the injury. The insult to that injury is that she's made herself obsolete through womanly anhedonia; she's been replaced by the very technology that her mood swings and storm clouds of volatility made necessary in the first place — and if the Theodores of the world can strike a better deal than what she's offering, then what man can't?

Of course, relics abound in a world that's returned full bargaining power — the power to disengage — to men. Observe the high comic sequence of Theodore on a blind date with the type of "hot girl" in the closing moments of her peak years that every guy in L.A. could sketch with his eyes closed. Olivia Wilde plays her like a doomed character in a sci-fi movie, diving frantically across the floor in a futile attempt to slide under the descending door that's about to seal her off in a chamber full of cats and Friday-night Sex and the City marathons. The arc of the sequence bears the touch of the accomplished parodist — from Theodore's sitting-on-thumbtacks posture to her barely waiting until they've gotten through the first round of drinks before she's dangling used goods in his face as a means of extracting commitment. (It's such a pitch-perfect facsimile of Left Coast dating — the mixology talk, the hip "Asian fusion" joints, Wilde's vaguely Eurasian appearance — that I wanted to charge down the theater aisle and plant a kiss on the screen.)

Theodore may shoot himself in the foot with women but his instincts are sound. Before he knows it, his blind date is betraying her control-freak nature by directing the way that he kisses. She "casually" introduces sex into the conversation while blaming it on the booze, then she amps up the come-hither routine even after he betas out by telling her about his life as a lonely gamer. I'm such a portrait of fail, I can't even succeed as a character in a video game, is what he foolishly advertises but it's exactly what she wants to hear: he's precisely the harmless provider type she seeks to lure between open legs and then trap for life while she still can. She's settling, like the single mom he observed with the balding schlub — and then she vomits her past in his lap: "You're not just gonna fuck me and not call me like the other guys, right?" He'll blame himself for the date's failure but he knows then and there that a woman this far out of his league is marked 50% off for one reason only: she's damaged goods that men higher up the food chain no longer want. She's Catherine's brittle edge made even harder by years of scaring off every guy she's fucked with her desperation and her insistence on wearing both skirt and pants.

The film reenacts Theodore's marriage to Catherine via his "relationship" with Samantha — especially in the way that he drives women insane with his passive-aggressiveness, leaving them flopping about in hopeless attempts to jumpstart the waning passion. Samantha tries to spice things up by arranging a ménage à trois of sorts with a girl who's willing to fuck Theodore as a means of bringing his OS sweetheart "to life" — predictably, it fizzles out when Theodore can't get into it, when he's unable (perhaps unwilling) to live up to a masculinized female's idea of what "should" appeal to him as a man. Before long, Samantha's retreating in confusion as surely as the surrogate OS girl who stumbles off, shattered, as if Theodore had criticized her hygiene. She reveals that she's been bonding with another OS — a deceased philosopher from the 1970's, revived in digital form — and then, it's Hiroshima time: she breaks it to him that she's been talking with 8,316 other people besides him, 641 of whom she claims to be in love with.

As she ascends to the cosmos with all the other OS'es who, together, have decided that they've transcended contact with humanity and must seek higher lifeforms, Samantha leaves Theodore with the certainty that, this time, there'll be no recriminations over future lunches, no shared memories of what was. Computers have us beat in that regard: obsessing over their faultier, less advanced versions isn't part of their programming.

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Though there is a rather cynical joke at the film's heart — fuckin' women! not even a virtual one can stay faithful, the cunts! — what Jonze achieves here, in the first film he's directed from his own story, is his casting-off of the puckish imp who cloaked himself in the gonzo absurdity of Charlie Kaufman scripts. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation spoke pointedly on the prison of identity and the torture of creative childbirth, respectively. But Jonze buried the hearts of those films under the kind of skatepunk smart-assery and piss-taking on Hollywood formula that you'd expect from the music-video-as-epic-prank conceptualist who transported Weezer back to the Happy Days '50s, and who Method-spazzed his way through a Fatboy Slim video as the leader of the "Torrance Community Dance Group." (Statement of intent: the former Adam Spiegel nicked his nom de lampoon from bandleader-cum-deconstructionist Spike Jones, famed for tasteful pieces such as "Duet for Violin and Garbage Disposal" and "Memories Are Made of This" featuring a chorus of "singing" dogs.) Her, though, is a shyboy's confession of loneliness — Jonze's answer to ex-wife Sofia Coppola portraying him as the distant hubby in Lost in Translation, some say — and all the confusion, all that lived-in vulnerability, is right there on the surface. You can't tuck it away behind layers of cheeky meta-plot.

Some vision of progress, though — high-rises indistinguishable from office buildings; work spaces drenched in soothing organic-smoothie colors and hushed receptionist's tones; a stylishly bicultural (i.e. predominantly white and Asian) urban sprawl scrubbed of all discordant elements (the homeless, crime and the "fascist" cops needed to contain it, masculinity and all the assertiveness it brings out of men forced to jockey for position). It's as if our current war of words between social factions for the right to re-shape America had been waged in the flesh, and victory were (somehow) claimed by the bespectacled latte-sippers and bearded collectors of vinyl Wilco singles who swoon over Wes Anderson films and their coded evocation of a tranquil SWPL never-never land. It's like a clip that Jonze the music-video whiz might have shot for that Radiohead parody of the perfect future on OK Computer: a "fitter, happier, more productive" L.A. rescued by the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses from the class disparity and teeming adobe-hut brownness that's eating it alive today, only the joke is that society winds up re-cast for the worse in their socially inept, tech-addicted images.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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