Musings on Spike Jonze’s Her and how technology can set us free

The credits rolled at the end of Spike Jonze’s latest film ‘Her’, a film I had been waiting to see forever (I saw it the day it came out).

I swiftly felt the ramifications of the film ending, as though someone had punched me in the stomach repeatedly and only paused to see my reaction. It seemed like my head was trailing metres behind my body as I exited the cinema.

‘What the hell just happened?’ I said to my cousin as we walked out.

‘I don’t know…I’m confused and not sure if I liked it’ she replied.

But it wasn’t a question of liking it or not. It was a matter of picking my heart up from the floor, peering inside to see if it was broken and then placing it back in its socket, so it could resume pumping blood to the rest of my body. Only I couldn’t articulate that in so many words.

Torn between not knowing how to feel about the main character who, in the trailer appears to be lonely, forlorn and a bit of a loser, thereby eliciting my sympathy, to suddenly seeing him in the feature length film in a whole new way. He’s just another messed up person — your average, emotionally disconnected male. No sympathy really, just empathy.

He’s a real life human. And so seems she, her, the operating system named Samantha.

***

The setting for Spike Jonze’s film is quite out of this world, but so palpable at the same time. Like you could reach out and grab it by the face. The technology was tangible, possible. You could relate to it but you also couldn’t relate to it. You felt on the cusp of something bigger, brighter, more daring.

I wanted to be there in that place.

The tones were warm, full of rich reds. The colour blue was notably absent from the film, to further accentuate that warmth, a real antidote to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (Sofia is Jonze’s ex-wife).

I know a lot of women who found the whole film slightly jarring. Like my cousin who found the sex scenes weird. And yet most of my male friends seemed to love the film unconditionally, citing it as one of the best they’d ever seen.

My director friend Jeremy Brull wrote:

‘So I think ‘Her’ may be the greatest cinematic love story of all time.’

It’s a weird sort of thing. Does Spike Jonze just get the male concept of a love story. Or does it transcend gender?

At one point Rooney Mara’s character in the film, Theodore’s ex-wife, blurts out sarcastically,

‘You’re dating your computer?’

And later Theodore would say to the voice called Samantha;

‘You’re not a real person’.

I know what it’s like to hear that level of skepticism in someone’s voice. I know what it’s like to love someone who isn’t real, someone who mostly lives within your head. I know what it’s like to become addicted to that fictitious notion, even if it’s in the conventional sense of that person definitely existing in real life, just differently to how you imagined them, and so far removed from you, that the only way you can experience them is through their voice.

It’s a special kind of madness. But I know how powerful that voice can be.

I believe we are capable of understanding and translating these complex human emotions from a distance, from a voice, through words on a screen. And I fear that there are still those who are unable to understand it, or who are afraid of it and how much it makes them feel and it holds us back.

I can’t vouch for the more formalised online dating because I’ve never tried it, but I can tell you that I spent my early teens meeting all kinds of ridiculous crazy characters via the Internet. Most of those resulted in friendships but for many, there was something that transcended friendship. It was a confusing time to be a teenager. We were literally on the cusp of that technological shift.

We knew both worlds. We still do.

A girl I had literally met through the comments on a band’s MySpace page and who I developed a kind of online pen pal friendship with, once flew halfway across the world for me based on that friendship alone. She had no idea if I was even real. She was my modern day internet pen pal. I’ve known her for 8 years and we’re still good friends who hang out (IRL) to this day.

I have other stories too. The photographer we met in New York through Tumblr (still good friends to this day). That guy I met through Twitter who I ended up casually dating for a stint. My most recent boyfriend who I met through Facebook mutual friends. The list goes on.

And of course, my favourite of all the stories — that time my heart leaped into my mouth almost instantaneously for a person who would go on to become one of my closest friends, someone I really did love in the end and all from an accidental, case of mistaken identity on Microsoft’s Messenger. He is like another version of me, my other person, a kind of soul friend, anam cara. Someone I look at and recognise almost instantaneously. That’s a kind of connection that transcends the every day, a kind of lasting rarity you don’t just find or stumble upon in the middle of the street, but one you trip over in a late night chat room.

He was the first person I ran to when I saw the trailer for Her.

‘You’ve gotta see this! It’s like us’.

***

‘But in Her, he’s meant to be all by himself, responding only to a voice, and so the performance is a floating, free form solipsistic dance. It’s not pure solipsism because Samantha exists, but you might be watching a four-year-old talking to an imaginary friend — it’s that inward.’

I had imaginary friends as a child. I was lonely and severely shy to the point of being a mute. I refused to speak to another person I didn’t already know (and even when I knew them I struggled). I couldn’t understand others. I shut myself off from the world and created my own in the forms of characters, stories, scenarios. As an adult, we call this being a ‘writer’, lol.

***

Every now and again a boyfriend will look at me with concern and ask,

‘What’s wrong?’

And I usually respond with a curt ‘nothing’.

‘I can hear it in your voice’ (what can you hear?)

And then they’d ask:

‘Why don’t you love me as much as I love you?’

I’d argue back, somehow trying to make the emotions more apparent. But you can only reproduce so much before you have to admit to yourself that maybe you’re not as capable of showing as much raw, unfiltered emotion as you once believed yourself to be. Or maybe the emotions you used to feel were different, stronger and more powerful.

I wonder if my story is the reverse of Her — if I started off knowing technology’s powerful hold over my emotional landscape and have since struggled with the translation of that to the real world.

I remember as kids how my brother and I used to have profound, existential conversations late at night in our bunk beds. He had wanted so much to teach me. And he used to have these grandiose predictions about future technology that would both scare me and leave me in a state of perpetual awe-filled wonder (some of those predictions have come true but not as fast as he thought they would).

‘When you go to Loreto…’ (I was enrolled from a young age) — ‘…you’ll all have your own computers!’

‘Nooo’ I’d cry out. ‘I want to have typewriters’.

‘Nah Ree, computers are the future! Everyone will have their own laptop one day too! Fuck typewriters’, he’d say.

(We were both right, the hipster version of me eventually got my way with two typewriters that I never use, while the practical, realistic me is typing this on a Mac).

A few people and critics have remarked that Her is a chilling warning about the dangers of technology. That the film is a cautionary tale to put the smartphones down and step away from the computers and connect with people.

And I have to ask – did we watch the same film? And Spike Jonze himself asks that question for real with an irritating interviewer.

Because what if technology quite simply helps us connect with people in a more profound way? Why is that so impossible a thing to believe?

‘The relationship is real enough to make us ask what a relationship is and whether the coming so-called singularity — when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence while humans’ minds will be broadened by machines — will change the way we relate (or don’t) to one another.’

I don’t see the film as a critique of our dependency on technology. I think our boy Spike used film and technology as the medium through which he has chosen to tell a love story that transcends the human experience. It’s as simple and as powerful as that.

Our fear of technology is a paralytic one. It hinders progress, it shames those who look inward and struggle to interact on a day-to-day basis. Sure, it can have a negative impact when used to the excess or when people become addicted. But truthfully, how often is that the case?

Recently at a family gathering, most of the kids were on their phones or iPads. We staged an intervention, forcing everyone to put their devices on a table in the middle of the room and we each took turns going around the room and answering questions about our interests. The Beatles movie was on in the background and we started singing along to the song. Later on my way home, I used Shazam to tag that song and then I listened to it on Youtube, Instagrammed a photo of our hijacked devices and tweeted about the song on Twitter, humming the song all the way home.

And the outcome? I felt more connected to everyone than ever before, and that one moment of indescribable beauty had a kind of prolonged longevity, recorded for the ages, there for us to look back on. It became permanent.

I’ve had at least four previous boyfriends comment that I was addicted to my phone (so pretty much all of them). I’m one of those rare senior social media managers who has been in this industry for too long. So apart from the fact that I’m paid a lot of money to monitor and be responsible for many high profile online communities (sometimes having a second phone to do just that) that close minded attitude always irritated me and still elicits a very frustrated reaction when those concerns are voiced in a condescending manner.

What are they afraid of? That I would pay less attention to them? That something was more important to me for a nanosecond? That this was what my life had become and they’d just have to accept it? That I had made a choice to step away from the old world and catapult myself directly to the new one, with or without them?

And with every dissent from this old, tired, echoed voice, it sort of cemented my own independence and how much I didn’t want to be dragged down by the closed off archaic world. Maybe the definitions and parameters of love have changed and have already evolved into something more, something you can’t back down from or shut out as easily. Perhaps it’s a very real and tangible thing in our lives, existing in a myriad of ways.

And I can assure you that if you haven’t yet experienced it, technology will help you get there.

‘Is all this made entirely from your own imagination?’

When you glance at the so called ‘mixed reviews’ on The Great Gatsby film thus far, you’ll notice the bad reviews have something in common. They all seem obsessed with critiquing the director and his aesthetic style, rather than focusing in on the actual film itself, which you’d think is some kind of required prescience in a FILM REVIEW and all, but what do I know really? (Well I’ve seen the film, so I do know that half of them barely even addressed it in their winding critiques of Baz).

Hence why I really appreciate this well articulated Baz defence from Brendan Maclean, who, despite playing a fairly miniscule role as Klipspringer in the latest adaptation, still had to work hard to pass it off as the real deal.

The other thing that irritates me with the current ‘mixed’ reviews is how unimaginative and boring they are, just re-hashing the same criticisms that were heaped on the 1974 Jack Clayton adaptation by the far better equipped reviewer in the late Roger Ebert. The following criticisms have occured at one point or another, mainly from people yet to even see the film. You’ll notice Ebert treats the subject in a much more suitable and respectful manner than current day critics. The Clayton version was not the best example of an adaptation, but at least Ebert attempted to focus in on the film itself, rather than all the theatrics and gossip behind it. As he’s only human and obviously also a fan of the original novel, he does get defensive of it at times. The difference is that with Ebert, you really believe that the film could have been better, mainly because he goes to great lengths to explain how and why.

Here are Ebert extracts which sound all too familiar to today’s maddened fans, which is a little ironic given how tame the 1974 version is in comparison to the Baz version:

‘The Great Gatsby is a superficially beautiful hunk of a movie with nothing much in common with the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.’

‘I wonder what Fitzgerald, whose prose was so graceful, so elegantly controlled, would have made of it: of the willingness to spend so much time and energy on exterior effect while never penetrating to the souls of the characters.’

‘When the casting of Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby was announced, I objected because he didn’t fit my notion of Gatsby: He was too substantial, too assured, even too handsome.’

‘Oh, we’re told, to be sure: The sound track contains narration by Nick that is based pretty closely on his narration in the novel. But we don’t feel. We’ve been distanced by the movie’s overproduction. Even the actors seem somewhat cowed by the occasion; an exception is Bruce Dern…’

Well if he thought 1974 was an overproduction…! I no longer really subscribe to the argument that an over the top production must be at the mercy of failing to do justice to the original text. I still felt that the Baz version renders many heartbreaking, authentic moments, as well as being visually breathtaking. (My favourite scene: where Gatsy sees Daisy in Nick’s house for the first time…so many flowers! so many tears!) As you can see from the 1974 version, the treatment of this crucial scene is impeccable in comparison.The way he interpreted the ‘beautiful shirts’ scene is also really interesting and dynamic, and I think he pulls it off.

Let’s face it, The Great Gatsby is an impossible book to bring to life on screen, same with any of Fitzgerald’s books, but the essence of it is not lost here. I think Baz does the story justice and you can tell he really tried to stay as true to the text as possible (not as much appropriation here as Romeo and Juliet but still placing it in a modern pastiche). So to claim to the contrary is unfair and presumptuous. It’s a fair adaptation in that he recreates the superficiality of that world in such an entertaining and sensory way and does so by transporting you to whole other decadent era that still feels eerily familiar. And yet, in my opinion, he still remains faithful to the darker undertones of the book. It’s almost impossible to really give any moral commentary on the ‘social decay’ of the time, the way you can in a novel format. And so what if some people come away seeing only the glamorous parties? That’s bound to happen. As for our boy Leo, I’m a real fan of his in this role (I was adamantly opposed to his being cast for so long). I think he did such a stellar job of making you feel Gatsby’s suffering. If you’ve seen Catch Me if You Can, you’ll know how good Leo can be as a dazzling, charming wonder boy with a darker sorrow lurking beneath the surface.

The film might take Gatsby in a slightly different direction at times but is that really worth writing off the entire film? The fact that the main criticisms from the ‘bad reviews’ are just a free-for-all at Baz as a director and the ‘good’ reviews are actually an attempt to refer to the film itself, tells us everything we need to know already. See for yourself:

The Bad

‘What Luhrmann grasps even less than previous adapters of the tale is that Fitzgerald was, via his surrogate Carraway, offering an eyewitness account of the decline of the American empire, not an invitation to the ball.’

‘Because Luhrmann is always thirsting for the next grand gesture — the next emotional crescendo — the book’s subtlety and shading get trampled under his overblown aesthetic.’

‘It’s as if every bit of creativity dried up the moment the deal was signed. Yes, this is exactly what I would expect a Baz Luhrmann ‘Gatsby’ would look like, but is that enough?’

‘This film marks the official moment in which Baz Luhrmann’s signature style has become self-parody. So we beat on, boats against the current, jumping the shark.’

The Good

‘The cast is first-rate, the ambiance and story provide a measure of intoxication and, most importantly, the core thematic concerns pertaining to the American dream, self-reinvention and love lost, regained and lost again are tenaciously addressed.’

‘The fourth adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel scores some hits and wild misses, but DiCaprio nails the bull’s-eye.’

‘The film builds from an early small-scale Bacchanalia in a gaudy pink New York pied-a-terre to the giant-scale choreographed chaos of the Gatsby party centerpiece, the tour-de-force that makes the movie a must-see.’

It is an absolute must-see and it will be seen and talked about, studied, revived and read again by so many people and that is all that really matters.

‘prejudice always obscures the truth’

Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men (my #1 film):

 

Juror #8: It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities – we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.’

And on that note I introduce you to one of the few sane voices of reason out there, the Atticus Finch to my Juror #8, Glenn Greenwald, as he asks why is this terrorism?

 

paraphrased: 'shut yo mouth bish, he innocent until proven guilty'

paraphrased: ‘shut yo mouth bish, he innocent until proven guilty’