Her Spike Jonze (USA 2013) Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johanson
viewed: Empire Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne; 18 Feb 2014; ticket: £4.00Loony toons
As I watched Spike Jonze's 'Her' my question was: what was it selling?
Initially it looked like advert for the ideology of personal development wrapped up in a Guardian Angel type fable, the role of the disembodied presence being appropriated by an Operating System called Samantha.
Spike Jonze's (writer and director) scenario posits a world in vague fuzzy future peopled by characters borrowed from a Bill Viola photo installation of the mid naughties; the 'Her' characters file past us on the way from one place to another their faces and comportment defined by a sort of sedated slo-mo contentment their voices resonating with anodyne honesty and reassurance.
For reasons know only to himself, Theodore Twombly, Jonze's male protagonist is named for the American abstract painter, Cy Twombly who died in 2011. Perhaps Jonze owns work by Cy who is a lyrical and even romantic painter. Perhaps Jonze intended the use of the Twombly name as some sort of gesture or homage. Cy Twombly certainly as a painter developed and built on his work during his long career; though whether his later work is preferred to the earlier, or vice versa, is a matter of taste. Unlike Spike Jonze, Cy Twombly would not have confused development with the changes brought about by ageing and experience.
The self development 'sell' hawked by Jonze amounts to no more than rehashed Californian self help mantras. One of these mantras intones that relationships when they fail, and perhaps even when they don't, constitute a kind of disease that needs a fix. There is a current of contemporary developmental psychology thought that sees relationships as problematic from the point of view of 'individual growth'. The theory is that in relationships dominances develop leading the co-respondents to sabotage each others potential, each trying to suppress or undermine or exploit the other. In a culture that adopts individualism as its key value the belief is that the operant function of a relationship is promote 'the potential' of the self. The individual is more important than any grouping: dyadic triadic or collective.
And everyone has 'potential'.
Relationships can make 'real' change in individuals impossible. It is no surprise when Alan Watts, one of the original 'gurus' of the California alternative personal growth trail puts in a voiced appearance. (“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it move with it and join the dance.” Alan Watts) Watts was certainly one of the thinkers most influential in promoting the ideology of perpetual personal change and increasing acceleration, that Jonze is selling in 'Her'. In as much as the object of the questioning and programmes, such as they are, is to make the individual feel 'good' about themselves, the movement quickly becomes an ideology of narcissism.
To the extent that this is a film about talking about relationships, 'Her' targets a female audience. Talk in the form of dialogue covers the film wall to wall: (in the same way that mindless destructive action wall to walls in the 'boys' movies) it is the stuff of soap opera, soap opera talk. Spike Jonze's dialogue is like retreadings from Friends, Desperate Housewives etc. The critical point is the vacuum within which all the talk-talk happens. Soap operas are located in parallel universes, designed to resemble real life, but have no such connection. 'Her' takes place in such a parallel world. A sort of fuzzily defined future where Computer Operating Systems possess Artificial Intelligence, and the characters work in soft communication industries: Theodore works for a company that writes personal letters for people, implying intimate communication skills have died.
'Her' dialogue has the surface look of being about something real, but lacks the context that means that it can signify anything actual. Context is everything in relation to dialogue. Where dialogue is detached from contexts that give shape and depth to meaning, then what is spoke in the situations contrived by the script, is disconnected from grounds about which we might care or understand. Simply put without context situations are meaningless, without consequence. And all the emotive cross referencing self questioning and self agonising that Jonze inserts into the 'Her' dialogue between his protagonists is spurious. 'Her' context and setting are vaporific and lack significance. The dialogue signifies nothing more than an exaggerated swollen sense of self importance.
'Her' is about selling narcissism wrapped up in the myth of personal development and change.
And it's all wrapped up.
'Her' is a prime example of the inflated ambition of contemporary film making. Woody Allen once used to know how to make concise funny Romcoms. Interestingly most were set in NYC which gave them some kind of context, as did Woody's jewishness. And Allen knew how to deliver a film in 90 minutes. Jonze takes over two hours to deliver 'Her' and his film is tortuously slow lacking in basic filmic tensions and laboriously tedious in coming to its conclusion. During the screening sometime in the middle of the movie, the dialogue was punctuated by loud snores coming from some one asleep in the stalls. That about sums it up as there's lot of slo-mo in Her, much of the film passes by in Spike Jonze's comatose state of film making, accompanied by a load of dreary tinkly music attributed to Samantha the Operating System.
And lastly a question to which I don't know the answer. Samantha the disembodied OS, at the end of the script passes, with her new chum Alan, onto another higher plane, another dimension of existence, leaving Theodore behind. She has migrated in accordance with her destiny.
OS/OT = operating system = operating Thetan. Is this an allegorical movie driven by the belief system of Scientology?