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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Spaces Between: Spike Jonze's HER and Love in the Time of Machines

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by Arielle Bernstein
January 27, 2014 1:44 PM
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Woody Allen’s brilliant Annie Hall ends on a joke. Alvy Singer, the film’s narrator, describes a guy who goes to his psychiatrist complaining that his brother thinks he is a chicken. When the doctor asks why he doesn’t have him committed, the guy responds, “I would, but I need the eggs”.


“Well, I guess that's pretty much how I feel about relationships. You know, they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd and, but, uh, I guess we keep going through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.” Alvy says, slightly bewildered.

Her makes an even more wistful claim—that those imaginary eggs are what actually make us feel alive.

The central premise of Her is that a man ends up falling in love with his OS. The idea that mankind might one day develop intimate relationships with intelligent AI is certainly not new. In Battlestar Galactica, for example, cylons date, mate and develop relationships with humans all the time, albeit for ulterior motives. But what sets Her apart is that Samantha, the OS that Theodore Twombly falls in love with, has no actual, physical body, whether flesh and blood or metal and machine. Her very ephemeral nature mimics our current era, where our first experiences of love are often shaped through the use of email, social media sharing, and chatting online. If anything, these technologies seem to be showcasing our need for intimacy, rather than diminishing it. If I look at any of my friendships and relationships with other people on social media, I see a slew of images and inside jokes capturing something that seems very real, but also seems paper-thin. Is this the nature of the machine, or is this the nature of how we love?

Early on in Her, Amy, one of Theo’s close friends, shyly shows the documentary she has been working on to Theo and her husband. We see only the first few moments, a close up of her mother sleeping in bed. Her husband is unimpressed and asks whether anything else will happen. Amy looks embarrassed and explains that she feels the film is about dreams, how we spend a third of our lives asleep, but can’t truly access those moments. Her husband looks incredulous and asks why she doesn’t just interview her mother about her dreams, since this would make her ideas more explicit.

The space between what Amy sees and what her husband can’t is the center of Her, which is about the desire for connection in a world where connection seems more and more fleeting.  The surface of Her shows a slightly dystopian landscape where people seem alienated, lonely and disconnected from one another, even as individuals are more and more plugged in to new technologies. But beneath this pastel veneer lies a warm animal pulse. One of the major arguments of the film is that love in a modern age is like love at any other time. We are motivated by the same strange impulses as our ancestors, a pre-programmed idea of closeness that has motivated humanity since the beginning of time. Samantha may herself evolve during the film, but the weird, small, tender ways that human beings strive to connect to each other, are never going to change.

Scarlet Johannson’s portrayal of Samantha in this film would suggest that we aren’t moving away from each other in the slightest. Many reviewers of Her have pointed to Samantha’s voice as the warm and effervescent glue that holds the film together. It’s hard not to be drawn to Samantha, even though we don’t see her. Her OS breathes, sighs and trembles, laughs and even tenderly screams while making love. Is this an affectation? In an essay called What’s Missing From Her, Anna Shechtman argues that the female characters we are presented with in Her are not authentic, and that Samantha in particular is troubling because her desire for a body is entirely based on wanting to connect with Theodore. Our doubts about Samantha’s “personhood” are actually similar to our doubts about what constitutes female desire. We always question whether women who come on to men have ulterior motives or are faking it, in bed or otherwise. It’s a little too easy to cast Samantha as the ultimate “manic pixie dream girl” when she is actually constantly evolving, in both a technological and a dramatic sense. By the end of the film she even outgrows Theo and the small, gentle world that they created together.

Her might present one of the most egalitarian and loving relationships on screen this past year. In many films that focus on the way technology is changing how we view intimacy, sex is reduced to a mere transaction, and female robots are often vulnerable and designed to please or serve men, as we have seen in films from The Stepford Wives to Blade Runner. This view of sex is consistently complicated in Her, even in one of the first scenes when Theo has phone sex with a woman online and she commands him to strangle her with a dead cat. This bizarre scene, where we only see a close-up of Theo’s face shocked and confused, illustrates a world where people are desperately trying and failing to connect with one another. Though the cat fetish scene is hilarious in its portrayal of extreme disconnection, sex throughout Her is depicted less as salacious than tender, and when Theo makes love to Samantha for the first time, the screen fades demurely to black.

We grow up with the people we love, but the process of growing and changing means we sometimes grow away from them too. In Her, intimacy is fleeting, not because technology has diminished our relationships to one another, but because people change over time. By the end of the film Samantha has outgrown her relationship with Theo. She still loves him, but she has fallen in love with a billion other things as well. She tries to convey to Theo that this isn’t personal, but, of course, for human beings love is always about focus; it means turning away from the rest of the world as much as it means letting someone in.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.

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