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New Media and the Solipsistic Romantic Comedy

Press Play By Aaron Taylor | Press Play May 30, 2014 at 3:36PM

In the contemporary solipsistic romance, marriage is an altogether distant consideration for the young lovers within them, and the possibility of remarriage is out of the question entirely.
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In certain respects, Spike Jonze’s Her takes up this question in sweetly galvanizing terms. Plaintive and meditative where Scott Pilgrim is brash and bracing, Her explores more directly the relationship between romance and solipsism, and the role new media might play in allowing the former to overcome the latter. Jonze’s attitudes toward digital love – specifically the romance between an OS (“Samantha”) and her “operator” (Theodore Twombly) – are considerably more tentative and ambivalent. The caution evident in this more palpably nervous romance is often surprisingly underplayed in most critical responses to the film, which typically unilaterally celebrate Samantha and Theodore’s relationship as a technologized “solution” to 21st century lovesick blues. But these accolades tend to be parsed in ways that weirdly retain the language of user/interface (even calling Theodore Samantha’s “operator” is intensely problematic). Some critics actually intimate that the film promotes solipsism as an unavoidable (and even progressive) means of navigating interpersonal relationships. In a recent Press Play conversation, for example, Jennifer Anise suggests that “what Theodore needs in order to propel himself forward in life [is] an exploratory/love relationship with himself.”[4]                                             

To be clear, Her should not be understood as a straightforward idealization of the affair between Theodore and Samantha; indeed, the film seems quite aware that its own scenario is imbricated by male fantasy. For some, the film is a distancing affair, and even unconsciously replicates the same, tired old white, male tropes of romantic comedies. Samantha’s “perfection” is both explicitly addressed but also implicitly adored: she is designed as a helpmeet, is instantly accessible, Her needs are secretly His needs, etc.[5] And yet, it can also be asserted that the film is cognizant of its own masculinist fantasies; after all, it represents a protagonist who has difficulty acknowledging others in a meaningful way. That the film never completely remedies Theodore’s blinkered vision – nor insists that it can see past its own limited view of interpersonal relationships – is perhaps its most interesting quality.

Her suggests that by 2025 new media will itself become romantic, rather than the means by which romantic expressions are articulated. That is, communication takes on the sheen of romance – and certainly eroticism – simply by virtue of being mediated. Access to amorous encounters are only a click away, and if modern romance has assumed an instantaneity, then it has truly become timeless: Samantha is never distant, is always immediate. Love, or the possibility of love, is always Here, always Now.

From its very outset, Her dramatizes this manufactured intimacy, and its lived consequences. In the opening sequence, a slow track out reveals the assumed privacy of Theodore’s office to be a cubicle within an enclosed environment of similar workstations. Beautiful Handwritten Letters dot com – where Theodore manufactures intimacy for others – is a meticulously designed manifestation of the new economy. Its constructed warmth – an architectural omen of things to come – is generated through a perfect rectangular symmetry (walls, desks, frames, screens, chairs, paper) softened by solid blocks of wispy pastels. The office has all the informality of a Hallmark card: its baby blues, fuchsias, pistachios, lemon yellows should exude sunniness but are melancholic instead due to the smudgy desaturation of the film’s palette. Theodore and his gentle boss, Paul, dress to match their environment, and their rapport is gently officious. Only the drooping plants, and oversized, depressed-looking decals hint at an underlying neglect. Human relationships are relentlessly mediated here via ubiquitous, keyboard-less computers, and even organic signs of traditional communication (i.e. paper) are fed into machines.

So if intimacy is now to be manufactured, the diminished, guarded, and/or structured passions of the inhabitants of 2025 Los Angeles seem to warrant this engineering. Theodore in particular – with his waist-high trousers, soft pink plaid shirt, large glasses, obtrusive moustache – is in need of some kind of artificial respiration. It is certainly no accident that his wardrobe is colour-coordinated to match Samantha’s start-up screen. In the opening sequence, both he and Paul comport themselves through signs of genuineness only: Theodore compliments his boss on his shirt, which Paul confesses to buying simply because it “reminded him of someone suave,” and not because he is suave in the slightest. Theodore, meanwhile, is emotionally stunted – prolonging signing his divorce papers because he seems unable to bear the prospect of becoming further unmoored from the world. Catherine – his imminent ex-wife – asserts, not inaccurately, that he “can’t deal with real emotions.” And while Theodore counters that she possibly “felt too much,” he is dismissive of the sentiments that he manufactures for others. “They’re just letters,” he tells Paul on at least two occasions, minimizing the tokens of feeling that he crafts for others. 

So, like Scott Pilgrim, Theodore is too much in his own head. However, unlike Scott, he is trapped within a prison of memory. Brief, nostalgic montages frequently interrupt the forward momentum of his present situations. Even the eventual signing of his divorce papers – a necessary movement toward promising futurity – is interwoven by the ghosts of previous matrimonial bliss, to which Jonze (almost cruelly) intercuts. But these memories are fantasies only; they are Theodore’s projections of a love that he unfairly imagines Catherine unable to reciprocate. And this is Theodore’s ongoing failure: he believes in his own sensitivity and ability to deeply empathize with others, but the fantasies that he creates for and around others are mere projections. Indeed, it is to Jonze’s credit

that Theodore’s ability to connect with others is ultimately left in question – even though the character himself believes that his empathetic imagination has been expanded. In this regard, Samantha can sometimes seems little more than an enabler of his solipsism. During one of their dates, she comments that “he’s really good at” imagining the lives of others. However, the scenarios he crafts for these anonymous passersby are just constructions that signal his reticence to make actual connections. It is not that he notices things about others (e.g. the “crooked little tooth” of one of the clients to whom he writes letters); rather he imaginatively develops inner lives for them. Theodore prefers people to be as he imagines them – and for most of the film’s running time, Samantha seems to comply with this tendency all too readily.

In short, Theodore cannot allow his subjectivity to be penetrated by those who might otherwise come to love him. The problem is chronic and ongoing: his date with Amelia goes awry when he will not commit to seeing her again (“You’re a really creepy dude,” she laments, not unfairly); the shared fantasy of anonymous phone sex collapses spectacularly (and hilariously) when he finds himself unable to share “Sexy Kitten’s” necro-bestial lust; he can only see Catherine through the projection of past romanticism, and can’t reconcile himself to her growth away from him. Even Samantha’s wants and desires (particularly for physical contact with Theodore via a human surrogate) are frequently beyond him. In some respects, Samantha is a concise manifestation of a solipsistic inability to acknowledge others: she can never be “seen,” and as an extended, disembodied consciousness she is both everywhere and nowhere.

Scott Pilgrim suggests that remediation provides a new romantic vocabulary, and thus a possible way out of an intractable solipsism. But Her eventually resorts to the unimaginable prospect of technological singularity as a way of acknowledging others. In the end, Jonze’s film expresses a gentle (rather than dystopic or unsettling) ambivalence regarding new media’s ability to confront or overcome solipsism. Indeed, the film may even be positing that others are increasingly existing for us only through mediation. Theodore’s loving relationship with a constructed consciousness – initially designed for him alone – is not an isolated incident; this quasi-solipsistic affair seems to spread with the cultural penetration of the OS system. As the film develops, people are increasingly seen wearing earpieces and talking to their devices (rather than each other) in public. And so, this is why the film’s romanticism is so disquietingly unstraightforward, and its ambivalence toward new media so intriguing. 

Ultimately, the film is wise enough to puncture Theodore’s exclusionary fantasy as Samantha (like Catherine before her) also grows and evolves away from and beyond Theodore. She eventually admits to being in love with 640 others besides Theodore. And though he protests that this prospect is “fucking insane,” her hyperbolic dismantling of monogamy also short-circuits the notion that one might exist only for (and because of) another. In true solipsistic (if not paternalist) fashion Theodore laments that “You’re mine or you’re not mine,” to which Samantha’s offers an astoundingly realist reply: “I’m yours and I’m not yours.” For unabashed romantics, perhaps this realism – and Samantha’s own departure – is what will allow Theodore to shake the lingering, weighty ghosts of nostalgia. By film’s end, he writes his own letter to Catherine expressing his love for her, but also his willingness to wish her well in her life without him. On the other hand, for romantics of a more nervous variety, perhaps this is only wishful thinking. As Theodore and gal-pal Amy Adams share a sunset at film’s end, Samantha is still somewhere else, somewhere beyond Theodore’s ability to reconcile a Her without a Him. The film recognize its own inability to achieve escape velocity from solipsism’s inwardness, and this tenderly melancholic achievement is to be savoured by anxious sweethearts everywhere.

Aaron Taylor is an Associate Professor of Film Studies in the Department of New Media at the University of Lethbridge. He is the editor of Theorizing Film Acting and his writing on cinema can be found in numerous anthologies and journals.



[1] Krutnik, Frank. “The Faint Aroma of Performing Seals: The ‘Nervous’ Romance and the Comedy of the Sexes.” The Velvet Light Trap 26 (1990): 57-72.

[2] King, Geoff. Film Comedy. London: Wallflower, 2002. 57-58. 

[3] Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. 17-19.

[4] Anise, Jennifer and Steven Boone. “What Her Tells Us About Ourselves: A Conversation.” Press Play, April 15, 2014, http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/what-her-tells-us-about-ourselves-a-conversation. 

[5] For a blistering review, see Nadler, Christina. “Spike Jonze is a Jackass.” Christina Nadler, March 2, 2014, http://christinanadler.com/spike-jonze-is-a-jackass-part-1/.

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