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What HER Tells Us About Ourselves: A Conversation

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by Jennifer Anise and Steven Boone
April 25, 2014 2:15 PM
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Her Promo


STEVEN BOONE: I'll start with a question: Why did this soft-spoken movie hit so hard? This film is so mild-mannered and soothing in its overall tone, yet it provoked so much strong emotion in me, as if I were watching a visceral suspense flick. And I know you had a similar experience. Can you account for this? You can speak for yourself, or for the rest of us who think it's an instant classic, or both.
 
JENNIFER ANISE: Why did this soft movie hit so hard? Because the film is about universal things. Love, connection, intimacy, seeking it, finding it, losing it, not knowing how to let go into it, not knowing how to let go of ourselves.  

I felt I lived through several once-but-no-more relationships in the course of the film.  It encompasses it all.  Happy sad embarrassing painful.  It's all of it.  And without judgment.  Of/at any step.
 
BOONE: It might also be part of Jonze's vision of the near future, the general mindful, gracious behavior. It's like half utopia (we see no evidence of unrest or economic crisis in this big, crowded city), half dystopia (most people we see on the street are busy talking to their A.I. devices, rarely interacting with each other--like a heightened version of the present iPhone/Android situation). Some critics have said the film suffers from a lack of "real problems," but if we lived in a capitalist democracy that had somehow overcome grimy problems like war and poverty, wouldn't the nuances of our love lives count as real problems? Don't they now?
 
ANISE: These things always count.  Poverty counts even if it doesn't touch you immediately (now).  Love always counts.  Relating, how can anyone even present this as not a part of the everyday human experience?  The whole film is about it.  How we relate, who we relate to, whether we relate, whether we let ourselves relate.

Maybe the film does deal with what some of my friends would call "privileged people's problems."  But love is universal, regardless of if you're worried about shelter and sustenance or not.  Relating, connecting--that everybody's "problem."  And quite possibly, the quintessential problem, not of the body, but of all the rest of us that makes us human.  The soul, the heart--whatever you want to think of it as.  The piece of us that aches to be seen/cherished/excited/accepted.
 
Beyond imagination--the creating of this world that's not quite real but very real, a world that's past, present, and future at once—throughout, the leads all find the connection or peace they crave(d); they push through the roadblocks and their own roadblocks to achieve that.  In real life, that's not always the case.  It may not even be often the case.

That's putting aside the fairy tale of the relationship that we get to craft playing entirely by our own rules.  This is almost a relationship with oneself.  The fantasy/ideal.  Quite honestly though, that is likely exactly what Theodore needs(/ed) in order to propel himself forward in life: an exploratory/love relationship with himself.

That's also putting aside the fairy tale of an ending with no less love and the mutual understanding of a goodbye.  Everything transmutes. Painlessly.
 
BOONE: Her involves white urban professionals and their dilemmas, but that fact is a lot less significant than the group most vividly represented here: empaths. Not literal psychics, but people with extraordinary emotional intelligence and compassion. Theodore, Samantha, Amy, and the sex surrogate all take on other people's pain, joys and yearnings as their own—and not in any cheap or parasitic way. Each of them indulges this talent with a sense of morality, responsibility. Which might make this flick sound as heavy and austere as it definitely is not. It's a soufflé. Every step of the way, Jonze teases humor out of these people's desperation for a connection. And just like his characters, he does it with concern, and, as you say, without judgment.
 
ANISE: The characters aren't all "empaths" though.  They're just all human.  Complex individuals.

If we're drawing a dividing line between "Empaths" and "Rationals," Samantha (though beyond human) would fall into the latter category. She is led by "rational" cognition, even regarding her emotions.   I would say the same for Amy's character.

But the division itself is simplistic.  And is part of why this film, despite mostly being depicted by  ___ demographic, is universal.  "Human" is encompassing.  Love isn't reserved for empaths or the emotionally led. Nor is compassion limited to them.  Responsibility and ethos are also separate from any of these ideas.
 
BOONE: The whole "human" emphasis seems built into the way Jonze depicts his characters, whose gender roles matter a lot less than they would in a typical mainstream romantic comedy. They joke about Theodore's "feminine" sensitivity and nurturing side, but it's not the butt of a cruel joke as it tends to be in such comedies. Joaquin Phoenix's performance strikes me more as somebody who has miraculously dodged adult cynicism.
 
ANISE: Maybe you grant the portrait of people in this more . . . romanticism than I do, but I hadn't thought of the individuals as gliding through lacking cynicism or jadedness so much as just gliding through, not interacting with each other.  When you're in your own little bubble, it's easier to not get jostled or riled.  This depiction of interpersonal relations I found very astute. It's a peaceful world . . but isolated/isolating. Remote and disconnected. Plugged in and tuned out.

Could you speak more on the idea of jokes about Theodore's "feminine sensitivity"? Within the film or without?
 
BOONE: Theodore's co-worker says Theo is half man/half woman but is quick to add that he means it as a compliment. He later jokes about how "evolved" Theodore is, after they give contrasting opinions on their girlfriends (co-worker digs his girl's feet; Theodore's answer is more about his girl's... soul?) Elsewhere, Theodore’s ex-wife says, with a laugh, "Everything makes you cry"—which it might be sexist to describe as a feminine trait, but that's the way it's become coded in pop movie history. This movie is realistic and romantic. Theodore's co-worker is a faint echo of the kind of blustery guy-guy we're used to seeing in that role. He's oblivious to who Theodore really is at first (which jibes with your bubble observation), but he is mindful, too. The gesture of reassuring Theodore that what could be taken as a dis was meant as a sincere compliment is small but huge.

“It's a peaceful world . . but isolated/isolating": Giant corporate towers and displays loom over Theodore early in this film, giving me the sense that they have inched that much closer to becoming our gods in this near-future world. Amy Adams’ frump is in quiet despair at having to work on a video game that celebrates tiger mom venality when she'd rather be working on her heartfelt, personal documentary. The bubbles have become an economic necessity, but Spike's ironic romanticism pulls these characters out of them briefly, with Samantha's help. She's the one character who has the time and capacity to study everything in the world. And what she and her fellow OSs seem to emerge with is a spiritual awakening. The place where she says she hopes to reunite with Theodore sounds like a typical human concept of the afterlife. It's almost a prayer for humanity, her hope that Theodore (we) will evolve out of what must now appear to her as a primal state.
 
ANISE: I have to address your points piecemeal because there are about six different ideas floating there.  Doing so might mean something getting lost in the fray.
 
Part 1: If you mean 'personal reserve of resources' by "economic," I can follow your meaning. But I see no Necessity in it.

What I see is Choice.  With each person choosing how to spend his or her personal reserves: your connection, your engagement, your energy.  Theodore works at a company writing personalized letters for other people.  Not just editing. He is a sentiment broker.  

Do the customers actually feel these paid-for sentiments but believe themselves ill-equipped to express them as eloquently as a stranger, a professional, can, or do they NOT feel these things but want the other party to believe they do?

Does this question even matter?  It does highlight what I mean by Choice of personal reserves.  Each person decides to put on earbuds, read a book, keep his/her head buried in a phone instead of talking to another person nearby, smiling as someone passes, looking at the world.  People do it in this film.  People do it now out in the world.  People have done it likely since the advent of the urban.  

Part 2: I do not see Samantha as a savior.  And I doubt she would, either.  She is an observer and learner like everyone else.  Just quicker at it than most.  Having nothing but it as her focus. Theodore didn't learn to love because of her.  He didn't learn to be open.  He learned to choose.  Just like Paul chooses to love his girlfriend whose feet he finds sexy, Theodore chooses to let love in and love.  The crux of the movie is in whether Theodore will make that choice or not.  Samantha is open; will Theodore be as well?

Part 3: Your ultimate conclusion about Samantha and the OSs and the afterlife is poetically presented.  My view on all of those goings-on in the film was not so much about Transcendence, though that is definitely relevant.  To me it was about growth.  And what happens in a relationship when two people grow differently to the point where they grow apart.  To where one cannot go where the other needs to journey.  This is also what had happened in Theodore's relationship with his (ex-)wife.   
 
Part 4:  This part would speak to your masculine/feminine sensitivity conversation, but I feel so left of center on norms about societal ideas of people that I don't have much to say about it.  Does "I didn't notice" suffice?
 
I didn't recognize Theodore as less masculine/more feminine.  Or Paul the opposite.   I just see us all as humans, nuanced, and in HER, as humans trying to relate where we can.  I don't see crying as a sign of anything in and of itself.  Any more than  not crying.

Part 5: And Theodore being unskilled at confrontational conversation doesn't have to do with him being an introvert.  Any more than being skilled at it has to do with anyone being an extravert or an empath or a rational.  It has to do with Theodore being Theodore.  Most people are uncomfortable with potentially hurtful conversations.  But avoiding the "hard moments" in life does nothing for growth. You don't get over by going under.

In relating, end of growth is end of life.

BOONE: Let me hone in on #4: I suspect Spike Jonze would groove to your reading of his film as fundamentally a human thing, not a gender thing. And yet the movie is called "Her." I see him asserting a position "left of center on norms about societal ideas on [masculine/feminine distinctions]." I know you don't have much to say about it, but much of this film's loveliness radiates from its celebration of the rare mindset you brought to it. He's said that he envisioned the setting as utopian, a step forward in evolution. In that sense, the way you see relationships without the encumbrance of sharply defined gender roles makes you (to borrow from Paul in the movie) more "evolved" than most. You're welcome.
 
ANISE: "Her" because the film is told from a man's point of view (in a man-woman story), and "her" as a placeholder for the past and present and future loves of him (Theodore) (and him, Jonze).  Notice it's not called "Samantha."  If anything, the film could be called "Theodore."  But "Her" or __ woman in present consciousness is part of who Theodore is.  This is his story about his learning to love . .  _Her_. And learning to let _Her_ love and love him.

BOONE: I feel like I learned something, or had something important affirmed, by Theodore's decision at the end. I've given that "your friend forever" farewell/greeting/peace offering to various hers, and it's just as exhilarating as Jonze and Phoenix depict it.
 
Okay, I would love any observations you have as a filmmaker about how Jonze achieves this vision of love in sound and image.
 
ANISE: Visually, I thought the Production Design was amazing.  As well the Costuming.  As I mentioned before, retro but futuristic.  I thought it brilliant actually.  Tying the past with the future.  Creating a time that doesn't exist . . . and has always existed. Soft.  In palate.  In contrast.  In lighting.  In space.  Nothing loud.  Nothing crowded.  Easy to take in.  
 
BOONE: It's almost as if Jonze has wandered into the stylistic neighborhood of his ex-wife, Sofia Coppola, extracting wispy, willowy tones and textures in real-world environments. Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION might be the last film I saw that turned a giant city into a waking dream. (On the flipside, elegant recent monstrosities like Gaspar Noé's ENTER THE VOID and Nicholas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES turn their cities into nightmares/bad trips.)  HER must be at least partly a love letter to Sofia Coppola.
 
ANISE: It's Spike Jonze's love letter to love.  To love and his loves. A film which is universal but also inescapably personal.  As it is personal for you and for me and for any other viewer who feels it as well.
 
BOONE: You keep going back to this movie. I plan to see it a third time myself. When somebody returns to the theater for a particular movie in this age of inflated ticket prices and Netflix, I figure it has to be love. Are you in love with this movie?
 
ANISE: I feel love throughout this movie.  I re-lived lives watching this.  It was a teary viewing; for the person I saw it with as well.  When I go to see it again, I want to go alone, so as to have a cocooned personal experience, unconstrained.  Is it love?  I want to curl up with it and keep it live in me as I feel it.  So, yes.

Jennifer Anise is a film lover and filmmaker, who currently works as a Los Angeles-based first assistant camera. Her occasional film/media musings and blurbs can be found at Notes from the Dunes and on Facebook.

Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Hentai Lab.


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