JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Theodore and Samantha physically consummate their love for one another.

Wholly smitten with Samantha, Theodore later dances joyously for her at an isolated, vacation cabin in the woods.

The next morning Theodore, however, an “unartificial mind,” senses that Samantha yearns for something “not tethered to time and space.”

Eventually deserted by Samantha, Theodore takes comfort in his friendship with Amy. They look out together at the dawn of a futuristic Los Angeles (largely filmed in Shanghai) from the rooftop of their building.

Theodore often lives in his imagination. Catherine is quietly upset but nevertheless signs the divorce papers during her lunch with him. Theodore looks away as she does so.

He recalls instead his past happiness with her.

Can Theodore distinguish between the different images of women that he experiences? Samantha displays photographs of Theodore's prospective blind date, including one showing her with a young child.

Theodore meets his blind date over drinks and dinner.

Theodore later recalls his blind date as he is about to consummate his relationship with Samantha. Which image is the authentic blind date? Does it matter to Theodore?

As Samantha acknowledges, Theodore can — far better than Samantha — empathetically imagine the feelings of those around him, in this case conjuring up the life story of a couple with children.

Yet what are we to make of Theodore’s imagining of himself surrounded by children and then joyously holding one aloft? In the meantime he expresses his fear that he will never feel anything more and has sex with his OS, Samantha.

And what of his image of Catherine, too, holding a baby?

 

 

Her: a critique of the Hollywood romance

It is possible to read Her as a traditional, Hollywood romance or melodrama, and, in fact, many reviewers have interpreted the movie so that Samantha’s artificial intelligence is, in effect, incidental to the emotional narrative of the movie.[16] [open endnotes in new window] Yet Her also self-critiques its Hollywood ending and in the process undercuts its apparently transcendent vision of artificial intelligence. Its momentary but repeated incongruities in the characters and events depicted briefly awaken us from the dream-like state the movie would otherwise induce. It thereby exposes the cultural dualism that manipulates and condemns its audience to an enjoyment of its romantic vision.

If the movie ends romantically at night on a Los Angeles rooftop, it opens deceptively with a close-up, frontal shot of Theodore at work. Seemingly confessional as he speaks, he talks lovingly of the time he first fell in love with Chris and how he now understands that he “was part of this whole larger thing, just like our parents, and our parents’ parents.” It is a wildly romantic moment as Theodore movingly speaks these words even as he dictates the writing of them. Yet as the shot continues, there is a dissonance introduced as Theodore speaks and writes of how it’s already been “50 years since you married me” and how he still feels “like the girl I was when you first turned on the lights.” We see a series of photographs of Chris and Loretta, once young and now an old couple, and it becomes apparent that Theodore is writing for and playing the role in this couple of the older woman, Loretta. In this supposedly future world of pervasive and omniscient computer technology the sensitive and seemingly empathetic Theodore represents a reversal of the traditional, gender role.

Theodore begins recomposing his letter, and the camera tracks screen right so that we see and overhear other workers at cubicles likewise composing such letters on behalf of others. It is slowly revealed that Theodore works for a company named “beautifulhandwrittenletters.com” that does nothing but write such letters—itself doubly incongruous in that such letters are composed by company employees and the seemingly authentic handwriting of these letters is, in fact, a facsimile produced by a computer. While Theodore is unusually talented in the perceptiveness he invests in such letters, he is nevertheless dismissive of, affectless about, his talent. It is a skill set that he later easily applies to random persons around him, yet these letters mean nothing to him. As he repeatedly says to those who praise him for this skill, they are “just letters.” Merely skilled workers, such as Theodore, produce the most personal of communications.

If, as Samantha later claims, “the past is just a story we tell ourselves,”[17] then Theodore in his work also blurs, if unthinkingly, the line between that past and our present when he recreates that past in the form of his empathetically composed letters on behalf of others. His career success as a writer is ironically premised upon his deceptive mediation in the personal lives of others and is contrasted with his own failure in his personal life. Indeed, Her as a movie blurs—and paradoxically thereby underscores—the distinction between artifice and reality and the role of social mediation in creating that distinction. Samantha successfully promotes Theodore’s letter writing career—and not incidentally thereby imitates Theodore’s successful career at writing letters—by enabling him to publish his letters, through an outside publisher named Crown Point Press, under the title “Letters From Your Life by Theodore Twombly.” That conceit, however, its artifice in transforming Theodore’s mediated reality into commercial fiction, only acts to inject an awareness of the reality that exists beyond the movie’s fiction. Crown Point Press is, in fact, a publisher of art and printed materials and is located in San Francisco at the address shown on the screen at the return address on the envelope that Theodore retrieves from his mailbox. In a similar way, the occasionally overexposed shots, such as Theodore lying at the beach or Theodore and Catherine frolicking happily together, are disconcerting in suggesting that we are watching a home movie rather than a tightly constructed, commercial release. They momentarily disconnect us from the otherwise pleasurable, well-constructed, Hollywood romance by exposing the mechanics of the medium.

Theodore participates in a culture in which reality is always mediated through imaginary constructions. In the opening scenes of the film, as Theodore leaves his workplace and heads home, he instructs the barely visible, hands-free, computer in his ear (that nearly everyone in the crowded subway wears) to “play melancholy song,” and then to “play [a] different melancholy song,” when he doesn’t find the first song to his satisfaction. He wraps himself up in a melancholic mood, though not such that he cannot simultaneously click through his emails. There is one from Amy, who says she misses the old, “fun” Theodore. “Let’s get him out,” she urges, as though Theodore were a fictional character in his own life. There is a news item about a pregnant celebrity that leads him to view on his device provocative, nude images of that celebrity. Theodore’s sexual encounters are no less mediated than everything else in his life. That nude image reappears as a sexual stimulant for him when later at home he identifies himself as “Big Guy 4 by 4” and, symbolically dropping his eyeglasses to the floor, engages in phone sex with the voice of a woman who identifies herself only as “Sexy Kitten.” Both participants remain alone in this phone fantasy. “Choke me with that dead cat!” “Sexy Kitten” screams, wholly excluding—and leaving Theodore unconsummated—from her fantasy.

Significantly, the life size images of the holographic, video game at Theodore’s home mingle with the images of Theodore’s memories of his younger self in which he frolics with Catherine. In the same way that Theodore substitutes his interaction with the video game’s Alien Child for a relationship with others, so, too, the recaptured images of Catherine and Theodore happily married, Theodore’s fantasies, flash on the screen from time to time and become for Theodore a substitute for a woman whom he had once loved. “I like being married,” Theodore later tells Samantha, while acknowledging that he had “hid himself” from Catherine and left her alone in the relationship. It is the idea—or image—of marriage, however, to which he is attracted. “I love you so much I’m gonna to fucking kill you,” Catherine says to Theodore in the first such memory, sadly conveying in this unholy mix of eroticism and death the genuine depth of feeling that may once have existed.

Theodore develops his relationships with others in the form of limitless, self-created images. Theodore’s blind date with a beautiful graduate in computer science from Harvard (Olivia Wilde)—and whom we observe from a photograph has a child – is more a fantasy on his part than a conversation seeking to know someone else. Thus, ironically Theodore talks at length with his blind date about the Alien Child in his video game, as though this video character were real. Similarly, while initially remarking upon how romantic Theodore is, his blind date soon compares Theodore to a “puppy dog” which she had rescued, because both are so “fucking cute.” He, in turn, then compares her to a tiger and insists that she imagine him as a dragon. Reality only intrudes when they touch one another by kissing. She insists on the “proper” use of his tongue and becomes angry with him when she suspects that he might not call her after tonight. At her age she can no longer waste her time if Theodore cannot “be serious,” and she pointedly concludes that he is a “creepy dude,” notwithstanding her own behavior.

In retrospect, nearly all of the film’s characters are “creepy”—or “weird,” as Theodore initially describes Samantha. Theodore’s friend Amy, who has just spoken about wanting to allow herself joy, has her “Perfect Mom” for the video game that she has developed hump the game's refrigerator, laughing at the performance together with Ellie, her OS with whom she has become friends. Amy’s ex-husband Charles, immediately following his divorce from Amy, joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence. The commercially successful Catherine, who writes about behavioral difficulties, such as “synaptic behavioral routines,” can barely contain her own rage at Theodore. While regretful at signing the divorce papers, she later is roused to anger, telling their waitress,

“He couldn’t handle me so he wanted to put me on Prozac. Now he’s madly in love with his laptop.”

Catherine seems no less emotionally distraught than is Theodore in his emotional stasis.

There is a schizophrenic tension to these characters. Samantha, in fact, describes that feeling of dislocation, of existential nausea, when she posits,

“Okay, so this might be a really weird thought. What if you could erase from your mind that you’d ever seen a human body and then you saw one. Imagine how strange it would look. It would be this really weird, gangly, awkward organism. And you'd think: why are all these parts where they are?”[18]

While Theodore resists Samantha’s projection—“there’s probably some Darwinian explanation for it all”—Samantha pursues her thought. “Don’t be so boring,” she says to him. “I’m just saying, for example, what if your butthole was in your armpit?” Both characters laugh nervously, and Samantha draws an image of the “butthole” in an armpit —with two men engaged in sex—as though in an effort to make understandable that which cannot be expressed but is no less real. That Theodore can readily emote and cry, as commented upon by several characters, suggests the extent to which he has become inured to but pained by that tension whose source remains unknown to him. He consistently experiences a sense of emotional confusion and anxiety.

As an artificial intelligence in the form of a disembodied voice, Samantha is the logical extension of Theodore and his imagined world. In that respect, she is no different than fictional characters who appeal to the imagination of those seeking only a reflection of themselves and the world as experienced by them. Traditionally in genres that are male gendered this has taken the form of women who engage in explicit sex in order to satisfy the fantasies of men portrayed as having been culturally domesticated and thereby sexually deprived. Film noir movies, such as Out of the Past (1947) and Pitfall (1948), typify this depiction and in the process its men often display a misogynistic fear of and hatred for women.

More recently, as men are increasingly portrayed as sensitive and partaking of what has traditionally been gendered as the female role, women offer the comfort of emotions normally associated with domesticity. Thus, while Chelsea (Sasha Grey) in The Girlfriend Experience (2009) is a prostitute, that role is incidental to the emotional comfort she offers to the men who pay her. She acts as a mirror in reflecting the emotional needs of her client-consumers. She is also a cipher to the audience and to herself, so that sadly she loses herself when she comes to believe in her self-created fantasy about a man whom she has not met. Indeed, women no less than men are increasingly seduced by their own cultural, schizophrenic fantasies. Margot (Michelle Williams) in Take this Waltz (2011) falls for Daniel (Luke Kirby), himself no less a dreamer than she is and who lures her with his imaginative, sexual seduction of words. In the film’s final shot she is alone at an amusement park where she rides the “scrambler” and the song "Video Killed The Radio Star" plays, a song about the passing of an era, how the new technology has killed off the old.

Like these characters Samantha is also a reflection of a self-created fantasy, namely that of Theodore for whom she has been programmed. Nevertheless, to read and react to emotions, as Samantha herself acknowledges is part of her program and as she, in fact, clearly does increasingly well, is not the equivalent of possessing those emotions.[19] The successful programming that enables Samantha’s algorithms to process data, including memories, does not mean that she possesses the ability to act independently and make choices based upon organic needs.

Significantly, therefore, Samantha wholly parallels Catherine in her relationship with Theodore. Thus, for example, Catherine is upset when Theodore at lunch implies that she cannot know what real emotions are:

“What? Say it. Am I really that scary? Say it. How do I know what?!”

Samantha is equally upset at Theodore’s comment that she cannot understand what it’s like to lose someone about whom you care. Where Theodore recalls, and the film projects, images of Theodore and Catherine years ago happy together, including at the very moment that Catherine is struggling to sign the divorce papers, the film likewise projects a montage of Theodore and Samantha enjoying themselves, though Samantha is present only in the form of the handheld device in Theodore’s shirt pocket with the lens facing outward from which she perceives the world.

The romance between Theodore and Samantha is a projection of Theodore’s imagination, a reproduction and enactment of his feelings. Theodore asks as “Maria” in a love letter to “Roberto,”

“Roberto, will you always come home to me and tell me about your day?”

Later embodied in the surrogate form of Isabella (Portia Doubleday), complete with mini-surveillance camera resembling a mole and an earpiece, Samantha greets Theodore at the door. “Honey, I’m home,” she says, evoking the iconic line from the nostalgic, black and white world of Pleasantville (1998), and then adds, “How was your day?” Theodore insists that Samantha is “not just a computer” and that he has loved her in a way that he never loved anyone else. Yet for Theodore’s recollected images of Theodore and Catherine happily together, Catherine simply substitutes a piano piece that she is composing and in which she deliberately evokes and thereby reproduces, like a photograph or a memory of their moments together, “what it feels like to be on the beach with you right now.” For the “melancholy song” that Theodore plays to himself in the film’s early scene of him alone, Samantha substitutes folk music that Samantha can’t stop listening to and that plays in the background, as the film cuts to a variety of shots of Theodore wildly happy—in the subway, overlooking the city, at the beach.

Theodore’s failed marriage with Catherine, in fact, wholly anticipates his failed relationship with Samantha. Theodore could as readily have been describing the film’s ending when he describes to Samantha why his marriage with Catherine failed:

“It was exciting to see her grow—both of us grow and change together. But then, that's the hard part—growing without growing apart, or changing without it scaring the other person.”

Samantha grows apart from Theodore just as Catherine did. Both relationships are presented less as a failure to communicate than as a failure of imagination, an imagination that cannot distinguish between the artificial and the authentic or perceive beyond the mirrored surface of oneself.

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