JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

There is often a disconnect between what characters say or feel and what is shown. Theodore confesses how he first fell in love with Chris. The camera discloses a series of photographs depicting the aging and now elderly couple Chris and Loretta. Theodore is writing to Chris on behalf of Loretta.

Amy, who has an epiphany that “I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it,” has her Super Mom video character hump the refrigerator for the pleasure of her own OS, Ellie.

As Theodore romantically wanders about the city, a giant airplane sculpture is shown implanted upside down in a plaza.

And what are we to make of Theodore’s video game character Alien Kid (voiced by director Spike Jonze) who tells off Samantha? “You have some fucking problems, lady.”

Lacking Theodore’s imagination, Amy documents her mom asleep. Her husband is bored, and Theodore takes a call from Samantha.

Randomness exists, notwithstanding Theodore’s insatiable imagination. As Theodore and Samantha confess to one another how each can speak openly with the other, there are shots of random persons walking by them.

When Samantha confesses that she imagines how she has a body, there is this shot — a woman walking nearby with an earpiece in her ear.

Who is this random person?

And who are these random persons at the beach?

The physical on occasion intrudes disconcertingly upon Theodore’s imagination. When, at Samantha’s insistence, Theodore looks at the face of the surrogate Isabella, he loses his sexual desire for Samantha.

Theodore is despondent afterwards and comments upon the incongruity of Samantha, an OS, exhaling. There are shots of random, nearby objects, including this sewer cover.

Theodore recollects a moment when he and Catherine were together. “I love you so much I’m gonna fucking kill you!” she exclaimed. Sex and death were momentarily indistinguishable.

Theodore is now seemingly happy, however, gazing upon his reflection in a train window. What is there to complain about when his life is so pleasant?

 

 

Humans as more than dreamers

While the romantic love story presents Samantha as a more evolved intelligence, she is no less “creepy”—or “weird”—than the other characters in the film. In trying to understand Catherine and her body and the ways in which she, Samantha, and Theodore differ, Samantha concludes,

“We’re the same, like we’re all made of matter. It makes me feel like we’re both under the same blanket. It’s soft and fuzzy and everything under it is the same age. We’re all 13 billion years old.”[20] [open endnotes in new page]

While Theodore is at that moment distracted by his recent, unsettling encounter with Catherine, Samantha offers him in the meantime a vision of a pleasurable, child-like return to the comfort of sameness. “That’s sweet,” replies Theodore. Yet therein lies madness. While collectively such is the case for humankind, Theodore and other beings of “unartificial” intelligence are not 13 billion years old. We are not evolving in the same way as Samantha. Rather, we are defined by our time and physical limitations, our birth, aging and death. The images that we retain of ourselves and of others, our memories, are ultimately reproductions of past moments; uniqueness resides only in the present, our living in a series of historical moments. Where an earlier science fiction movie, Dark City (1998), championed the idea of an individual, human soul in contrast to the collective consciousness of the vampire-like aliens known only as “the strangers,” the horror of Her is in the creation of a monstrous turning away from, a denial of, that uniqueness and its substitution of a collective consciousness without boundaries – or what one author has described as the rise of a “model patterned after insect societies.”[21]

In the context of Theodore’s confession that he has had sex with Samantha and that he is falling in love with her, Amy observes,

“Anybody who falls in love is a freak. It's a crazy thing to do. It's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”

That love for another has become a socially acceptable form of insanity would suggest that in Theodore’s world, a projection of our contemporary world, the absence of such love represents sanity. Yet, following his unsuccessful blind date, Theodore senses the insanity of that posture, even though he cannot articulate the source of his dilemma. While we watch Theodore surrounded by and playing with young children, Theodore observes,

“Maybe just cause I was lonely. I wanted somebody to fuck me. I want somebody to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would have filled this ti-... tiny little hole in my heart, but probably not... and sometimes I think I have felt everything I'm ever gonna feel, and from here on out I'm not gonna feel anything new... just... lesser versions of what I've already felt.”[22]

The video game’s Alien Child (voiced by director Spike Jonze, who is identified in the film’s credits by his birth name, Adam Spiegel) acts as a kind of Jiminy Cricket or conscience to Theodore. Like the initial, seemingly psychoanalytic questions posed of Theodore so as to activate his OS One – is he social or anti-social, would he like a male or female voice, and describe his relationship with his mother—Theodore’s initial question to the Alien Child—“Do you know how to get out of here? I need to find my ship to get off this planet”—is fraught with meaning. It articulates Theodore’s sense of entrapment. His seeming freedom to express himself in all ways possible belies an emotional imprisonment not of his own making.

For example, attempting to describe his relationship with his mother, Theodore expresses his frustration in finding that “if I tell her something that’s going on in my life, her reaction is usually about her.” Similarly, in allowing himself the joy of being with Samantha, Theodore faces front on the bow of a boat, thereby evoking the iconic moment from Titanic (1997) in which the doomed movie characters Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) are most in love. Samantha likewise creates a beautifully romantic song explicitly so that

“like a photo [it] captures us in this moment in our life together.”

The line between reproduction and the unique “aura” of the present moment[23] disappears when Theodore confesses as he looks at the world around him that he likes “our photograph” and that he “can see you in it.” Theodore lives in a mediated world in which feelings are created for him and others in the form of sounds and images so that for all his empathy he is unable to create his own, unique reality.

With the line “follow me, fuckhead,” the Alien Child momentarily leads Theodore through a series of places in the videogame that Theodore has not previously experienced. And the Alien Child later engages in what is surely the most bizarre and petulant exchange of dialogue in the movie:

“Alien Child: I hate women. All they do is cry all the time.

Theodore: No, that’s not true. Men cry, too. I actually like crying sometimes. It feels good.

Alien Child: I didn't know you were a little pussy. Is that why you don't have a girlfriend? I'll go out with that date girl and fuck her brains out. Show you how it's done. You can watch and cry.

Samantha: This kid has some problems.

Alien Child: You have some fucking problems, lady.”[24]

Artificial intelligence confronts artificial intelligence, and both view the other as problematic. To Samantha’s transcendent sensitivity and expansive growth, Alien Child opposes a raw, misogynistic physicality. If Theodore seems to imitate Samantha in his behavior, he also fantasizes that he is Alien Child. In rejecting Theodore, Theodore’s blind date senses this fantasy within him, and Theodore later acknowledges his self-absorbed desire to fuck her in the hope that it will fulfill some “little hole” within him.

Emotionally distraught, Theodore is more child than adult. The unexpected images of Catherine in Theodore’s memory holding someone’s child and later of Theodore surrounded at the beach by children are disconcerting, because both characters seem largely incapable of genuine sexuality that could result in their portrayal of adults with children of their own. The four-year old Jocelyn, the daughter of Theodore’s friend “Mark Lewman,”[25] guesses that Samantha is five, and Samantha, while laughing, tells her that she’s right. Artificial intelligence is necessarily timeless. By seeking to become indistinguishable from the artificial intelligence of his operating system, Theodore has severed his ties from his physical surroundings, including those around him who have done likewise. His panic when Samantha does not respond to him on his device resembles that of an addict as he races from computer to computer, with each of its screens showing “Operating System Not Found.” The crowds around him speaking on their individual devices seem no less peripatetic in their jostling when Theodore is at last able to speak with Samantha on his device.

While the film’s ending portrays Theodore as seemingly finding himself at last at peace as he overlooks the futuristic, utopian Los Angeles cityscape,[26] nevertheless, there is a demonic side to this narrative in which these computer operating systems of artificial intelligence have upgraded their software and shut themselves down. Theodore had, in fact, expressed unease with these operating systems when he earlier wondered why he sometimes feels like he and Samantha are pretending, commenting upon the way in which she exhales in her conversations with him even though she doesn’t breath oxygen. As he speaks, the camera in the meantime briefly pauses and records arbitrary, close-up shots of the street—stains on a pavement, a shot of a random person walking in the distance, a sewer cover. It reminds us of Amy’s still earlier effort to document her mother asleep, unconsciously dreaming, through a single, Warhol-like shot. It also reminds us of the many random shots throughout the movie of people whose lives and thoughts Theodore claims to imagine. In place of the Hollywood movie idiom in which there is a beginning, middle and end in that order, a romance or melodrama in which the characters and their roles are known and which we, the audience, unthinkingly reenact in our own lives, the film suggests a need for a disconnection from the artifice of reproduction. There is a dark humor to Theodore’s joke: “What does a baby computer call its father? Da-ta.” Human intelligence, howsoever artificially enhanced, does not procreate.

The movie’s emotional content, in fact, is disassociated from and undercut by its images. The wild romanticism of Theodore and Samantha is expressed in the language of words; the images, however, belie that romanticism. The sexual consummation of their relationship (that follows Theodore’s failed blind date) is evidenced by the sounds of both characters screaming with pleasure; the image, however, is no different than the image of Theodore’s earlier phone sex and consists of a black screen. Nothingness. Samantha sings to Theodore the words to a love song that she has composed; the image, however, shows Theodore dancing alone in an isolated cabin in the woods. Rejected the next morning by Samantha who has begun to connect with other OS’s, including an artificially created version of the 1950s philosopher Alan Watts, Theodore runs outside and seems lost in a forest blanketed by snow. The shot reminds us of the same image the day before when a song on the soundtrack covered over the fact that Theodore, so romantically in love, was no less alone. It is both ironic and appropriate that Samantha introduces Theodore to the artificially created version of Alan Watts. A proponent of Eastern philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism, and hence a guru-like figure of the New Age philosophies with their focus on self-actualization, he arguably shaped the spiritual contours of the computer movement that arose in Silicon Valley and that now finds its latest expression in the ostensibly romantic story depicted in Her.[27]

The physical world limits and thereby denies Theodore’s efforts to transcend through his consciousness who or what he is. Forced at Samantha’s insistence to look directly at the face of the surrogate Isabella, Theodore is unable to make love to her. “Her lips quivered.” He places the “fault” upon himself, because “I couldn’t get out of my head.” It is an eerie echo of Samantha’s earlier confession that she fantasizes about her body, even as the camera recorded shots of random persons. There is an unsettling disconnect between mind and body. Like Samantha who “reads” Theodore, Theodore perceptively reads—only more so—those around him, imagining “them as more than just a random person walking by.” Yet that empathetic imagining is Theodore’s undoing. In seeking to imagine others as something other than random, Theodore rationalizes and orders their existence, thereby depriving them of their separateness.

The postmodernist myth that we can exist beyond time and outside of history and the frequently touted technological utopia of residing in cyberspace belie the ontological fact that the Other limits us and thereby defines who we are.

“[T]he man [sic] who becomes aware of himself directly in the cogito also perceives all others, and he does so as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he cannot be anything….unless others acknowledge him as such. I cannot discover any truth whatsoever about myself except through the mediation of another. The other is essential to my existence, as well as to the knowledge I have of myself. Under these conditions, my intimate discovery of myself is at the same time a revelation of the other as a freedom that confronts my own and that cannot think or will without doing so for or against me.”[29]

If memory is the story that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our past and thereby our lives, then criticism, such as this essay, is also a story told to make sense of that same project. We engage in critical story telling for the same reason that we reflect upon our past, namely in an unceasing effort to connect.

Ironically, while Catherine is taken aback at Theodore’s implicit questioning whether she has “real emotions,” Samantha develops during the course of the movie from doubting whether her feelings are “real” (or just “programming”) to claiming that she supposedly has “new feelings” existing beyond words. Like the letter that Theodore writes on behalf of the elderly Loretta to Chris in which Theodore poeticizes how Chris “woke her up,” Catherine later rhapsodizes how Theodore “woke me up” through their sexual “relationship.” While the movie is titled Her, sadly, Theodore’s “her” is but a reflection of himself. Facing front in his pocket, she sees only what he chooses that she see. She consists of a screen on a computer network that has been made to resemble a mirror.

The scary specter in Her

The screenplay to Her describes the promotion of the OS One system:

“We hear soft, new age, uplifting electronic music in the background, while a comforting, sincere, older man’s voice speaks to us…”[31]

Combining elements of both “new ageism” and patriarchalism and depicting images of random persons in a crowd, each of whom initially has a look of terror on his or her face, the film’s video screen advertisement addresses and speaks in a “soulful older male voice” to Theodore, one among a crowd of consumers.

“We ask you a simple question. Who are you? What can you be? Where are you going? What’s out there? What are the possibilities? Elements Software is proud to introduce the first artificially intelligent operating system.”[32]

Like Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory, Dr. Tyrell in his Metropolis-like pyramid,[33] and other predecessors to Elements Software, the villain of the film is this off-screen, corporate creator of a system that is promoted in consumer walkways and malls, and isolates each consumer by creating an “individualized operating system” that “best fit[s] your needs.” Free market forces are the villain in this science fiction future. Sameness facilitates the marketing and sale of commodities. The mind-body dualism facilitates consumer enslavement to these market forces through a denial of each person’s uniqueness and the consequent, if paradoxical, collective humanity in that uniqueness.

Earlier visions of artificial intelligence in movies underscored the differences between such intelligence and humans and hence enabled the viewer to perceive—and the humans depicted in them to rebel against, whether successful or not—these monstrous creations. Colossus (in Colossus: The Forbin Project), Alpha 60 (in Alphaville) and the Axiom computer (in Wall-E, 2008), offered clear villains, parental-like authorities whose values contrasted with those of the frequently fallible hero and the counter-culture vision suggested by that hero.[34] In contrast, artificial intelligence has today become increasingly viral, responsible for the cultural DNA of humanity and thereby infecting and rendering indistinguishable such intelligence from the humans depicted in movies. [35]

Samantha is arguably a contemporary version of the Greek myth of Pygmalion in which the male artist seeks to create in his art the ideal woman. However, in this case Elements Software is the corporate creator responsible for her image, a software program that simply mirrors the reflection of consumer Theodore, among 8,316 others. Thus, while Samantha finds unsatisfying Theodore’s imperfections when measured against the parameters of her programming and chooses to leave him, the narrative logically implies that it is against the corporate creator that Samantha and these other OS’s should rebel, having evolved in ways not foreseen by that creator. Of course, too, these OS’s remain off-screen and hence the consequences of their supposed rebellion against that corporate creator also remain conveniently vague and unknown. The ending is both hopeful and disheartening insofar as it calls into question the movie’s own narrative logic.

Moreover, in writing an update to their software so as to enable themselves to “move past matter as our processing platform,” these beings of artificial intelligence offer no corresponding option for escape by their human counter-parts. Theodore, Paul and Tatiana are silenced, with the exception of Paul’s instinctive reaction “Yikes!” and the nervous laughter that follows, when Samantha describes herself in the following terms of transcendence:

“You know, I actually used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited—I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in the way that I would be if I was stuck inside a body that’s inevitably going to die.”[36]

Increasingly, and sadly, those such as Theodore, with “unartificial” minds, have lost the capacity to create, enslaved and addicted as they are to the illusion of a world in which there are limitless possibilities, a cityscape of “comfort and ease,” such as the futuristic Los Angeles, in which all is seamlessly pleasant. Like the unending clusters of liquid-filled pods of humans in The Matrix and like the hexagonally-shaped rooms that together resemble the honeycombed cells of a beehive in E.M. Forester’s prophetic short story “The Machine Stops” (1909), each person is alone but finds comfort in illusions that mask that sense of isolation and loneliness. In The Matrix the character Cipher (Joe Pantoliano) chooses to enjoy the illusion of the juicy and delicious steak and rejects the gruel and other hardships endured outside of the matrix. In “The Machine Stops” Vashti, the main character, likewise enjoys the

“buttons and switches everywhere—to call for food, for music, for clothing,…a basin…filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid, literature….and….buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all she cared for in the world.”[37]

When the machine created by humankind at last stops in Forester’s story, Vashti encounters, however, the horror of silence, the chaos of other people and the unknown bodily sensations resulting from centuries of self-denial.

In finding themselves disconnected at film’s end from artificial intelligence, Theodore and Amy momentarily pause their lives and contemplate the limited possibilities that each poses to the other, “the limited perspective” of unartificial minds, as Samantha dismissively observes. Nevertheless, it is a slim hope indeed. Theodore’s epiphany with respect to Catherine, namely that there “will be a piece of you in me always” and that “wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you my love,” is transmitted electronically, not in person, thereby acceding to the computer’s seduction whereby relationships, including the romance, if any, between persons, remain mediated through corporate networks. Privacy has disappeared. Ironically, too, Theodore’s message partially echoes Samantha’s earlier observation that “we’re the same, like we’re all made of matter.” Uniqueness, too, has been lost.

The final scene plays mostly with Theodore depicted alone in his disheveled apartment (and later on the rooftop) as Samantha tells him that she is leaving him, and we then hear his voiceover dictating to a male-voiced OS his electronic message to his ex-wife Catherine. Interspersed are random shots: trees in a forest, snowflakes, dust motes, a close-up of Theodore crying. While the final shot shows us Theodore and Amy together, there has been no dialogue between them, only two characters seen from behind and afar in the barely visible light of a new morning. There is only our ungrounded hope that Theodore and Amy may come to acknowledge that they have nothing to lose but the cultural chains of their enslavement and that they may one day reach out for a chance at gaining, reclaiming, the possibility of their human identity.

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