Bad design causes stress and discomfort; whether it is typography in a document, or unfettered suburban sprawl or too many buttons on a mobile phone. Life and relationships, which invariably happen in a haphazard fashion by their nature are bad design, and even the happiest of marriages, or most well adjusted of families and such are nevertheless full of tensions and misunderstandings, but virtue of design being non-controlled, that we learn to live with and accept, or we move on. Storytelling, autobiography, blogging and other personal narratives are an attempt to put some good design on something as chaotic as ‘a life.’ Technology, from ink and paper, to the printing press and eventually the internet have enabled our capacity to do this on an individual level. The landscape of modern social media platforms and the specialized subset of dating websites, while far (very far) from perfect, are a significant step to projecting some ‘design’ onto how we present ourselves to the world. Ultimately, though we have to find a way to be comfortable in our own skin and headspace, while alone in a room, and this includes whether or not another person or persons are present. Comfort and confidence can be driven by good design, but finding some truth and understanding in the messiness is essential.
Spike Jonze has been surveying and navigating these strange lagoons and very often uninviting rocky places with his music videos, short films and of course, his accomplished trio of feature films, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Where the Wild Things Are. In collaboration with an eclectic gathering of intuitive but articulate ‘philosophers,’ Charlie Kaufman, David Eggars and Maurice Sendak, Jonze sets out on his own to great effect writing and directing his fourth feature.
Her, serves up a beautifully designed world. It is perhaps the best film on design outside of the more literal-minded “Design Trilogy” documentaries by Gary Hustwit. Here a near-future Los Angeles (or erstwhile Shanghai) is rendered skyward with clean glass towers, minimal advertising, and plenty of wide vistas and inviting space. In terms of cinematic depictions of America’s richest and most forward-thinking domain (California in itself the world’s 12th largest economy), we have come a long way from Ridley Scott’s septic, tactile and dizzying dystopic Blade Runner full of belching flames, corporate ziggurats and effluent pedestrian clutter. Architecture and aesthetics aside, there is more than a little common ground as a science fiction conceit; the questions being considered are somewhat in alignment: Can we love something ‘artificial’ if that thing can and will evolve to be more human than human? How do we interact with pervasive and ubiquitous ‘technology?’ Despite this concept being explored in may ways even in the infancy of this new millennium (From Soderbergh’s Solaris to Niccol’s S1mOne), this is the first true cinematic Pygmalion of the information age.
Theodore is re-establishing himself after splitting up with his childhood ‘soul-mate.’ The relationship isn’t over, as the divorce papers remain unsigned, and really, do these relationships ever really end in a sense? He spends his time playing video games (an immersive holographic rig that still wisely lets you sit down while you play) and engaging in a virtual phone-sex that is too sad and too hilarious to be anything but charming to us, not to frustrated Theodore. Casual sex in the future, in this audio-chat-roulette form, is certainly less off putting as that might sound and in fact there is some pretty nifty insight to the thirtysomething professional writer established in how those ships pass in the night. More telling is his offhand mention of prioritizing his free time around internet porn (thankfully not shown) to his neighbor and best friend, Amy.
Theodore works in a spartan office of impeccable decor, light wood tones, bright pinks and orange and greens, and composes very personal letters to people by proxy from lovers, parents, and friends to one another. They’re called ‘handwritten’ but are actually a computer doing the cursive design work and scribbles in the margins. Theodore is very good at his job, but commutes back and forth (by public transit, cars are not the focus of this future LA) in a sea of humanity caught up in talking to their future-personal-devices. We will spend a lot of time talking quietly talking with our devices in this future, getting them to read us emails, recommend purchases, or show us images on their little screens. I always imagined that Siri-styled voice-interaction with computers in the office or out in public would be untenable, due to the cacophony of over-loud voices, like so many half overheard one-sided conversations on the commuter trains of today, but Her makes a convincing case to the plausibility of such things, as people lower the heads and voices into their devices. The single urban dweller lives a very cocooned existence of personal occupation. Whatever company is Apple in this future releases a new operating system that takes this recommendation-engine into a self-aware artificial intelligence and releases it to the public, and after an amusing, semi-awkward, but quite frankly, rapid install, into Theodore’s lonely digital and perhaps by definition, personal life.
Scarlett Johansson is the voice of Samantha, and Joaquin Pheonix as Theodore has to react, converse, and emote with her onscreen, and to the films credit, the chemistry is instant and intense. Samantha’s sexy, charming and intimate intonations are nigh impossible not to immediately fall for and fall for hard. We are with Theodore’s awkward and tentative introvert (a place many of us are when we are alone) and it is a delight to see his new relationship melt away his hesitancy and bloom into uninhibited joie de vivre. If ever there is an actor putting it out there, playing against type and succeeding at it wholesale, it is Phoenix. Against his off putting personal politics in I’m Still Here, and his psychotic ID man-child in The Master, the sensitive, yearning, puppy-dog bespectacled Theodore is a revelation. His first sexual experience with his OS is in stark contrast to the one early with an anonymous, cat-loving stranger yet is equally convincing. Heck, everything in this film is a revelation, I’ve not been so entranced with such a curiously plausible near-future since Code 46 which was also shot in our dream of the future: modern Shanghai (see also Skyfall and Looper.) I adore this cameo from a wounded Olivia Wilde playing a quirky modern but seemingly together professional who is the source of a blind date that goes uncomfortably wrong due to a disconnect of priorities and assumptions. Also, Amy’s astute mini-game project involving becoming a super-mom and earning ‘jealously points’ from the other virtual moms while being driven by expectation and guilt out there to fund her more personal inquiry to document her mother’s quiet sleeping. Jonze himself gets in on the A.I. action himself by casting his own voice as an adorably foul virtual guide off this crazy planet in Theodore’s above mentioned video game. There is a moment when the game and OS get in an argument for Theodore attention (or perhaps something more) that is a sublime unintended consequence of new technologies in wide release; as is the mention of someone having an affair with someone else’s OS. Ah, the future!
Of course dating an OS is not without its faults, but they are analogous to many real hurdles in a relationship, and the film plays this out, with an external emphasis on jealousy (or simply lashing out out of habit) of the ex-wife. Rooney Mara owns every scene she is in, but feels underused, as does Amy Adams equally great as Theodore’s pal Amy who does communicate honestly and intimately and has her own problems albeit interacts more far casually with her own OS. The bulk of the film is spent with Theodore and Samantha’s mutual discovery of their own selves and truths, and some of the revelations arrived at via their differences in capacity or corporeal-ness serve as great insight to the human condition, and great insight on the level of speculative fiction. That this is done simultaneously makes it great art. And speaking of such, the crafting art, music and common experience between the pair are the soul of the film and utterly convincing to boot. Kudos to the Karen-O written song that is performed by Johansson and Pheonix in a duet, it’s a marvel.
Spike Jonze has a gift for rigorously constructing his cinema as a complex but intuitive mix of special effects filmmaking and structure, all the while making the whole concoction feel intimate and spontaneous, like Samantha, he’s talking directly to you while in reality he is talking to hundreds of collaborators simultaneously. Furthermore, Arcade Fire, who create music in a similar fashion are a perfect fit, offering songs and score vis–à–vis the seamless organic integration. Her is one of the great films of 2013, a bellwether to our own evolving near-future, the clean lines and messiness apiece, designed with a necessary pragmatic optimism. I have a little more faith in the world.