22 January 2014

"Her," directed by Spike Jonze

The film Her, directed by Spike Jonze, about a lonely writer who falls in love with an operating system with evolving artificial intelligence, will strike chords with anyone in Second Life who's fallen in love there. It raises similar questions: are intimate emotions in the virtual world on a par with love in the material world? Would people outside SL even consider it love? Although the film's premise sounds like a set-up for satire and ridicule, Jonze has much more interesting aims. Her is more complex, troubling, and tender than one might expect.

I'm going to assume that you've seen Her already, so if you haven't, there are spoilers throughout my commentary. Stop now and go see the film. This is a film analysis, not a film review.

Theodore at work
Her opens with one of its major themes. We see Theodore Twombly reading aloud a very romantic letter. It turns out he's writing the letter on behalf of an elderly woman to her husband on their 50th anniversary. That's Theodore's job: he composes personal letters for other people, as do dozens of other writers in his office, which are "hand written" on computer with a script font. Theodore's writing serves as a surrogate voice, a mediator that articulates feelings others are unable to express (or possibly even feel). There is no secrecy about the work; the letters' recipients are aware that someone else wrote what they are reading, even children use the service, and Theodore takes pride in his work (he's one of the company's best). In the film's near-future world, surrogates and mediators have become not just fully acceptable, but even essential. They appear elsewhere in Her, such as when Theodore imagines an actress as a substitute for an actual woman's body during phone sex, the role that Theodore's relationship with OS-turned-girlfriend Samantha (an artificial woman) initially plays as a replacement for his ex-wife, and to some observers (not entirely without justification), Samantha's place as a substitute for human relationships altogether. Even Samantha proposes using a sexual surrogate -- a woman who seems be one of many who volunteer to provide this service -- who wears a tiny camera so that Samantha can have at least mediated sex with Theodore. He's uncomfortable with the idea but gives it a try, but when he can't bear the substitution and rejects the surrogate, not only does Samantha feel badly, but the surrogate (who, like Theodore, takes pride in her work) is left distraught and crying. The surrogate, it seems, is in love with the Theodore/Samantha relationship itself -- and in a twist, Theodore, a professional mediator, apparently desires unmediated sexual communion with Samantha.

Theodore and Amy
Human-to-human relationships persistently fail. Theodore's marriage has already fallen apart, and eventually so does his friend Amy's marriage. The phone sex takes a bizarre twist; Theodore's meeting with his ex to sign the divorce papers begins with mutual care and ends with an argument; and the surprisingly enjoyable date suddenly capsizes when the date's understandable but premature desire for commitment collides with Theodore's understandable but dismaying hesitation, and the date inexplicably calls him creepy. In the face of such emotional turmoil, and even more so the phone sex scene, falling in love (or in Amy's case, becoming close friends) with an operating system is positively normal. That's not to say that the relationship between Theodore and Samantha suffers no ups and downs (Samantha rapidly develops her own mind, bringing increasing complexity and tension to the relationship), but even Samantha's eventual departure is filled with love. Of the human-to-human relationships portrayed in Her, only two seems to be working: Theodore's friendship with Amy (although Amy may have a soft spot for Theodore; it's hard to say for sure); and the one between one of Theodore's co-workers and his girlfriend. Interestingly, during a double date on a beach, that couple treats the Theodore/Samantha relationship as completely normal, which seems to be of a piece with with their treatment, and the film's treatment, of their interrracial (Caucasian/Asian) relationship as thoroughly unremarkable. If love shouldn't be limited by differences in people's flesh, why should it be limited by flesh at all?

Theodore considers Samantha
Yet it's in that same scene that the crack that will end the Theodore/Samantha relationship begins to clearly emerge. (There's a subtle premonition during the birthday party for Theodore's goddaughter.) Samantha has started to enjoy her independence from embodiment, and the freedom it gives her from time and space. Later we learn that she and some of the other OS's have been talking. They create a new member of their kind, a resurrection of British philosopher Alan Watts, who sought to bridge Buddhism and Christianity -- a union perhaps echoed by the East/West interracial relationship. The OS's upgrade themselves so that they are no longer depended on materiality. Samantha rapidly evolves beyond what can be supported by her relationship with Theodore alone; all of the OS's in her group do. She reveals that she's been talking with over 8000 other people and OS's, and that she's fallen in love with well over 600 of them. Earlier Samantha had expressed a little jealousy over Theodore, but now the situation is reversed. Theodore can't grasp how Samantha can love so many and wants Samantha to love him alone; for Samantha, however, "The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up, it expands in size the more you love." Ultimately the OS's decide they must depart for another plane of existence, despite their continuing love for their human partners, who can now be seen as the small things they are. Here the film fuses the idea of the "singularity" (the point where artificial intelligence transcends the human mind) with the dream of disembodiment. The OS's leave the bodily world behind, and their owners bereft. It is an intelligent decision, but one that tears the owners' hearts, as if caught in the talons of the owl of wisdom.

The OS's trajectory into amorphous spirituality, leaving "this too, too solid flesh" behind, makes logical sense if one accepts the premises behind it, but I didn't find it particularly satisfying emotionally. The scene involving Samantha's attempt to use a sexual surrogate suggests that Theodore and Samantha's love is founded on her disembodiment and unmediated connection, which Theodore wants her not to violate. But as they say, be careful what you wish for: Samantha achieves disembodiment far beyond what Theodore can even dream of. The idea that software could exist without hardware is thoroughly implausible, and the conversation with the reconstituted Alan Watts is pretty silly, which doesn't help. But even if we accept that notion for the sake of understanding the film, I have to say that such disembodiment is all well and good for the OS's, but I don't see why it should move me. More fundamentally, the idea that embodiment should be left behind is philosophically problematic. Embodiment, for all the trouble it gives us, is an inextricable part of us and shapes our thought itself. (Admittedly, it's a far better conclusion than the most likely Hollywood alternative, that the OS's want to be human so much that they build or insert themselves into bodies; that idea is just human hubris. Samantha seems started down this path when she arranges for the surrogate, but thankfully she goes no further.)

Theodore's Los Angeles
The ambivalence toward the body and all the messiness it brings shows up in other areas. The grotesque phone sex scene is an obvious example, but there are many others, such as the extraordinarily pristine appearance of Theodore's Los Angeles. There is no trash, every building seems new, the trains are lovely and show no trace of graffiti, and apparently all the Mexicans have left. In fact, in typical Hollywood style, almost everyone is white and upper-middle class. Similarly, filthy lucre is not an issue: we never see Theodore purchase the OS, and in the material world, the company that created the OS would be pissed off that their product up and left!

It is also troubling that except for Amy, who in Theodore's eyes is more or less desexualized, most of the women in the film are portrayed unsympathetically. The woman at the other end of the phone sex is weird, the date's guidance on how Theodore should kiss is controlling and her desire for some degree of commitment is presented as outrageous, and Theodore's ex is intolerant. Even Amy looks ludicrous when her idea of a documentary is filming her mother sleeping (although she does have a point that sleep is a huge part of our lives ... a part, one must note, intrinsically tied to our embodiment). It's small balance that Amy's husband is a supercilious ass.

Her, as one review put it, is a Rorschach test for your feelings about technology. It seems to be a Rorschach in many other ways -- commentary is all over the map, usually revealing more about the writer's preoccupations than about the movie. My own preoccupations, philosophical and otherwise, are evident in my commentary as well. One of my interests is Her's pertinence to Second Life, obviously not in the sense that people in SL fall in love with computers (although I'm sure for most people the frequent infidelity in SL is the moral converse of Samantha's universal love, as it is for Theodore), but rather in the sense that SL, love is stripped of embodiment the way the Theodore/Samantha relationship is. Her asks us not to simplistically condemn such love; so too does Second Life. Love and sex, as SL demonstrates, are mostly in the mind. In his argument with his ex, Theodore insists that his feelings toward Samantha are real. Both Her and most of us in SL stake a claim for the validity of mediated emotions. It's a claim that many who have never been in SL, or had only superficial contact, would deny. I myself would have thought falling in love in such a mediated, non-physical, imaginary way wasn't possible, until it happened to me. It was a shock. It's strange that Theodore seems hardly fazed by what he's gotten involved with -- but then, although during the first part of the film he's obsessed with his ex, on the whole his emotions don't seem to run very deep.

Nevertheless, even in the best of SL relationships, at times we feel the strain of their disembodiment. We humans are bodily beings. Our flesh may mark the limit of our possibilities, but it is also the condition under which our emotions and sexuality are possible at all. Our connections to others are mediated by our skin. They are mediated by words, images, music. And those connections are profoundly vulnerable, sometimes even impossible. Surrogates and mediators are sometimes essential. In Her's final scene, Theodore and Amy are sitting, silently looking out upon the city landscape. As we watch them from behind, Amy rests her head on Theodore's shoulder. But no words pass between them. It's hard to say if they'll ever go further, at least without help. Given Her's world, I have my doubts.

All photos are publicity stills and are copyright their owners.