I avoided Her for a number of years for a number of reasons. The first being that I didn’t want to stare at close-up shots of Joaquin Phoenix for two hours, the second being that I don’t really love robot love-stories, the third being that the combination of both of those things made me think the movie would be horribly boring. But after moving through my biases and giving the movie a chance, I grew to appreciate Phoenix’s acting abilities and to view the robot-love-story as a modern romance between distant lovers. Her is a work of art, so if the viewer is seeking unintelligent entertainment, seek elsewhere. If you want to watch a thoughtful film that depicts modern communication between modern people in probably the most accurate way possible, take two hours out of your busy, phone-staring life and watch this movie.
With a melancholy vibe to the entire movie, quiet and soft music carries the viewer along as if we, too, are Phoenix’s travel companion. Whether on a train leaving the city or on the beach surrounded by thousands of people, we feel as if we are listening to the same soundtrack as Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombley, which in turn makes us feel connected to him. Even the Title Menu shows Phoenix playing his ukulele and singing in bed to his girlfriend, who is listening from the phone, and this theme of communicating through music continues throughout the picture. His OS girlfriend, Samantha, often composes new instrumental songs to share with him as they connect in a way that words cannot do justice. When gentle music is combined with dark lighting, the mood is set – and this mood is what captures the movie like a soft kiss on a moonlit beach.
I am not sure how Jonze hired so many extras while filming in Beijing, but there were hundreds and even potentially thousands of bodies slightly blurred in the background of Theodore’s life. Jonze did a great job of framing these people on the fringes, barely anybody made it into the actual scene with Theodore as thousands passed by. The only people who did make it into the scene were ordinary people without extraordinary abilities. A goofy boss who was a little too masculine, a dry, plain jane neighbor with a passion for filming sleeping people, the neighbor’s husband who constantly gave advice instead of listening, and an ex-wife who was seen as “volatile” with her emotions yet shown reasonably balanced through Twombley’s flashbacks of their marriage. The character most loved by this viewer, and by others in the classroom, was the little video game character that actually showed emotions rather than bottle them all in. The theme of communicating emotions pervaded every scene of the movie, and Jonze did a great job of framing every scene to focus solely on Twombley and his AI girlfriend to show the depth of emotions inside of Theodore’s heart which he was unwilling to release.
How could anybody share their emotions, thoughts, and feelings while surrounded by busy people wearing earbuds and staring at screens? It’s like playing “truth or dare” as a kid, most people would rather choose dare over truth any day. The props, costumes, and sets that Jonze used only made the viewer feel more isolated and lonely. From a bright, pink dress being given to a little girl on her birthday by a bright orange shirt wearing Twombley, bright colors are used throughout the movie to cast a glow of false joy and excitement. Beneath the brightness is a dull life led by isolated people who are nothing close to joyful. Earbuds are in everybody’s ears, reminding people to not talk to each other. All of this was filmed inside the towering city of Beijing, which makes people and their lives seem miniscule and invisible. And while this may all seem like a stretch of the truth, the last time I was in Portland, Oregon with my brother, we sat in a park and counted hundreds of people sitting on concrete staring at their phones. Or you can come into the classrooms of today and see students blatantly staring at their phones while teachers talk, or hiding their earbuds under hoods and hair. People are anxious, and the anxiety is growing worse by the way we isolate from one another. Spike Jonze did an incredible job of showing this anxiety in Her, a collective anxiety that most of us are dealing with. Where we can only be ourselves through a phone or keyboard rather than face to face. I, too, am just like Theodore Twombley, and find it easier to hide than be real, but Jonze tempts us to step out of our comfort zones and be brave.
To take this blog post to a personal level, Her made me think of three things.
1.) While finishing my college degree in Olympia, Washington the majority of people I befriended were using some form of online dating platform to meet potential partners while being surrounded by people on all sides. Many of those people were dating multiple partners, kind of like Samantha – Theodore’s OS girlfriend – and I was found as the oddball by not doing either.
2.) My mother was married to a man in prison for over 13 years, and they were truly the happiest 13 years of her life. They talked on the phone as often as possible, which gave her the impression that her life was truly extraordinary; she took pictures of everything and mailed them in, which gave her the ability to see life as a miracle rather than mundane; and they had deeply philosophical and spiritual conversations that lasted hours, weeks, years. Something that most working people do not have time for. My mother was able to use this time of her life to truly value what meant most to her; herself and her own experience on this planet. The relationship between Twombley and Samantha reminded me of this relationship.
3.) The first time I saw my wife I knew I would marry her. I had to; she was, and is, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Until one night, I saw her out on the town dancing with another man. I realized that my time would come eventually, I just had to be patient. Unfortunately, she left town and I did not see her for a number of years. But in the back of my mind, I wondered and waited. I fought the urge to look her up on the internet, stalk her on Instagram, or search her name on Facebook. I waited, very patiently, until four years later I saw her again. The next day I rushed to my friend and mentor’s house to ask him for advice.
“Barry, the girl of my dreams has moved back to town and I don’t know what to do!”
“Well, Bob,” he said, “You know what I used to do back when I was your age?”
“Ask a girl out?”
And we both started laughing.
“So are you saying that I should just go up to her and ask her out?”
“To do what?”
“Anything you like.”
So, the next time I saw her, I worked up the courage to ask her to a movie later that night and when she said, “Yes,” I almost fell over with nausea. She didn’t know it was a date, but I knew from that point on that we would progress to a point of marriage. And six months later, my dream came true. We were married on Friday the 13th at the Ninilchik cemetery at sunrise. And the highs and lows of our emotions have almost sent each one of us running away, but with a lot of help from counselors, friends, and each other- we have learned how to communicate about all aspects of life- not just the good stuff. And as the famous song goes, “Good things come to those who wait.”
Now that I’ve rambled on and on about Her, the elements of the film, and the ways it resembles my own life, I will conclude this blog post by saying that the movie is a little weird, just like me and my best friends. That Jonze does a solid job of making an uncomfortable person feel even more uncomfortable, and that he does that on purpose. He reminds people that life is not a series of happy-go-lucky moments all strung together with a cute little bow. Some days you might want to shoot yourself in the head with a shotgun. Other days you might want to leave the country with nothing but your wallet on a one-way trip to Mexico. We hurt people’s feelings and they hurt ours and it sucks but we have to keep moving forward, through the boredom, and push through the fear and take the damn earbuds out of our ears and listen to people and show people that we care. Thank you Spike Jonze for reminding me of that.