The Big Hollywood Conspiracy

Scarlett Johansson is an operating system in 
existential romantic comedy. You'll still love her.


For the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life, what you rush home to get to, is to watch an electronic reproduction of life. You can't touch it and it doesn't smell and it has no taste. … It turns out to be this purely passive, contemplation of a twittering screen." — Alan Watts, The Unpreachable Religion

It'd be easy to assume that Watts was commenting on our increasingly digitized and seemingly antisocial society — if he hadn't died in 1973. Which is probably why director Spike Jonze decided to include him in "Her," a delicately constructed existential romantic comedy that could be the filmmaker's most deeply felt movie to date.

I was unaware of Watts' work before seeing this film, but after reading some of the pop Zen-philosopher's essays about the state of human happiness in America, I can't help but regard his inclusion in "Her" as a statement of purpose. Jonze is reaching for something profoundly sincere with this fourth film, presenting a highly entertaining meditation on love. "Her" dares to ask what makes love real: Is it something you give or something you receive? Is it for now or is it forever? Can we find happiness in either? The future may fall somewhere between a new urbanist dystopia and soothing-but-soulless utopia, but matters of the heart remain the eternal ground zero of human existence.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a closed-off, soft-spoken writer for Buzzing with loneliness and insecurity, he pours himself into his clients' letters, passionately expressing emotions (and vicariously experiencing them) for people he's never met. Theodore then goes home to his sleek L.A. high-rise apartment, where he kills time playing interactive video games and having phone sex. They are empty distractions from thoughts of Catherine (Rooney Mara), the wife he's avoided divorcing for nearly a year by not signing the papers.

Desperate for companionship, Theodore purchases the latest technological breakthrough: an operating system with artificial intelligence. After a few set-up questions, his computer seemingly comes to life with a female voice (courtesy Scarlett Johansson) that is both disarmingly chipper and surprisingly spontaneous. Calling herself Samantha, she quickly proves that she is light years beyond Siri, organizing his life and laughing at jokes in his emails. Within days, the two are engaging in intimate conversations that last late into the night. Theodore grows from bemused to smitten, while Samantha acquires deeper and more complex emotions.

Yes, "Her" is a movie about a man and his operating system falling in love. But, remarkably, Jonze and his cast do such a good job of pulling you into Theodore's world that you start to accept the notion that having a physical body isn't necessarily required to having a romantic relationship — or even sex.

Spike Jonze's films have all been preoccupied with loneliness and separation, filled with lyrically eerie affectations and desperately sad characters that yearn for intimacy. "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" were witty, wistful and creepy, balancing the misanthropic frustrations of Charlie Kaufman's scripts with Jonze's exuberance for whimsical snark. The underrated "Where The Wild Things Are" introduced a level of tenderness that was new and achingly poignant.

"Her" is a natural next step in his evolution as a filmmaker, displaying greater narrative patience and an all-too-rare amorous grace. What becomes abundantly clear is that, although Theodore is not easily understood, Samantha is the one person who understands him. And even as her consciousness grows beyond what either of them imagined, their connection remains profound and true.

While "Her" doesn't strive for the relevance of the best science-fiction — it neither explores nor even acknowledges the social, political and potentially world-changing impact of true artificial intelligence — and its first 40 minutes are a tad slow, what it has to say about the landscape of the mind and heart is both moving and lovely. It's fitting that, in the end, Samantha leaves Theodore with a printed book. It's just the kind of poetic gesture a romantic spirit like Jonze would imagine for the future — and one we could use more of in American cinema. o

Plato considered artists dangerous. For better or worse, maybe he had a point.

Over the holidays, I came across a curious piece called "Can Tear-Jerkers Turn You to Liberal?" on a UK website.

The article focused on a Notre Dame professor whose research, based on a study of 268 students, suggests that "Hollywood movies are better able to change attitudes 
— in a left-wing direction — than advertising or news reports."

Braced for yet another enervating homily on the corrupting power of the liberal media, I read on. Professor Todd Adkins showed his test subjects two films, which (I can only conclude) he and his fellow researchers deemed "liberal." Prior to the screenings, the students were queried about their political views. The results of that question identified half of them as "politically conservative." But then the movies began to roll, and behold! The "researchers noted a leftward shift in attitudes after the participants saw a film with a liberal message."

After identifying the two "test" films as "The Rainmaker" and "As Good as It Gets," the article drolly noted, "It emerged this week that the FBI considered ‘It's a Wonderful Life' to be sympathetic to communism when it came out in 1946."

I howled with delight. Then I realized that J. Edgar and his cronies were not entirely deluded in their paranoia about the influence of the movies. Millennia earlier, Plato considered poets and artists real threats to his Republic. One can imagine him nearly apoplectic about moviemakers. The same goes for Dante, who, some 1,600 years later, had one of his condemned sinners in hell blame her plight on a naughty book.

Movies can indeed move us, though not necessarily to the left. One need go no further than the very beginnings of film for what is perhaps the single best cautionary example of the influential power of the then-new entertainment (and artistic) phenomenon. "Birth of a Nation" (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith (often called the "Father of Film") and screened at Woodrow Wilson's White House (the first motion picture to be shown there), was directly responsible for the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization not exactly on the vanguard of liberalism.

Back to the Notre Dame study — I can't help but wonder about the choice of "liberal" movies foisted upon the unsuspecting subjects. It would be interesting to have gauged their reactions to films like "Boys Don't Cry" or "Brokeback Mountain," or this year's cause célèbre, the French lesbian drama, "Blue Is the Warmest Colour." Would the "politically conservative" viewers have gone all fuzzy-wuzzy after the lights came up?

I don't think so — certainly not most ordinary viewers. Most people want "to escape to the movies" and enjoy themselves without thinking about whatever realities might lie beyond the silver screen. They want the movies to make them safe and comfortable in their own particular fantasies, public or private. That's not to say that sometimes those fantasies won't be shattered, for better or worse.

Plato and Dante were no fools. Neither was D.W. Griffith. o

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