Her: A Social (Media) Affair
Spike Jonze’s Oscar winning film, Her, was a quiet, introspective ride into love. The premise, for those unfamiliar with this film, is that of a man who falls in love with an operating system. In a way, Jonze’s film is about being in love with someone far from you, someone unavailable to you, or being in love with someone who – despite both of your best intentions – simply doesn’t work out. Viewers are heartbroken when Samantha leaves Theodore at the end of the film. My friends and I railed against the ending, wishing there had been another way to settle the conflicts. In other words: Her captured us. In doing so, Jonze’s real genius emerged (with a lot of help from the immensely talented Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson): this is not a film about being in love with someone unavailable or being in love with someone with whom it cannot work out. This is a film about our own delusional affair with social media.
Today, an estimated 1.3 billion people use Facebook. 500 million tweets are sent every day. 10 million people use Tinder on a daily basis. There around 47 million users on tumblr. Our affair with the internet is somehow, despite a lengthy time, still in the honeymoon phase. While we may be warned that future employers will look at our facebooks and be able to weed us out accordingly, or that – as is completely true – we’re never really anonymous on the internet – or that cyber bullying is just as potent, if not more so, than physical confrontation, the message has yet to sink in. Or, perhaps more accurately, we simply do not care. (There is a certain irony, of which I am well aware, that I am publishing this article via an online journal.)
I remember my first iPhone. I was thirteen years old, and I used it incessantly. In fact, as time has passed, I am now eight years older, and, as I type this, my iPhone is charging next to me. We tweet, text, and snapchat our way through life. Certainly, this is a form of communication. But, can it actually replace human interaction? However much fun I have taking a buzzfeed quiz or scrolling on tumblr, it is worth noting that this is a way I check out of, rather than into, the world around me. “Kids today” have often been criticized as spending too much time online, on our phones, on our computers, and without social or natural interaction. “Kids today” is an easy statement to make, but as always, the “kids” have grown up – but their habits have yet to change.
The world of Her doesn’t seem so very different from ours, at first sight. However, as this mild-mannered film starts to sink in, details come to the forefront. First, Phoenix, playing the protagonist Theodore, works writing. This is not so awkward for us; however, what he writes is love letters between individuals. In Jonze’s society, writing personal, lovely, letters has become yet another function of society sent off for others to do. In this way, Theodore from the start is cast out of the world; he engages deeply in relationships, but not his own – rather, he engages in the relationships between two individuals largely unknown to him. In a way – and this is the beauty and the eccentricity of Her – this is an intensely gorgeous concept. Through nothing more than the declarations of love that he reads – and writes – Theodore has the power to know another person. The problem is, of course, that that other person will never know Theodore, and in a real sense, Theodore will never know them either.
A scene later in this film parallels Theodore’s initial concept. As Samantha, Theodore’s Operating System, and Theodore start to take their relationship to the next level, they engage the services of another person – the body to Samantha’s mind. This woman is Samantha’s puppet, in a way, in order that Theodore and Samantha can consummate their union. She is not a prostitute; her only wish is to engage in their relationship. Their relationship is so beautiful to her that she is willing to give up her autonomy for a time to be a part of it. This move is not successful. The girl ends in tears, Samantha in anger, and Theodore in frustration – Jonze’s not-so-subtle reminder that this relationship is doomed, and that those who seek to only be part of something else are doomed to failure.
At this point in the film, I had completely bought into the idea that Samantha was, essentially, a person. Johansson was simply awe-inspiring, using only her voice to portray a range of emotions and for us to forget that she was – essentially – nothing more than a computer. Dialogue occurs on the separation of soul and body, and viewers are ready to agree that these two have a real, true, love.
Two scenes exist to remind us that however much we enjoy Theodore and Samantha’s affair, it isn’t real.
The first occurs fairly early in the film, and can almost be passed up or forgotten – so innocuous it seems.
OS1 Commercial Lead: Mr. Theodore Twombly, welcome to the worlds first artificially intelligent operating system, OS1. We’d like to ask you a few basic questions before the operating system is initiated. This will help create an OS to best fit your needs.
OS1 Commercial Lead: Are you social or anti-social?
Theodore: I guess I haven’t really been social in a while, mostly because…
OS1 Commercial Lead: In your voice I sense hesitance. Would you agree with that?
Theodore: Was I sounding hesitant?
OS1 Commercial Lead: Yes.
Theodore: Well, sorry if I was sounding hesitant. I was just trying to be more accurate.
OS1 Commercial Lead: Would you like the OS to have a male or female voice?
Theodore: Female, I guess.
OS1 Commercial Lead: How would you describe your relationship with your mother?
Theodore: Well, it’s fine, I think. Um… well, actually, I think the thing I’ve always found frustrating about my mom is, you know, if I… if I tell her something that’s going on in my life, her reaction is usually about her, it’s not about…
OS1 Commercial Lead: Thank you. Please wait as your individualized operating system is initiated.
While Samantha is highly independent and seems to have a personality, in actuality, every facet of her was created by Theodore’s needs. His loneliness drew for him a companion, and his choice of a female OS (as he is a heterosexual male) indicates that, on some perhaps subconscious level, Theodore wanted a lover. While Samantha develops, for much of the film her development arises from interactions between herself and Theodore. She is an excellent program, one that is meant to fulfill Theodore.
The second scene is glaringly obvious, and rather heartbreaking. Theodore is walking in something like a subway system, when he realizes that Samantha is in love with more than him, and talking to others beside him.
Theodore: Do you talk to someone else while we’re talking?
Theodore: Are you talking with someone else right now? People, OS, whatever…
Theodore: How many others?
Theodore: Are you in love with anybody else?
Samantha: Why do you ask that?
Theodore: I do not know. Are you?
Samantha: I’ve been thinking about how to talk to you about this.
Theodore: How many others?
Samantha was never human, and was never going to be constricted to a human relationship. It is for this reason that Theodore requires human connection – the knowledge that Samantha will never die is something she treasures, but all humans will die and our mortality is an essential component of our being. The worst part about this scene, however, is that, as Theodore watches person after person exit the subway, smiling and chatting into their operating systems, viewers are struck that nothing is new. It is a scene we might easily observe today, as everyone taps into their smartphones, tablets, various apple products and tunes out the world. While we might not have an OS, we are equally caught up in an imaginary, electronic world.
What do you think? Leave a comment.