In Praise of Human Interface
On Spike Jonze’s Her and “Praise You”
Films written by their directors have the benefit of being created from a unified vision: they’re the ones we remember. Tarantino means Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, not From Dusk Till Dawn. Spike Lee means Do The Right Thing—Inside Man, not so much. So it’s an interesting move when an acclaimed filmmaker writes his first film mid-career. This year that filmmaker was Spike Jonze.
Her is a tough film to categorize. It’s simultaneously a romance of sorts, a sci-fi of sorts, and a boy-meets-girl story of sorts, while also being none of these entirely. But perhaps, for now, it’s a very sincere romance in a technologically progressive reality. The film’s protagonist, Theo (a lumpy, anonymous Joaquin Phoenix), is a recent divorcee moping around a future Los Angeles. Jonze tells us it’s set in the “slight future,” but this LA looks more like a parallel reality. The rates of progress are uneven. Technology has progressed to loveable, Siri-like operating systems that seem within reach today, yet the cityscape has completely Manhattanized and the beach is painted wall-to-wall with people. When our protagonist takes a high-speed train from downtown LA to the far-off snowy mountains (Yosemite?) we get the sense that this is what California could be in ten years if high-speed train legislation had been passed in the nineties. And the people are different, too. “Sexy” naked photos of a pregnant celebrity make headlines. Theo has phone sex with a woman who fantasizes about strangulation via dead cat. He works for an internet service that writes romantic letters for lovers to send to each other.
Simply put, Theo is lonely in this overcrowded landscape. He takes the train to work, flips through earbud-broadcast news stories, plays video games before bedtime, and talks to maybe three humans per day. This includes his neighbors Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, whose ailing marriage provides an early key scene. Questioning an art project she’s putting together, Amy shows it to her husband; he offers practical advice, not the spiritual support she wanted. She’s visibly bothered. Jonze portrays her alienation through eye contact and subdued body language—both fickle beasts for the form at hand. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s enough to suggest that Jonze views it as the great challenge of human communication itself.