In Praise of Human Interface

imageOn 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 ThingInside 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.[1] Taking the movie as a whole, there’s enough to suggest that Jonze views it as the great challenge of human communication itself.

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"I Saw the Devil with His Needlework" Exclusive from Tin House

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Until the end of March, the Believer and its favorite cousin, the lovely and talented Tin House mag, are offering up a joint promotion where you can get a year-long subscription to both magazines for just $65. (The promotion ends this week. Subscribe today! Here!).

To celebrate, we’re running “I Saw the Devil with His Needlework,” a poem by Bianca Stone, which can also be found in Stone’s new collection, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, which is available through Tin House Books.We hope you’ll enjoy the piece, and consider subscribing to two great magazines that look nice on the shelf right next to each other.

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