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 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.

The contradictory genius of

Her

, then, is that the central drama originates from and unfolds through dialogue. Enter Samantha, the first ever self-conscious operating system. She has a breathy voice and a nimble sense of self. Theo’s inevitable crush feels remarkably familiar—just as we’re intrigued when our new iPhone lights up, Theo finds himself infatuated with this computer he’s brought to life. Their courtship is smooth and progresses as a human one might, bringing Theo out of his loneliness. Theo takes Samantha around a mall in her phone form where they gawk at and gossip about passersby. They “snuggle” at the beach. They have awkward “sex.” These verbs are in quotation marks because they imply something that only two bodies can do together. Now, the problem we expected ever since we saw the trailer has arrived: how can Theo and Samantha have a meaningful relationship when one of them is body-less?

[2]

Then again, all couples have their problems. If Theo’s neighbors can’t communicate verbally, Theo and Samantha can’t communicate sexually. As the audience wonders how their sex scene will play out, the film transitions from satire into sincerity. The human-robot relationship gag is funny until Jonze presents their first sex scene without mockery. And their subsequent challenges as a couple, while parodic, parallel those of any human couple: a sexless marriage may solicit help through swinging, and Sam and Theo experiment with a surrogate to make their sex life more tactile. At which point, Samantha’s machinery becomes merely incidental to the larger love story. We’re actually starting to think that this could possibly be for real.

***

Before coming to see Her, the moviegoer may have had a day much like Theo’s: he packs onto a train at rush hour, works at a cubicle with headphones in his ears, lets his thoughts ramble inside, all day long, like in a popcorn kettle. He’s certainly isolated in this big, crowded city. But is he lonely? Does isolation necessitate those sad, feely associations we have with loneliness? Isolation in crowds isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. The condition is a century old, yet in the era of handheld electronics it receives some of the most tiresome kids-these-days kvetching. So we have to wonder, what’s different now?

With the evolving distraction of portable technology, all those sad, feely associations become less relevant. Our machines immediately respond to our needs and commands. We can make our laptop sing with the slightest tickle; our power over it is an indulgence of our most selfish, egotistical urges. Instantaneously we command the machine to validate us — our actions, our existence, our personality — without risking any ego in the process. Mark Slouka’s mid-1990s essay, “In Praise of Silence and Slow Time,” puts it succinctly: in cyberspace we’re “avoiding the daily grinding of differences so necessary not only to the democratic process but to individual growth.” Thus, a tidy little contradiction appears: immersed in technology, we avoid the sadness that accompanies daily loneliness, but only by avoiding prickly human interface altogether. These objects that make loneliness bearable also make loneliness bearable. And if our loneliness is bearable, we might just submit to it.

With or without technology, loneliness colors much of Jonze’s work. His characters are largely invisible, interior people (e.g. Malkovich, Wild Things). It’s telling that he created Theo in his first writing credit—Theo incarnates Jonze’s primary thematic concerns. Even before Her, Jonze’s music video for Fatboy Slim’s, “Praise You,” is a distillation of his larger battles.

The video’s narrative arc is deceptively simple. A dance group occupies a crowded movie theater box office and begins a clumsily choreographed dance routine. It’s shot on a camcorder from over the shoulders of confounded onlookers and the scene is completely unspectacular.The dancers are nondescript: among the seven, one is a young blonde in pink leggings, another is an old man in a loose fitting sweatshirt.The dance begins as an out-of-sync line dance and shifts into a circular dance train and haphazard krumping, among other things. When it came out in the 90s it looked idiosyncratic and fun. But with Her in mind, it’s reasonable to assume that Jonze sees the onlookers as Theos, and the purpose of this nascent flash mob is clear: to interrupt daily tedium and that constant internal chatter that keeps us from looking up.

The bewilderment of the line-standers is on full display—it’s as much as a part of the art project as the dance itself. They stand in line alone and quiet like an Edward Hopper painting. And then suddenly their awareness heightens as the whole unwieldy dance unfurls. And they watch because it’s strange and harmless, because it’s sweet and confusing, and they clap for it. Jonze’s group has risked their egos to pull viewers out of their own isolation, fear, and inhibitions, for five damn minutes.

The successes of “Praise You” and Her go as fast as they come. Moviegoers end up filing into their movie, and Samantha ends up leaving Theo. Rather than cure isolation, Jonze points it out, makes it known. But the pointing out is itself heroic, and perhaps Jonze’s inability to portray meaningful resolution for his characters has less to do with his shortcomings as a filmmaker than our shortcomings as a society of Theos.

Fatboy Slim — Praise You from Adam Fromm on Vimeo.

Scott Cohen works for Penguin Books and his writing has recently appeared in the LA Review of Books.

[1] This is an example of a scene that only a writer-director could execute. Had Jonze been translating this from a vision not his own, the subtlety would disappear completely. A handful of contemporary writer-directors may ask the audience to read the unspoken, but Jonze asks a larger question: why aren’t we paying attention in the first place?

[2] Interruption, for a moment, to talk about how this might actually be appealing IRL. Theo, like us, is surrounded by failing relationships—marriages falling apart, sexual and romantic connections surrogated. How could we not see the appeal of machines with whom communication is unambiguous and which are programmed to respond to our needs without the human ambiguity of unspoken communication? But more on that later.