Saturday, January 18, 2014

Oscar Bait 2014--Her, by Spike Jonze

If you look up the movie Her ( or is it "her"?) you will likely find plot explained as "in the near future, a man falls in love with his operating system, an artificial intelligence with the voice of Scarlett Johansson."

Do not believe it.

I mean, technically, it's true. Theo Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) does buy an artificial intelligence OS* which is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and he does seem to fall in love with it. He calls it "my girlfriend" and people take him at his word. He believes it, the characters around him in the movie believe it, even the OS seems to believe it. On that basis, then, you would believe that this is a science-fiction-y rom-com, about two mismatched lovers trying to just find a way to be together in this wacky world.

But that is not really what the movie is about.

What this movie is really about is grief and the process of grieving. It's about a man coming to terms with his divorce, finally coming to terms with his new life and letting go of the old one. The OS (who names herself "Samantha") is more or less a transitional love object, the thing that Theo uses to hoist himself out of his sadness and through which he rediscovers his capacity for happiness.

And there is NOTHING WRONG with making a movie that uses the tropes and gestures of science fiction to explore human emotions. In many ways, this is a better, more engaging movie because it is about those human emotions. I think that this is what make this movie Oscar Bait--it really is a rather universally applicable story about the way humans move through grief, told through the specific experience of one particular human.

Which is not to say that this movie is entirely unproblematic. It is not for nothing that Theo Twombly won Vulture's tongue-in-cheek ranking of the "Saddest, Whitest, Sad White Men" in Oscar movies. While others are better suited to discuss the lack of non-white characters (or the lack of anyone other than the economically privileged as well), I want to consider this movie's gender blind spots. Before I do that, however, I want to disclose my own biases. I am absolutely a feminist, but perhaps not a really effective one. Which is to say that, as I was watching this movie, I was able to see it as an exploration of a universal human experience. That's right, I am able to--unironically!--look at a movie exploring the white privileged male experience, and consider it "universal." And that evaluation may even survive to the end of this essay.

And it is because it is sci fi that this movie can reach for a "universal experience" and gloss over the gender blindness, because Samantha is not human. And it is because this movie is gender blind, glossing over Samantha's experience, that it is not sci fi.

This is tricky to articulate, but try this thought experiment--try watching this movie putting yourself in Samantha's place. Use Samantha as your surrogate. Imagine that you are experiencing this world as Her.

First of all, is that even possible? What does the movie tell us about AI? How much is programmed, and how much is "learned" once the OS is installed and interacts with its operator? Honestly, we have no idea. And we have no idea because the movie isn't interested in that question at all. The movie doesn't really want to ask "can an AI experience love?" It doesn't want to actually explore whether Theo's relationship is "real" or reciprocal. It simply charts the beats of an emotional relationship (from Theo's side) from awkward first meeting, to exploration of new experiences together, to the ultimate moment when their interests diverge and they break up. The movie doesn't actually question whether any of those emotional beats are real from Samantha's side--Theo doesn't question them, and while Samantha sometimes raises the issue, Theo quickly reassures her.

But in the audience, I was skeptical. Because an AI is not another person, and there are probably some tricks that provide the illusion of interaction, but that are just programming. For example, take Samantha's sense of humor. Or "sense of humor." At one point, Theo tells a joke, and Samantha laughs. "What does a baby computer call its father? Data."

Okay, I don't care how that joke is delivered--that is not funny.** Objectively, that is a Not Funny joke. There is no time that any flesh and blood person in the history of the universe would find that joke funny. But Samantha laughs. Because Theo has told her this is a joke, and when a joke is told, the pre-programmed response is to laugh. But! Because this joke isn't funny (and remember, this is objectively a not-funny joke, and can be proved by Science), but Samantha laughs anyway--the illusion is shattered. This is not a personality, this is not a self-aware entity with the ability to appreciate nuance human emotions like humor. This is a program that "laughs" in response to a "joke."

And Theo doesn't see this.

This is kind of key, actually. Theo doesn't notice that his joke isn't funny, which is itself kind of sad but understandable. He's a sad, pathetic little man, only just beginning to come out of his shell of depression--he's not equipped to understand that it's not funny.

 It's that the movie accepts--uncritically--that Samantha thinks this joke is funny, and doesn't even consider that her response is anything other than genuine amusement. But that can't be! I mean, even logically, if programmers had wanted to design "a sense of humor" into an AI OS, they would have included the history of humorous writing into the program. Samantha herself is capable of locating a relevant text, reading it in fractions of seconds, and deriving meaning--we saw her do this when she named herself after reading a baby name book. There is really no (sci fi adjacent) reason that an AI would laugh at that joke. (Would "laugh" at that "joke.")

But Samantha does not exist to explore the conundrums of AI--Samantha exists narratively in order to bring Theo out of his depression. Look at it this way:

  • In a science fiction movie, the point of the joke would be to explore the nature of humor. Is it innately human, or can a sufficiently sophisticated computer program understand it? Is it a valid example of passing a Turing test, or simply a programmed response to something called "a joke."
  • In a rom com, it would be funny. (It is not funny.) After all, it is right there in the name of the genre--romantic COMEDY. It would also tell us something about the characters--why he chose to tell that particular joke, why she thought it was funny. 
  • In an Apatow-era "rom com" the joke would be mined for its inherent awkwardness. "What, I'm a computer, so you tell a computer joke? If I were Polish, would you bust out the Polack jokes? What if I were African American?" Or, "Actually, I call my father Dr. Turing." The "joke" would just be the springboard to a more complicated interaction between the characters, featuring some conflict, some self-revelation, definitely some awkwardness.
In Her, the joke exists just to illustrate the emotional beat--Theo is trying out some social interaction, he gets a positive response, he feels closer to Samantha as a result. Jonze shows zero interest in exploring what Samantha experiences in this exchange--the focus is all on Theo.

This could be problematic, and will likely strike some viewers as a major flaw of the film. Anna Shechtman wrote a very interesting piece on Slate about how the movie fails: 
But despite its insight into our love for little screens, Her commits the most hackneyed error of the big screen: It fails to present us with a single convincing female character—one whose subjectivity and sexuality exist independent of the film’s male protagonist or its male viewers.

And she is right. Samantha does not exist independently of the male protagonist--except arguably at the end, somewhat, when she develops a crush on a reconstructed Alan Watts OS and then goes away with all the other AI OS personae, presumably to the singularity. Samantha's final act is to separate herself from the male protagonist, which we see only from Theo's perspective. And that's assuming that we can actually count Samantha as a female character, and not as a genderless, sexless AI.

Furthermore, it is precisely this failure to consider Samantha independently which marks this as "not science fiction." Because Samantha is just a generically badly written female character who exists solely to reflect the male protagonist's journey. If she were on screen as a person, we would basically have the same movie, just without the science fiction-y flavoring added by the AI twist. Samantha as an OS exists like a slice of lime in my Diet Coke--it gives a slightly different taste, without actually making it different.

Here's our next thought experiment: how does the movie change if Samantha is an actual human woman? I posit: not much. There would be some slight difference in the exchange between Theo and his STBX wife Catherine (played by Rooney Mara), when they meet to sign the divorce papers. Catherine asks if Theo is seeing anybody, and he says "yes. She's an OS." And Catherine unloads her bitterness at their failed marriage, accusing Theo of being unable to handle real emotions--and dating an OS proves it.

This could easily be exactly the same exchange if Theo admitted to dating a much younger woman: Johansson is 10 years younger than Phoenix, so even the casting would still work. Alternatively, he could be dating a recent immigrant, engaged in a long distance relationship,  or any other "inappropriate" candidate. There is no need to change any of the emotional beats, up to and including the point where Samantha outgrows him and moves on.

Interestingly, if Samantha was an actual woman, we could challenge the movie on the grounds of the Bechdel test, which it only just barely passes, possibly on a technicality. When out on a double date with Theo's co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his RL girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen), the two women have a brief conversation about the shape of Tatiana's toes--which might not pass the Bechdel test, because it is immediately apparent that the reason they are talking about her toes is because Paul is obsessed with them. So they are still talking about a man--no pass. Where it might pass the test is in a two second conversation that Amy (Amy Adams) has with her female AI OS, where she plays a clip of a video game she is developing at the OS's request. The clip is of a generic game "Mommy" grinding up against the refrigerator.

Yeah, the bar for the Bechdel test really is that low.

Anyway, by replacing the OS with an actual woman, what is Her? It's a near future story of a man getting over his divorce. But with the OS stripped, what make this "near future"? Again--it's only a few details that impart a future-y flavoring--LA has mass transit. Nobody uses keyboards with their computers--it's all voice activated or Kinect-style interaction. The pants are high waisted.

So let's get down and dirty here--if this movie were written by Jennifer Weiner, rather than Spike Jonze, would anybody be calling it "science fiction"? If we gender swapped Theo--made him Thea, perhaps--would this movie be getting any of the Oscar love it is getting? I'm not sure we can say that it would. Because other than being rather beautifully designed, without the OS part, it reads as a highly privileged world of mopey knowledge workers getting over themselves. Divorce sucks, but you move on.

Which is pretty disappointing, especially since I found myself asking questions that are inherent in the OS premise--what does it mean to "fall in love" with something disembodied? I have a friend who is a disability rights lawyer, who is constantly fighting ableist prejudices. Which include a pervasive paternalistic condescension toward people with physical limitations. There is a kind of broad cultural assumption that a disabled life is not really worth living, and that some forms of abortion/euthanasia are acceptable if the alternative is a life spent with less than "normal" mobility. I found myself wondering what she would think of this movie--what presumptions about the "need" for a functioning body were countered and which were reinforced?

Does this movie deconstruct gender at all? Other than the timbre and register of her voice, what makes "Samantha" a "her" anyway? Sadly, in some important ways, what makes her a "her" is the way in which she exists entirely dependently upon the male protagonist, in the way that she doesn't have an independent and engaging perspective on the world. Her femaleness relies on the fact that she doesn't have an interesting story line.

But does this move at least gesture toward a more interesting view of gender relationships? After all, doesn't the movie absolutely depend on the notion that it is possible to fall in love with a woman for her mind alone?

Which brings me around to the sex.

Early in the movie, Theo can't sleep and he logs into a chatroom/phone sex service. He passes on a couple of offers, but settles on a woman (voiced by Kristin Wiig) and they begin to talk dirty and masturbate. At first it goes well enough, but pretty soon, the woman voices a "comedically" awkward fetish and Theo ends up trying to talk to through a fantasy of being strangled with a dead cat. It works for her, but Theo goes to bed unsatisfied.

Fast forward to Theo and Samantha doing essentially the same thing. There is an attempt to use a sexual surrogate that goes badly because Theo can't imagine her as Samantha. Subsequently, there is a straight up phone sex scene between them. But we don't see it. The screen goes completely black for the duration, and we just hear some breathing and moaning. Which is fine, as an artistic choice I guess, but it made me really think about what we might be seeing. Theo masturbating--obviously. But what is going on with Samantha? What is she getting out of this? As an OS, there is no physical response for her, there is only the simulation of breath. If you think about it too much, it's kind of creepy, really. She's manipulating Theo into orgasm. Alternatively, she is so completely subservient to his desires, that she simply feigns a response that she is not capable of having, and he doesn't notice and isn't bothered by it in the least.

And this is where I decide that I prefer Samantha to be an unembodied artificial construct. Because this relationship is purely one-directional. Samantha gets very little from Theo, and exists narratively to help Theo grow to the next stage of his life. She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl wearing Smart Glasses, but essentially she is truly just a transitional object.

But since she isn't a human being, maybe that's okay? Maybe sad and depressed people need some kind of transitional experience to move out of being sad and depressed, and at least there's no actual human woman being misused in the process?

There is some narrative support for this thesis in the movie. The funky neighbor played by Amy Adams suffers the end of her marriage as well. Her husband leaves her, but leaves behind his own female OS, and Amy makes friends with her. We get a very few, very short glimpses of the two of them bonding and giggling, and by the end of the movie, Amy is ready to move on. It's like having the benefit of a rebound relationship with none of the collateral angst! The OSes outgrow their human relationships and move on, and the humans are ready to re-engage with other humans. Win-win!

In summary: Her is an interesting movie, but far from a great one. What it has managed to do is what magicians do--it performed a trick right under your nose by distracting you from what is really happening. The pitch remains "Near Future OS-human relationships!" The actual story is "Sad, privileged white male is sad and alone because of his divorce, but he learns to find happiness again." Once you see how the trick is done, I think the movie remains worthwhile, but is no longer as innovative as I expected from the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Perhaps he should have hired Charlie Kauffman to do a punch up on the screenplay.

Short takes:

  • Utopia or dystopia? Depends on your opinion of high waisted pants I guess.
  • Joaquin Phoenix does give a warm and tender performance, but not surprising that it didn't make the Oscar cut. Nevertheless, Theo Twombly could have been a completely depressing wet noodle, and he isn't. Well done, sir!
  • What is up with the decor of his apartment? Why are three hard wood chairs grouped together in the middle of the floor? Did burglars steal his breakfast table?
  • So determined to show a future that isn't all blue glass and lens flares, Jonze goes a leetle bit overboard on the sunny oranges--especially in Amy Adams' apartment. We get it--it's warm and human in the future.
  • I love non-glam Amy Adams--and despite having just seen American Hustle, I almost didn't recognize her.
  • I would not want to receive one of Theo's "Beautiful Handwritten Letters." The ones we hear him writing are kind of off-putting in a decidedly creepy way. And no, Movie, having another character repeatedly say "you're my favorite writer" does not correct this flaw.
  • Is Her a companion piece to Lost in Translation, Jonze offering his side of the story about his divorce from Sofia Coppola? Arguably. Fun to consider, certainly.

*Not to be all Grammar Marm about this, but that just doesn't seem right. Grammatically, it should be "an artificially intelligent OS" but "artificial intelligence" seems to be a technical term that does not allow conversion into different parts of speech. It's an AI interface--so it's an "artificial intelligence" interface, and sentence construction be damned.

**If you do happen to find that joke to be funny***, then your experience of this movie is likely to be different. It is also likely that you are four years old, so what are you doing watching this?

***It is not funny.****

****I would not be surprised to find that on the pages of the actual screenplay, this joke is followed by "[don't forget to insert actually funny joke here]."*****

*****On the other hand, embedding footnotes within footnotes is VERY funny. Trust me on that.

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