“Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”
Have you ever, while watching a film in a theater filled with an audience of complete strangers to you, moved your eyes off the screen and looked around? Noticed how everyone is just as deeply affected as you are by something that’s going on with these characters whom also you didn’t know a few minutes before? In that moment, the audience is one. We are all feeling the most basic thing that makes us alive–emotions.You are caring for the people whom you didn’t know before you walked in that auditorium. In their joy, you find joy. And in their sadness, you are saddened. It’s a sign of a great film and it’s the peak potential of a powerful cinema. These films become precious memories in the hearts and the minds of the audience. A special experience they will go on to savor for their lifetime. “Her”, for me, was one of those films.
I sit here, staring blankly at this computer screen, my fingers about to type down the flood of thoughts I have after watching this film, but I feel so many things right now, and I can’t find the right wording to express it in the most self-satisfactory way. But I’ll try.
Waking up to the most beautiful sunrise on a beach and going to sleep in your quiet place in the midst of a chaotic city–if there is a cinematic equivalent for that–it would be “Her”. Standing atop a high summit and screaming your lungs out till you’ve purged out all the emotions–watching “Her” comes close to that. Holding the most special person to you in your arms, and letting them go–“Her”.
Theodore, with the talent of expressing affection in an utmost beauty, is rightly working for a company that composes “hand-written” letters for the clients. The film is set in a not-too-distant future to justify the film’s premise, but for all its intentions and purposes, it’s the film of all ages and time. A film that values intimacy and vulnerability, and captures the bittersweet memories of a love gone by. The landscape and the look of the film may be of the world we don’t know yet, but its people are not unknown to us, for they are us, wandering around in a giant pool of hopeless, damaged individuals. Theodore, while working in the office, composes letters rich with love and joy while channeling an honest empathy for the clients, and then he leaves the workplace, and the first thing he does is to delve into his melancholy. “Play a melancholic song.”, he voice-commands his device to enhance the mood. Is he miserable because he has been writing letters portraying pure love while he is unfortunate to have one? Or is he good at showing humility because he has been miserable? He walks back to his home, enveloping himself with his arms with giant buildings in the background. An isolated, introverted individual living in his own world. How many times must he have followed the same routine? How many times must he have listened to that same melancholic song, returned to his cave of solitude, mechanically, over and over? He is drowning in an ocean of isolation, and the only thing that he can hold on to is his work or the technological distractions.
“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”, he remarks at one point.
And then a light hits him and wakes him up, this light is “Samantha”, one of the many specific designs of the world’s first artificial operating system. What starts as a weird, unlikely thing develops into a natural, compassionate relationship, for Samantha is “not just a computer, but her own person”. What makes us human anyway? Empathy and emotions are part of the characteristics that define us. Samantha is as empathetic as they come. So here are these two persons, helping each other out to learn more about themselves, and in the process, falling in love. Samantha tries to help Theodore let go of the past that he shared with his lovely wife, memories of whom still haunt Theodore in his sleepless nights, and he helps her to see what it feels like to be a human. They are both seeing the world with new pairs of eyes. This is the story that lies in the heart of “Her”–the longing for intimacy and the inevitable baggage of pain that comes with it.
Theodore finds himself thinking of the memory vignettes from his married life, and eventually, feeling guilt for himself for the things he wishes he could have done otherwise. He doesn’t resent her for the conflict that they caused each other. He is wise enough to understand that “hard part is growing without growing apart or changing without it scaring the other person”. That’s what the change or conflict does to people. They find themselves in a loop of thoughts of self-doubt and how they would’ve handled things differently. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”, Samantha tells Theodore.
So what do people do to avoid this self-damage? They avoid their longing for intimacy, and wrap their hearts safely in an impenetrable box of self-interests. They distract themselves with the video-games and the same work-routine. They try to liberate themselves from the vulnerability that comes with the relationships by not caring about it at all. “We’re only here briefly, and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it.”, says Theodore’s friend Amy who is going through a kind of similar situation and has more in common with him than they both realize themselves.
“Her” portrays such a complexly beautiful picture of what it’s like to be in love–as it should be. It’s not just going out on a Sunday adventure, late night calls and sex, but also the conflict when the dreams and ideas of two persons collide, a sense of insecurity that accompanies it. There’s a scene later in the film where Theodore is trying to connect with Samantha, but the device shows an error of “Operating System Not Found”, and you see how fearful that makes him. He falls while running anxiously through corridors–he seems to be broken, like he has just lost a part of himself. It reminds us how scary it can be to be in love.
For a story this effectively told, it must have been really special and personal story for the writer-director Spike Jonze, and it shows. He has poured his heart out in every word and every frame of this picture, without fearing to be vulnerable. He has essentially created a poetic literature that would prove to be timeless. And the cast and the crew compensates his vision in the right direction. I, for one, never thought Theodore of being a character played by Joaquin Phoenix. I couldn’t see Joaquin anywhere in him. I was only able to see an introverted, sensitive guy named Theodore. I think that’s the biggest compliment I can give him. (But the mustache definitely helped!) Johansson has a warmth in her voice that Samantha needed. The film also owes a lot to cinematography by Hoytema who paints a minimalist, abstract future with washed down color brushes, and Arcade Fire’s score that complements the film’s bittersweet atmosphere.
The film ends with Theodore and Amy sitting beside each other, on the top of a building, looking at the endless night-scape of the city. These are both damaged individuals and they both share an understanding for each other’s perspective. It’s such a beautiful note to end the film with. Like a warm hug after an emotionally cathartic experience. I think if this films helps let people go of the damaged past and see it in a different, positive light, if they are ready to fall in love again, or at least, value the intimacy they share with their close ones, and not be afraid of being vulnerable or hurt, then its existence is proven worthy.
A timeless quote from C.S. Lewis comes to mind and feels right to end this post with–
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”