Her - In Quest Of Receding Intimacy

Thoughts On: Her

A divorced man falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system.

A phenomenal film. I've seen Her a handful of times - around 5. The first time I watched this film I saw it as a pure romance, it was about relationships and how we can get along with people as a means of better understanding ourselves. Such seems a rather cliched an empty assessment of the film, but because of the expression of this somewhat woo-woo idea through sci-fi, one grounded with verisimilitude, it held weight. In such, I saw/see the whole concept of falling in love with an operating system as an inevitability for some in our society. People have always loved dogs, cats - all kinds of pets. We are developing equally nonsensical relationships with technology the more it integrates its way into our lives, combine that with the replication of humans in the way we communicate and think and you inject a sexual possibility into the mix. The only thing really holding it back is the constant flow of technology, the surge of new models and systems. Such has people fall in love, basically become addicted with, the concept of a phone, computer, laptop, gaming system, instead of a specific thing. This concept does translate to the film with the ending and Samantha having to 'go away', but nonetheless, the major focus is on an idea of looking for love. This was my perspective on my first viewing and it hasn't changed too much. However, with the proceeding viewings, I became slightly disillusioned with the film, the romance and spectacle of the narrative became banal at first, the philosophical conversations quickly becoming pretentious - by the 3rd and 4th viewing, the characters of this film were beginning to annoy me. This is because of their arcs. All characters maintain a level of high emotional output throughout the film. They're always trying to express themselves, talk about how they feel, such and so on. I'm not a big fan of this for two reasons. The first comes from a technical screenwriting viewpoint on a perspective of cinema. As many would agree, you 'show, don't tell' on film. In such, we see the huge exposition dumps of feeling and emotion throughout the film as bad writing. This is a somewhat understandable approach to this narrative though as we obviously never see the character of Samantha and it is a romance that means to delve into the human complex. There is a second reason why the abundance of outward emoting gets to me in this film though. This is something that took a while for me to pick up on in myself and actually changed the way I saw the film.

I grow annoyed at the constant talk about inner feelings, 'I felt hurt', 'I want this', 'I need that', 'I wish for this', in the film because the characters are not taking responsibility for their own emotions. You see this a lot in many people to varying degrees. We probably all know at least a few people that put their emotional well-being in the hands of external sources. The most difficult kind of person is the one who needs others to look after their emotions. These people are often labeled clingy and or needy, but these are ill-defining terms as they overlook the self-destructive nature of being overtly needy or clingy. These terms suggest that these kinds of people just hold onto others, which often misleads people into seeing these traits as cute or a sign of love. This is evident throughout history in a plethora of romantic writing. Staying in the realm of film we have three huge examples:

In all of these films we see characters expressing an idea best explained through a quote in the film: 'Falling in love is crazy. It's like a socially acceptable form of insanity'. There's two takes you can take on what this quote means. It can mean that you have to be insane to put yourself out there, to trust someone, to make the effort to stay with them and be happy. The converse side of this that much better aligns with the way the characters in Her act and the paradigm of characters arcs in the films above is that this quote means you do whatever you have to for love. This is a desperate, childish and rather nasty perspective of love, one we see best broken down in films such as Don Jon, 500 Days Of Summer and, arguably, by the end of Her.

The characters in Her all express this self-absorbed idea of love - in that it is there to facilitate their own emotional well-being. You see this most with Samantha. She is an almost unbearable character when we move past the midpoint of the second act. She is constantly asking of Theodore, the scene with the surrogate lover being the most poignant example of this:

This scene almost paints Samantha as emotionally manipulative. This is an easy stance to take, but the truth of it is that she's unfathomably intelligent (as is an inevitability with A.I). This incomprehensible intelligence makes Theodore, as it would us, look incredibly inferior in face of her. And when you combine Samantha's shear intellect with her strong will, her unshaken comprehension of what she wants, you get a character who will likely get what she sets out to get, if not, produce incredibly awkward and skewed scenes like the one above. So, what this translates this sequence into is not an example of Samantha as emotionally manipulative, but a growing person.

And it's picking up on this that transforms the latter scenes where we see Samantha growing way beyond Theodore. She starts talking with other operating machines, probably falling on love with 1000s of other people because she has that shear capacity to do so. To judge this from a human perspective is faulted as it would have you label her as a cheating whore - at the least an absolute dickhead. What's most faulted with this emotional reaction to Samantha's character arc though is the fact that you are falling into the paradox of thinking that she does. Samantha wants to be human, she wants to get close to this idea of material being for a large part of the film. In this she wants to be treated as a person. The simple fact of this though is that she's not a person, she never will be. For this, we can't expect her to do a very human thing that is steeped in a intimate idea of empathy. To explain what this is we have to see the film for what it really is: Theodore's story. Through his arc, we are given the tools to assess Samantha's. She becomes borderline manipulative, overtly needy and emotional because she doesn't often step back and see things from Theodore's perspective. Again, the surrogate scene is the best example of this. Isabella, the surrogate, is led to believe that Samantha and Theodore have the perfect relationship. When Theodore tries to explain that this is not the reality of things, Samantha is offended. And this marks a huge turning point in her character. From here she wanders out into the world much more - and all in search of more affection and love. What she then aims to do is gather love without actually loving, she sees true love and interaction as the 'honeymoon phase' of a relationship. This is where her lack of growth really becomes something that, from a human perspective, we'd have to call childish and rather stupid. All of this then makes clear the fact that both we and Samantha are wrong to think of her as a person, to judge her from this perspective. If we were to do this we'd ignore the fact that humans have to be empathetic, have to consider what the other person wants and fall into this mundane and everyday rhythm of affection and love. It's only because we are so physically constrained that we live with others as we do. We argue, scream, shout, fall out, get back together, because we're confined to Earth, because we can't just meet a million people simultaneously and read each other's minds. This is, however, Samantha's reality and allows her a much more romantic perspective on life as it's in line with the reality of her capabilities as an artificially intelligent operating system.

What this human idea of empathy says about Theodore's character arc is that he must ground himself, he must recognise that he must accept reality in all of its mundanity. The way this arc speaks to Samantha's is then in respect to this idea of emoting and expecting something back from people when voicing ones wants. As a human Theodore has to engage in a give-and-take relationship with all of those he interacts with:

All three of these women demonstrate somewhat mature relationships with Theodore that you just don't get with Samantha. With the blind date, the two get along, but when they reach an impasse at the end of the night, they manage to just walk away from one another. They see that they're not compatible hence demonstrating an understanding of one another's personage in a grounded, realist way. With Amy, Theodore's best friend, we see the most functional relationship in the film. The two know how to talk to one another, how to discuss their emotions not as a way of saying 'I want this from you!' and having it interpreted as 'he wants what from me!?'. This is precious kind of relationship that is the romantic crux of the film - it's all about a mutually understanding relationship that can be sustained. The fate of Theodore's marriage is a play with the relationship present between him and Amy. The two used to get on, but grew apart. They may get back together, may find a way to see themselves from the other's perspective - but such is a question to the audience. But, it's in this last relationship that we're seeing not just commentary on the idea that one has to take care of their own emotions first and foremost - and before expecting anyone to help them with that - but commentary on the paradigm of Theodore and Samantha's relationship. Just as they grow apart as Samantha learns more of the world, Theodore and Catherine grew apart from one another, in turn, resenting who the other became.

In this paradigm of the relationship we are seeing something of a look at expectation. People often get into relationships with the people they see before them. This is a huge mistake - especially if you're looking for a long-term relationship. Not only will this person grow old, less attractive, less healthy, able and sharp over the years and decades, but they will reveal a uncapped, unfiltered view of their internal emotional machinery. Such is a common observation to make of early relationships - it's after the first few months when the 'honeymoon phase' is over that the 'true person' comes out. There's a fault in this thinking though as a 'true person' is a silly concept. People can't ever be 'raw' and 'true' as we have to constantly adapt our behavior to circumstances. We can try to mute or attempt to not embellish this constant change in how we behave and interact with people as to come off as more 'real', but it is an inevitability that people change. This is especially true in a relationship. Though you might want to, it's impossible to start day one of a relationship as if it's day 692. You can't demonstrate that level of comfort or understanding you'd have after almost 2 years because you just don't have the tools, neither are you warranted to do this - you haven't earned the trust or respect of the person to be you in a much more mundane and unveiled way. Though this may seem fake to the naive and blindly romantic, the fact that people actually engage in this changing of behaviour over a relationship is what makes them function and what makes us human. This is a huge element of Her - the growth of a relationship. There is a demonstration of how not to approach the concept of a relationship, and how to maybe tackle the task. With Samantha, the failure in the relationship is in the fact that she's not of the same species as Theodore and so not of the same capacity. This is something we've picked up on before, something linked to a monologue Neil DeGrasse Tyson has given. If you consider the genetic difference between humans and apes, we see that everything that makes us great (space travel, art, complex communication) is in a few percentage points between us and them. We share around 96% of our DNA with apes and because of that 4% we are so different from them - in an arguably positive direction. What would happen if we ran into aliens that shared that same 4% genetic difference, but it was they that had the advantage on us? We would be apes to them, our best art, technology and aspects of intelligence, just as impressive as...

It isn't explored enough in Her, but this is what Samantha is to Theodore, she is many percentages above him (despite not having true DNA) and so is a completely different species on the intellectual scale. It's this difference that drives the two apart, and for this it makes sense for him to be with a human, whether it's a friend or a lover. Humans understand each other. Samantha might understand humans (though, she doesn't demonstrate this very well) but this is an irrelevant detail. If people understood ants as we do one another I'm sure we'd know a lot of interesting shit and the world would rejoice, but... would it really be that significant? Once this information is normalised, ants will just be ants again, sure they'd be more complex, but nonetheless, only ants. In the same respect, even if Samantha completely understood humans/Theodore, we'd simply become...

... only human.

So, through all of this poking below the surface of the characters in Her over my many viewings, I've slowly fallen out and then back in love with the movie. Such only speaks in novel tones of the film itself, of how people grow in relationships - but a fanciful detail we won't fixate on. What the repeat viewings of this film have allowed me to see is the fact that this is not a movie about romance, but intimacy. I believe the best romances focus on this:


From Rocky to Amélie to Before Sunrise to Cinderella, the romantic elements of these great films is in a sensation of trust and enclosure. It's simply because we feel so close to the protagonists of these films that a sense of security between ourselves and them is solidified. And this is intimacy in its most poignant form. It's all about an unwavering relationship that we do not have to worry about. Such is the ultimate romantic goal - something that just works unconditionally and without pain. Whilst this sounds lazy it also picks up on an idea of irrevocable connection - an idea that two people are meant for each other. This doesn't imply an idea of fate, much rather a probabilistic roll of the dice in our favour. (Something best demonstrated by this Tim Minchin song).

By seeing the foundations of great chemistry and romance in intimacy, we can see the huge draw of Her's (not sure how to punctuate that one) design. This is a film that sets up an easy romance, one that is protected by the singular and closed relationship of a man and a computer. The closeness here is palpable because it mimics the kind of relationship displayed in Rocky...

We physically see these characters isolated, there is no competition or heightened stakes between them. Rocky's romantic notions are simple and unconvoluted, and for this we are drawn into to a true sense of security that the film never exploits. The same cannot be said for Her. It draws us into a false sense of security by setting up the intimate relationship between Samantha and Theodore...

This falsity is built into the design of the characters; the fact that she is a computer and he a human. The fact that she is trapped, in his pocket or ear, never to be seen, puts them at an incredibly close proximity whereby romance flourishes through mere association. The ruse here is simply the internet - the fact that Samantha is the free one and Theodore under false pretenses when thinking of her as just a thing stuck in a box in his pocket. When this is made apparent the intimacy of the relationship deflates rapidly. With this aspect of the plot combining with the narrative commentary on growing in a relationship we see a general principal of what romance can be in this film. We search for romance and love for security. We do this by often taking the path of least resistance. This is not a fault in thinking. I repeat, this is not a fault in thinking. By taking the path of least resistance in forming a relationship, you endeavour to find those easy to be with. This is a huge part of why Samantha and Theodore get on so well in the beginning. It's not a difficult start, but becomes so when the two change. What this says about relationships is that you can take the It Happened One Night perspective...

... where you start out hating someone, but change with them, realising the love - but that this is an unlikely endeavour to pay off. To hope you change with someone is an unforeseeable task in futility. This doesn't mean it can't happen, just that it's hard to manufacture. What Her says about this paradox of change in a relationship is that we should take a path of minimal resistance when we fall in love, but be prepared to work to keep that newly discovered bond by being open to change in a non-romantic direction. In other words, falling in love with Samantha wasn't a direct mistake on Theodore's part as it started so well. What made it break down was the fact that she is of a different species to him (in an intellectual sense) and that they failed to empathise with each other. So, the lesson Theodore learns is that he must search for intimacy, for a closeness he's willing to work to preserve. This could mean re-establishing the relationship with his wife, or it could just mean he maintains the friendship he holds with Amy. Either way, he realises that his task in life is to gain an emotional comprehension of self as to control, or at least understand, how he feels, and in turn how others may also. This makes relationships that much easier and likely to function because the two counterparts not only understand who they are and want they want, but also the other person's wants and desires. In knowing this, there isn't an immediate task of looking after that person, of shielding and playing to their wants and needs, simply a comprehension of who it is you are to live with, by, for and next to.

So, the lasting message of Her is not really of romance, but of reality. By recognising the holes people want to burrow into with others as to rest in a cushioned unperturbed senselessness, we can all see what intimacy is: the Emerald City led to by the romantic yellow brick road below ruby heels that won't want to click once the paws, straw stumps or tin boots next to them have recognised that they never left Kansas and home is just a clearing blink away. In other words, with open eyes and an understanding of ones emotions, people are capable of existing in comfort alongside someone of complimentary disposition.

To find out why this is apart of the Virtue Series, pick up Virtue's Ploy the ebook for free from the Amazon store:

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Anonymous said...

Don't hot link images. It's not nice to expect someone else to pay the bandwidth for images in your blog. The chimp/typewriter image is public domain, so go find your own copy, please.

Daniel Slack said...

Image fixed. Issue of hotlinking noted. Thanks