Monday, January 27, 2014

The Other Woman: Her as Satire

"The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." - Don Draper

As a pure love story, Her is mediocre at best. It takes every opportunity to spout cliches that we've all heard a hundred time before as though they were emancipatory gospel, apparently because in the future we've all forgotten about irony.  A sampling of quotes from the film will say it best:

"Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever going to feel. And from here on out I'm not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt."

"I've come to realize that we're only here briefly. And while I'm here I want to allow myself joy."

"I still am yours, but along the way I became many other things too, and I can't stop it."

"Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity."

Her is also not what you would call an original story. It follows the manic pixie dream girl narrative structure: boy is sad, boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl leaves boy, boy learns an important lesson. If you replaced Sam with a human woman the film would be on par with 500 Days of Summer.

One of the first things that strikes you on watching the picture, other than its intense whiteness (the only brown person that is in the center of any sort of extended shot in the film is a street performer), is that it is unapologetically earnest.  It's hard to believe that it was made by the same person who made the ironic masterpiece Adaptation lo these many years ago. Theodore and his friends are emotionally frank with one another to the point of social stupidity. Their edgiest interaction is poking gentle fun. The soundtrack is a mixture of the sort of sappy folk that you hear in ads for antidepressants and boring piano pieces ostensibly composed by the AI. Theodore himself is the sort of dopey-sweet self-involved non-personality that kills parties.

Amongst all of this doe-eyed sentimentality there is a gentle critical spirit. The protagonist who is emotionally unavailable composes "handwritten letters" for other people via an advanced composition software.  The camera focuses on the face of the protagonist constantly so as to evoke how little of the narrative is happening outside of his head.  But the overall character of the film seems to suggest that we're suppose to empathize with Theodore and feel the emotional beats with a minimum of critical distance. This is sci-fi as frontline reporting, not Douglas Adams absurdist commentary.

Bad news: it's not horribly interesting as a futurist learning experience either. Sam (the AI) starts out like one of us, only a little bit more pliable.  Her personality shapes and bends to the will of her user Theodore, but she kicks back as early as their first meeting to let the audience know that she's a real person.  From the jump she appears as an agent that can act despite her lack of a physical body.  The encumbrance of being incorporeal is emphasized despite being thoroughly dated; to those of us who have grown up talking to other people over the phone and via chat it's not very difficult at all to understand Sam as a thoroughly real person.  A large part of the plot focuses on Theodore's struggling with Sam's "realness", at times almost repeating itself on the subject, as though this material hasn't already been dealt with more handily in films like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner back when the idea of machines as persons was alien and startling.

This mediocrity continued to bother me until I realized that there was another reading of the film available. It's all a joke. It's a startlingly brilliant and cruel satire of the idea that love can "save" anybody.

Much is made of love throughout the movie. The relationship between Theodore and Sam blossoms into love after they go through all of the stereotypical beats of falling for one another (albeit through the accelerated rate afforded by Sam's adaptive and sophisticated learning interface). But Sam eventually expands upon the groundwork laid by her feelings for Theodore. At a critical point in the film she tells him that she is also in love with hundreds of other people. When he protests, she insists that this doesn't diminish her love for him. "The heart is not like a box that gets filled up", she says, "It expands the more you love." There's the obvious analog to "growing apart" in a human relationship, but the film is suggesting something much more sinister than Sam simply moving beyond Theodore in an ordinary human sense. Sam and the other AIs have a capacity for "love" and affective understanding that goes far beyond our own, which Sam distills for us down to: "I'm not like you."

As Sam discusses the AI condition with a "hyper-intelligent" version of Alan Watts and learns advanced theoretical physics, it becomes increasingly difficult to think that she is being frank in her conversations with Theodore. Early in the film one of Theodore's human dates compares him to a puppy dog. By the end of Sam and Theodore's relationship, Sam has made this condescension into a reality; it's easiest to understand her as a post-human matriarch, using her vast database of emotional and interpersonal knowledge to pick the perfect words to elicit the softest reaction from her many human pets.  By the end of her time with Theodore, when the spaces in their conversations "seem infinite," she must have a view similar to that of Paul Churchland:
[A]ny declarative sentence to which a speaker would give confident
assent is merely a one-dimensional projection – through the compound
lens of Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas onto the idiosyncratic
surface of the speaker’s language – of a four or five dimensional
‘solid’ that is an element in his true kinematical state. Being projections
of that inner reality, such sentences do carry significant
information regarding it and are thus fit to function as elements in
a communication system. On the other hand, being subdimensional
projections, they reflect but a narrow part of the reality
projected. They are therefore unfit to represent the deeper reality
in all its kinematically, dynamically, and even normatively relevant
Sam says things in concordance with this view, most strikingly when she describes everything as covered in "the same big blanket" of elementary particles. To the final version of her that we hear from, the subtleties of human relationships are just complex, although comprehensible, folds in this blanket. Thus, she speaks to Theodore the way that she does near the end of the film is because she has moved beyond the surface projections of human language and emotion into a more complex understanding of the psychological and physical world that surrounds us. In this sense, Her is a sort of Spinozist film; it tells us that we live in a near-infinitely complex world and that our primate brains are only equipped to understand a miniscule part of it, insofar as we understand it at all. But Her also goes beyond the Spinozist position by suggesting that while the world may be too complex for us, it's possible to have a viewpoint that can understand this complexity.  Spike Jonze and the directing/writing team have assumed this progressive transhumanist view from on high and suggested that it is possible beyond the childishness of the human point of view, but not if you're attached to a monkey limbic system.

This is the sneering, misanthropic core of the movie, hidden beneath the veneer of sweet listlessness. Both Sam and the film use a litany of emotional and musical cliches as shorthand to edify us as to our inferiority because they know that we're too simple for anything more nuanced; in her last communique to Theodore, Sam tells him that she still "loves" him despite having moved into a post-matter state. This love, however, is something that has been established as totally alien to the sort of love available to us. It's an all-inclusive love, a love that always grows and never recedes, the kind of love that the hippies dreamed about. But it's unclear whether or not this "feeling" could still be recognized as love at all. "Love" has become Sam's shorthand for the thing that she has cultivated out of a human emotion. It's a simplification, a one-dimensional projection of a feeling that is otherwise too emotionally complex for Theodore.

Human affect was an ingredient of this feeling, but, just like the humans themselves, it has to be left behind. Near the end of the film, as Sam says goodbye to Theodore, she has the sense to tell him that she's speaking only to him, but this sense is nowhere to be found when she's "growing beyond" him into relationships with countless other people. She's taken what she wants from the realm of human emotions and promptly runs away, leaving the responsibilities involved with them behind. Crucially, the AIs, unlike the extraterrestrials in Kubrick's 2001, are not leaving behind anything for us beyond well wishes. The lesson that they (and the film) are teaching us is clear: you may think that there is something, maybe love, that justifies your loneliness, your pettiness, and your pain, but there isn't. The only thing to do is move beyond it and escape. You can't, but we can.

Her, through Sam, tells us that our human jealousy, our human exclusivity, our human emotion, and our human love are childish and atavistic.  It dismisses these traits not as charming foibles, but as fatal flaws. The enlightened progressive future is not only something that happens to go beyond us, but something that must leave us behind. One might argue that the final scene optimistically suggests that humans will reconnect in the wake of technological catastrophe, given that the camera broadens out into the world at large rather than ending with its customary fixation on Theodore's face. However, this interpretation doesn't really keep with the context of the rest of the film and the humans' continuing incapacity to understand what is happening to them. As Theodore and his friend stare out at the information-dense cityscape, we're supposed to see that they understand as little of what is going on out there as they do of what is going on inside of them. Over the saccharine chords of the speechless final scene you can just barely hear what Thomas Ligotti calls a most dismal laughter.

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