i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
– ee cummings
We’re living in an era where we are all alone together. We sit next to each other on the subway without trying to connect face to face — because we each carry our own customized self-contained networks of communication condensed to pocket-size devices. Scrolling through reliable circles of friends held in the palm of our hands, we can command a measure of control over these interactions. Does that make us any less lonely? Or are the brightly-lit screens merely a substitute way to feel comforted? Without them, would we be forced to engage with those people in our immediate surroundings? Would we have to deal with embarrassing encounters, awkward pauses, rejection? That moment when someone looks right into your eyes and then looks quickly away? Real life is oh so complicated. Virtual life, much simpler to manage with the swipe of a fingertip.
Our lives are idealized on our social networks, or as it was said recently on Portlandia, “those people who look like they’re having so much fun on Facebook aren’t really having that much fun.” We build the lives we wish we had, the selves we wish we were, the happiness we’re supposed to be chasing. Yes, the online world has given us a magic mirror — and how beautiful we look in it.
In Spike Jonze’s magnificent new film, Her, a regular old human (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an operating system because its interface has been infused with compassion, empathy and spontaneous intelligence. This persona is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who somehow manages to give her best performance without ever being seen on screen. Sure, it helps that in our minds we’re seeing here bee-stung lips and curvy beauty (Samantha Morton was originally cast in the part), but the voice, Samantha, is more than her sex appeal, a level of remove Johansson isn’t often afforded in film. She is so staggeringly sexy and beautiful no one can ever see past that. In this film, we do. She is vulnerable, funny, kind, sweet. Good listener, great conversationalist. Who wouldn’t want to spend hours just talking to her?
The operating system, Samantha, falls in love with Phoenix and he reluctantly falls in love with her back. It’s the little things. Saying goodnight at just the right time — taking him on adventures that only a nav system would know how to plan. Think about all our phones can do for us now, what Siri can do, and add the most interesting person you’ve ever “met” on the other end of the line. Before long, we’re wondering what’s so bad about a relationship with an operating system? All of the usual beats of love are there. They’ve even found a way to have sex. If love is intimacy and intimacy can be encased in pure conversation and attention, then why not? What is he missing? The question is also asked, what is SHE missing?
Samantha is more than just Siri 2.0. She’s more than just a manifestation of what Joaquin Phoenix’s character wants her to be. She’s her own entity, which is probably the most surprising thing about Jonze’s film. To say anymore would be to ruin it for you but suffice it to say, at the end of the day, love is love is love is love. We can no more control it than we can prevent it. It comes on like a virus and can sometimes leave you wrecked in its wake.
What a lyrical, moving meditation on the future of mankind, one that has already been explored in 2001: A Space Odyssey and in the Terminator movies and now getting a new update. Do we believe artificial intelligence will get the better of us and it is only a matter of time? Perhaps. But no filmmaker has ever put the two things together so vibrantly and efficiently before: artificial intelligence and human love. Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick got kind of close with A.I. and then there is Bladerunner. When we create intelligence it inevitably grows on its own, way past what humans can ever know.
Loneliness colors every frame of Her. No character seems to be really connected to anyone else. It isn’t just that everyone is on their phones. The architecture, even the clothing seems to communicate isolation. Phoenix must act this entire film alone since he’s only speaking to an operating system. He has evolved so exceptionally as an actor there doesn’t seem anywhere he can’t go, no emotion he can’t access. He is always seeking the truth, even when it isn’t flattering. In Phoenix, Jonze (who for the first time writes his own screenplay for a major film) has found his perfect muse.
Amy Adams plays an ex of Phoenix’ character, and seems to be yet another disconnected, unsatisfied person looking for that ultimate kind of connection that might not even be possible. She doesn’t have much to do in the film except provide context for the modern reality but she is somewhat of a comforting presence nonetheless. After all, there he is and there she is and yet they can’t seem to find a way to be together. Haunting Phoenix’ character at the fringes is the ethereal beauty Rooney Mara as his soon-to-be ex wife. So much of Her’s inner world is to do with Mara and the fleeting memories that were lived through and thus can’t be forgotten. Talking to an operating system might be satisfying in the short run but it can’t carve out what it felt like to have your lover’s body cupped behind yours, their smell crowding your senses, their touch leaving permanent imprints. Those things must be lived through.
Anyone who has been online for over a decade knows the power of the kind of instantaneous love a person can feel just by exchanging emails with someone, chats even. Sometimes it’s just about how their words come together in a sentence. Other times it’s about having someone that close to you, trapped in your own head. To have someone who knows you outside your earthly body means anything is possible. You can fill in the blanks however you choose. Part of your brain doesn’t know you haven’t tasted, smelled or even seen this person — it is reacting only to the connection, and what a connection. How could real life ever compete again?
Her isn’t about technology and it isn’t about the modern world. It might take place in the future. We might be headed closer towards isolation and loneliness. At its core, Her is about love. Love without ownership, love to cure what ails the world, love to bring us closer together, love to connect us in ways we never see coming.
It would be too easy to say that Her is about the new way we’ve found to fall in love — virtually. But it’s not improper to suggest that many of us are choosing not to engage with the world anymore. Maybe porn has become so readily available and satisfying that real people are unnecessary, real bodies are kind of a hassle. There’s that messy business with satisfying the other person, and the potential to be tossed aside for a more alluring lover. How much easier it is to nestle safely in the arms of a world that will never reject you because it doesn’t ask anything of you.
It is also about appreciating what is right in front of you — accepting imperfection can be a thrilling unpredictable pathway to finding perfection itself. We aren’t always connecting on the same wavelength. Relationships aren’t always the answer to what ails us. Intelligence and growth are necessary components to the human experience too. Her is about all of these things as much as it is about the one thing. But more than anything it is about love in real time. Love in virtual time. Love does not distinguish when it comes on hard. It is there and that is all. You are mostly powerless against it. Even if you can’t make sense of it. Even if it’s bad for you — it can’t be stopped.
There is nothing that can replace the warm flesh and blood of a lover in your arms — even with the complications, even with the inherent risks of getting hurt, even with the fear that you can’t be what they want. This is what we were born to do — fumble towards each other, make a big mess of our emotions. Fuck and laugh and argue. Maybe it all comes to nothing — but maybe, just maybe, you get to take part in the beauty of it all.
The track marks of love are the breadcrumbs left behind that take you back to the best places you’ve ever been. Reach for them. Hold them dear. Or die trying.