The power of “her”

by Jo Ann Skousen on March 18, 2014

If you missed “her” in the media blitz surrounding the glitzier nominees for Best Picture this year, you missed something special.

“her” is a cautionary tale about our love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating to cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. ‘her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman. In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a softspoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” that customers send to their loved ones. He’s sort of a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s new smart phone. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional needs as well as organizational needs. Theodore responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic—the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness and giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to isolation from the real people in his life–an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected. He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.” Of course, these nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex.

“I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she responds, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch “First I would… ,” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then… the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha—who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply, “or you’re not mine.” There are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. “I’m yours. And I’m not yours,” she responds. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love—true love, with a real human– is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully and disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.

“her,” directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.

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Remembering Margaret Thatcher

by Jo Ann Skousen on April 10, 2013

In May 1996 I attended the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Foundation for Economic Education at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Lady Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker, and William F. Buckley had been enlisted to introduce her and moderate the questions from the audience after her formal remarks.

Buckley was a big cheese himself, of course; it was not his custom to perform the warmup act. But it was a testament to his respect for her, and to her stature, that he accepted the role. His mandate was to keep the questions coming in order to accommodate as many guests as possible. To that end, Lady Thatcher was also encouraged to keep her responses to no more than two or three minutes.

Buckley performed his duties admirably. When Thatcher reached the two-minute mark, he stepped forward to the podium. Graciously Thatcher wrapped up her response and stepped back to yield the microphone, while Buckley recognized the next questioner. This happened twice. The third time Buckley stepped toward the podium, Thatcher did not yield. Leaning slightly toward the guest whose question (about China) she was answering, as though his question were the most fascinating topic she could imagine, she proceeded to filibuster charmingly for nearly ten minutes. Standing at her elbow, Buckley looked like nothing so much as an errant actor entering the stage too soon, unsure whether he should tiptoe back into the wings or muscle forward to cover his folly.

Eventually he chose the former option and backed awkwardly away from the podium. Only then did Lady Thatcher wind up her treatise on China and look back at Buckley disarmingly to invite his return to the microphone. From that moment forward Buckley listened to her remarks instead of watching his second hand, and watched her body language to know when it was time for the next question. The length of her comments varied according to their content, and the two performers worked in tandem beautifully for the remainder of the presentation.

She was an Iron Lady indeed, with an emphasis on “lady,” as she gently reminded William F. Buckley that he was, above all, a gentleman.

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Warm Bodies

February 2, 2013

“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,/ A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.” These words from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” suggest that humans are controlled by destiny and fate, not by choice and accountability. Romeo and Juliet meet by fate; their families are at war by fate; and their story [...]

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Gangster Squad

January 21, 2013

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Putting Compassion Back into Capitalism: John Mackey’s New Book

January 18, 2013

Capitalism, once lauded as the proud foundation of America’s success, has had a bad rap lately. Free market capitalism has been blamed for everything from the collapse of real estate and the stock market to the widening gap between haves and have-nots and even the onslaught of terrorism. Capitalists are the bad guys in nearly [...]

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“The Impossible” Shows What Really Matters

January 13, 2013

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Zero Dark Thirty

January 10, 2013

It was a great and dreadful day in American history. A man was dead, hunted down and executed in his own home in front of his wife and children without extradition, trial, or sentence. The news was greeted in America by rejoicing. Within hours the terrain from Times Square to Ground Zero was the site [...]

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Les Miserables

December 30, 2012

Victor Hugo’s masterpiece “Les Miserables” has resonated with readers and viewers for over a century and a half. Even Ayn Rand said that Victor Hugo was her favorite author. Set in the decades following the French Revolution, “Les Miserables” is the tale of “the wretched ones” for whom the Revolution had meant little. They were [...]

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“Killing Them Softly”

December 6, 2012

“Killing Them Softly” is a film about the ugly underworld of organized crime. But it tries to be a whole lot more. Set against the 2008 financial meltdown and presidential election, it suggests a metaphoric connection between government and organized crime not unlike the connection made years ago by Harry Browne in “How I Found [...]

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Life of Pi

November 29, 2012

“Life of Pi” is a magical adventure story whose narrator claims it will “make you believe in God.” “Impossible!” you might say. “That’s utterly irrational!” Well—just you wait. The main character’s name is Pi, after all…. The film is framed as a story within a story within a story. The external frame involves a Canadian [...]

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