her – a stylish and beautiful film about emotional disconnection in the digital age

Some 48 hours after watching the film “her” in the cinema, I am still haunted by its stylish and uncommon beauty, and its sly, understated but yet biting theme of emotional disconnection in the digital age.  Under its off-kilter romantic dramatic exterior lurks a science fiction film that raises deep questions about our present fascination with personal technology “solutions” and how this will change the nature of human interaction in the near future.

Have you ever sat with a group of people, and realised that everyone was staring into a small screen, silently swiping or typing or reading or listening through earphones?  This is the future that “her” posits, although with a difference.  Living in a higher density Los Angeles that looks uncommonly like China (the exteriors were all shot in Shanghai; will the China of today irrevocably become the future of tomorrow?).  Our main character Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) ironically writes letters for a living – yes, real letters for real people who are unable to express themselves emotionally.

Everyone in “her” lives in a frictionless world, talking into their ear pieces, with a bland, pale set of colours, sort of “Apple-lite” (seen any Apple advertisements recently?).  Nobody is physically injured in “her” (although Theodore does trip, once); everyone seems to glide through a world that has been made so safe through technology that personal feelings are shielded.  The result?  Our closest relationships are those with the “operating systems” of our computers.

Does this sound like far out sci-fi, or just a slight exaggeration of the present?  I vote for the latter. (Who or what did you spend the most time with this week?  Your computer, or your life partner?)

Jonze is a genuinely gifted director.  Following his collaborations with Charlie  Kaufman (writer of Jonze’s uber-trippy films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”), he has come into his own writing this one.

One of the beauties of “her” is that the film truly has the courage of its convictions:  yes, what would genuinely happen if (when?) artificial intelligence becomes so sophisticated that they become our best friend.  When my friend recently swore at Siri, the iPhone’s voice intelligent system, Siri admonished her.  Really, how close are we already to Jonze’s world?

Even the name Twombly – Anglo-Saxon and yet unusual – is highly evocative.  The most recognisable person with that last name is the painter and artist “Cy” (Edwin Parker) Twombly (1928-2001), whose works were inspired by “ancient Mediterranean history and geography, Greek and Roman mythology and epic poetry”, resulting in sometimes “inscrutable” works that include “iconography, metaphor and myth”.  As Christy Harrison has pointed out, “the film’s colour scheme often seems to be directly lifted” off the artist’s canvas (see her post for two screenshot/painting comparisons).  Danny Bowes notes that Phoenix’s character even dresses like the artist.

If you live in Sydney, as I do, you will have to rush if you wish to catch “her” in the cinema – and this is a cinema film, that a widescreen experience greatly enhances, bringing you into its odd and ever so slightly bizarre world.  We watched it at the Macquarie Centre, in an afternoon weekend screening that was the only one that day.  “her” has been nominated for a number of Academy Awards:  best picture, best original screenplay, best original score, original song and production design.  In a different year – one without the flashy, louder nominated films (you know who you are) – “her” could have featured more highly in both the nominations and the actual winners.  But that’s the way it goes in the near future.

her #2

her Theodore Twombly apartment

(Australian readers note:  The Art Gallery of NSW holds Cy Twombly’s “Three Studies from the Temeraire”, acquired in November 2004.)

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