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

February 25, 2014

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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The Internship – A movie parable on work in the digital age

July 13, 2013

Inside the film “The Internship” is a potentially very funny, satiric and deeply insightful commentary struggling to emerge about the nature of work in the new digital age.  The story is simple and yet appealing to “middle America” (or middle Australia for that matter):  two guys in their early 40s, Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay), have been laid off from their watch distribution company in Georgia (okay, think, the southern suburbs of Adelaide, then).  They struggle to find meaningful work in the new digital economy.  (Anyone recognise this situation?  I sure do.)   Nick even swallows his pride and goes to work for his brother-in-law, a sleazy mattress store owner (Will Ferrell).

But here’s where fantasy comes in:  Nick and Billy apply – as a pair – for an internship at Google in California, have a Skype video interview from a public library (no less), and successfully bullshit their way in, despite knowing almost nothing and saying even less (see footnote below).   Apply as a pair?  To Google?  Set aside the unreality here, there is something very satisfying for those of us who are not truly exceptional to think that perhaps we could make it into a Google internship, and from Atlanta, no less.

All power to “The Internship” for engaging with what I call “the present moment” of the rapidly changing workplace.  The film also contains some wonderful pop culture, social and literacy references that I do not recall having made it into mainstream films before.  My favourite is the scene that quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which is about why highly successful people achieve their success despite extraordinary competition.

“The Internship” also is, in its own sweet way (and it is sweet), a film about northern California.  I have written separately about how northern California and the Silicon Valley IT industry promote the concept of “abundance”; “The Internship” inhabits this world perfectly.  But it goes further, providing us with delightful shots of scenic San Francisco, a sort of Edenic paradise where the sun always shines and the food is free (at least at Google).  In one scene, a team of Google interns are sitting and lying on a headland in Marin County overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and looking back to San Francisco.  If you know the geography of this location, you have to wonder, “how did they get there?”  It’s an awfully long walk (hours, really) from the nightclubs that they had been visiting in the city in the previous scene.  Okay, “it’s only a movie” (quoting Alfred Hitchcock, who reportedly said that to actor Ingrid Bergman).

Ultimately “The Internship” has some great ideas wrapped up in a script that too often takes the easy way out.  We have a long Harry Potter-ish “Quidditch” match, a very long nightclub scene, and a bunch of good guys/bad guys set ups.  (Max Minghella plays the nasty “bad” cheating intern.) The good ideas? The film nicely illustrates the value of salesmanship, relationship management and customer engagement, as well as the importance of wisdom, experience and strategy over short-term tactics, arrogance and youthful naiveté.

In one true-to-life way, “The Internship” does capture the structural re-adjustment of work in our time:  in the film there appear to be about 100 interns vying for only five places at Google.  The ephemeral nature – what Ross Perlin describes in his book Intern Nation as “the ugly new culture” of internships – is on full show here.  I wonder if Google, which apparently approved the script and helped the production, truly understood the nature of what they were endorsing, by showing publicly the cut-throat and frequently unpleasant nature of internship practice.

Despite all that, “The Internship” ends on a triumphant note.  Yes (Spoiler here!  Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know the ending!), our heroes are part of the winning team and get the jobs.  But the rest of them, the other 95, they all “lost”, right?  They don’t get the jobs.  It’s not “win-win”.  In fact, it’s very win-lose, and most of them lose.  This is a trend with many current films, where we are meant to celebrate triumph, but it’s actually disaster.  In “Man of Steel”, the bad guys lose – but New York City (and who knows where else?) has been devastated, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  In “World War Z”, the zombies are defeated – well, almost – but the world is a shadow of its former self.

The disaster in “The Internship” is not the other 95 interns.  They are bright young things with great educations from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke and the rest.  They will probably all get good jobs, just not at Google.  No, the disaster is the changed nature of work, and the mattress salesman from Georgia or southern Adelaide.  He is not likely to find meaningful work in this age, if he can find any work at all as he ages.  And no amount of movie fantasy can change that.

The Internship image1

Footnote:

Nick and Billy’s successful application for the Google internship reminds me of a possibly fictional story about the writer Gertrude Stein.  Stein studied with philosopher and psychologist William James at Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University) from 1893 to 1897.  As the story goes, on her final philosophy examination paper one fine spring day, Stein handed the paper back in with only these words written:  “I don’t want to take this exam.  It’s too nice out.”  To that, James supposedly replied, “Miss Stein, you truly understand the meaning of philosophy”, and gave her an “A”.  I understand that generations of students have attempted to imitate Stein’s “stunt”, probably all of them without success.  But “The Internship” hews to the line that a few words of bullshit can cut through anything and get us in to Google or the “A” at Harvard.  The problem is:  very few of us are Gertrude Stein, and extremely few of us are dealing with William James.

Gertrude Stein portrait by Picasso(Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso)