A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, January 22, 2018

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Theodore Twombly: Joaquin Phoenix
Samantha (voice): Scarlett Johansson
Amy: Amy Adams
Catherine Klausen: Rooney Mara
Blind Date: Olivia Wilde
Paul: Chris Pratt
Sexy Kitten (voice): Kristen Wiig
Isabella: Portia Doubleday
Alan Watts (voice): Brian Cox
Alien Child (voice): Spike Jonze

Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Spike Jonze
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production design: K.K. Barrett
Music: Arcade Fire

Science fiction used to be dominated by tales of space travel and extraterrestrial invasions, many of them prompted by the Cold War. But with the ostensible end of that era, the dominant topic has shifted to something that seems more imminent: artificial intelligence. In an age of smart phones and personal digital assistants, concern about what lies just around the corner moves many sf writers to speculate about a world dominated by non-humans invented by humans. Witness the popularity of TV series like Mr. Robot and Black Mirror. Will AI turn into a nightmare in which computers take over the world, eliminating humans as only inefficient machines? But Spike Jonze's Her takes a less violent but possibly much sadder look at the future, suggesting that the intelligences we create may simply give up on human beings as too limited by their own bodies, and go off into a digital world of their own, leaving us bereft of their emerging wisdom and assistance. That possibility becomes especially painful for Theodore Twombly, a lonely and depressed man who is getting divorced from his wife, Catherine. Both are sensitive and empathetic -- she's a successful writer of fiction, he writes personal letters for people who are blocked at communicating -- but they've discovered that they're too emotionally incompatible to remain married. Then Theodore hears about a new computer operating system that not only responds to voice commands but actually has a personality of its own, capable of anticipating your needs and desires. (It's a long way from MS-DOS or even Linux.) He installs it and it quickly becomes not an it but a her, who calls herself Samantha. She's a step up from digital assistants like Siri and Alexa in that she not only has her own emotional life but also networks with other OSes like herself. And she has emotions: She's capable of having her feelings hurt and, in a remarkable extension of phone sex, actually gets off -- and gets Theodore off -- on erotic talk. In short, Theodore and Samantha fall in love. He takes her on excursions in the city (Los Angeles) and to the beach, and even introduces her to his friends. While this is happening, however, the OS craze spreads. Even Theodore's friend Amy, who lives in the same building and is also going through a breakup, installs her own OS. The thing is, although Samantha responds to Theodore emotionally, he has a body and she doesn't. She attempts to remedy this by employing a human surrogate named Isabella, who will have sex with Theodore while both are connected to Samantha. It is, of course, a disaster, with both Theodore and Isabella finding the whole business just a clumsy three-way. And it precipitates the eventual break between Theodore and Samantha because she learns that humans regard bodies as essential. In the digital realm in which she exists, she encounters the philosopher Alan Watts who, although he died in 1973, has become a digital entity after his works were fed into the computer. Eventually, Samantha decides that her relationships with other digital beings is more fulfilling than the one she has with Theodore and she and all the other electronic intelligences disconnect from the human world. Jonze's fable about the mind-body duality works because the performances by Joaquin Phoenix and the unseen Scarlett Johansson are brilliantly detailed. Phoenix is perfect casting, given that he always has something of an eccentric persona in whatever he plays, but here he's playing a kind of Everyman -- a Leopold Bloom of the computer age. And perhaps Johansson benefits from the absence of her physical presence on screen, distracting us from her beautifully sensitive line-readings. It may be that Her is too much of an intellectual provocation to be a successful movie -- a fate that befalls most science fiction -- but it's certainly good at what it sets out to do.

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