When I studied film in college, there was a great deal of emphasis on the role of film as both a chronicler and example of modernity. And when I say modernity, I mean the twenties and thirties, the railroad, telephones and large art deco skyscrapers. Film, this new medium, was both a great symbol of modernity (moving pictures! Talkies!!) and also the way that this modernity was captured for all to see. Some of the best films of all time, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise with its contrast of city and country life and that amazing shot of the wife running across the trolley filled street, and of course Fritz Lang’s Metropolis are part of this conversation about and obsession with “modernity.” See also: anything by Charlie Chaplin.
Her, the latest by Spike Jonze, explores our new digital “modern” age and what it means to be awkwardly and painfully human within it. I know he is not the first director to do so. Just as Chaplin and Lang were part of a greater dialogue about modernity, other filmmakers are exploring our own modern age. A film that always comes to mind even though it has nothing to do with computers or anything “digital” is Millennium Mambo by Hou Hsiao Hsien, which to me has always perfectly captured the bright neon look and pulsing house beat feel of the early 2000s. (Side note: My favorite film in this vein, of course, is and always will be Hackers. And I feel the need to point out that during Her there is a shot that was pretty much stolen from Hackers at which point the guy in front of me said, very loudly “Cool shot!” and I wanted to smack him.)
I can't find the shot I am talking about. So this will just have to do. YAY HACKERS!!!
So what does Her contribute to this larger conversation about the self in a digitized society? I think it is tempting to simply look at Her as a fantastical story. As a kind of future world more akin to Minority Report or A.I. One of those films that shows us that terrible things happen when we give our lives over to computers. It is tempting to see the reality it paints as a cute, funny, and yet completely implausible story about a man who falls in love with his computer operating system. Granted, the look of the film is fantastical. Jonz creates world of hazy primary colors, high waisted tweed pants and an always perfectly curated soundtrack where hundreds of people are employed writing fake handwritten letters and operating systems have souls. Most fantastical of all is the presence of a Los Angeles fully accessible by subway! From beach to downtown Joaquin Phoenix travels via a pristine subway (OH IF ONLY SUCH A FUTURE WERE POSSIBLE!!). But behind the impeccable art and design is a very simple question. “In the digital age, what does it mean to be human?” The cartoonish scene that Jonz paints disguises an exploration of what it means to be alive right now: In present day earth. In present day Los Angeles where I never once took the subway because in the 70s Santa Monica said there were some kind of methane of sulphur deposits or something and squashed plans to extend the subway to the sea.
At the end of the day, Her is just as much as story of a divorce from a human being as it is a love story about a man and his computer (Slight spoiler: the scene in which Phoenix and his wife (played by Rooney Mara) sign their divorce papers is really heartbreaking and wonderful). Yes, there is a commentary on how much we are relying on our computers at the expense of our relationships with other people. But it is also simply a celebration of the part of being human that transcends technology and whatever “age” we choose to live in. That part of us that is awkward and flawed and wonderful at the same time. That part of us that is so lonely and looking for a connection that we do fall in love with our operating system.
Similarly, Sunrise, can be viewed as a commentary on the dangers of a modern world. The husband (George O’Brien) is tempted to kill his wife (the Oscar winning Janet Gaynor) by the evil woman from the city (her character is literally called "the Woman From the City"). And the troubled couple are thrust out of their country life into the scary big city. There is a warning in the film: do not give up what makes us good people in this rush to modernize and move to the city! But Sunrise is also a simple love story about a couple who have disconnected and fall back in love.
Both Her and Sunrise are about periods in time that will probably be looked back at soon as antiquated and quaint (trolley cars…hah! Operating systems…hah!) And they are both part of larger conversations about the dangers of losing one's humanity in those time periods. But I think just like Sunrise, Her is one for the ages, because it is also about something fundamental that does not seem to change with the height of one’s waistline.