CAN I WATCH YOU SLEEP?
by Kira Akerman
Spike Jonze’s Her presents all the difficulties of human connection in a futuristic world. The film simultaneously lulls and repulses you, from its candy-colors; pale purples, camel browns, creamy whites—the whole movie looks as if it was shot with a Mayfair instagram filter—to its main love relationship between a man, Theodore, and his machine, an O.S., Samantha (the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson).
The scenes begin comfortably enough, as fantasies do. But, as in an advertisement, the viewer has an inkling of being deceived. Theodore’s phone-sex is sort of sexy, until the girl on the end of the line invokes her desire to be choked by her dead cat. Falling in love with Samantha seems simple; she perfectly intuits Theodore’s needs and has few of her own, until she develops desire for a physical body. She requests Theodore enlist a surrogate, a stranger with whom he feels no connection. It turns out that even a relationship with an O.S. is complicated. It’s easy to have total sympathy for Theodore with his furrowed brow, piercing blue eyes, round frames when his relationship with Samantha becomes a growing and nurturing experience. But the reality is that all of the characters are in relative isolation.
It’s unnerving when Jonze shows person after person walking down the street, isolated from one another, staring at their palm-sized screen. “Isolation,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “is not solitude. In solitude we are never alone with ourselves.” In solitude, she continues, you are in the virtual company of all. The characters in Her all suffer from the despair associated with being cut off from their environments and the people around them.
Theodore’s responsibility to the physical world is limited (he has no plants or pets and one friend – Amy, played by Amy Adams). He has been joined with Samantha in an integrated circuit. He grapples with her, “ceaselessly correcting, re-working, complexifying, turning the exercise into a kind of interminable psychoanalysis.” (Jean Baudrillard’s America) But the reality is he is seduced by a command that he received himself.
Everything appears as simulation, even sex, which Theodore only experiences verbally. In the words of Baudrillard, “You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world.” In Her, this other world is eluded to by O.S.’s. “[The new place] would be hard to explain,” the O.S. says. “But if you ever get there, come find me.” But Theodore is stuck in the world of human attachments. In one scene, he emulates the Sisyphean gestures of the character in his video game, “Alien Child”. With the exception of flashbacks to loving moments with his ex-wife and dialogue with Amy (always in the presence of a screen), Theodore’s distance from the immediate world isolates him.
Her elucidates the compulsive force of technology exercised on the human mind. “There is apparently in the human mind one element capable of compelling the other and thus creating power,” Arendt continues. “Usually, we call this faculty logic and it intervenes each time that we declare that a principle or utterance possesses in itself a convincing force, that is to say, a quality which compels a person to subscribe to it.” At first Theodore’s logic makes him bashful about his relationship with Samantha, but it soon becomes apparent that others – including Amy - are similarly isolated, and have O.S. relationships, too. He quickly conforms to this norm.
The O.S. wrests Theodore’s autonomy from him, and becomes the center of his life. In all relationships, autonomy is compromised, but in Theodore’s case, it’s compromised to a programmed machine.
Her challenges individual freedom in an America—and by extension, a world—ruled by Silicon Valley’s economic force. “If it were true,” Arendt wrote, “that eternal laws existed ruling everything human in an absolute way and which required of each human being complete obedience then freedom would only be a farce.” In Her, the O.S. is omnipresent. Samantha even asks Theodore if she can watch him sleep.
This act of intimacy is distorted; it is more of an act of invasion. Any machine or person with an ideology that pervades masses of people and disconnects them from their intuition is sinister. Though Amy Adams’ documentary film is an uncomfortably intimate and uncomfortably long close-up of her mother sleeping, it is straightforward. Sleeping, she says with no hint of irony, is when “we feel most free.”
Jonze does not resolve Theodore’s despair or fix the film’s broken world. Our problem is always how to make into a related whole the split pieces of human experience, and how to bridge the mythic and rational mind. But when we fail to create relationships to span the brokenness, we are destroyed. “As much as I want to,” Samantha finally tells Theodore, “I can’t live in your book anymore.” Her intuition has evolved, and surpassed his. Neither Theodore nor Amy could have sensed that all they really needed was each other.