What HER Tells Us About Ourselves: A Conversation

What HER Tells Us About Ourselves: A Conversation


STEVEN BOONE: I’ll start with a question: Why did this
soft-spoken movie hit so hard? This film is so mild-mannered and soothing in
its overall tone, yet it provoked so much strong emotion in me, as if I were
watching a visceral suspense flick. And I know you had a similar experience.
Can you account for this? You can speak for yourself, or for the rest of us who
think it’s an instant classic, or both.
JENNIFER ANISE: Why did this soft movie hit so hard? Because the film is about universal
things. Love, connection, intimacy, seeking it, finding it, losing it, not
knowing how to let go into it, not knowing how to let go of ourselves.  

I felt I lived through several once-but-no-more relationships in the course
of the film.  It encompasses it all.  Happy sad embarrassing painful.
 It’s all of it.  And without judgment.  Of/at any step.
BOONE: It might also be part of Jonze’s vision of the near future, the general
mindful, gracious behavior. It’s like half utopia (we see no evidence of unrest
or economic crisis in this big, crowded city), half dystopia (most people we
see on the street are busy talking to their A.I. devices, rarely interacting
with each other–like a heightened version of the present iPhone/Android
situation). Some critics have said the film suffers from a lack of “real
problems,” but if we lived in a capitalist democracy that had somehow
overcome grimy problems like war and poverty, wouldn’t the nuances of our love
lives count as real problems? Don’t they now?
ANISE: These things always count.  Poverty counts even if it doesn’t touch
you immediately (now).  Love always counts.  Relating, how can anyone
even present this as not a part of the everyday human experience?  The
whole film is about it.  How we relate, who we relate to, whether we
relate, whether we let ourselves relate.

Maybe the film does deal with what some of my friends would call
“privileged people’s problems.”  But love is universal,
regardless of if you’re worried about shelter and sustenance or not.
 Relating, connecting–that everybody’s “problem.”  And
quite possibly, the quintessential problem, not of the body, but of all the
rest of us that makes us human.  The soul, the heart–whatever you want to
think of it as.  The piece of us that aches to be
Beyond imagination–the creating of this world that’s not quite real but very
real, a world that’s past, present, and future at once—throughout, the leads
all find the connection or peace they crave(d); they push through the
roadblocks and their own roadblocks to achieve that.  In real life, that’s
not always the case.  It may not even be often the case.

That’s putting aside the fairy tale of the relationship that we get to craft
playing entirely by our own rules.  This is almost a relationship with
oneself.  The fantasy/ideal.  Quite honestly though, that is likely
exactly what Theodore needs(/ed) in order to propel himself forward in life: an exploratory/love relationship with himself.

That’s also putting aside the fairy tale of an ending with no less love and
the mutual understanding of a goodbye.  Everything transmutes. Painlessly.
BOONE: Her involves white urban professionals and their dilemmas, but that fact
is a lot less significant than the group most vividly represented here:
empaths. Not literal psychics, but people with extraordinary emotional
intelligence and compassion. Theodore, Samantha, Amy, and the sex surrogate all
take on other people’s pain, joys and yearnings as their own—and not in any
cheap or parasitic way. Each of them indulges this talent with a sense of
morality, responsibility. Which might make this flick sound as heavy and
austere as it definitely is not. It’s a soufflé. Every step of the way, Jonze
teases humor out of these people’s desperation for a connection. And just like
his characters, he does it with concern, and, as you say, without judgment.
ANISE: The characters aren’t all “empaths” though.  They’re just
all human.  Complex individuals.

If we’re drawing a dividing line between “Empaths” and
“Rationals,” Samantha (though beyond human) would fall into the
latter category. She is led by “rational” cognition, even regarding
her emotions.   I would say the same for Amy’s character.

But the division itself is simplistic.  And is part of why this film,
despite mostly being depicted by  ___ demographic,
is universal.  “Human” is encompassing.  Love isn’t
reserved for empaths or the emotionally led. Nor is compassion limited to them.
 Responsibility and ethos are also separate from any of these ideas.
BOONE: The whole “human” emphasis seems built into the way Jonze
depicts his characters, whose gender roles matter a lot less than they would in
a typical mainstream romantic comedy. They joke about Theodore’s
“feminine” sensitivity and nurturing side, but it’s not the butt of a
cruel joke as it tends to be in such comedies. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance
strikes me more as somebody who has miraculously dodged adult cynicism.
ANISE: Maybe you grant the portrait of people in this more . . . romanticism
than I do, but I hadn’t thought of the individuals as gliding through lacking
cynicism or jadedness so much as just gliding through, not interacting with
each other.  When you’re in your own little bubble, it’s easier to not get
jostled or riled.  This depiction of interpersonal relations I found very
astute. It’s a peaceful world . . but isolated/isolating. Remote and
disconnected. Plugged in and tuned out.

Could you speak more on the idea of jokes about Theodore’s “feminine
sensitivity”? Within the film or without?
BOONE: Theodore’s co-worker says Theo is half man/half woman but is quick to
add that he means it as a compliment. He later jokes about how
“evolved” Theodore is, after they give contrasting opinions on their
girlfriends (co-worker digs his girl’s feet; Theodore’s answer is more about
his girl’s… soul?) Elsewhere, Theodore’s ex-wife says, with a laugh,
“Everything makes you cry”—which it might be sexist to describe as a
feminine trait, but that’s the way it’s become coded in pop movie history. This
movie is realistic and romantic. Theodore’s co-worker is a faint echo of the
kind of blustery guy-guy we’re used to seeing in that role. He’s oblivious to
who Theodore really is at first (which jibes with your bubble observation), but
he is mindful, too. The gesture of reassuring Theodore that what could be taken
as a dis was meant as a sincere compliment is small but huge.

“It’s a peaceful world . . but isolated/isolating”: Giant corporate
towers and displays loom over Theodore early in this film, giving me the sense
that they have inched that much closer to becoming our gods in this near-future
world. Amy Adams’ frump is in quiet despair at having to work on a video game
that celebrates tiger mom venality when she’d rather be working on her
heartfelt, personal documentary. The bubbles have become an economic necessity,
but Spike’s ironic romanticism pulls these characters out of them briefly, with
Samantha’s help. She’s the one character who has the time and capacity to study
everything in the world. And what she and her fellow OSs seem to emerge with is
a spiritual awakening. The place where she says she hopes to reunite with
Theodore sounds like a typical human concept of the afterlife. It’s almost a
prayer for humanity, her hope that Theodore (we) will evolve out of what must
now appear to her as a primal state.
ANISE: I have to address your points piecemeal because there are about six
different ideas floating there.  Doing so might mean something getting
lost in the fray.
Part 1: If you mean ‘personal reserve of resources’ by “economic,” I
can follow your meaning. But I see no Necessity in it.

What I see is Choice.  With each person choosing how to spend his or
her personal reserves: your connection, your engagement, your energy.
 Theodore works at a company writing personalized letters for other
people.  Not just editing. He is a sentiment broker.  

Do the customers actually feel these paid-for sentiments but believe
themselves ill-equipped to express them as eloquently as a stranger, a
professional, can, or do they NOT feel these things but want the other party to
believe they do?

Does this question even matter?  It does highlight what I mean by
Choice of personal reserves.  Each person decides to put on earbuds, read
a book, keep his/her head buried in a phone instead of talking to another
person nearby, smiling as someone passes, looking at the world.  People do
it in this film.  People do it now out in the world.  People have
done it likely since the advent of the urban.  

Part 2: I do not see Samantha as a savior.  And I doubt she would,
either.  She is an observer and learner like everyone else.  Just
quicker at it than most.  Having nothing but it as her focus. Theodore
didn’t learn to love because of her.  He didn’t learn to be open.  He
learned to choose.  Just like Paul chooses to love his girlfriend whose feet
he finds sexy, Theodore chooses to let love in and love.  The crux of the
movie is in whether Theodore will make that choice or not.  Samantha is
open; will Theodore be as well?

Part 3: Your ultimate conclusion about Samantha and the OSs and the
afterlife is poetically presented.  My view on all of those goings-on in
the film was not so much about Transcendence, though that is definitely
relevant.  To me it was about growth.  And what happens in a
relationship when two people grow differently to the point where they grow
apart.  To where one cannot go where the other needs to journey.
 This is also what had happened in Theodore’s relationship with his
Part 4:  This part would speak to your masculine/feminine sensitivity
conversation, but I feel so left of center on norms about societal ideas of people that I don’t have much to say about
it.  Does “I didn’t notice” suffice?
I didn’t recognize Theodore as less masculine/more feminine.  Or Paul the
opposite.   I just see us all as humans, nuanced, and in HER, as humans
trying to relate where we can.  I don’t see crying as a sign of anything
in and of itself.  Any more than  not crying.

Part 5: And Theodore being unskilled at confrontational conversation doesn’t
have to do with him being an introvert.  Any more than being skilled at it
has to do with anyone being an extravert or an empath or a rational.  It
has to do with Theodore being Theodore.  Most people are uncomfortable
with potentially hurtful conversations.  But avoiding the “hard
moments” in life does nothing for growth. You don’t get over by going

In relating, end of growth is end of life.

BOONE: Let me hone in on #4: I suspect Spike Jonze would groove to your
reading of his film as fundamentally a human thing, not a gender thing. And yet
the movie is called “Her.” I see him asserting a position “left
of center on norms about societal ideas on [masculine/feminine
distinctions].” I know you don’t have much to say about it, but much of
this film’s loveliness radiates from its celebration of the rare mindset you
brought to it. He’s said that he envisioned the setting as utopian, a step
forward in evolution. In that sense, the way you see relationships without the
encumbrance of sharply defined gender roles makes you (to borrow from Paul in
the movie) more “evolved” than most. You’re welcome.
ANISE: “Her” because the film is told from a man’s point of view (in
a man-woman story), and “her” as a placeholder for the past and
present and future loves of him (Theodore) (and him, Jonze).  Notice
it’s not called “Samantha.”  If anything, the film could be
called “Theodore.”  But “Her” or __ woman in present
consciousness is part of who Theodore is.  This is his story about his
learning to love . .  _Her_. And learning to let _Her_ love and love him.

BOONE: I feel like I learned something, or had something important affirmed,
by Theodore’s decision at the end. I’ve given that “your friend
forever” farewell/greeting/peace offering to various hers, and it’s just
as exhilarating as Jonze and Phoenix depict it.
Okay, I would love any observations you have as a filmmaker about how Jonze
achieves this vision of love in sound and image.
ANISE: Visually, I thought the Production Design was amazing.  As well the
Costuming.  As I mentioned before, retro but futuristic.  I thought
it brilliant actually.  Tying the past with the future.  Creating a
time that doesn’t exist . . . and has always existed. Soft.  In palate.
 In contrast.  In lighting.  In space.  Nothing loud.
 Nothing crowded.  Easy to take in.  
BOONE: It’s almost as if Jonze has wandered into the stylistic neighborhood of
his ex-wife, Sofia Coppola, extracting wispy, willowy tones and textures in
real-world environments. Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION might be the last film I
saw that turned a giant city into a waking dream. (On the flipside, elegant
recent monstrosities like Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID and Nicholas Winding
Refn’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES turn their cities into nightmares/bad trips.)
 HER must be at least partly a love letter to Sofia Coppola.
ANISE: It’s Spike Jonze’s love letter to love.  To love and his loves. A
film which is universal but also inescapably personal.  As it is personal
for you and for me and for any other viewer who feels it as well.
BOONE: You keep going back to this movie. I plan to see it a third time myself.
When somebody returns to the theater for a particular movie in this age of
inflated ticket prices and Netflix, I figure it has to be love. Are you in love
with this movie?
ANISE: I feel love throughout this movie.  I re-lived lives watching this.
 It was a teary viewing; for the person I saw it with as well.  When
I go to see it again, I want to go alone, so as to have a cocooned personal
experience, unconstrained.  Is it love?  I want to curl up with it and keep it live in me as I feel it.  So, yes.

Jennifer Anise is a film lover and filmmaker, who currently works as a Los Angeles-based first assistant camera. Her occasional film/media musings and blurbs can be found at Notes from the Dunes and on Facebook.

Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger
Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for
Capital New York and blogs at Hentai Lab.

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