Friday, January 03, 2014
I love to hear myself talk. It sounds pompous, but if you're a writer, you have to love your voice. Writers are compelled to communicate deep truths, with a sense of duty even. We feel a fire in our bellies that only writing can extinguish. Did I steal that idiom from someone? Probably. But who cares--good writers borrow, great writers steal. If my muse isn't readily available, I'll holler at somebody else's.
In Spike Jonze's surrealist opus, Her, the director has a coming out party of sorts. He has sole writing credit on this film. This is his "writer movie."
But wait, you thought this was a romance about falling in love with technology. You thought this was about Joaquin Phoenix getting frisky with Siri. The Millienial's quandary of not knowing the difference between socializing in the real world versus the internet world. And fine, it's kind of about that if you really want it to be. Jonze was smart enough to give it this topical sheen. But this will not be a time capsule. This film will age well precisely because it is not simply about the 20-teen A.I. blues. Her is about one individual's love story--a writer who forgot how to love himself.
We meet Theodore Twombly at his day job. He's writing a love letter at his desk. Beautiful phrases slip past his lips effortlessly. Then the camera pans through the office and a dozen other people are doing the exact same thing. They're writing letters to strangers, for paying customers. "Beautiful Handwritten Letters" is the name of his company. His clients pay him to write lovely things to someone they care about, but don't have the poetic capacity to express themselves. Weird right? NOPE. Not weird at all. If you're a writer, you know exactly how to do this. You reach down into the depths of your emotions, and create a feeling within yourself. If I wanted to right now, I could invent a relationship about two people, write it out, break your heart, and none of it would even be true. How can I do this, you ask? Cuz I'm a fuckin' writer. It's what I do.
So what is our protagonist's hang up? If he's filled to the brim with emotions, why is his wife divorcing him for being too distant? Why doesn't he respond to his friends' invites to go hang out? Why does he play video games and masturbate in all of his spare time? Hellooooooooo he's a writer! This is one of the great age old questions. Right along with "why is there something rather than nothing" and "what is the meaning of life" there's "what's the deal with writers anyway?" We can be the most detail-oriented, hyper-perceptive romantics, as long as it's all in theory. But in practice, writers rarely live up to the dreams they can tend to express via their minds' eyes.
Great writing comes from these types though. They traverse places the common man has no desire or time to go to. The only real "relationship" a writer needs is the one he has with his muse. His muse. His muse...
Ok, repetition signifies importance. Samantha, the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johannson, is a sci-fi, Jonzian sort of muse in Her. Theodore admits that he's felt everything that can be felt. He knows all of the emotions, and now he's just rehashing everything. Again, if you're a writer, you know this feeling all too well. It feels like your muse retired and moved to Arizona. So what does a writer with a deadline typically do in this situation? He seeks out something new, a fresh perspective to stoke inspiration. A new love, even a fling. A new city, with different colored bus seats. A new cardigan, without the elbow pads this time. Some sort of new experience will resurrect the muse, right?
But, this can be exhausting, all of this stimulation. Especially for an introvert. (And if you make a living out of imagining things in your brain and developing them with a concrete language every day, you are almost certainly an introvert.) What if a writer could bypass it though? What would that look like? Is there a way that he could keep his muse around and working overtime at the snap of his fingers?
A muse can be anything. A cup of coffee. A film. A woman. A man. Thing is, the muse inspires an individual. Not the other way around. It isn't a "relationship" that we have with a muse, we take from the muse and give nothing back. See how this could become severely problematic if you take your inspiration from another human? Wouldn't it be nice if we writers could look into ourselves, damn our neuroses, and pull out exactly what we needed each time? Wouldn't it be nice if we could be our own muses?
Wouldn't it be nice if we could be our own muses?
Samantha is a program, designed specifically to give Theodore Twombly a sense of self-worth and confidence. She is not an individual, he is. He takes from her, exactly what he needs to get to the next level in his career, social development, whatever (whether he realizes it or not). She affirms him when he tells her, "I used to think I was my favorite writer." She encourages him to feel this way again. She tells him what he wants to hear. She even sends his old letters to a publisher without informing him, and a book is printed without Twombly even having to deal with the anxiety of putting himself out there again. Because, you know, a writer has to pitch. It's terrifying enough to be vulnerable in the real world, but when rejection comes, the pain can be numbing. Can you imagine if some invisible program sent your favorite work to exactly the right person and you woke up to a physical copy of it in your mailbox? What a dream.
Decades from now, when we all shake our heads at how goobery we were about social media and it's potential effects on the culture at large, we'll still have writers. We'll still be exactly the same at our core. We'll still want to express our individuality. We'll want others to care about the stories we have to tell. And that's why Her will hold up. We'll view this tale the same way we view other surreal films about writers. Naked Lunch, Adaptation, Synecdoche New York, and Barton Fink all have that timelessness. Her now joins those ranks.
The film superficially takes place in a future L.A., but time might not have anything to do with it. It might just be an otherworldly L.A.. An L.A. that could just be within the life of the mind of its writer. After all, this is Spike Jonze we're talking about. He knows meta--thanks be to Charlie Kaufman.
A writer's struggle is one of constantly having the strength within himself to tell a vibrantly ugly truth. This film tells a love story about one person. "Her" (Samantha) is not another individual. Getting Jungian proper, Jonze has Twombly's kind co-worker tell the protagonist that he writes with a sweetly feminine sensitivity. "It's like you're a man, AND a woman." This is every writer. The anima and animus are constantly at battle. What would it look like if the two decided to get intimate? It would look like Theodore Twombly and Samantha. It happens in the real world too. It leads to books, music, and films (all the time). And Jonze did it here. He did what writers do. He wrote Her.