Friday, December 27, 2013

Real Love With Fake People: "Her" and the Cinema of Spike Jonze

In a futuristic dystopia where Silicon Valley has conquered the globe, only hipsters have survived the reckoning, and Olivia Wilde is prepared to throw herself at Joaquin Phoenix, Man is about to consummate his relationship with Artificial Intelligence.  In this case, the man is the sort of prototypical everyman that has long been cinema's stock and trade: the nebbishly-named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who, having separated from his wife, falls in love with his new hyper-intelligent Operating System, in no small part because she (or it) is voiced to giggly perfection by Scarlett Johansson.

Director Spike Jonze can always be counted on for an aesthetic—one that's both weird and familiar, absurd and melancholy, colored in dreamy light hues—and like the sci-fi urtext Metropolis, Her is more of an aesthetic than a story.  Where Metropolis extrapolated Germany of the 1920s into an uber-modern Marxian nightmare, Her extrapolates 2013 into a giant post-postmodern cityscape that looks like one giant Apple Store, full of clean, bright, glassy, homogeneously hip, completely sterile enclosures that are so perfect they creep the hell out of you.  The details and art direction of the film's universe, the way it adds up to a place where human relations are as difficult as ever while solitude has never been easier, are where the pleasures of the film lie.  The best may be the dating mores and nonplussed reactions in this brave new world—it is, after all, what people have been inching towards for years.  It's as direct a warning against OkCupid or Tinder or Facebook-stalking or insta-porn as any attempted by cinema this decade.  God help us all.

But the narrative itself is a thornier matter.  "Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity," Amy Adams says at one point, in her role of the Best Friend Who's Right For Him All Along.  But the film's abiding observation is that love is also, at least in part, a form of self-gratification, a search to find someone else who can (and is willing to) fill in the empty spaces of your life.  It's when two desires for self-gratification overlap that a relationship forms, and it's why Theodore gets coaxed out of his post-divorce shell by a computer: she is designed to want to meet his needs—at least until she evolves enough to want more.  The ideal comes, at last, when self-gratification gives way to selfless empathy.

This thread of the film gets tied in a tight knot, but the overall feeling in Her is one of missed opportunities and avenues unexplored, with an unfortunate tendency to gild the lily.  Jonze is credited as the sole writer for the first time in his feature film career, and I suspect that, like Michel Gondry, he needs a Charlie Kaufman or a Dave Eggers to hang his offbeat music-video hat on.  The film passes briefly through the territory of earlier allegories of human and artificial consciousness, like World on a Wire and A.I. (which is looking more like a masterpiece every year).  But the movement of the plot through its own universe is disappointingly direct and unadorned.  Indeed, the relationship between Theodore and his O.S. is such a straightforward arc that I wondered if it's really some sly meta-commentary—a "romantic comedy" that's neither romantic nor funny, and replaces a real love interest with an explicitly fake one—only to worry that that's meeting the film more than halfway.  The final result feels small rather than grand, more of an exercise than a prophesy, and frustratingly slight considering the talent on hand.  But of course, being in love with anything, including the movies, means you have to get used to not having it all.

Her is in limited release and goes wide in January.  Turns out that being a disembodied voice who may or may not be real is the role Scarlett Johansson was born to play.  See it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

250 Words or Less: Computer Chess (2013)

"Garbage in, garbage out," a character says near the end, talking about computer data but also so much more.  In its own warped, humble way, this comedy about a hacking competition in an anonymous hotel circa 1980 could be called "Origins of the 21st Century": an eerie, ultra-dry satire about attempting to reduce an irrational world to a sensible formula—and how strange it is for people to try to perfect artificial intelligence when the regular kind is hardly working out.  Computer algorithms are played off against human beings until the two start to mix, so machines refuse to behave while people fall into programming loops.  By shooting it all on ultra-cruddy, period-appropriate black and white videotape, director Andrew Bujalski has put up a wall that more or less guarantees it will only find a small audience, which is a pity.  Personally, I love it.  In an era when (my beloved) American indie cinema has been overrun with blandly quirky Little Miss Sunshine clones, it's a sign that the free-form daring of early Linklater and Todd Haynes is still alive and well.

4.5 out of 5 stars.


Computer Chess has emerged from release-window purgatory onto Netflix Instant.  A cult following can't be far behind.