“Her” – the Magic Pixie Dream OS

December 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts after seeing “Her” (which I highly recommend), a film about the relation between a man and his computer operating system (OS).  Here’s the trailer, which, as usual, gives a better feel for the film than any description I might write.

1.    Futuristic, but not by much.  The next day, the front page of the Sunday Times had this headline (above the fold).

Brainlike Computers, Learning From Experience
Computers have entered the age when they are able to learn from their own mistakes, a development that is about to turn the digital world on its head. . . . artificial intelligence systems that will perform some functions that humans do with ease: see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. [the full story is here]
    Samantha the OS doesn’t manipulate and control – well, just a little, and it’s for Theodore’s benefit – but she does the rest. And much more.

2.    External and internal, doing and understanding..  “Her” is about the blurring of boundaries between the technological and the human.  But one of the many trailers that preceded “Her” in the theater where I saw it was for another film based on this same human/technology melding – “Robocop.”

But the technology here seems to be all about accomplishing some external task, mostly the crime-fighting that we usually associate with cops. Will the good guys’ technology beat the bad guys’ technology?  (I should probably add that I find “Action” movies tedious, full of sound and fury – also full of special effects and CGI – signifying very little. I’d gladly trade a dozen chase-fight-explosion sequences for one honest conversation among robocops sitting around eating robo-donuts.)

In “Her,” the characters face no external challenge. Instead, they are struggling to understand the feelings, desires, and reactions of someone else and how these mesh with their own.  It’s about relationships, not winning.  Action movies exaggerate the physical at the expense of everything else (an emphasis they share with porn). “Her” is about the near absence of the physical.  The one attempt to make the relationship physical is a disaster.*

3.    Ideal and effortless. Samantha (the OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is the perfect soul mate.  Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) can expose his entire life to her – she scans his entire hard drive in the first microsecond of her existence – yet we know she will never use the information in any way that hurts him. She is like a child’s imaginary friend, but better. The child must think up the actions and reactions of the imaginary friend. Samantha requires no such effort on the part of Theodore. And everything she does helps him. Siri as girlfriend and therapist.

4.  MPDG.  As Super-Siri, Samantha resembles the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  This phrase, coined in a 2005 movie review  by Nathan Rabin, refers to “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”** At the start of the film, Theo certainly qualifies as brooding and withdrawn.  “I can’t even prioritize between video games and Internet porn,” he says to his neighbor (Amy Adams), who says that she’d laugh at that line if she didn’t think it were true. It is. And true to her type, Samantha brings Theo back into the world just as a MPDG should. They even go to Catalina on a double date (with a two-human couple).

5.    Control and surprise.  The wonderful thing about imaginary friends is that we have total control over them.  The same goes for servants or slaves or prostitutes or others we pay who must relate to us exactly as we want them to. (Of course, it’s more fun when we pretend that they are doing so voluntarily.) The more we control our environment, the more we give up the rewards and delights of the unexpected.  The difficulties of relationships with real people make the illusion of control all the more attractive.  But, as in “Lars and the Real Girl,” a relationship with the mere extrusion of one’s own fantasies may work for people whose emotional repertoire is severely limited, but ultimately it proves to be thin and brittle. Control certainly has its benefits.  But why do we find it so much more gratifying to hear a favorite song unexpectedly on the radio than to select the same track out of our own hard drive and play it? It’s more pleasurable when you let go of control. You can’t tickle yourself. 

Pandora and other make-your-own-radio-station sites try to let us have it both ways – control with surprise. “Her” holds out the same seductive possibility but with something more important than music – a meaningful personal relationship.

“Her” is a wonderful film. I’ll be surprised if Spike Jonze doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. It’s funny and touching and thought-provoking. 

* In a post a few days ago, I referred to the outline of American culture by sociologist Robin Williams.  The first element he notes as a dominant theme in American culture is “Active Mastery.”  The second is that American culture
tends to be interested in the external world of things and events, of the palpable and immediate, rather than in the inner experience of meaning and affect. Its genius is manipulative rather than contemplative. 
Maybe that’s why “Her” seems so unusual while the multiplexes teem with action movies.

**Natalie Portman in “Garden State” epitomizes this trope. For other examples, see the Wikipedia entry.

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