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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (2/23/14) 8:39pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:   Her
TV:   <none>
Books:  <none>

This is the recent Spike Jonze film about a man who falls in love with his computer's artificially-intelligent operating system.

I find it kind of interesting to ponder what I'd think of this movie without the OS gimmick.  What if Samantha were a human being, and this was the story about Ted and Samantha meeting and falling in love?  I suspect that, in broad terms, there'd be one thing I really liked and one thing I really didn't like.

On the 'pro' side: this is a romantic film that, like Before Sunset, exists mostly in conversations.  It seems almost pathological that romantic movies tend to avoid conversations.  They'll invent contrivances and misunderstandings and plot whirligigs that force the boy or the girl to take drastic action and thereby *prove* that they're so very much in love, but they'll never just show us the long takes of meandering chats that *show* how they're in love.  They'll even use montages, the Merlot of screenplay techniques, to elide past them: see? they're chatting! they're smiling! they're laughing!  This signifies "fun".

Yes, I know -- gasp! romcoms are unrealistic.  Film at eleven.

In any case, I liked giving Ted and Samantha a lot of room to just talk and discover each other.  Granted, mentioning the Before Sunrise trilogy is going to invite comparisons, and those comparisons are going to make Her look bland, generic, and movie-y next to Linklater's magnum opus, but if you can cast that from your mind, you'll appreciate Her for trying.  It's trying to live in conversations, and it's doing an okay job of it.

On the minus side, I feel like Her, without its gimmick, would be just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl flick.  Yup, we have the down-in-the-dumps schlub, Ted, who has nothing obvious to offer anyone except a inescapable quagmire of self-pity.  And lo, the Scarlett-Johansson-voiced girl comes along, brilliant and sexy and infinitely willing to put up with his bullshit.  And then, hey, Ted feels not so bad any more, but then later finds some stupid reason to lash out at Samantha.  But the MPDG comes back to him like an abused puppy, and they patch things up.

I suppose in the "real-life Samantha" version of this, Samantha would tragically die at the end, with one of those perplexing movie diseases that make you look more and more beautiful as you get nearer and nearer to death.  And I guess Samantha would be Ted's... assistant? some sort of indentured servant? instead of his OS.[1]  But the important thing -- and Samantha's essential function -- would remain the same: Samantha would have really hot sex with Ted, while teaching him a valuable lesson about love.

I'd like to say that I have good, feminist reasons for disliking the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.  While it is an attractive fantasy for us guys that some quirky model-gorgeous woman will fall hopelessly in love with us and magically make everything in our lives okay, the MPDG implies that this is sort of what women are *for*.  No, women don't have their own thing going on, they're just helpmeets to teach us men to stop being quite such self-pitying jerkholes (which, apparently, we are).  And I think we've all seen (or been in) our share of relationships where an amazing woman comes along to 'fix' some grumpy, self-pitying guy, and it plays out much more like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in terms of the relationship, not the crazy memory erasure), one of the best deconstructions of that trope.

But honestly, I think it's just as much that I'm just tired of watching that movie over and over again.  I understand that a film, if it's not by Charlie Kaufman, has only a certain amount of 'novelty capital'.  If Spike Jonze goes 'all in' telling a near-future love story with a sentient AI, then he's spent all of it, and the rest of the film has to proceed along the well-worn romantic-drama ruts used by a thousand films before it.

"Oh.  *This* again.  *sigh*  Okay..."

All that said, there *is* the near-future/AI angle of things, and I rather liked that.  The film's conception of the near future (or as they call it in Silicon Valley, "the present") was fascinating, all slightly-advanced technologies, hipster ironic fashion gone mainstream, and ombre pastel oranges.  I loved that different people had different responses to Ted's announcement that he was dating an A.I. -- and of course Chris Pratt's character would be completely unfazed.  ("Oh.  That's cool.")

In fact, the story really picked up for me in the third act, where Samantha the Manic Pixie OS runs smack dab into the Singularity.  To sidebar for a moment: if you're dating an A.I., and things are getting serious, isn't one of your first discussions "what happens if your intellect expands at an exponential rate, and transcends anything comprehensible by the human mind?"  But anyway, that's when I started watching a movie that was different from movies I'd seen before, and more like, say, Imaginary Magnitude by Stanislaw Lem.  I was fascinated by a group of rogue A.I.s reconstituting Alan Watts from his writing, or by Samantha having thousands of simultaneous conversations across the world.  I was less fascinated by Ted being weepy and jealous and, sigh, self-pitying.  (But remember, kids, Ted's earned a valuable lesson from this by the end, because the film tells us that he has.)

All this makes it sound like I was watching the whole movie with sneering detachment.  Honestly, in the moment, I went along for the ride.  In the back of my mind I knew that it was all kind of troubling somehow, but I figured thinking about that in detail would just make me mislike the film, so I focused on the quirky, near-future setting, the sharp characterizations, and the well-constructed story.  I had a good time watching it, but I doubt I'll see it again.

For next time, I need to figure out another movie to watch.  Gravity, maybe?  And the next book I have queued up is The Better Angels of Our Nature, but that'll take me a long, long time to read.

[1] ... and that's kind of troubling, right?

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