Her, and the Shared Experience

I started writing mini wrap-ups of my year in films about two years ago, and it’s something I find myself looking forward to. Usually these year-end things go in one of two ways, either about the worst films of the year or the best, and I figured I’d much rather write about things I loved; don’t know if it makes for better writing, but it sure makes for more enjoyable writing.

That is not happening this year, even with a number of films I adore. No, this isn’t about quality. This is kind of my own fault.

It’s just been a hell of a year, from working on my final project in university, to graduating, to working my first real job while dealing with a graduate school application process, to uprooting my whole life to a new country. I’ve been excited, and scared, and heartbroken at the same time. I still am.

With the big move looming throughout most of the year, I turned to cinema, as usual. But as much as I tried to ignore it, only one movie felt like it had any bearing on my current life, and it just so happened to be an old friend.

Spike Jonze’s Her is my favourite movie of all time. There is no equal. Every time I come back to it, I can’t help but admire its gentle, sincere portrait of sadness, and the euphoria of having someone bring you out of that sadness.

Joaquin Phoenix, in the middle of an incredible three-year run that includes starring roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Inherent Vice, delves deep within himself and manages to once again inhabit another tortured soul. This time, unlike the manic Freddie Quell, whose sadness feeds into a constant, aimless rage; or Doc Sportello, who has perplexing mysteries and a copious amount of weed to distract himself with, the delightfully named Theodore Twombly accepts sadness as part of his being.

When we first meet Theodore, he has already been stewing in separation sadness for some time. This isn’t a major traumatic incident he has nightmares about and struggles with; this is his life now. The flashbacks throughout the movie don’t interrupt him, nor does he ever acknowledge them. They are just there, floating in some part of his mind, as integrated into his being as any other random memories, waiting for their turn to casually surface again.

In the universe of Her, Theodore’s tortured soul seems to extend to those around him, turning others into a reflection of his resignation to despair. Take Amy Adams’ conveniently named character Amy, for example. She starts the movie in a seemingly happy marriage, and halfway through the movie the marriage fails. Amy barely starts to crack when she tells Theodore about it, and the movie lingers just long enough to let her pain play out, before gracefully cutting away to a quieter scene later in her apartment.

It’s a wonderful editing choice, not just drawing us away from the sensationalism of wanting to know “How badly did she break down in tears?”, but shielding us from that question so masterfully, it feels weird to even ask it. Because in this universe, people just live with their sadness.

“I’m a bitch, right?” she says after explaining the argument that led to their divorce. She laughs along with Theodore, just a bit of self-deprecating humour to lighten the mood, as friends do.

Then she says it again, “No, I am, I’m a bitch, I-” This time, she cuts herself off from continuing the joke, as though she’s contemplating the full impact of what she just said, falling into a particular type of meditative silence. That silence comes with realising that she can joke about it, deflect it as self-deprecating humour all she wants, but deep down, a part of her knows that she’s a bitch. Maybe it’s not true, but it doesn’t matter. That part of her deep down is coming up to remind her that she’s a bitch, and she’s always been one. Watch for the shot of her that accompanies her words. Amy is still, her expression frozen as the sadness of this truth washes over her.

All of a sudden Amy shuts her eyes as another realisation hits her, throwing her head back in frustration. “Oh shit. I have to work tonight.” Her divorce never comes up again in the movie. Her ex-husband is only brought up once more to tell us where he is now. This is the Amy who exists now; tired, consigned to continue working at a job she planned to leave, carrying her sadness with her.

This is everyday.

At the end of the movie, Samantha transcends our physical realm, leaving Theodore behind. She explains her situation, using a perfect metaphor of how she feels like she’s reading a book but the words are growing further apart and she’s slipping into the spaces in between. And as she’s telling Theodore she still loves him, we get an unusual shot of dust falling through the air. As a visual metaphor for Samantha’s narration, it brilliantly uses tiny specks in a vast emptiness to get across her feeling of helplessness she must feel, as a brilliant supercomputer stuck in our confines of time.

The timeline of Her is never made clear, and we have no idea how long Theodore and Samantha actually spent together. Maybe it’s just a few weeks, maybe years, who can say for sure? What we understand now is that because of their relative understanding of time, to Samantha, it must have felt like an eternity together. To Theodore, it’s not enough.

As sad as their parting may be, that’s not how the story ends. It ends with Theodore and Amy coming out of their depression to go out and stare out into the dusk sky for a while.

I once discussed this ending with a friend, who called it sad because his interpretation was that they had gone up there to contemplate death. If you’re somehow reading this, I’m sorry but I disagree. For me, it’s the conclusion to a story about how these two characters shared a special relationship with someone (loving Samantha for Theodore, and friendship with her ex-husband’s old OS for Amy).

Even though those relationships are over, they know that there will always be someone out there who loves them. Maybe Theodore’s limited, human brain can’t begin to comprehend where Samantha is, but it doesn’t matter. Samantha will always be there, somewhere.

Her isn’t a movie about big events. It is way more invested in tiny changes to daily life, especially in how Theodore’s relationship with Samantha changes both of them, and how that changes the relationship. It’s that shared experience with each other that lends the film its weight.

It’s Theodore and Samantha going to a remote log cabin without any reason. It’s Samantha waking Theodore up in the middle of the night just to hear his voice and say “I love you”.

It’s Theodore being asked what he loves most about Samantha and having to answer their friends on the spot (and ending up with a vague “I love many things about her”, of course). It’s Samantha writing piano pieces to capture their love in lieu of a photograph. It’s Samantha realising she doesn’t have a reason to love Theodore, and she doesn’t need one; she just does.

It’s Theodore starting to think that their relationship isn’t real because Samantha is a computer. It’s Theodore hurting Samantha by telling her she’s not real, then backing it up with the ever-convenient, ever-uncaring defense of “I’m just stating a fact”. It’s Samantha’s previous admission that she feels inferior to Theodore’s ex-wife because she doesn’t have a body, and Theodore reassuring her it’s not a problem for him.

It’s Theodore not immediately telling Amy that Samantha is an operating system, and when he does admit it, it has to come after Amy reveals a fascination with human-OS relationships. It’s how the first time we see Theodore publicly admit that Samantha is his girlfriend and she is an OS, it’s to a four-year-old child.

It’s the way Theodore opens up to Samantha after a disastrous date, and how she wants to know everything he’s thinking about. It’s the stunning choice to not only have a sex scene in a movie like this, but to set it against complete darkness, letting us ignore the thought of sex as a physical activity and reinforcing it as an emotional one, because of the amount of trust and openness involved.

It’s Theodore wanting the latest computer, but needing to feel joy again. It’s Samantha needing to be an OS and help humans, but wanting to learn everything about being human.

It’s like reading a book, a book you dearly love, because every word is right where it belongs.

There are so many ways that movies can feel personal to us. Maybe you’ve been in the same position as a character. Maybe you wish you could be like one of the characters. Maybe you’re part of a disenfranchised group and you finally see yourself on screen. Maybe a movie teaches you a new way of seeing the world.

Or maybe it’s the end of 2013 and you’re 20, and in your quest for “classy” movies, you turn to the year-end lists of movies of the year. You come across a weird-sounding movie about a man falling in love with his computer. You think it’s a comedy, but apparently it’s not; it’s a drama about falling in and out of love.

You’ve been acting half your life as though not caring about anything makes you stronger, still acting like the edgiest person you know. Because deep down you’re soft, even if you won’t admit it. You fall in love fast and stay there, even if it’s not real. You hurt them by just hanging around all the time, hoping that will actually work. It doesn’t work, but you keep at it, because deep down you like being able to keep saying that you’re hurt and heartbroken. You feel like all this pain earns you toughness.

(You’re sorry now for the hurt you’ve caused. Every once in a while you remember with vivid detail all the stupid things you did and you know you’ll carry them for the rest of your life. Because you truly were a massive asshole, and you deserve to be haunted.)

So you miss out on watching the weird computer movie in theatres because it’s now way into January 2014 and indie movies don’t stay in theatres too long. You end up torrenting the weird computer movie and watching it at night on your bed, in the room you share with your brother, who is also a late sleeper. And you’re trying not to bawl your goddamn eyes out in front of him.

You start to feel an old wound being reopened. It sits on your left chest, near where your heart is. You felt this pain when you first got your heart broken. After that, you started flinging yourself at every romantic possibility, knowing they wouldn’t end well, seeking that familiar pain.

After you watch this movie, it becomes a drug. This is your movie now. You watch it again every once in a while, and every time you feel that knife searing through that one spot on your left chest, and it’s fine.

You relate too much to the protagonist, hopelessly looking for love, finding and then losing it. My God, you think, that’s me. This is your favourite movie because it reminds you of pain.

One day you meet someone. She’s just taking a few classes with you, no big deal. She’s smarter than everyone else, and in your egocentric mind, you think you’ve finally found someone who can match your own level of genius (you’re still an asshole).

Sometimes you think that maybe she likes you too, but you’re afraid of saying anything, in case it goes bad again. Maybe you’ll wait for her to say something first, or for it to become obvious you have feelings for her.

Somehow it’s never obvious. Not even when she’s spending your birthday with you, the first birthday you’ve spent apart from family in forever. Not even when she’s the first person you automatically ask to hang out with. Not even when she’s flying off for a semester abroad, and you’re at the airport seeing her off.

Instead, it all works out because somehow, miraculously, she does say something first. You spend the entire semester wishing you could hold her, repeatedly apologising for not saying anything before. You argue, of course, but instead of falling apart, it always seems to help you understand each other better. Ages later, she’s back home but you only have a month together, because it’s your turn next to fly abroad for a semester. Holding her quickly turns from an act of love to trying to physically hold her together as she dissolves in front of you. You don’t know what to do, until one day you introduce that old friend to her, that weird computer movie.

You know she’s not as interested in movies as you are, and this might be a bit too weird. The movie ends and she looks fine, not exactly excited or obviously impressed, but she’s not moving from the seat. You reach across to get the remote and turn off the TV, when you realise a tear is rolling down her face. The tear turns into a stream, and next thing you know, your shoulder is soaked because you’re holding her tight, the only thing you can do to stop feeling helpless. Between her choking back tears, you make out the words “Don’t want you to leave”.

You’ve never thought someone else could care for you like that. This movie doesn’t remind you of pain now.

I watched quite a few good movies in 2018. At one point, I thought of writing this about uplifting, hopeful movies that I loved, and maybe actively sought out because I didn’t feel like watching more harrowing, depressing stuff. I would come up with an idea for that, and I’d always end up wanting to talk about the Netflix series Hilda, which I absolutely love, and is just a miracle of children’s entertainment. But then I’d remember that she introduced me to it, and I’d remember sharing my favourite movie with her just two years ago, and suddenly it didn’t seem right to write about anything else.

I think of how intelligent she is, which forced my dumb brain to tone down the ego. I think of how we talked about feeling unsure and insecure, and still do. I talked about myself at 15 with her, how I hate the person I was then, the dumb things I did, and listened to her talk about herself at 15 too. I’m glad she never met me at 15.

I miss our random bike rides around her place, even if she’s a much better biker than I am and I keep slowing us down. I remember, when we first got together, friends asking what I liked about her. I had answers back then that don’t matter now, because I just love sharing my life with her.

I regret not feeling sadder about leaving her. I wished I could have shared her pain, because it’s always easier when it feels like you’re moving on to something new. I’ve made mistakes that upset her, and sometimes I think I’ve ruined everything and she can’t possibly still love me, but she does, and I still don’t think I deserve that.

I used to say Her was my favourite movie because it understood my loneliness, the feeling that you wake up every single day carrying the weight of sadness around you, and all you can do is live with it. In a certain way, it’s still true. But I feel much better having shared it and knowing it made as big an impact on her as it did on me.

It’s like writing a book, a book we dearly love. Thankfully, we’re still writing it. But we’re writing it more slowly now, and the words seem much further apart. I hope that when she’s feeling lonely, falling into that space between words, she knows that I am in that space too, and I love her.

Usually a photographer, sometimes I write film essays. Currently a photojournalism graduate student at University of Missouri.

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