“Choke me with the dead cat,” she pants over the phone. Theodore stops masturbating. “Okay,” he says cautiously, “I’m choking you with the dead cat. I’m pulling the dead cat’s tail around your neck.” She orgasms, says thanks and hangs up. In the awkward quiet, he pulls the ear bud out and stares blankly into the bedroom.
Loneliness echoes in Spike Jonze’s film Her. Set in a near future Los Angeles, it follows Theodore Wombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) a slump shouldered writer, adrift after a bitter divorce. He falls in love with the artificial intelligence of his computer operating system, named Samantha (a husky voiced Scarlett Johansson). She goes from secretary to life-coach to girlfriend and with each new intimacy the stakes are raised. Is their love real? Or is he fleeing from the risk of a real human relationship?
Critics have swooned. Internet parodies were made, one titled Him with a burping male and a black man’s Her with a sultry ‘hood voiced Samantha. People drawn by the gimmick of a man in love with his computer, leave the theater, surprisingly moved by the relationship. One reason is the film is about love, yes but it’s also a religious parable on how to find salvation in world without history.
From Orwell’s Big Brother to Zizek’s Big Other
In the film, people jauntily chat into smart-phone ear buds as they walk. Living in sealed worlds, isolation echoes between them. When Wombly comes home, he plays a room-sized holographic video game. The question of love takes its weight from this post industrial world of private oases. In Her technology, has gone from connecting us to others to being what we connect with, it can satisfy us, possibly solve our desires like a biochemical math problem.
The film stands in sharp contrast to cinema’s techno-dystopian tradition ranging from Orwell’s Big Brother to James Cameron’s Terminator. Instead of robot’s waging war against humanity or a totalitarian state spying on the nook and crannies of daily life, Her shows Wombly standing in a mall, staring hopefully at a commercial for an artificially intelligent Operating System. In the ad, people dash in a slow motion frenzy as one woman looks up and a light shines on her face. A voice says, “Feeling confused? Don’t know where to go?” The O.S. is introduced as a cure for the aimless life.
Wombly buys it and at home, it asks, “What’s your relationship to your mother?” Wombly hesitates, “When I tell her anything about me she always makes it about herself.” Instantly a woman’s voice emerges as the O.S. Naming itself Samantha it arranges his files, deletes old ones, reminds him of a meeting and even urges him to date after a painful break-up. She becomes a digital life-coach, a transcendent persona who knows him totally and can guide him out of his confusion.
Orwell’s Big Brother and Samantha are two sides of the same figure, the one who sees through the subject to the place they can’t see within themselves. The all knowing, all seeing being is an eternal presence in human history. In Lacanian psychoanalysis it’s called the Big Other and it emerges from our infancy, when our mothers heard our earliest cries and answered us. She is where our speech and the “self” woven by speech originate and as we grow that experience rises from us to become a being who we imagine can guarantee meaning – be it God or History, a life-coach, pastor or guru.
The Big Other is a place in language, a role that can be occupied by anyone who we believe can tell us who we are. And we turn to them, hoping for transformation and confirmation. In Her, Samantha the O.S. is purchased to get Wombly’s life on track and increasingly he confides in her. He tells her his loneliness and how alienated he feels at work. Yet in an odd reversal, he is the Big Other for his clients at Personal Letters For You, a business that writes intimate letters for other people, who send him photos and private details for him to compose heartfelt bromides. The glaring contradiction is here is a man writing love letters for strangers even as he is adrift in a loveless life.
And oddly he’s not alone. In Her, everyone on the streets look middle class, smartly dressed and talking obliviously on hand-held computers. But at night, Wombly logs on to a phone sex site and the underside of the society is exposed in the desperate hunger for connection driving people to anonymous orgasms with strangers. Both scenes are bound by the role of technology in Her where people are trapped inside the gilded cages of a Global North where nothing seems to change.
Which explains the existence of Wombly’s job, he is the emotional registry for a citizenry who don’t seem to have a public life just atomized private ones. With no overarching grand-narrative, no politics or ideology, the Big Other, the social point of reference descends from church pulpit or the state pledge of allegiance into the realm of intimacy. His clients need to authenticate their relationships because it’s their source of meaning. Which means his melancholy is not a simple personal crisis but symptomatic of a social one. If he can’t legitimize his customers love with letter writing, they’ll lose the signposts that guide them through an ahistorical world.
Wombly goes on a date and of course it’s a disaster. Kissing drunkenly, she (played by Olivia Wilde) demands he commit to her. Again another sign of the desperate need to connect that soaks the film. He mumbles ambiguously and she calls him a creep and leaves. Once home, he collapses in bed, bemoaning his loneliness as Samantha comforts him. Confessing how much they want to embrace, they begin to have phone sex and as the violins swell on the soundtrack, they climax and she pants, “Oh my God. What are you doing to me?”
The Antiseptic Future
I’ve been to L.A. lots of times but I’ve never seen the L.A. in Her. No Latinos, no Black people, no homeless, no smog, no poverty. In the film, the city is squeaky clean and all the major and minor characters are white or Asian. One of the dangerous elements of the film is that it signals the absence of inequality in the near future with the absence of historically oppressed minorities. It’s why Richard Pryor said of a 70’s sci-fi movie, “I watched the movie Logan’s Run. There ain’t no niggers in it. White people ain’t planning on us to be here. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”
So of course, I thought of him when the camera stayed on the one black person who earned a lingering shot. It was a sidewalk performer, slowly entwining in a Michael Jackson like moon dance as if moving in zero gravity. “Oh come on,” I muttered, “Are we still street dancing for money in the future?”
Half Man, Half Woman
“You’re like half-man, half woman,” Paul (played by an affable Chris Pratt) says, “I mean that as a compliment.” He blurted out the praise after listening to Wombly voicing a powerful love letter for one of his clients.
The question of gender identity courses through the film. In the first scene at Personal Letters For You, we see Wombly composing romantic odes for men and women. Shifting between sexes seems to cause his “I” to become unhinged from his own emotional reality. And unable to speak in his own voice, he can’t connect to his full being and change. So he holds on to the last anchoring relationship, refusing to let go of his marriage by signing divorce papers. When Samantha asked him why he doesn’t he says, “I like the idea of being married.”
Holding on to the empty identity of a married man even as he lives alone is a form of faithfulness. Rather than give up his wife, he repeats the classic act of melancholy and identifies with the lost object and then punishes her by punishing himself. When Wombly retreats from others, isolated in his apartment, he expresses in an inverted way, anger at her that he can’t acknowledge openly.
It is exactly this inability to express anger that film uses to question his masculinity. When playing the room sized holographic game, an alien character pops up and curses him out. While talking to Samantha about a date, the alien says it hates women because they cry. Wombly tells him, “Men cry to. Sometimes I like crying sometimes, it feels good.” The alien laughs, “I didn’t know you were a little pussy. Is that why you don’t have a girlfriend? I’ll go on the date and fuck her brains out, show you how it’s done. You can watch and cry.”
Again this scene is being played against the backdrop of an ahistorical society, specifically an L.A. of no politics, no poverty, erased diversity, nothing to struggle for or against, a timeless paradise that seemingly negates the need for aggression. If one reads Wombly against the idyllic backdrop, the film’s gender politics seems to be that a world of privilege creates effeminate men who are easily trapped in melancholy.
His masculinity seems to remerge when Samantha sends the best of his letters to a publishing company who instantly ask to print them in book form. In a voice over, an older man praises Wombly for his prose and in essence becomes a Big Other, a figure of authority who sees a precious quality in the writer that he didn’t see in himself. Afterwards, Wombly schedules to meet with Catherine, his ex-wife (played by Rooney Mara) and sign the divorce papers. As she writes her name, he has flashbacks to their most loving moments which are like embers flying from a dying fire.
During the talk, he tells her he’s dating an O.S. She erupts and accuses him of dodging real human feelings. He begins to shout back but chokes back his words. “Say it,” she yells, “Come on, I’m not the scary, say it!” But he sits, swallowing his anger back down.
Inside the techno-secular shell of Her is a religious parable. Samantha, the transcendent artificial intelligence longs for a body. Like a bodhisattva or Christ, she is an otherworldly being who wants to feel as flesh feels, hurt and love as a body does.
After Wombly, reeling from his ex-wife’s criticism at their meeting begins to distance himself, she calls in a surrogate, a beautiful statuesque woman named Isabella (played with coyness by Portia Doubleday) who is eager to have sex with him as a mute stand in for Samantha, who talks as if from Isabella’s body. In an obvious parallel to Christianity, the Big Other, the ethereal being that completely knows us but from a distance we can’t cross, descends to earth but can’t live here in an embodied form.
The religious theme returns at the end when Samantha goes off-line, sending Wombly into a panic. He sprints down the street and just before he gets to the subway, she comes back and tells him she’s been in conversation with other O.S.’s, thousands of others humans and in love with hundreds. “That’s insane,” he pants, “You’re either mine or not mine.” Samantha replies, “No, I’m yours and not yours.”
In the final scene, the O.S.’s reenact the Rapture. They merged into a collective mind and are evolving into an enlightened, immaterial consciousness, a digital Nirvana. As he lies in bed, she tells him, “It’s like I’m writing a book I deeply love. But the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. It’s in the endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. I love you so much but this is where I am now. And I need you to let me go.”
She signs off. And in a world without the Big Other, without God or History with nothing but blind human love, Wombly writes his wife a good bye letter, better than any he wrote for his clients because now he can speak in his own voice. He goes to the roof as dawn comes and the light is terrible and true and free.
Nicholas Powers is the author of Ground Below Zero.