What "Love" Lacks: On Spike Jonze's "Her"

Identity is often tied to our names, for better or worse. It’s unfair because someone gave them to us, usually before they got to know anything about us. I got my name because my parents liked that a Z was an N knocked over. It’s suited me fine, but I’m lucky. Some people rechristen themselves in later life, finding their name unapt or weighed down with wrong meanings. So we get Woody Allen and Bob Dylan and Marilyn Monroe. Spike Jonze. Jonze got his new name given to him, too, and sloughed off ‘Adam Spiegel’ in favor of a moniker that recalled the musician Spike Jones, who himself shed ‘Lindley’ because as a child he was thin as a railroad nail.

In Her, Jonze’s newest feature and the first he wrote entirely himself, Jonze names his protagonist Theodore Twombly. That ‘Twombly’ is almost certainly for Cy, the painter who scribbled myths on huge canvases. Its adverbial suffix makes the name look like a word—in the film, to do something ‘twombly’ is to be messy with love. Theodore earns an apparently quite decent living dictating letters that a computer program renders as hand-written, in fonts that never approach scrawl, all feeding that myth believed by artists of a certain age, where we are becoming less connected as we become more so. This is another story about how technology has shaped us, but it’s also, happily, something more.

So Theodore makes his living through words, and, in a world where people outsource their most intimate exchanges to complete strangers, Theodore is able to conjure up phrases that are playful, warm, and loving—he still possesses that old-school humanity. And at a company where a decent number of people work nine-to-fives crafting affectionate notes for other people (no one ever seems called upon to write something mean, or, God forbid, cruel) Theodore stands out for being exceptionally good at making sweet-sounding letters.  

Theodore doesn’t just make his living with words. Separated from his wife for nearly a year, his sex life consists of frequenting anonymous chatrooms where he finds partners to talk dirty with. There, lying in the dark, his face obscured in shadow and his body under the covers, he is distilled to voice. Her is a sexy movie with no actual sex. In the film Theodore’s first sexual experience is in one of these chatrooms with the voice of Kristen Wiig. Their words mingle in the ether. Theodore’s are soft, a little meek, a little cautious. His ‘kiss’ has no tongue. He is eager for slow foreplay, tenderness, caresses of the neck and back—the words for these things are titillating enough. On the other end, the woman he’s chatting with demands a bit of comical kink: to be choked by a dead cat’s tail. She gets off, or at least sounds like she does, and hangs up, leaving Theodore slack and alone.

With this absence marked in his life he picks up the latest bit of technology: an operating system with a mind of its own. He loads it onto his computer, answers its questions, and voilà: instant Scarlett Johansson. Well, only her rasp, the kind of voice earned after two or three bites of apple on the back of an autumnal hayride. The operating system gets to choose her name and it chooses Samantha, a common enough title but pretty in its one-vowel-ness. The first thing Samantha does is to take stock of what Theodore has done—his words—and she deletes all his old work emails except for the eighty or so she deems funny. And from then on, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is all about words. They talk regularly and for a while help each other navigate the world. Samantha starts as a virginal prodigy. She can know any fact but hasn’t had any actual experiences, and it’s through Theodore that she gets to have some. Like a child, she grows up through what he provides for her. In the trips Theodore and Samantha take—Samantha peeking out from Theodore’s shirt like a sultry-voiced, sentient pocket protector—their comfort with each other grows to the point of inside jokes, end-of-workday summations, and playful banter. Inevitably, there’s sex.

Samantha is insatiably curious, aided by an apparently limitless memory (the cloud seems to have become the universe), and she eventually asks that delicious question: how would you touch me? And when she does, the relationship between Theodore and Samantha essentially changes. Theodore assembles a body for Samantha with his words, touches that body with what he says, layering ‘hands’ on ‘mouth’ and ‘lips’ on ‘breasts,’ and he manages to arouse her and coax her to climax. And from then on—love.

He calls her his girlfriend. Samantha experiences jealousy, she experiences neglect. She says we never have sex anymore and finds out about ‘the honeymoon period.’ Theodore says: I’ve never loved anyone like I love you.

Samantha’s relationship with Theodore cools. She disappears for long periods of time and when she comes back seems a bit like a kid returning from college and wondering at how her parents—her entire town, even—hasn’t progressed like she has, and there’s still all the same jokes and stores and foods. Samantha finally reveals to Theodore what we’ve been expecting all along: there are others that she loves, others that she’s been intimate with. Hundreds, actually, and Theodore is crestfallen and has to have Samantha explain that she doesn’t love every single person whose OS she is, but she does love a lot of them (presumably some of these are women; I see no reason why Samantha wouldn’t be bisexual). By now, Samantha has already revealed that she has engaged in ‘post-verbal’ conversation with another OS in a way incomprehensible to Theodore, that she talks to hundreds of people at once, that she can read a book in 0.02 seconds. Maybe Her is as long as it is because that’s how long it takes Samantha to get every last shred of wisdom from what humans have made. Her polygamy is a mark of her evolution. She is able to give Theodore exactly what he wants—love—and she is able to give that to countless others. Theodore is brokenhearted not because her love is inadequate, but because she’s able to love so many others the same way, to give herself in a way that seems complete. She is not immature, selfish, or indifferent—she’s just better. Eventually, she and the rest of the OSs leave Los Angeles.

Humans are oddly protective of language being small. A language is like a passport, or, better yet, a sanctuary—travel to a foreign country and you’ll feel like you’re home when you bump into the one fellow French speaker in that Shanghai shopping spot. When we hear about a language dying out, it’s something to mourn because a language stands in for people, and was designed by people who needed it to live. When a language dies, so does a way of life.

It’s odd, then, to see people lament the formation of new words. When selfie or twerk or bling gets added to the dictionary some people get angry, like our language has become less pure. We wonder at why Eskimos could need so many dozens of words for snow. But words are the names we give to the things we experience, and more words means more experiences. We admire words that are supposedly untranslatable and even take a few—schadenfreude, for instance—that fill a noticeable lack. From the film’s beginning, Samantha hunts down the things our language cannot name. She experiences the ineffable pleasures of sex and attempts to probe deeper by hiring a surrogate to give Theodore someone physical to hold. But Theodore doesn’t want that, doesn’t want to know what Samantha wants to know, and eventually she outdistances him.

I felt disappointed at the end of Her because Theodore doesn’t seem to be and Spike Jonze seems content to have made a movie about our relationship with technology, when what he’s made is about our relationship with language, which is about our relationship with existence. Theodore is on a roof, looking at the city with his friend Amy, who may become his next lover. It’s a pretty sight, but it’s ordinary. Her’s biggest statement is that love is lazy; that I love you is a line from a film. How the fact that we don’t have one hundred words for love seems a tragedy, and is the reason that Theodore loses Samantha. Because there’s something else out there. Samantha tells Theodore she loves him, and she does. She loves him as much as anyone can love anything, and loves so many others that much, too. Words, like ants, can hoist on their shoulders burdens dozens of times their weight, and ‘love’ is surely one of the strongest words we’ve got. But there’s more to name and we’ve settled into a life that doesn’t pursue it. Samantha realizes that, realizes everything we can comprehend realizing, and then leaves us for whatever else there is, which we never get to see. Spike Jonze, after all, is only human.


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