Saturday, January 18, 2014

Love: Her

Like the buzz surrounding Inside Llewyn Davis, the critical praise on Her may have ballooned audience expectations to a point the film itself cannot sustain. Where outlandish crime epics like The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle are big enough and loud enough to dismiss naysayers with a shrug and a middle finger, Her is a small, precious object.  For lack of a better analogy, watching Her in a crowded multiplex was a bit like watching someone read pages from a favorite book aloud and, once it ends, finding yourself hyper-aware of the way your reactions are different from (or, occasionally, in tune with) the people around you.  It's the kind of movie that makes you feel protective... if you like it. From my vantage, Her was something as beautiful and emotionally rich as it was terrifying.  The further the film dared to go, the more impressed I was with its construction, and the less I knew precisely where it would opt to end. When the conclusion arrived, I was shocked that no one around me seemed to have the same emotional experience.  When my friends discussed Her over dinner, I can't say I understood where they were coming from at all.  I was surprised by the level of their disdain, and by the way they were so thoroughly unconvinced by what I’d found utterly believable.  But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised.  This distinct polarity is one I've seen mirrored in Twitter conversations and in the comments on other blogs: some people think the film is brilliant, others think it's this boring, clunky "love story" made pretentious by this weird public perception of its Spike Jonzeness.  

I recognize that Her is the type of movie that invites a strong emotional response, positive or negative.  While I’d argue it’s exquisitely crafted, top to bottom, there seems to be no point  in trying to sway you, dear reader, towards one opinion or the other. All I can really do is tell you why I loved it (sincerely). 
Her is not a love story in the conventional sense.  It pretends to be one, it may even call itself one, and there are moments where we are meant to mistake the depth of feeling between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as something that could be described as love.  Theodore certainly believes that what he feels is love.  For Theodore, the relationship he shares with his operating system (for that's what Samantha is) is something that he actively defines as a romantic entanglement.  When he becomes comfortable with the concept, he freely tells people that he's dating his OS.  He describes the relationship they're having, he goes on double dates, and he speaks of her as if she possesses a personality far beyond her programming.  The fact, though, is that she both does and does not; that Samantha is always illusion, that what she refers to as emotions are programmed responses, that her intelligence may grow, but that she was designed to do so.  Samantha is a disembodied voice, a reflection of Theodore's self who is (whether he recognizes it or not) initially launched as a direct response to his personality preferences.  The film makes a point of reminding us of this repeatedly, often via real human women who cite Theodore's shortcomings as an inability to deal with complicated human emotions and empathize appropriately.  His soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara) chides him for his failure in this regard, and a one-time date (Olivia Wilde) refers to him as 'creepy' after he shuts down in the face of her own emotional vulnerability.  So, Her is more of a self-love story: a tale of projected narcissism, of disrupted human communication, and of the way technology paradoxically allows us to turn further inward even as we are so constantly, vitally connected.       
The subject matter is one that has interested me in my own writing. I'm always a little afraid of the internet, of networks, of over-attachment, of becoming too comfortable staying in and reaching out instead of directly interacting.  There's something more than a little sinister about the direction personalization is headed in digital modes, but there's perhaps something equally creepy about the way we as individuals have adjusted our lives to accommodate these alterations.  We're a surveillance society. We know that something about receiving 'likes' and 'retweets' registers in our brains as validation, we know, too, that many people fret about what it is they choose to share with their network of friends and followers.  We seem to want to be able to make flippant observations and gestures and have someone out there grant their approval, and Her is essentially about that at a deeper level.  Jonze understands that we are already in relationships with our various devices, that many of us have our jobs, friendships, romances, and life's work tied up in bits of memory on clouds and hard drives. What Her manages to do is amplify the human-mechanical bond without losing a sense of our own humanity.   It's a fable, it's a romance turned inward, and it subverts the version of a self-created apocalypse we've become accustomed to seeing. The rise of artificial intelligence often comes attached to far more dire circumstances. It's a disconnection depicted via a special effects meltdown of wires, explosions, guns, and off-planet escape pods; often with more than a touch of fear mongering.  Her is science-fiction, but plausible, gentle science fiction.  It recasts the all-seeing, invasive computer as a pleasant, conversant companion who validates us before we can even reach outward.  Samantha becomes Theodore's world to the point that having to reach out isn't really necessary.    
Approached from this angle, Her is frightening, sure, but also quite sad.  Under Jonze, the things that are terrifying about the world Theodore inhabits possess a beautiful melancholy.  Part of this is derived from the retro-futurism of the film's design elements.  The Los Angeles of Her is a future less Blade Runner than sun-faded Instagram.  The Shanghai skyline has been blended into the city to add a touch of something science fiction, but it's empty, light, faded in shades pulled from 60s and 70s interior design swatches instead of dark and oppressive.  The city's population is outfitted in soft, hipster-ugly clothes that blend dated elements with odd modifications, and we get the sense that this is a world that seeks comfort in the past.  Or, more specifically, this is a world that needs to be comforted and for whom the term luxury may signify the ability to indulge and find solace in simpler times.  Theodore lives in a world that looks like the Apple store had a baby with a Pinterest board.  The comfort is false, but Theodore (and others) surround themselves with the accouterments of human connection and interaction like avid collectors. We meet Theodore as he tells his basic OS to play him a melancholy song, we see that he works for a company that crafts handwritten, meaningful personal letters for other people.  Jonze establishes, immediately, a strange, darkly comic tone for this society: they are all searching for a connection that does not involve human interaction. They want the sense of it without the burden of its upkeep.  When Samantha enters the story, she is the ultimate version of this unspoken desire, but the relationship that they strike up feels real by comparison.

This is where the true brilliance of Her lies. It's a smart movie that twists science fiction towards a very twee sort of realism, yes, but what it gets really right is a sort of fragility of human emotions.  The further Samantha and Theodore connect, the more surreal the film becomes and the more we may want Samantha to somehow manifest as "real."  The fact that she isn't and can never be, though, works all the more strongly to forward the film's central thesis.  In creating a world where characters seem to want to detach and avoid human interaction, the necessity of connection is written all the more clearly.  What Theodore desires in devoting himself to Samantha is a  companionship that cannot, ultimately, be satisfied via technology ---however advanced it may appear. It's that understanding that makes the film so heartbreaking and so, so good.  It's not that they can't connect, it's the envisioning of a world in which Theodore (and those around him) would ever not want to. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Guest Post: In Which Tryst is Queen...

In the midst of the all-powerful polar vortex consuming Chicago, I offer you a guest post from my friend Tryst (@idylltryst).  She's here to distract us from the subzero temperatures with a look back at the Bollywood-influences of her fabulous wedding, chock full of pretty pictures and some serious jewelry. 

We recently got back the pictures from my sister's wedding. It made me nostalgic. But because I am a bit narcissistic, it was my wedding I was thinking about, not hers.

I didn't have a fairy tale wedding planned when I was 5. Instead, I was a late bloomer on that front and didn't start day dreaming about the big day until high school. Not being allowed to go to school dances (no, not even prom) meant my girlish desires to dress up had to be fueled somewhere else. So, I began to day dream and decided to ignore the fact that there was no boy on the horizon. This was before Pinterest, so my resources weren't as vast as they could have been, but I changed my mind constantly. When I did find my prince we decided not to waste any time and were married after a quick 6 month engagement. Good thing I was prepared.
I was all about the dress, the hair, the makeup the jewelry...the fun stuff. Growing up on a steady diet of Bollywood movies I had a lot of ideas tucked away in my archive of ideas. Hours spent pouring over the details in pictures and film and a so-quick-I-could-barely-breathe-trip to Pakistan I had the fairy tale dress. But, I wasn't content to just be a princess, I needed to be a queen.

Jodhaa Akbar is an epic about a Mughal emperor who weds a Hindu princess for political reasons in the 16th century. Enter a clash of cultures and religions; and throw in a war. They fall in love and change the course of an empire. Lavish sets, even more lavish costumes and heartfelt romantic songs made for a great movie that I have watched quite a few times. And I knew I wanted something inspired by the look and feel of the movie. I got lucky in that a friend of my mother-in-law knew someone who worked on the jewelry for the movie. So, that was settled. Next the dress.

Thank God for my aunts (who run NS creations). We went to the bazaar every day I was in Pakistan...sometimes multiple times in one day. We had to buy the fabric, get it dyed, talk to the tailors, decide on embroidery patterns. We did the same for my mother, sister and mother-in-law. And I did it all in less than two weeks. My mother and sister went to Pakistan a few months later to visit family and pick up the clothes. 

Fast forward to the big day and I was staring down at my husband and father as they preformed the nikah, feeling like a queen indeed.

And now I leave you with my favorite song from the movie: Jashn-e-Bahara

Our guest columnist and special fashion consultant Tryst is your one-woman guide to filmtastic styling, easy to spot on the sartorial street because of her excellent taste in tutus and expertise balancing in ridiculous footwear. With a degree in English and Biology, she is officially certified to make up both words and diseases, but prefers to make fashion judgments. While she does enjoy curling up on the couch with a movie and her English husband, she will be the first to tell you that pajamas belong on the inside…not outside…of your abode.  She blogs about real life things at Pond Crossings.

*photo credit: The Way We Click Photography

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

PCA Playlist: 100 Most Excellent Songs of 2013, 81-100

Welcome to 2014, I guess. 2013 came to close pretty damn quietly, it seemed to me. This is the first year the week prior to the holiday hasn't been marked with everyone and anyone asking the "what are you doing for NYE?" question, and many, according to Twitter and Facebook, spent the evening curled into a ball of sickness on various couches.  We're getting old, I guess, but no matter, I've always loathed NYE celebrations.  I do like year end lists, though, and I'm ready to wrap up the song list. Will your favorites make the cut?  Don't be so sure. Read on...

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