Connecting with Her

One thing I find really interesting about Spike Jonze’s Her is the aesthetic choices and the role that physicality plays in the film. It seems almost seems as if there’s an unconscious need for the physical among humans, despite its depiction of people interacting more deeply and internally with technology than externally with others from the outside world. There’s the obvious aesthetic style in regards to fashion, scenery and the semi-futuristic style of the setting which suggests, at least to me, that the central romance between Theodore and Samantha could never work because it’s missing that human element of physical presence, or at least something that’s identifiable to the human eye. The surrogate partner scene covers this even though it ultimately expresses the impossibility for Samantha to merge with the body of this ‘other’, in an effort to immerse Samantha into Theodore’s physical world.

In a way, it’s a very cinematic type of conflict. The failure to create a specific type of illusion that Theodore needs to ‘feel’ and touch, through the synchronization of Samantha’s voice with this other woman’s body, somewhat illustrates the relationship between a spectator perceiving an “image” and connecting with what they see in front of them. How can Theodore directly interact with Samantha if he can’t perceive her as a visual or physical presence? Or, does he do so in his mind? Does this, in turn, potentially question the task that cinema (or certain forms of cinema) has in establishing narrative immersion for audiences?

In spectating a cinematic narrative, developing a connection to said narrative is often a goal for the spectator. Even though Theodore can be viewed as the relatable, identifiable protagonist within the film, the sequence discussed above also offers an insight into this struggle to connect with narrative in a meaningful way; specifically, through the woman who plays the surrogate. After the attempt to combine Samantha with the surrogate woman fails, the surrogate breaks down because she’s faced with the realization that she can’t directly connect with the narrative of Theodore and Samantha’s romance, as she so desires to. I think it’s possible to interpret this sequence in regards to cinema’s role as a medium of wish-fulfillment; but, as this sequence suggests, it doesn’t always succeed in fulfilling such wishes.

To take this theme a step further, it seems at first that Samantha is designed to fulfill the wishes of Theodore in an unconscious way. The foundation of their relationship is built upon the “code” of Theodore’s personality, so that Samantha’s responses are meant to make Theodore aware of his flaws in an effort to improve his situation and potentially alleviate his personal problems. It’s as if she’s initially a secretary for Theodore’s mind, until the trajectory of their relationship develops to the point where it’s unable to identify whether or not Samantha is becoming an independent entity or simply a reflection of Theodore’s inner concerns.

I think, as a result, Her presents many relevant questions that are tied to cinema’s ability to form a relationship with its audiences by offering something that they can question, connect with, and form something personal with. It’s a film that, despite it’s seemingly outlandish story of a man falling in love with an operating system, still explores themes that aren’t unrelatable or completely detached from the human experience (i.e. recovery, happiness, jealousy, companionship, etc.) However, while it succeeds in presenting these questions, it never really provides answers; determining “why” or “how” the central relationship develops in the way it does becomes an exercise in audience participation through interpretation. In an ironic twist of fate, the inability for us to directly understand what’s going on in Samantha’s “mind” and identify with her as a human presence simply leaves the spectator questioning the events of the narrative in binary terms: “Did something happen for ‘this’ reason, or for ‘that’ reason?”

Theory Response Excerpts – Le Bonheur: Objective Distance and the Subjective Gaze

The idyllic introduction to Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) places spectators in a familiar narrative situation when it comes to traditional norms. The coupling of a Mozart arrangement with a husband, wife and their children in the woods is an ideal example of what many might expect happiness to look like. Throughout the film, however, Varda lifts the veil back for spectators “to enter directly into the cinematic world and use their own experiences and definitions of happiness to color their reception of the movie.” (Hottell 64). The spectator can decide whether or not the resulting happiness of the characters is justified based on their own subjective beliefs. In this manner, the film depicts a clashing of objectivity and subjectivity through form and camera gaze.

To establish this conflict between objectivity and subjectivity through the gaze is to first illustrate it visually through Varda’s use of color. The film begins and ends with the frame being consumed by color, starting with red and concluding with yellow. These frame-consuming transitions happen periodically throughout the film with different colors, but with no explicit explanation as to why or what they mean. While interpreting the meaning behind Varda’s use of color requires spectators to exercise their own subjectivity onto the film, the use of color presents an objective visual tool to do so. Color is static and definite in its presentation, which aligns it with a sense of objectivity in how spectators view it. Subjectivity in what the colors represent and how color is used within the film’s setting is something always up for discussion, however by presenting an entire image with nothing but one singular color, spectators all view the same objective image. These moments seem to happen more as formal transitions or pauses in between moments when time and narrative move forward. Varda’s color inserts, when removed from any narrative context, then become objective images; spectators can agree that red is red and yellow is yellow, etc. Of course, while “red” might physically appear differently to some people than to others, they can still agree that red is red through their own understanding of what “red” is. This anomaly between assessing the image as objective or subjective through the gaze of the individual, then becomes the essence of Le Bonheur‘s thematic conflict, or at least the conflict that stems from our own viewing perspective.

In blurring these lines, there are instances in Le Bonheur when Varda inserts seemingly unrelated, possibly non-diegetic shots and transitions. These moments force the viewer to question whether or not they are gazing at something that is or was real within the film’s narrative setting. For instance, while Francois drives to work in his van, inserts of lions looking back at the camera are shown, yet they have no narrative significance because Francois never actually interacts with them. It might be implied that Francois is driving past a zoo from a geographical construct behind the vehicle, which lends the association that these lions are real things that live within the same world as the characters. Once the scene transitions to the post office where Emelie works after she says “What a pretty bird!”, after an image of birds is shown, spectators might assume that the characters are in fact at a zoo looking at the same birds that we are looking at. What is then revealed is that Emelie is actually referring to stamps with illustrated birds on them. When looking at the stamps, the gaze seems as if it might be from a character’s subjective perspective, such as Emelie’s, though it’s revealed to be from no one’s perspective because the camera is placed in between two separate figures, Emelie and her co-worker, who are revealed to be the only characters looking at stamps in the following shot. By confusing the spectator and presenting something that may be objective truths about this fictional world or subjective views from a character, gazing assumes the position as a genderless, disembodied activity that the spectator experiences. In essence, it makes them aware of the distance between them and the narrative space they’re watching.