Jewish World Review December 25, 2013/ 22 Teves, 5774
'Her' and the fairy tale of technology
By Richard Cohen
Samantha — the voice and nothing more of Scarlett Johansson — is a star of the Spike Jonze movie “Her.” It is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls for an OS (operating system) who (that?) over time adapts, learns and gets close to the man who summons her from the ether. This is a romantic tale — a man, a device and, after a while, an entranced audience.
I have seen an astounding number of movies in the past month. I can recommend many of them — “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave,” “All Is Lost,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Nebraska,” “Gravity” — but “Her” is in a category of its own. It is not about someone special up there on the screen — someone crazy or larcenous or brave, someone in outer space or alone on a boat — but you and me, especially if you’re a man. (I confess to not knowing if a “Samuel” is possible for a woman.)
Ever since the French sociologist Émile Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie in 1893, social scientists and their knockoffs, columnists, have been writing about the atomized society. We have seen the alienated man in countless movies, and he either goes on a killing spree or discovers the joys of a loving relationship. “Her” is different in that it recognizes that the cure for loneliness is technology — not social media, which are merely an extension of the suburbs, but the individual device, the one that’s uniquely yours, never mind that it was programmed offshore. This device will bring us closer not to other people but to ourselves. It is a vehicle for channeling narcissism.
The Narcissist Nation is all around us. You can see it in the ubiquitous selfie, an immodest photo of the self, or even in the cellphone picture in which the real subject of the photo is not the image in it but the person taking it: Look where I was. Look at what I did. This is also why people take pictures of celebrities. Gotcha! It makes them important. Once, people asked for an autograph. Now, they take a picture. Even-steven.
The Narcissistic Nation watches Fox News or MSNBC. This way it gets nothing but affirmation and is never challenged. It has its own blogs and tweets to the like-minded, is followed and friended by virtual clones, denounces and dismisses those of different opinions and demands that they be fired. The need is for a world much like themselves. How comforting. How gratingly bland.
The Narcissistic Nation has about 70 million dogs and 74 million cats and, while some of them are for helping — guard dogs, etc. — most offer the service of uncomplicated affection. They love you. They miss you. They listen to you and never criticize. I say all this as a dog lover. I have always loved my dogs and I expected them to love me. Wisely, they always have. (Smart doggie.)
“Her” does not have the feel of science fiction. Theodore is a believably lonely guy, separated from his wife, and, like most men, he lacks friends. He enters into the relationship with Samantha by degrees, and the sex is an organic part of their connection. Like us, he already spends much time interacting with devices, and so Samantha is not some giant leap into the fantastical — time travel, etc. — but the next, inevitable step. She’s a wonderful gal. She doesn’t care that the toilet seat has been left up.
Samantha is never seen. She will never age. She does not challenge Theodore. She listens to him and responds with a sultry version of himself. She is his mirror. The mythological Narcissus peered into a pool. The cinematic Theodore does it with an earbud.
I am about to get voice-recognition software for my computer. I talk to Siri and to my car, so I do not find it inconceivable that soon a Samantha is possible. The other day, after all, I got an e-mail from the Uber app that was signed “Love.” In the (near) future, they’d better be careful. My Samantha, like me, will be the jealous type.
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