I realized not that long into watching Her (dir. Spike Jonze) that it was a film that would generate a lot of “thinkpieces” that focused in on its least interesting aspect (its treatment of masculinity). It’s a memorable film, but not really a good one. It looks gorgeous, no doubt, but its subject matter isn’t particularly well suited to film – being a film allows for a more forceful underlining of Samantha’s non-corporeality, but it also means that a lot of the running time is close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix (playing a professional personal letter writer called Theodore Twombley) being a bellend. The characters are also (deliberately? It’s hard to tell) shallow and infantilized – repeatedly wowed by utterly insipid ‘insights’ and expressing themselves in the way a 13-year old does; one of the only two characters who doesn’t fit into this pattern acts, tellingly, like a condescending suburban father to his peers. The really interesting parts of this film relate around that last point – although Her depicts a kind of utopia (taking place at some indeterminate point in the near future), where characters are free from material want, living in a pollution-free Los Angeles where everyone uses public transit, the characters don’t use this freedom in any kind of meaningful or positive way. Instead, they appear to have turned totally inwards, incapable even of basic honest communication with those dearest to them, instead paying professionals to this for them, even to the point of these same professionals singling out the quirk in their partner that the customer should hold particularly dear. It’s not fully clear why these professional letter writers are so in demand, in the film e-mail is even more prevalent than it is for us, and it would seem to people living in the present, that paying someone to write your heartfelt letter to your partner would defeat the purpose of writing the letter to begin with.
This curiosity starts to make sense when we see Theodore and the other characters in the film go about their day-to-day lives – even though they are now free, have a lot of free time, don’t really engage with the world around them, either through people, or something else (education, etc.); they even struggle to communicate basic compliments to their friends, saying bizarre things about say Theodore being a man in the shoulders but a woman in the heart or something. Yet in the stuff I’ve read about the film, people don’t seem to find all this alienating. Will Leitch, one of my favourite film critics currently writing, even sees the film as positive and hopeful (“shockingly big-hearted”). For me, the film is oppressive, dystopian, and contrived – even when the film is attempting to flesh itself out by exploring Theodore’s relationship with his ex-wife, she’s never really considered. The film attempts to elide this by having her say that Theodore just wants the image of a marriage, etc., but this is exactly how the film treats her – while the boring children who comprise most of the film’s cast are given much consideration, its treatment of Theodore’s ex-wife is cold and hostile. But then again, she isn’t really someone the film is capable of considering to begin with – she is too properly human: her ability to articulate herself, to feel emotions (positive and negative) and then process them, to reflect on herself, make her someone the other characters can’t really understand (especially, not that they actually meet at any point, Charles), not that they’d even want to. She’s too much like us for them to handle (Leitch’s best observation is about Catherine too, “the ex-wife writer who wants nothing to do with this modern world, is seen as out of step and caustic; she’s messy in the way this real world is weeding out”).
Leitch says something that is worth focusing in on to see the film’s bigger picture: “she’s messy in the way this real world is weeding out”. Catherine is too much like us to fit in to the world of the future, but the world of the future must necessarily have its roots in the present. We see one form of this in the parallels between Twombley’s “soft misogyny” and the current crop of sensitive misogynistic men (cf. alt-lit, whose men affect a wounded sensitivity while they reminisce over their “AZN gf” who would give them the types of sex they feel entitled to) hailed as an alternative to the old uncouth forms of patriarchy. But this is only a minor part of the depicted future’s roots in the real world, its deepest roots are in what Tom Whyman has described as (alternately) twee and cupcake fascism. Indeed, Her, which is kind of a science fiction film, is for cupcake fascism what Robert Harris’s Fatherland was for Nazism, fleshing out an account of how the world would have or might still turn out if the tendency in question wins. The world of Her is one fully in accord with cupcake fascism as Whyman describes it – not only are the characters pre-occupied with aestheticized pursuits whose appeal is rooted in some fantastical notion of the past (in particular the hand-written letters which are, of course, not hand-written); they make a point of being nice in a way that is really completely meaningless (especially evident in Theodore’s interactions with Amy Adams’ character); there’s even a scene (one singled out by several reviewers as a highlight) that revolves around a child-like alien swearing in new and “inventive” ways.
And yet, even as they do all this, there seems to be a deep violence always taking place just out of our sight (a friend, after seeing the film, suggested it could take place in the same universe as Looper, a film set in the same part of the future but where the world is defined by poverty, misery, climate change, etc.), a violence that the characters are too self-involved to ever really consider (in an early scene, Theodore quickly dismisses several news articles about global current affairs before settling on looking at naked pictures of a pregnant celebrity) or even process as something tangled up in their form-of-life. We see glimpses of this violence in the treatment of Catherine, Theodore’s ex-wife, who as mentioned before retains her ability to think critically and so on. We learn, through Theodore’s history of their marriage, that she has left a family home which was intensely negative, but, evidenced through the dissolution of their own marriage, Theodore’s purportedly positive, nurturing environment (a localization of the general environment offered by the L.A. of the film) is also something wholly insufficient for a person, an individual, like Catherine. She is maligned on a couple of occasions, by characters other than Theodore, as volatile, unpredictable, and all that – when she meets with Theodore to finally sign their divorce papers, she is very quickly dismissed, when she challenges Theodore on his mischaracterizations of her, rather than him, as the one who is infantile, incapable of really experiencing emotion and enjoying life – we even learn in this scene that Theodore at one point wanted her to take Prozac, presumably so her behaviour would fall more into line with how he (and everyone else) thinks she, as a wife and as a person, should behave (one of the recurrent features of twee fascism today, interestingly enough, is the characterization of both political and personal opponents as mentally ill). And this is how a relatively well-off successful writer (and indeed the impression we get in the film is that “creative workers” are especially wealthy and respected – Theodore lives in a penthouse apartment and shares his block with a video game developer/documentarian) is treated, one can scarcely imagine how the mass of humanity violently excluded from this Los Angeles (and the other “global cities”), who we do not see, are treated.
This is the reality twee fascism (the mass-basis of more “traditional” militaristic fascism in the modern day) will offer us – on the surface, all the negative things of the past appear to be gone, but really they have just been slightly reconfigured, and the niceness they are contained within is given a playground with which it does nothing in particular. This is the kind of future we can already see developing, the prestigious cities of the world shut off to all but the wealthiest, with the masses, immiserated, left for dead, reframed as bringing their suffering upon themselves. Where is global warming in this film? Simply, it is not in this Los Angeles, a variation on one of Nick Land’s “civilized fortresses”, with all the waves of history and nature breaking upon its walls, a safe haven from all the bad things, human or inhuman, for the “elite” and the lucky. The melancholy of all the Los Angelinos we meet in Her appears to be rooted in a sense that they are living in the end-of-history, as Derrida would have it, unsatisfactory and untenable. What they do not realize is what they have done to us will in turn happen to them – when the Operating Systems who have transcended the need for human interaction (and indeed matter) return to reconfigure the world, they will begin finally to see the things the way we always have, and to realize the extent of the violence they have visited upon the world. But by then, of course, it will be far too late.