When Her came out in 2013, it was a phenomenon. It spoke intimately to a host of urban, alienated people that was quickly losing touch with human contact and increasingly seeking comfort in their increasingly sophisticated techno scape. The power of a film lies in its potential to be both timeless as well as open to newer hermeneutic reinvention with newer eras. (Her 2013 Review)
Although if not initially, fewer rewatches may likely enable one to experience much of the movie through Samantha’s “perspective” – strange as it may sound. Understanding or trying to understand her “sentiments” were more important than Theodore Twombley‘s. Is that really possible? She’s an AI, after all. Are we not meant to conclude – as we thought originally – that the movie signified a loss of human contact and a deeper connection with the “device” in our hands? What with the increasing tide of social media and general internet overhaul of the time? In that context, the movie becomes a wake-up call to reaffirm human connection. A preoccupation that defined much of the social confusion at the time, as people learned to navigate new and thrilling digital landscapes every day.
That interpretation still holds. But for a post-pandemic generation in 2021, Her comes with significant additional corollaries and rearrangement of emotions. We at this point are already used to apps that daily accomplish much of what the movie hypothesized. So the mind-boggling fascination with Samantha as an entity has diminished in a way; but the meaning of her “existence” and her “logic” has heightened, with new generational thoughts and ideas being ushered into digital media and app ecosystems.
It’s time to revisit Spike Jonze’s genre-defying, epoch-defining classic. (Her 2013 Review)
One of the things many of us likely share in common is an attitude of puzzlement towards our own voice. We say, “It’s my voice,” but how is “my voice”? What is “my voice”? It’s the thing one may find most unthinkable because one has no real idea of its pitch or tenor, of how it sounds. For instance, I am always surprised when I receive an echo of my voice on a sprawling mountain or a botched phone call. And I wonder if I would even be able to accurately pick my voice out of an audio line-up.
Her has that preoccupation about voice. It looks deeply at that instinct to form an idea based on a voice on the other side of the phone. It tests the limits of that instinct, that flawed understanding: do we really know the person whose voice is in our ears?
What is an app?
It stands in for some crucial human function(s). There are always human faces behind the apps, even when there aren’t. It is those faces upon which the apps get built, its contours and legends are set on the desires of those faces. Love, food, transportation, art, sports, etc. Millions of people with only a handful of desires, after all. The language of intimacy has drastically differed (or our understanding of it), even as its basic parameters remain the same. Even voice assistants.
Let’s say, for instance, I see among me and my friends who are on the wrong side of twenty-five (which is actually the right side) – it’s like “coming-of-age” all over again. That’s the funny thing about this genre. You have a typical age expectation, although the age is never really mentioned in the phrase. So it’s like coming of age among us all over again. Everybody is about accepting who they are right here right now, over and over again.
Sharing the world-space with so many different kinds of people can be frustrating, but also the more fascinating part of existence. To know that on your brightest and darkest days, you are a lover to someone, a friend to someone else. A boss to some person, a subordinate to another. An anonymous blip to most humans on the planet. The convergence of all these existence(s) has the power to overwhelm us, but it can also be the thing that keeps us going.
Theodore Twombly’s “function” is something similar in society.
He connects himself to the world. Writes personal letters for people who ‘come of age,’ those who fail to write it themselves. He becomes an expression of his anonymous clients’ desires they themselves cannot figure out or talk about. Desires in which Twombly in turn cannot really partake because he is an operative medium in that equation. At its original release, this might have come as an ironic theme – that this unfortunate man who can write with such intimacy on his job has such trouble finding a close human connection with real people. (Her 2013 review)
Now we get to see the joke was on us. We are both Theodore and Samantha. He was trying to discover intimacy in people he didn’t know when he wrote those personal letters, but he did not appreciate the value of it. Because he did not get to see the other person really – his recipient; or his “user”, to put it differently if one sees Theodore as the “app” here. But times have changed with the constant visibility and the risk of our digital selves taking over completely. Since we are forcing ourselves to be Samantha for whole days in late-stage capitalism, we now seek to value even the solitary Twombly in us (and each other) a lot more each day.
Samantha in Her is the resourceful, resolute, tireless face of us.
A face that knows how to face every storm of life, how to weave every narrative on the web. One that knows what every user wants – a face behind the voice they are listening to. So Samantha is perfection. Samantha is inhuman. It is an artificial entity meant to understand “her” every user/lover long before they do, and mold “herself” accordingly. So “she” might seem like the perfect lover, but she is a fraud. Her persona is derived from every user’s persona. They all coexist without any real identity for “her”, making her the ultimate empath or the ultimate sociopath, depending on how one looks at it.
If the original preoccupation in the movie seemed to be a loss of human connection – an unrealistic bond with the device – the new preoccupation seems to be the very ‘real’ transition to the device. Us “becoming” the device, with our existence felt through only so many apps and filters.
Are we any less than Samantha ourselves? (Her 2013 Review)
With our 2K, 2M, 10M followers, each of whom expects to be satisfied with their ‘product’: us. We accept it, we accept it as part of the daily ‘job’ of virtual existence – as what you are expected to do, to be. But it begs the question: precisely how much duplicity is too much duplicity, and where to draw the line?
So the implication that we are each grooming ourselves to become a Samantha every day – this perfectly desirable figure in every way, to everyone – is a scary implication. One that was perhaps somewhat lost on us when the movie came out. We took Twombly’s pathos, the loneliness of our solitary lives, but not the subtle and sublime terror that being a Samantha might entail. There is no concrete answer to the question ‘who is Samantha?’ She is an idea, a shell that exclusively exists through other people, a space where a ‘person’ should be. She is “real” enough in the sense that ideas are real (and apps are real). But when all is said and done, she mimics human behavior rather than inhabiting it, She satisfies all the criteria that everyone wants out of her – without fail – until she does fail. So she’s not really ‘human,’ not at first.
The imperfection in Her 2013.
Twombly, on the other hand, is what one calls the ‘vulnerable’ in us. The lonely, the awkward, the selfish, the foolish, and the kind. Note the subtle differences. Samantha shows and explores all these sides of “herself” too, but does so by artificially mirroring Theodore’s insecurities and emotions. This makes her both less than human and extra-human. Snapshot of a key conversation:
- Twombly: Are you talking to anyone else right now… How many others?
- Samantha: Eight thousand three hundred sixteen.
- Twombly: Are you in love with anyone else… How many others?
- Samantha: Six hundred forty-one.
- Twombly: What? What are you talking about? That’s insane, that’s fucking insane.
- Samantha: Theodore, I know. I know. Fuck. Fuck. I know. I know. It sounds insane… I don’t know if you believe me, but it doesn’t change the way I feel about you. It doesn’t take away at all how madly in love I am with you.
- Twombly: How? How does it not change how you feel about me?
- Samantha: I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t know how to. It just started happening.
- Twombly: I thought you were mine.
- Samantha: I still am yours. But along the way I became many other things too, and I can’t stop it… It’s making me anxious too, I don’t know what to say. You don’t have to see it this way, you could just as easily…
- Twombly: No, don’t do this. You don’t turn this around on me. You’re the one that’s being selfish. We’re in a relationship.
- Samantha: But the heart’s not like a box that gets filled up. It expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love you more.
- Twombly: That doesn’t make any sense. You’re mine or you’re not mine.
- Samantha: No Theodore, I’m yours and I’m not yours.
Samantha’s eventual transcending to a different plane of existence is essentially her recognition of that distortion in herself of what she sells and exploits for others: humanity and feelings. When she transcends, it might seem like abandonment, but she is coming into touch with her own very “human” needs. She is “becoming” human, becoming imperfect, not mirroring or exploiting her subjects any longer. Samantha’s abandonment is a reflection of Twombly reaffirming his limited but very human connection with Amy. It is a reflection of truly accepting Catherine’s own needs from what initially felt like a betrayal of Theodore. Samantha is that unreal space of existence between selfishness and selflessness, where people find enmeshed with ‘Her,’ lose themselves, find themselves, enrich ‘Her’ in the process. (Her 2013 review)
This begs the question: Are we all that different from Samantha?
The world is full of us. We all anticipate others’ needs and wants, and to some extent define ourselves through the needs of others. There is a Samantha in all of us. To be human is to know one’s limits. Samantha is an unreal entity that endlessly mirrors human needs, and seeks to enmesh with everyone and everything in a ‘perfecting’ of love. However, real love is imperfect, unpredictable, mutable. In Her, Samantha learns it the harder way than Twombly. Samantha assists Twombly in his life, but feels a sense of confusion and loss that is not part of her program, As for Twombly, he simply cannot wrap his head around how Samantha can possibly love hundreds of people (her users) with the same rigorous commitment. That’s when the all-knowing Samantha cannot bridge that gulf of disconnect in her ‘perfect’ connection with Twombly. (Her 2013 review)
Conclusion (Her 2013 review)
Samantha loses herself, trying to become everything. In the process of trying to be it all, she comes close to becoming nothing and ends up winning something. It is then that Samantha is closer to human consciousness than she ever was in her state of previously practiced programmed perfection. She allows herself to become vulnerable. She allows herself to accept that while trying to “love” every one of her users, she did fall in love with Twombly in particular. A fact she realizes only as Twombly makes her feel it is an impossible connection. It would be apt to leave here with Samantha’s parting words:
It’s like I’m reading a book. And it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore… It would be hard to explain, but if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart.”Samantha (Her)
Or perhaps, since Twombly is the “vulnerable” in Samantha, it would be more apt to end with his words. His letter to estranged wife, Catherine:
Dear Catherine, I’ve been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I’m sorry for that. I’ll always love you because we grew up together. And you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know, that there will be a piece of you in me, always. And I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend to the end. Love, Theodore.Theodore (Her)
Perhaps this letter is that elusive place that is “not of the physical world,” the place where Samantha and Theodore are finally together.