28 Feb 2014

Longing to connect: Her (2013)

I watched Her (2013) several weeks ago and I’m still thinking about it. When that happens it means that this is one of those films that goes straight to my favorites list. When I finished Her I felt emotionally overwhelmed. Days later I was still processing the story and overthinking some of the situations it depicts and how they connect with my own experiences. I also felt like I've watched  another beautiful melancholy ode to how we long to connect with other people. Regarding that isolation atmosphere, Her reminded me of one of my favorite films: Lost in Translation (2003).  

In Spike Jonze's film, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) was struggling with his divorce and connected with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). In Sofia Coppola's film Charlotte (Johansson, again) was struggling with her marriage and connected with Bob (Bill Murray). They both found someone to help them through a bad time in their lives. These two films have scenes that are so iconic that I think once you’ve watched them you can not forget them. There is a beauty on being alone and both Jonze and Coppola have portrayed it perfectly, since they're unique and talented filmmakers.

Take a look at the visual parallels:

Her and Lost In Translation would make an excellent and quite beautiful double feature. It would almost act as a real version of a movie like “He Said, She Said,” only without the shtick and with two directors working at the top of their game. It’s not only the relationship between the two directors — and their use of Johansson in both films — and how that forms the relationships in each film. It’s also that visually the two films are strikingly similar, with beautiful shots of forlorn cityscapes (Los Angeles/Shanghai in Her and Tokyo in LiT, respectively) dominating the frame. 
It’s just a shame that even if these two directors don’t belong together in real life, neither of them will ever admit that these two films belong together.” — Mike Ryan from Huffington Post Entertainment 

 (Coppola and Johansson on the set of Lost in Translation)

I couldn't have used better words than the ones from Mike Ryan, senior writer of the Huffington Post, to describe my feelings towards the inadvertent dialogue between these two films. Having Johansson on both of them, being Charlotte her role in Lost in Translation one of my favorite female characters, I think it was a wise choice by Jonze because she's also perfect in Her

Besides, it was not surprise this film could have some visual similarities to Coppola's work 'cause I thought that Lance Acord — one of my favorite cinematographers ever, he's done Buffalo '66, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette with Coppola, and he's been the director of photography in all  previous Jonze's films - would be the cinematographer of Her. But Jonze didn't use his friend's abilities this time. He chose instead Hoyte van Hoytema. Another wise choice, 'cause as you can see, above and below, his images are stunning.

As I was telling you, it's not just the images. The two films offer a unique mood. The loneliness of the main characters, lying awake in the middle of the night, the minimalistic design, the isolation from inhabiting big metropolis, big spaces. Theodore’s not completely furnished apartment reminded me of the hotel room in Lost in Translation. And I was right about having these feelings, 'cause take a look at how Jonze and Coppola describe their stories

“What I was really trying to write about was the way we long to connect with each other. I really tried to make more of a relationship movie in the context of right now. Even in this world where you’re getting everything you need and having this nice life, there’s still loneliness and longing and disconnection. — Spike Jonze on Her
It’s about misunderstandings between people and places, being disconnected and looking for moments of connection. There are so many moments in life when people don’t say what they mean, when they are just missing each other, waiting to run into each other in a hallway. — Sofia Coppola on Lost In Translation

(Jonze by Lance Acord  /  Sofia Coppola)

Obviously all these similarities contributed to create speculation again, same that happened 10 years ago with Lost in Translation. Loads of people are wondering if the couple getting divorce in Her (brilliantly portrayed by Phoenix and Rooney Mara) could be a reflection of Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola. If you haven’t noticed it yet, I’m a big fan of Coppola’s career, and same goes with Jonze. Film critics, journalists and cinephiles all over the world are talking about how Catherine, Mara's character, mirrors Coppola. She comes from a talented family with high standards where they’re all artists — writers in the film, which could be easily changed for filmmakers — and her character dresses in a chic tailored way, very Coppola-esque. Jonze and Coppola married in 1999 at the Coppola's vineyard in California and they divorced in 2003, same year that Lost in Translation premiered. That spread the rumors about how Coppola’s film was a reflection of her own marriage strife. It was like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and John (Giovanni Ribisi) were representations of Coppola and Jonze. Sofia told Karen Valby from Entertainment Weekly in an interview that John was “not Spike, but there are elements of him there, elements of experiences. There are elements of me in all the characters.

(Spike Jonze on Her's set)

With all that said, I think Jonze has touched greatness with Her. It's the first film he has written on his own as well as directed, and it contains loads of interesting ideas. Talking to Jenelle Riley from Variety, Jonze said that the first idea for Her started 10 years ago:

“The initial idea was a man falling for a voice. But it didn’t become something until I started to think about it as a relationship movie.”  
 2563 by Todd Hido
(Continuing with the LiT parallels, that print reminded me of this scene.)

The idea of a mysterious female character came to Jonze's mind thanks to that incredibly beautiful print, 2563 from the artist Todd Hido that hangs on a wall in Jonze's New York loft. The print shows us a woman in the middle of a forest, probably in the fall or winter — If you've seen the film, you'd realize it features Theodore and Samantha in a winter forest in one of the most poignant scenes —, we can't see her face, just her dark blonde hair. Who is she? She is Her for Jonze. As he explained to Mark Harris from Vulture, several years ago he saw it in a gallery and felt stirred by what he calls:

“The beautiful mysteriousness of it. It feels like a memory, he says, raising his fingers toward the photograph. “The mood of a day without the specifics. A memory of this girl, in this beautiful, funny forest.”  
When Jonze started to write his newest film, he made a small editorial addition to the image — a ragged piece of a yellow Post-it note that he stuck on the glass over the photograph. Then he took it off, replaced it with another, and then another. On the one that he finally decided felt right, he had written three lowercase letters in black marker: her.
Huh, that’s still there!” he says, pleasantly surprised. Her is not about the woman in the photo so much as it is about the man longing, perhaps hopelessly, to connect with that woman.

Harris is very right about that. Set in a near-future Los Angeles the film revolves around a man named Theodore Twombly (Phoenix). Theodore is a lonely guy who wants to be a writer — my cup of tea — but ends up working as a letter writer for a fictional company called BeautifulHandWrittenLetters.com. We meet him in one of the most difficult moments of his life: he is getting divorced from his wife.

 (Phoenix and  Jonze in the set of Her)

Phoenix delivers one of the best performances of his career, which I profoundly admire. I can't believe that the film got nominated to the Academy Awards but his performance has been snubbed. This is what Jonze's first assistant director revealed to Variety about Joaquin Phoenix's performance, and also what Jonze said about him:

I’ll tell you something: In all the years and all the movies I’ve done, I’ve cried twice on set. Both times were in Spike Jonze movies. The first time was with Meryl Streep’s in ‘Adaptation.’ The second time was that closeup [in bed] of Joaquin. It was amazing.”  Thomas Patrick Smith 
 “I was so drawn to Joaquin to play Theodore because he’s so compelling to watch. He’s got to represent both of them on screen, and I thought if anybody could pull that off, it would be him. He’s not only representing what his character is feeling, but also his reaction to her, which helps embody her.” — Spike Jonze

Theodore's life changes when he purchases a new computer operating system: OS 1, or better said,  Samantha, a name she chooses for herself. This operating system has a conscience, the female melodious voice of Scarlett Johansson, and will bring Theodore hope for a happy life after his divorce. This idea of featuring an artificial intelligence as the setting for a love story came to Jonze 10 years ago:

The very tiniest seed came about 10 years ago when I saw this article online that said you can interact live with an artificial intelligence. So I went to the website, and I IM-ed this address, and I was like, 'Hi, how are you?' and I got responses like, 'Great, how are you?' And you can talk to it and tease it – not a him or her, it's just typing – and get a little banter going, getting mocked and so on. I got this sort of buzz thinking: this thing's actually keeping up with me. And then after a couple of minutes you start to notice the cracks and the flaws. Oh, this is a very cleverly written program, I thought in the end, but for those couple of minutes I got a very distinctive, tingly kind of buzz from the experience. The movie has a lot of large conceptual ideas holding it up, but most of all, I always wanted to make it a moving relationship movie – that was what I was most interested in.” — Spike Jonze for The Guardian

This is a love story between two characters, one of whom is never on-screen, probably the biggest challenge was to make it a complex relationship between them and acknowledging their differences, but also using [that dynamic] as a way to explore the differences between you and anyone you fall in love with.” — Spike Jonze for Entertainment Weekly
Samantha's casting was one of the most important things in this film 'cause the actress playing her had the difficult task of voicing a non-corporeal role. Jonze first choice was the actress Samantha Morton. But in the editing room, he told Vulture, it became apparent to him that despite Morton’s graceful and nuanced work, the relationship between Samantha and ­Theodore didn’t resonate the way he wanted it to. So then he went to meet with Scarlett Johansson and he thought she was perfect for the role adding new elements to it, with a younger and more passionate voice. Johansson won the Best Actress Award at the Rome Film Festival thanks to this performance and has received several nominations.

When I first read the synopsis of this strange love story I thought that it wasn’t a very odd thing to do from Jonze, ‘cause he already did an amazing job portraying a love story involving artificial intelligence in 2010 with the short film I’m Here, that he wrote and directed. Jonze used live actors wearing robot costumes, and then developed the visual effects to animate their facial expressions. The male robot is portrayed by the great British actor Andrew Garfield and his female partner by the actress Sienna Guillory.

I'm Here is a great tale about how you can give everything you have for your significant other. If you haven't seen this moving short film already, here it is:

With Her Jonze has gone further, exploring the relation between the artificial intelligence and a human being. The greatness about this is that it evokes many thoughts about a not so remote future. Human relations are changing and even when we've been sold on the idea that the Digital Era will get people more connected, the truth is that you can see it has also alienated people. The film features loads of scenes where you can feel how Theodore feels like the loneliest guy in the planet even when he’s surrounded by people in the crowded metro, the beach, in the street, or at a party.

Check out, regarding that matter, this great animated short film Spike Jonze recommended on Her's website: "The Innovation of Loneliness" by Shimi Cohen, explaining the connection between Social Networks and the feeling of Loneliness:

Also, inspired by Her's themes of connection and meaningful communication in the age of internet supremacy, The Creators Project asked filmmaker Lance Bangs to interview a range of creatives, including LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, actress Olivia Wilde (who appears in Her), writer Bret Easton Ellis, and many more to talk about their personal experiences with love and how technology shapes those experiences. Take a look at it 'cause it's great:

In the film there are two relations that define Theodore's life. The two love stories, the two "woman": Samantha and Catherine.

Theodore and Samantha

Theodore's relation with Samantha is just a way of healing the wound that Catherine has left in his heart. I saw it as something cute and fun at first, but just a temporary thing in his life. Something he needed at that precise moment, which even made me feel sad for Samantha in the beginning. I think Jonze developed the story in such a plausible way that you can feel engaged by this relation, as bizarre as it is. Plus Phoenix, emotive and compelling, and Johansson’s performances to create this offbeat romance are tremendous.

One of the highlights of Theodore and Samantha's relation is when Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix play and sing "The Moon Song" composed by Karen O for the soundtrack:

"The Moon Song" is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Here you can watch Spike Jonze, Karen O and production designer KK Barrett perform a special acoustic version for KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic

Another great moment is the "Photograph" sequence which features one of my favorite songs from the score by Arcade Fire. Jonze told Vulture that this was the toughest scene he wrote for Her:

So many tough scenes come to mind for this, but there's one scene about two thirds of the way into the movie, where they're sitting on a roof and Samantha says, "I'm writing a piece of music," and Theodore asks her what the piece of music is about. I must have changed the answer completely about five times — and even within those five ideas, there were so many different versions, so we must have redone that scene about twelve different times.
Some of her answers were way too complicated or intellectual. There were two things I was trying to do in this scene: I had to show their connection, but I also wanted to plant the tension of her aspirations and intellectual growth, which makes her pull away. Ultimately, we decided to split those ideas in half and put the second part in the next scene, which became the double date to Catalina where she talks about not having a body, about the freedom of not having a physical form. 
I realized I had been trying to do too many things in one scene, to show their connection and their disconnection all at once. After I figured that out, it became really simple, and I had this idea that the song was about a photograph of them together, which is now what the scene is. And then we wrote a new piece of music, because each time we changed our minds, Arcade Fire would have to write a new song that was about dark matter or an objective view of reality or, ultimately, this much more emotional piece of music about a photograph of their life together. Boiling it down to its most simple form was the breakthrough.” —Spike Jonze 

Theodore and Catherine

I have to admit that even with that great interaction between Phoenix and Johansson the thing that made connect deeply with the film was his relation with Catherine (Rooney Mara), his soon-to-be-ex-wife. We only know about them via flashbacks: Theodore’s memories of the relation. I relate to Theodore ‘cause when I went through a break up I had the same feelings. And all the flashbacks from his past  how they furnished their apartment, the cuddling (I loved Catherine telling Theodore: "rabbit, come spoon me"), the scene in the supermarket, the arguments  felt like something I've experienced. I guess that if you have ever shared your life with somebody, you would feel the same. Jonze did an amazing job with those images. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography contributed to make them look like something Malick would have directed and the amazingly delicate score by Arcade Fire is heartbreaking. In fact, talking to Nicole Holofcener for Interview, Jonze said he was inspired by Malick on filming those scenes with Mara and Phoenix:

“I didn't write specific dialogue, though. It kind of was inspired by the way Terrence Malick works, or at least the stories we've heard about how he works. So it was sort of about showing up on set and giving a scene—an intention of what a moment is about—and letting the actors go and find it.” 

Samantha: So what is like being married? 
Theodore: Well it's hard for sure… but there's something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody. 
Samantha:  How do you share your life with somebody?
Theodore:  Well, we grew up together.  I used to read all of her writing– all through her masters and Ph.D. And she read every word I ever wrote.  We were a big influence on each other.
Samantha:  In what way did you influence her?
Theodore:  She came from a background where nothing was ever good enough.  And that was something that weighed heavy on her, but in our house together, there was a sense of just trying stuff and allowing each other to fail and to be excited about things.  That was liberating for her.
Theodore: It was exciting to see her grow – both of us grow and change together.  But then, that’s the hard part– growing without growing apart, or changing without it scaring the other person. I still find myself having conversations with her in my mind, rehashing old arguments or defending myself against something she said about me.

TheodoreSometimes I think I have felt everything I'm ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I'm not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt.

There is a great chemistry between Phoenix and Mara and the few moments we see of them together are pure magic.

I love what Jonze said about how Mara felt really sad thinking about the relation between Theodore and Catherine: 

(Mara on set with Jonze)
We basically shot an entire relationship in a day. By the end, we shot the part where they get in a fight and break up. There are a couple of shots of that. And Rooney came in the next day, and she realised she was sad, because in the course of the day they fell in love, and lived a whole relationship. It was a really special day.” — Spike Jonze
(Mara and Phoenix on set)

There is another important woman on Theodore's life: his friend Amy. Amy Adams portrays her, and she is really quirky and endearing in that role. She doesn't have too much time on screen, but you have to empathize with her, besides her character says one of my favorite lines from the film, trying to explain the craziness about falling in love with someone. Also, I think her role is really important 'cause she gives Theodore the human connection he's looking for.

To finish, I think Her would not be the same without the perfect score by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett. It's full of emotions and it fits perfectly the tone of the film. They spent 14 months working with Jonze on it. You can listen to the full soundtrack in this great 8tracks playlist:

What Win and I started talking about in the beginning was just that we wanted the soundtrack to have this electricity to it, a current to it, but not to be electronic and not to use synthesizers at all. For it not to feel synthetic, but to feel like hand-made, but still have an electricity to it, and also just to sort of play this sort of romance and love story and longing of [Phoenix's character] Theodore. ” — Spike Jonze on working with Win Butler from Arcade Fire.

I think that the movie, to me, is more about our relationship to each other, and our need for intimacy and connection, and the difficulties within ourselves that make that challenging  and the limitations within ourselves that prevent intimacy or connection; when it's that thing we need, maybe the most. And I think those are timeless things. So I think that the parts that are about technology and the parts that are about the way we're living in this modern world are sort of just the modern set of complications.” — Spike Jonze for Rotten Tomatoes

— Mara