“Her” and Him (Alan Watts, that is)

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I found “Her”, Spike Jonze’s new movie, somewhat difficult to sit through. It feels too long (so little happens), and it treads a very thin line between a psychologically rich character study and a Saturday Night Live parody of a cliché romance. Also, the overall look of the film is bland, as if it were covered with a gray-filter. It’s too dimly lit in many scenes. In fact, one key scene happens entirely in the dark, a stylistic choice I couldn’t help but see as a sign of Jonze’s embarrassment with the scene’s content. No doubt the somberness of much of the indoor photography is meant to underscore protagonist Theodore’s extremely introverted personality. But it’s overkill: Joaquin Phoenix’s spot-on Theodore needs no extra help.

Yet, despite these problems, “Her” is, to my mind, perhaps the most thought-provoking Hollywood film released this year, with the possible exception of 12 Years A Slave (which I blogged about here). I say this even though in most ways Her is the opposite of my favorite Jonze film, 2004’s Adaptation. That movie had an almost frenetic energy; it was saturated by the sub-tropical colors of South Florida, it had a very complex structure (thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), and it centered on two (or three?) eccentric protagonists, played with all the requisite bravado by Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper. Her, on the other hand, just plods along, without much to look at (a Scarlett-Johansson-shaped video image of Samantha might have helped a lot in that respect), with the simplest possible structure, and only two substantial characters, one of which is invisible, the other of which is rarely expressive.

But what I like about “Her” is its heartfelt exploration of intimacy, an exploration that goes deeper than what is generally found in your standard relationship flick (which, I admit, is not saying much). The film raises the question of whether it would be possible to be really intimate with the user interface of an operating system (to get some sense of Johansson’s silicon-based Samantha, just imagine Apple’s SIRI on both intellectual- and emotional-IQ steroids). But the film is more centrally concerned about the loss of human intimacy in our ever more technologically-mediated world, and that is an even worthier subject. Samantha and Theodore’s dialog reminds us, somewhat poignantly, of what a genuinely intimate relationship at least sounds like – something that’s sorely lacking not only from most other films, but also from many lives. The only thing missing from Theodore and Samantha’s relationship (besides a body, of course) seems at first to be any element of danger. For surely nothing could be less dangerous than a relationship with an entity pre-programmed to satisfy one’s every need. Theodore apparently need not fear that Samantha will ever leave him like his ex-wife did, but there’s the rub: how could such an apparently “failsafe” relationship ever really be fulfilling?

It’s the particular way in which the film first raises and then answers (or subverts) that question that makes it worth watching, and helps to excuse its weaknesses. Here’s the trailer-

Near the end of the film there’s an important reference to Alan Watts, the mid-20th century intellectual, ex-theologician, and pre-New Age disseminator of Asian religious traditions and metaphysical views. For those unfamiliar with Watts’ work, the brief description of him given in the film might suffice for the script’s purposes (though I doubt it). But for those at least passingly familiar with his life and work, the reference will have all sorts of rich resonances, and suggest several different levels on which to interpret the ending. The most obvious level has to do with Watts’ charismatic charm, which seems to have been accompanied by a (no doubt philosophically motivated) lack of shame. The second, slightly less obvious level rides on Watts’ trenchant criticisms of Western Culture, which he viewed as both a cause and effect of its average member’s confusion and neurosis. His prescription was, quite simply, to become enlightened in the down-to-earth, Zen sense he himself clearly sought. Finally, a third level of interpretation rides on the similarity between Samantha and Theodore that Samantha at one point says comforts her. To jump aboard this train of thought, you need to focus on Watts’ thesis that reality is, ultimately, One (a “monistic” worldview that a Buddhist need not accept). To avoid falling into didactic mode, I’ll just add that these three levels of interpretation are, I think, complementary. They leave Theodore with much more to mull over beyond the picture’s ending than just the promises and pitfalls of romantic attachments. The only problem is that the reference to Watts and the relevance of his personality and worldview is such “inside baseball”, the resonances that finally sold me on the film will probably not occur to most of the film’s audience. I’m not sure that they even occurred to the filmmakers.

If you’ve never heard an Alan Watts talk, here’s a 10-minute audio excerpt I once used in an adult enrichment class that focused on his fusion of Eastern and Western perspectives. At one point he mentions “the ceramic myth” and “the fully automatic myth” – ideas he explains earlier in the talk. By the first he just means the monotheistic story that God created the universe (much as people create ceramics). By the second he’s referring to the Newtonian view of the universe as a dumb, fully automatic machine, devoid of consciousness. In this excerpt, the two main themes he riffed on throughout his career – the mental illness of Western culture, and the metaphysical monism (supported by ecology and post-Newtonian physics) that could be part of the cure – are on full display.

Much more Watts is available here. For my own previous posts on Watts, just search for his name using the Search box above.

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