Sunday, February 2, 2014

Computer love

In Donald Cammell’s 1977 film Demon Seed, a super-computer rejects its creator’s plan of having it work on governmental and corporate challenges, and focuses instead on the scientist’s wife (Julie Christie), imprisoning her in her house and figuring out a way to impregnate her, to thereby give itself a physical form. The movie is probably more interesting now than it was at the time – lots of it is overdone, but it’s often very scrupulous in its physical imaginings, and Cammell searches for ways to express the machine’s expanding consciousness. We now know however that if computers are a threat to our social and sexual structures as we’ve known them, the threat lies less in big centralized edifices, and more in little devices in our pockets. Although you could see the fertilization-by-computer notion as a displaced prediction of that.


Spike Jonze’s Her might be seen as a contemporary response to Cammell’s film – we’re all now well and truly knocked up, but we’re not yet sure what we’re giving birth to, or how much we care. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a recently separated man living in a Los Angeles of the near future (partly represented by Shanghai for the film’s purposes), much more like our present day than not: urban density seems to have gone on increasing, fashions have generally regressed (really ugly pants) and of course technology keeps pushing forward. He purchases a new operating system with advanced capacities to tailor itself to the user; in his case, it speaks with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, and provides much better conversation than most real-life women – after a while, it also becomes interested in sex (first the phone kind, and then in more creative ways of surmounting the physical problems). He becomes comfortable with telling people he’s dating his operating system, which by then isn’t such an isolated condition anyway.

The film is up for the best picture Oscar and won awards from various critics group, and it plainly taps into some recurring contemporary concerns. It feels like you hardly go a day without running into another article about putting appropriate boundaries around the time one spends in the digital world, or the dangers of becoming more comfortable with texting people than actually talking to them, etc. etc. I don’t think there’s any doubt that many of the theoretical benefits of the web and everything that flows from it have comprehensively failed to materialize: we may have unparalleled access to our collective cultural heritage, if we look for it, but the prevailing conversations in the media and life generally could hardly be more uniformly dumb. Of course, it’s possible to be all pious and retrograde about this: people only have one life, and it’s not easy to make it work, and who cares what kind of crutches you rely on? But at the same time, there seems to be a surge in generalized anxiety, in financial strain, in a sense that things used to be better, that we just keep dancing faster and faster when deep down we really want to stop the music and get off the floor. For better or worse, the momentum seems set; we can only hope it leads toward some kind of sustainable long-term social equilibrium, rather than total breakdown and idiocy.

Talking to Samantha

Some of this is in Her – Theodore for example seems literate and well-educated, working with words for a living, but he seems to spend most of his free time playing video games, and early in the film we see how racy celebrity pictures catch his attention much more than serious news headlines. But the film’s prevailing mood is dreamy and contemplative, suffused in relationship-speak, in musings about whether you’ve already felt everything you’re going to feel in life; the voice of the OS (who christens herself Samantha) sinks into this mode as fully as everyone else. As Samantha evolves, she starts to communicate with other OSs, and at one point they digitally revive a deceased thought-leader: I’m not sure if it’s meant as a joke that he too speaks in much the same way as everyone else. In this version of where we’re going, technology isn’t a threat but an extension, expanding possibilities in some respects, but in others just adding to the existing thicket of confusion. In one of the film’s wittier touches, the husband of one of Theodore’s best friends (Amy Adams) constitutes a torrent of passive-aggressive interventions behind a smiling face, embodying a human correlation for much of what we fear about losing our grip on the physical world.

Eventually, Samantha and the other OSs start to move beyond the limitations of their designated applications. If this film were in the Demon Seed tradition, this might have meant they band together to take over the federal government computers, or to launch missiles at designated targets, but it’s not giving anything away to say that never seems remotely likely here. Her suggests the possibility of a virtuous symbiosis, in which humanity passes through the potential pitfalls of its technological obsession to rediscover its own suppressed capacities. Or some of them that is: it doesn’t seem very likely that any new wave of awareness will lead to Theodore cutting back on the video games.


Even more than for most movies, I expect one’s reaction to Her depends largely on where one stands in relation to these matters. I have my own excesses in this area: I wish I spent less time reading online newspapers and suchlike. But I have no problem resisting the likes of Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve never even played with the Siri on my iPhone, so I’m pretty old-school. And then, happily, I’m not lonely and consumed by melancholy about relationship what might have beens. So I have to admit it seemed to me like a fairly drippy movie. Compared to his recent run of fine work elsewhere, Phoenix turns in a mostly one-note performance, as do most of his co-stars. Johansson’s casting works well to the extent that it helps us visualize what Phoenix might have inside his head, and thereby in normalizing the set-up: although a lot of the movie essentially consists of Phoenix hanging out by himself, it feels much like watching a conventional relationship picture, with a largely conventional trajectory about love for a dazzling but ultimately unattainable woman (one so unattainable that, as Theodore eventually learns, she can conduct conversations through different personalities with thousands of potentially smitten users at once, which suggests a whole new future take on Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire). I suppose this conventionality, in the circumstances, might be simultaneously both the film’s primary achievement and limitation, which may or may not conceal some deeper point about the going-round-in-circles nature of hanging out with artificial intelligence.

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