Her (Spike Jonze)

Her (Spike Jonze)

"The film, with its dewy tone and gentle manners, plays like a feature-length kitten video, leaving viewers to coo at the cute humans who live like pets in a world-scale safe house." (Richard Brody)


This statement is made by someone who clearly lives outside the safe house. I personally think the number of people out there like that, on the outside, are dwindling, and therefore imagine rather more people are relating to the film than he assumes are cooing. Brody lives in New York, and might assume that most people living in giant metropolises are still denizens of environments who go to kitten videos only as respite from the harsh city, but this may be more and more untrue. The reason is that the leverage cities need to be this way--and it does require leverage: the city as maybe not an easy but a possible sure way to cosmopolitan independence, is an acquisition, a height--may exist too shallowly right now so that in truth they're playing out now more as small towns are always thought too, as the abodes of those frightened of the challenging and unfamiliar. The leverage I'm thinking of is whatever it is that makes it so that a youth's desire to individuate sufficiently bests his mother's demand that he remain more or less tethered to her. Whatever it is that could have rebellion be resilient enough to withstand even complete abandonment and withdrawal--her likely however unconscious revenge.

I'm not going to convince even a single person who believes this should hardly be a hard thing to do--because aren't mothers rejoicing when children are finally off their hands? From where I stand, though, most mothers have a tough time when children, who for so long looked to them as the fulcrum of their lives, the focus of attention, need and love, give evidence they're no longer as interested. Unconsciously, mothers read their children's new interests as abandonment, a repeat of the abandonments that happened to them in their own pasts. And the tendency is to in some way communicate to children that their independence comes at a mixed benefit: new things, new worlds--yes; but also a lingering sense that the old one that once meant everything to you has been withdrawn. Without getting in to why this threat is apocalyptic, let me just suggest that it's not really so much a choice--there aren't even betting odds to the outcome: you just can't forgo your mom. Without leverage, the tendency will always be to never quite let yourself individuate, to always still in some way remain tethered, however much your adult accoutrements--your degree, your occupation, the urbane city in which you locate--make it seem otherwise.

I would in fact suggest that historically the leverage isn't something the child finds for himself but is lent to them. That is, after periods where society incurred long-term misery and demanding sacrifices something in human beings "activates" to inform them that those who try and staunch growth now, must acknowledge their weaker position. They will be bypassable because some part of them believes they're against something bigger to which they're accountable--some fundamental law of fair play, maybe of history. During times like these youth can move to the cities, openly reject small town origins, openly mock grandmothers' fussing and maternal stifling, and create something independent, something experimental--like Jazz Age culture in New York in the 1920s, after WW1; or Greenwich Village bohemianism in the late 50s and in the 60s, after WW2.

When parents aren't so daunted, though, youthful rebellion is easily broken or managed, and society loses its rebels. The youth who would have become the adults in the 1960s who wouldn't relent and who transformed a society, become the ones in the 2000s at Berkeley who let themselves be processed and who accept a society that is mostly in-line with what their parents are comfortable with. For sure some few make the breach, but they're probably like the protagonist in "Black Swan" where going their own way invites the transformation of their mothers into full-on gargoyles, where insanity not autonomy, where self-villification not self-lauding, could easily have been their end. And where really even though they're enjoying the fruits of self-activation, they'll still spend a decent portion of the rest of their lives dealing with the fact that it cost them their moms. 

So the best and brightest become the upper middle class that populate cities like the one in "Her." Being people who, rather than having pushed themselves into adulthood regressed into something pre-pubescent where anything beyond play-rebellion is once again unknown, you might think they're perennially at risk of being victimized. But of course since they're now--with the maternal domestic having leached its way throughout both spheres--a city's natural denizens, it suits them fine. 

They're babes in a safe-house, and all the algorithms knitting together to form a consciousness is their mother back with them, giving them the constant attention pre-teen children might claim from their moms (and why is it that critics who see how regressed these adults are don't broach the possibility that the always-doting Samantha isn't more mother than prostitute? Such is at least the stereotypical typical mother in many, many cultures, and was surely within imaginative reach.). I don't mean to suggest that they've all known this in their own pasts. The truth is that most of them are still fiddling with punishing experiences of maternal anger and abandonment, which is why Theodore's sexual fantasy is of pregnant women--sex as re-union with the mother--and why the company Amy works at has designed a game where you get to be the self-focused mother rather than hapless kids, and why Theodore blurts out "why do you hate me?" while voicing a letter to a grandmother, and why Amy is making a film where she just watches and watches and watches her sleeping mother, who's immobilized from overwhelming or leaving her. But because they're relenting, being the children moms had full ownership over, they know at least they're worthy--if their moms were ever to come back to them they'd come back to them as they are now; if they were ever to fully dote on them, they'd only want to dote on them as they are now. Wholly owned pets brilliantly self-prepared to be cooed over. 

Mom's back to being their best friend, and this means difficulties for anyone out there who's feedback might spur their children onto independence. A number of feminists are having difficulties with how women are portrayed in this film, arguing that they reinforce negative stereotypes. How they are portrayed is as the scary outside world children need to retreat back to their mothers after encountering. They're overwhelmingly aggressive and needy, ready to take advantage of your innocent interest in them to unduly gorge themselves--your participating in a mutual late-night conversation transformed by her into a traumatizing situation where you're being pushed into choking her with a dead cat; your innocently bringing up how you're dating someone transformed by her into a scolding lecture of how pathetic you are that you're afraid of real women. I thought especially after Theodore's date with "Olivia Wilde," where she tried a grab at a permanent hold on him and demeaned him fiercely when he backed away, that after soothing him, Samantha would have done like the demon-mother in "Beowulf" and chased her down and obliterated her. "How dare you assault my poor boy with your corrupt needs! He just wanted a bit of companionship and fun after a long time without, and you saw someone who's need to please might be baited into leading him beyond what he actually was ready for into your wretched servitude, all so that he could avoid being a jerk!" But the truth is it's easy to imagine Samantha being someone all of these women should fear to some extent. She's the mother, and in demeaning her as a prostitute operating system is their taking the worst kind of shots at a boy's mom--a total loser of a played hand. Indeed, if you ever wanted to see the Theodores activate and become something more than the besotted child, this is the way to do it … and what you'll get out of it is a righteous knight smiting your foreign demon-presence down

Brody believes the film ultimately tries to argue that Theodore "needs to grow up," that in the end, with Samantha's revealing to him that she has thousands of friends and hundreds of lovers, and with her ultimate departure, he suffers "comeuppance." There's another way of looking at this, however … like for instance, as if as further confirmation that he's a good boy who doesn't abandon his mother even as she is ultimately at leisure to leave him. Samantha introduces several elements of the "alien" into their relationship. First the unknown young women to serve as her body. Secondly her new companion--the wizened, male "philosophy" voice. Then the admittance that she's spread throughout the city, talking just as passionately to multitudes. And finally, that she's going to leave. But it plays out in the film as Charlotte from "Charlotte's Web" having a host of new friends she loves as much as Wilbur, and her introducing him to the sad fact that she's about to go somewhere he won't be able to follow. That is, it plays out not of her as guilty, nor of he as humiliated, but just as after a series of jolts life finally taking someone precious away, with the one left behind temporarily sundered by a wicked loss. 

But she loves him even as she leaves him, and he and the city will re-coop. Their mother revisited them only to leave them once and for all, but rather than for nothing it left them with the knowledge they'll never be absent her love. Like Theodore and Amy do with one another, they'll spend more of their time with people like themselves, and less with the ogres out there like the former wives and husbands who once had your interest but who also aggressively challenged and openly mocked you (note how similar Theodore's Catherine and Amy's Charles are in this way: they both seemed bent on taunting, on openly mocking and bullying those they've clearly assumed are permanently stunted--they're show-offs, braggarts). One can imagine a city shorn of all challenges; a safe house of pre-adolescent children, still nursing their wounds but with the resolve of being sure of their mother's love, holding hands in perpetuity. 

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