Wednesday, February 26, 2014


A Siri-ous Relationship
Everybody's Talkin' at Me/I Don't Hear a Word They're Sayin'/Only the Echoes of My Mind.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) talks a good game. That's why he's employed as a writer at, composing cards and letters—keepsakes of permanence—for those who are either too inexpressive, too insulated, or too busy to say for themselves what might be in their hearts, in a world of instant communication and the fleeting thought. That conceit in itself may be enough to put Spike Jonez's cautionary love story her in the "brilliant" category. 

But, it goes further.

Set—oh, possibly, some time next week—it imagines the recently separated Twombly getting the latest consumer gadgetry for his immersive inter-connective experiences: an artificial intelligence operating system for everything, the OS1. The operating system talks to you, can organize your life, alert you to trouble, help in your gaming life, and manage your affairs. As an A.I., it learns, grows, and adapts to the users' needs and experiences, with constant availability, constant access and the ability to sense mood—a combination personal assistant, nursemaid and shrink...who can also do coding.

The software company mis-named it. They should have called it the SO1; "SO" for "Significant Other."

In a constant state of melancholy and finding his lovelorn state both inspiration for work and a nagging dagger to his heart, he's drawn in by the perky, husky-voiced personality (provided by Scarlett Johansson) named "Samantha" that doesn't judge, doesn't nit-pick, but is only there to help, share his interests, coddle, and learn from her operator. What's not to love?

Everybody in L.A. (a combination of Los Angeles and Shanghai, which is the film's stab at futurism) seems to be going through something like this. Nobody talks on their commutes, at the beach, or connects, so immersed are they in their individual lives and support systems. Sometimes, Theodore will chat with co-workers or his neighbors (Matt Letscher and Amy Adams, totally de-glammed to look—Holy crap!—like a real person!), but they break up, as well. Maybe he'll go, tentatively, on a date (although the one he attempts, with Olivia Wilde, starts well in the conversational stage, then once any planning or intimacy is beta-tested, it all falls apart in a paroxysm of the recollected past and anticipated tears), or call up a chat-line (one ends up, hilariously, with an unseen Kristen Wiig), but the experiences are hollow and transitory.
But, "Samantha" takes a virtual (rather than genuine) interest in Theodore, his world, and all aspects of his online life. Before long, she's interested in the aspects of his life outside the confines of the computer,
to which he gives her a shirt-pocket seat, safety-pinning his cell-phone, so she gets a cam's eye view of the world as he wanders through it, his delight in showing off evident in his beaming face. He's besotted, and fairly soon his constant companion is his constant companion, a genuinely significant other.

"The 'other' woman"
The idea is such an ingenious conceit, it's a wonder it hasn't been done before. No wonder it has, but not in the movies. Season 5's "The Beta Test Initiative" of "The Big Bang Theory" has astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar)—who can't speak to women unless he's drunk—fall in love with Siri on his Iphone 4s.* Hilarity ensues.
It's a good set-up for a sit-com punch-line. Raj can talk to Siri because she's not a woman, so his specific mutism never kicks in, and it's the first sober chatting relationship he's had, and his nightmare is that meeting her "for real" would kick in his insecurities. All well and good, but as Charlie Brown asks when Linus tells him about a blow-out on a game he was watching on TV: "How did the other team feel?"
"Samantha" does feel, and is self-aware—she's the little search engine that would if she could—and like the mecha's in Stanley Kubrick's and Steven Spielberg's love-child A.I., that makes things more and more complicated. As "Samantha" grows, Theodore's meek new world can't contain her. She grows and, like in any relationship, that can break a heart apart, especially if the "other" remains organically the same. In A.I., the mechas were programmed to "love," and once that switch is thrown, it can't be switched off. Once a robot loves, it can't "un-love."** In that film, love is another trap that can be the undoing of the smartest of us...but maybe not the wisest. In her, it is something that one (or one with "1's" and "0's") can rise above, move beyond and move out.
Where does that leave us? Grasping and grabbing, as usual, since we're the ones with opposable thumbs. We're left needing and confused and wondering why: why did it end, and, why did it start in the first place? In those regards, her is just like any love story, but certainly not like any movie rom-com, and certainly not this inter-genre-species of sci-fi and romance.

It also comes out and says what I've suspected for years (especially after I've done something stupid in a romance) and was brought up yesterday in my piece about Vertigo. At one point, Amy Adams' friend-character, "Amy" muses over Theodore's soft spot for his software: "I think anyone who falls in love is a freak. It's a crazy thing to do. It's kinda like a form of socially acceptable insanity."   That being said, why wouldn't I like it?

And sad as it is, I fell in love with her.

* I remember Apple I-phones presenting the "Siri" search system in a series of ads featuring celebrities using the software.  One had Zooey Deschanel asking if it was raining outside.  I yelled at the screen "Look out the window, you idiot!  How hard is that?"

*** One of my favorite quotes, for its wisdom, is by author John D. MacDonald, he of the colorful "Travis McGee" novels.  In "A Friendship" (which re-prints and catalogs the decades-long correspondence between MacDonald and comedian Dan Rowan) MacDonald wrote (in response to Rowan saying that he now "hated" his wife): "Love is not the opposite of Hate—they're just two sides to the same coin; the opposite of love is indifference."

No comments:

Post a Comment