"Her" outpaces "American Hustle"

As we sat down last night to watch “Her”, my friend and I briefly discussed “American Hustle”.  She found it thoroughly entertaining.  I almost walked out of it because I found it so stylistically annoying at the start.  In the end I was able to appreciate the emotional complexity that it developed, but there was something about it that seemed so desperate to prove itself that it was kind of embarrassing.  It called attention to its form so much, I wanted to ask the director to sit outside the classroom for a moment so that the class could concentrate.  The direction was like that overly talented kid in 11th grade, who couldn’t help but answer every question without raising his hand.  The answers were often “right” but they kept the other kids from getting the opportunity to think for themselves.  In that way, while we learned a lot about what David O Russell loves about the cinema but, it didn’t give us, the audience, the chance to experience the cinema and feel the emotions had the production design, camera moves, and music not competed for our awareness.  I want to be lost in a work of art, not led through it by the artist.  I realize that I have a tendency to do this same thing when sharing a record with a friend, or my daughter.  “Did you hear the way the snuck in that extra half measure on that weird key change?!!”  Perhaps its because my father always told me that I couldn’t sing my way out of a paper bag, that I have a distinct need to show people that the fact that I can’t sing doesn’t mean that I can’t understand.  Maybe that’s why I woke up and felt like I had to write this.

I am not a film reviewer, though I sometimes write about films.  This isn’t a review of “Her”, though the takeaway is that the more I think about it and write about the film, the more I realize how dense and smart it is.  I’m an artist, who until recently, felt that calling oneself an artist was proof of a kind of self-involvement that meant one couldn’t possibly be a good artist.  I still have my self-doubts, but I now accept the idea because I have come to be more comfortable accepting myself as I am.  What I appreciate in art is work that is personal enough to be revealing but not so personal that it crowds out the viewers ability to have the work reflect on their own relationship with themselves. It’s rare to find a film that strikes this balance as skillfully as “Her”.  Spike Jonze is an artist who uses film as a medium.

On one level I’ve known that I would be an artist since I was in my teens, but I didn’t know what that meant or how it might manifest itself.  In high school and into college, I read authors more than I read books.  I went through Vonnegut first, then Irving, then Dick.  I don’t remember much about the Irving books, but I do remember how deeply the Vonnegut and Dick made me think about ideas.  I did the same thing with music and film.  First it was REM, the band that defined my high school years, then the Replacements, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and the Flying Nun label.  I was less obsessive about film but remember being blown away by the experience of watching a bunch of Rafelson films, then Cassavettes, and the Maysles brothers.  As I write this, I realize that the connective tissue with all of these artists is the idea of dealing with a body of work.  The process of moving through it makes the work become more dense and complex.  Each work builds on the others, and like the operating system, Samantha, at the heart of “Her”, we are able to dig in and come to a greater understanding of the person, or group, that created the work, until we perhaps understand it too well.  Faults and patterns are revealed, and though we might still love and appreciate the art and the artist we sometimes move past it. Sometimes we come to dislike the art because it reminds us too much of what we were and no longer want to be.

When I got to college, the first class I took at 8:30 on a Monday morning was “Theism, Atheism, and Existentialism”. I enjoyed the first lecture and was excited to be on the precipice of a new level of thinking.  Then I tried to do the first night’s reading of chapter one of Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”.  It was a truly devastating experience. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the abject sense of stupidity and failure that I felt during the four hours that I tried to make sense of the first paragraph.  It was like trying to read Arabic, except I knew how to pronounce the words, which made me feel that much stupider.  I almost dropped out of college in the first week. Over the course of the semester I came to understand the outside of some of the ideas that were being presented, and even got an A in the class.  However, it made me feel a bit like Holden Caulfield, and it took me a long time to shake that feeling that I was faking it through life.

I ended up as a religious studies major because I liked ideas, and the classes that trafficked in them all tended to count towards that major.  In my junior year of college I started a band with friends.  I was a terrible musician.  My sense of rhythm was limited, and while I wasn’t as tone deaf as my father had suggested, I was not a skilled player.  However, I was passionate about music, and ideas, and I wanted a way to express them. I wanted to find a way to be a part of the world of music without being just a listener.  I wanted to contribute.  The year before, I was standing in the lobby of my dorm with my friend Gene when a somewhat goofy long-haired kid walked in wearing a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt.  Their record, “Bug” was just about to come out and Gene excitedly jumped at the opportunity to talk to this kid about it. The year before, Gene had jumped at me in the same way, and he had then systematically taught me about music, and in a sense, became my musical OS/2. When I formed a band with Chris O’Rourke and his friend Rachael McNally the following year, everything Gene had taught me ran like a shadow understanding in the background.  I often thought, “What would Gene think?”  Eventually, after many years of playing I developed my own sense of how to play and appreciate music, but the history, ideas, and approach to the appreciation of art that Gene helped me to understand remained a powerful benchmark.  When I started to make films I remember him shouting that, “satire is the lowest form of comedy”.  Original approaches were important.

At the start of the film, “American Hustle,” reverence for history in terms of style and form is so profound that it verges on satire.  “Her”, on the other hand, seems to have very little to do with the practice of referencing the history of film in an aesthetic sense, but it does traffic in the realm of ideas in such a way that it’s hard not to think of a film like “Blade Runner”, and it almost feels like “Her” is based on a lost story of Philip K. Dick.  While technology in “Her” is at the center of the story, the way in which it is interfaced with is simple and believable in ways it is not often represented.  It seems to make sense that sometime in the next 15 to 20 years, many things will feel similar, like clothes, computer screens, desks, chairs, and illustrative design, but technology related to the way we interface with each other and our devices will make great leaps as memory capacity continues to expand exponentially.

As we interface with devices more and more,the film seems to ask, will we be less able to connect with others, and perhaps ourselves?  The questions the film asks are not about how good or bad the characters are as people, but instead, how will we change as people, if and when we continue to become more involved with our devices.  Rather than answer these questions outright, the film allows us (or at least it allowed me) to think about my own life.

It feels like a nakedly personal film from an artist who has not made work that feels that personal.  As someone of the same age, who came of age as an artist in not dissimilar circles, the film resonated for me on a very deep level.  When I had my first daughter, I had no smart phone.  When I had my second, I was able to spend more time with her because I could do work at the playground… but I was not as present as I might have been.  Now I see my daughter disappear into her ipod and I wonder where we are headed.  I don’t say that in reactionary tone, but in a tone of wonder.  What will this kind of interaction lead to?

Some people have had an issue with the length of the film but I found it meditative.  However, the lack of people who existed outside of a privileged elite was problematic in the sense that it didn’t feel connected to the sense of detail that existed in other realms.  It made sense in terms of the story that was being told, but in a way it affected the believability of the story.

As “American Hustle” rambled towards its conclusion, I didn’t feel that I had wasted my time.  However, “Her” has stuck with me in a much deeper way.  As a filmmaker, I’m inspired by the way it is conversant with the history and the future of film without being devotional.  It is unorthodox in the best way possible.

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