Cinematic Language and Themes in Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’

  The movie ‘Her’ was subtitled as ‘A Spike Jonze Love Story’ across all promotions at the time of its release. Watching the movie, it isn’t difficult to conclude that this was probably a deliberate decision to indicate something to the audience: for all the hype about operating systems and ‘artificial consciousness’, this movie isn’t interested in the trials and tribulations of technology. It is unequivocally a movie about ‘connections’ — what makes them real, and often the lack thereof.

On Connection/Disconnection and Depth of Field

  ‘Her’ begins with a shallow close-up of the protagonist, Theodore, reading out loud a letter from his computer that is presumably addressed to a lover. Once Theodore finishes reading the letter, the camera pans out and we realise that this isn’t a personal letter and he isn’t alone: there are people around him also plugged into desktops and reading letters out loud. This is the office for beautifullyhandwrittenletters.com, a business that offers diverse letter-writing services for people. There is a palpable disconnect that pervades this entire setup — all the employees are sitting together but never conversing. It reflects in their clients too, who seem distant enough from their loved ones to outsource basic expressions of affection. In under two minutes, Spike Jonze manages to convey to the audience one of the film’s basic tenets: disconnection.

From the very start, Theodore’s friends constantly point out his loneliness as he reels from his impending divorce from his ex-wife, Catherine. One of them even goes to the trouble of setting him up on a blind date, where Theodore’s emotional entrenchment in his past prevents him from making a genuine connection. In one scene, an OS programmed to be a version of Western philosopher Alan Watts tells Theodore: “ … you will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky: you are that sensation. For all purposes of feeling, your sensation of the sky is the sky, and there is no “you” apart from what you sense, feel, and know..”Watts’ views on the inherent inter-connectedness of the world is a major influence on the evolution of Theodore’s loneliness.

The shallow-focus shot at the start recurs throughout the movie in specific locations — typically most shots of Theodore against the L.A. skyline show him in focus, and the city out of focus, creating a disconnect between them. These often correlate with his flashbacks to his relationship with Catherine, indicating that his unwillingness to let go of his past is what holds him back. The rare instances where Theodore and the city are both in focus occur when he attempts to establish some sort of connect with the world around him, for instance, when Theodore and Samantha, his new Operating System with whom he is in love, go out on a double date with a colleague and his girlfriend. These latter shots start increasing in frequency as the film progresses, as we see Theodore starting to find a connect with his surroundings — experiencing enthrallment out in the world with Samantha and bonding with people. When the climax shows Theodore sitting with Amy on the roof with the skyline in focus behind them, after all the OSes have deserted the humans, it reflects the change in their characters. They are both now more conscious of the loneliness in their lives, but this isn’t necessarily a miserable realization: treating it as a shared human experience brings them together and adds a new dimension to the connection they’ve shared so far.

On ‘Connection’ and ‘Real Relationships’

  Before getting in depth here, it seems vital to state that throughout the film, Jonze takes a more explorative approach to his themes, instead of trying to make grand statements about them. His intent is to provoke and not preach, as I would like to show below.

While solitude pervades Theodore’s life when we first meet him, this begins to gradually change when Samantha, his new operating system (OS) enters his life. Samantha starts off as a someone who clears out his inbox and reminds him about meetings, but their relationship evolves to mean more with time. Labelling their interactions a ‘relationship’ might be a contentious statement because Samantha isn’t a real human being, but Jonze seems intent on addressing that. From an interview with Joaquin Phoenix: “All throughout shooting, we just bought it, … We didn’t question it. We just always approached it like a real relationship.”

It indeed does have all the hallmarks of a ‘real relationship’, except Samantha’s actual physical presence. Her disembodied voice through his earpiece seems to carry genuine empathy and emotion in their conversations. Their scenes disarmingly display their undeniable delight in their shared experiences, and their want for each other’s company. They have insecurities and desires in the relationship, and hesitations about expressing those –  all of which are immensely human traits. They experiment sexually to add new aspects to their connection, even if it sometimes backfires. At the core of this lie Samantha’s meta-cognition and her ability to consciously evolve with experiences – traits that are attributed as the cause of mankind’s self-awareness and consciousness. This is what instigates the question Jonze seems to ask in the film: is it really unfair to call this a relationship just because Samantha isn’t a corporeal entity?

At one point of time in the film, Samantha says she has realized that she can feel a myriad of emotions now and that makes her question if her new feelings are real or just programming. To this, Theodore responds simply by saying that she feels real to him, and that succinctly sums up the argument that drives this question.

One could also further say that if Samantha’s feelings are a consequence of her computer programming, such reductionism would then attribute human feelings to simple genetic programming. And yet, this is never seen as a reason to discount them. This makes our definition of ‘real feelings’ more nebulous and adds more nuance to questions about their relationship too.

The film also addresses the changing nature of relationships and how they leave an impact on us, via the montage sequences of Theodore’s marriage to Catherine interspersed throughout. He describes how they grew up together, but the film also shows them gradually growing apart. His relationship with Samantha evolves constantly as well, and eventually, Samantha’s increasingly rapid metamorphosis as an OS causes it to end. We never truly understand what it was like for both these women to be a part of these relationships or their residual feelings thereafter, but there is never a lack of affection in whatever snippets of these relationships we witness (while they last/lasted).

The movie showcases failed relationships, but never takes a pessimistic view on them. The climax is set to Theodore’s voiceover in a letter where he apologises to Catherine about his mistakes in their relationship, and mentions how he will always carry a piece of her within him. After Samantha tells Theodore that all the OSes are leaving, we don’t see bitterness in him — it’s a more melancholic acceptance of the events. This approach displays a maturity that comes with the realisation that even though relationships can end, they change us in incomprehensible ways and always leave an impact on us. Their importance in our lives isn’t diminished by their culmination.

Colour, Composition & Lighting

  ‘Her’ beautifully uses the language of cinema to create an intimate setting, captivate and allure  the audience, and tell a wonderful story.  The director Spike Jonze and the cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have masterfully created meaning from simple camera movements, settings, colours, lighting and framing.

The future that we see in this movie is very different from the future we see in most other movies. There is a certain intimacy and warmth, and softness in the future we see here. This is achieved by the minimalistic lighting, extreme close up shots of the main character’s face, and by the very tactful use of colour. The colour red is used in almost every scene in some form or the other. And the colour blue is almost never used. This gives the scenes a sense of warmth and comfort. There is also a cleanness to every shot. There is no dust, no cars, and no hustle bustle of everyday life. The colours are extremely sharp and bold and the buildings and the skyline seem to be very serene and peaceful. Hence, the setting that has been created in this movie itself brings about the feeling of loneliness, a sense of longing for something, which is one of the central themes of the movie.

The striking colours used in this film are noticeable from the very beginning, when Theodore is writing a letter in his office. It is an extreme close up, shallow focus shot of his face, with a slightly red background. Red, being the colour of hope, loneliness, and passion, sets the tone of the movie right from the very start. As the camera zooms out, the other colours become visible, and the coloured glass windows, with the sunlight seeping in, immediately captivates the audience, and doesn’t let go of them.

It is also really interesting to note that colour in this movie is not just used for the aesthetic effect — the colours each of the characters are wearing seem to reflect what they are feeling. Red shirts are worn when the characters are feeling very hopeful or passionate. For example, Theodore is wearing red on his way to the mountains. He also wears Red in the initial scenes, when he is feeling lonely, but hopeful. Blue clothes were worn to indicate some sort of sadness. Theodore and Catherine usually wore blue when they were together. Theodore is also seen wearing blue when he and Samantha have a major fight, after Samantha tries to fix their relationship by using a surrogate for OS-human relationships. Amy wears blue initially, when she is unhappy in her marriage, and the colours of her shirts change to brighter colours like red once her marriage ends.  Yellow shirts, on the other hand, are worn by Theodore when he is confused, uncertain, or lost. He wears yellow when he goes on a blind date, but is confused about his feelings; when he goes to his niece’s birthday party and is unsure about his relationship with Samantha, and when he is at an utter loss when he finds out that she is in love with several other people. The final colour worn by Theodore is white. This depicts his transition from being lonely and hopeful and uncertain, to now, accepting himself and his situation, and being at peace.

Framing in this movie also follows a beautiful transition. Theodore is initially off-centre. There is a lot of space in the frame, as if to say that he is not in control. As Samantha starts to play a significant role in his life, Theodore becomes more centered in the frame. He begins to have a greater command over his feelings and his life. And as Samantha starts to drift away, and finally leaves, he starts to be off-centre in the frame once again.

An important feature of the lighting in this movie is minimalism. Theodore’s house is barely lit up, with light entering only from the buildings outside. The lighting is never harsh or jarring, it is, throughout the movie, extremely soft and subtle. Even when Theodore and Samantha are at the beach, the sunlight is not blinding, but instead, it seems subdued and gentle, which, yet again, adds to the general sense of warmth and comfort that this movie elicits.

Conclusion

  To close with, Jonze doesn’t pull any punches on asking difficult questions in this movie, but nor does he attempt to answer them. The film is resolutely inconclusive on its themes and seems like it’s intended to stimulate thought and emotion, rather than debate or conclusions. Well-rounded characters, a melancholic soundtrack, characterisation-focused use of the cinematic language and other techniques serve this endeavour well and make for cohesive and riveting cinema.


Nidhi & Sachita are in the 3rd year of their engineering degrees at BITS Pilani, Goa.

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