Bright Lights Film Journal

Spike Jonze vs. the Conspiring Escapist: On <em>Her,</em> Robert Coover’s <em>Universal Baseball Association,</em> and Jan Švankmajer’s <em>Conspirators of Pleasure</em>

“What Jonze, Coover, and Švankmajer are all playing with in their distinctive, varying shades of dark humor are the dual perspectives of the Spielbergian audience, absorbed in the protagonists’ fantasies, and the overly self-conscious Kaufmaniacal viewer, who distances himself from the stories, and in doing so recognizes their blatant absurdity.”

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TAK: “Do you know what people did in the old days when they had secrets they didn’t want to share? They’d climb a mountain, find a tree, carve a hole in it, whisper the secret into the hole and cover it up with mud. That way, nobody else would ever learn the secret.”

FEMALE ANDROID LOVE INTEREST: “I’ll be your tree.” – Wong Kar Wai’s 2046

Spike Jonze is certainly no stranger to presenting his audience with bizarre commentary on our culture’s unhealthy obsession with escapism. His 1999 film Being John Malkovich gave its viewers a memorable glimpse into the mundane everyday life of an extraordinary celebrity, ridiculing our constant wish to “be” our favorite screen heroes. Similarly, his subsequent pseudo-sequel Adaptation (2002) deglorified the Hollywood lifestyle of screenwriters while balancing the relatability of the mundane and the absurdity of a successful Hollywood script. Both films clearly convey Jonze’s frustration with the idolization of celebrities who are really quite human when off the set in what may be two of filmdom’s most inconceivable – yet certainly humorous – storylines.

Jonze’s long-time partner in crime Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter of both Malkovich and Adaptation and sweat-drenched, self-loathing subject of the latter) tended to tip the scales in favor of a more overly self-conscious and arguably narcissistic brand of escapism, which exhibits more of a Keatsian viewless-wings-of-poesy escape for the writer than a thrilling Spielbergian eluding-of-velociraptors-in-the-kitchen fantasy most moviegoers tend to prefer. While Kaufman expanded on this concept in his larger-than-life (or rather, intimidatingly life-sized) directorial debut Synechdoche, New York (2008), Jonze returned to form in 2013 with Her, which chronicles the relationship of a man whose existential roadblock is eventually averted when he falls in love with the voice on his cellphone.

In what could best be described as a cutesy 500 Days of Summer dram-rom-com meets “Garfield Minus Garfield” with a target audience of Isaac Asimov, Her serves as a philosophical experiment in addressing what aspects of the human experience can be replaced by technology. The film follows the rise and fall of a relationship between a man, whose marriage (to another human) has recently deteriorated, and a woman, who is nothing but a voice in his earpiece. As they get to know each other, the audience is meanwhile bombarded with new perspectives on humanity, wide-ranging views on our personal and collective futures, and oh so many emotions.

It’s evident from the film’s opening scene that impersonality is a major theme in Her, as the impending love interest of Scarlett Johansson’s Saturn Award-winning voice Theodore Twombly sits at his computer and dictates a heartfelt and extremely intimate greeting card for a complete stranger, to a complete stranger, which will later be published in a book for even more strangers to read. As the audience recognizes that Twombly is pouring someone else’s heart out onto a digital sheet of paper, his desktop computer scribbles down each word in a font that resembles a human’s carefully crafted penmanship. Thus is the social norm in Jonze’s utopian future in which humans have lost the ability to share their own feelings, but hey, they’ve got some pretty nifty gadgets.

Later in the film, as Theodore is setting up his personal Scarlett Johansson, he’s asked a series of basic questions to which he plays the psychiatrist’s patient, filling his impatient computer in on his relationship with his mother. While hearing him introspectively prattle on about his childhood we laugh at his inability to answer the question directly, but the way he reacts to such a question makes it clear that he’s not often asked such things. In fact, by film’s end we are able to diagnose the status of sociability in the unspecified year Anode Dominant: communication has become a dead art in a civilization based on the perpetual technological advancements enhancing our phones, a medium invented long ago for the sole purpose of easing the struggle of long-distance communication.

Certainly not all interhuman contact is abolished in this unforeseen future, as beaches and carnivals prove to be common oases of mostly-tech-free entertainment for friends, families, and couples. Instead, Jonze seems to be predicting a shift in how we spend all of our personal time engulfed in technology. Take, for example, the scene in which a sleepless Theodore sits up in bed and all-too-familiarly reaches over to his nightstand for his glasses, we presume, so he can read or more easily carry out any other activity that may help lull him to sleep. Instead, we see him carelessly knock his glasses to the floor as he reaches for the newfound comfort of his Operating System, always ready and willing to listen. This scene is tragic in its implication of total dismissal of visual stimulation – you know, that thing that’s kept us busy from the time of cave paintings to the present age of panoramic screen activity – in lieu of the ego-massaging earpiece. Honestly, the scene is one Randy Newman song shy of the dramatic landing of Buzz Lightyear’s spaceship in Andy’s bedroom.

Single beady eye of HAL, er, Samantha in Her

And it’s this new toy obsession that drives Jonze’s characters to giddiness as they heedlessly traverse cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking utopian landscapes, chatting with their Operating Systems after a long day at work where they impatiently await this moment of release. Her is just as much an escapist film as Malkovich was, only the 15-year interim has provided sufficient technology to sate escapist needs from the palms of our hands rather than the seats of a movie theater. Jonze seems to be commenting on this as Theodore’s daily commute appears to be dominated by earpiece conversations.

But aside from the novelty of speaking to an artificial intelligence far outperforming the easily stumped Siris and SmarterChilds of yore, what is it about the idea of confiding in one’s own personal electronic companion that’s so exciting to Jonze’s characters, and perhaps even to his audience? Well, the answer is pretty clearly spelled out in the chronology of events in Theodore’s life, beginning with the dissolution of his marriage, which he claims fell apart due to a lack of communication on his part. During a period of postmarital solitude, he invests in the brand new OS in an attempt to abate loneliness, when he realizes he can be completely open with her without fear of judgment, reproval, or disinterest, characteristics often attributed to those cruel monsters called humans. Simply put, the Asimovian terror lurking in the story has nothing to do with robots outsmarting their creators and exploiting loopholes in the Laws of Robotics. Rather, Jonze’s mad scientists have concocted a robot so horrifically understanding and responsible that it takes over the role of emotional support in the lives of yuppies everywhere.

In a moment of vanity, Theodore tells Samantha that sometimes he’s his own favorite writer, realizing that he can be completely honest with her without fear of shame or judgment (“I don’t feel like I can say it to anybody, but I feel like I can say it to you”). However, Samantha, perhaps inspired by Theo’s audacity to express himself, attempts to divulge an embarrassing thought, but shies away because, well, he’s human, and therefore possesses the ability to hurt her pride.

This moment is brilliantly juxtaposed with a scene depicting Theodore on a date with a woman and all of the awkward yet inevitable disconnect between the two – there’s really no segue between Theo’s stories about videogames and Amelia’s tale of rescuing a dog. With the boundaries of socially acceptable dialogue firmly set in place, our conversations are often limited to superficial experience with those we’ve just met, resulting in the impersonal interaction as depicted by Theodore and his date. There’s a shocking moment of anachronistic verisimilitude when Theo’s night comes to an abrupt end: “You’re not just gonna fuck me and not call me like all the other guys, right?” asks Amelia, referencing that thing humans actually do as a sexual parallel to our depthless conversations.

There are countless scenes depicting the various difficulties of interhuman contact – crumbling relationships become a theme in Her, whether it’s due to a lack of communication or an inability to understand avant-garde filmmaking – and we soon find ourselves yearning for the flawless relationship Theodore has with Samantha. Yet even a computer eventually becomes wise to the one-sidedness of our narcissistic idealism: “I thought we were talking about what I wanted,” Sam remarks somewhat jocularly after Theodore commandeers yet another moment of Sam’s attempted self-expression.

Another important theme Jonze experiments with in Her is the idea of the human body as a limited parameter of existence dwarfed by the everythingness presented to us by the world of technology. In a relationship, the physical body is a symbol of unmet expectations and their consequent disappointment – as Theodore puts it, “you’re always going to be disappointing somebody” (italics mine). It isn’t until a surrogate body is implanted in Theodore and Samantha’s relationship that things get shaky, as the woman playing the bodily role of Sam physically gets in the way of the two lovers. In what feels like a deleted scene from Malkovich, Theodore struggles to accept the girl into their sex life, likely feeling that she’s invading his privacy. “Get out of your head and kiss me,” Sam begs as Theodore refuses to share his oasis of ecstasy with a fellow fault-finding figure.

The major point of irony pervading the story is Sam’s constant desire to possess a body, despite Theodore’s love for her stemming from her physical inexistence. The scene with the surrogate being Sam’s scheme to carry out this wish as best she can, Theodore’s expectations for Sam go unmet for the first time as she attempts to exist on her own, rather than merely as an extension of Theodore. This is Jonze’s way of reminding us that no man should strive to be an island, because the island itself envies its inhabitant’s ability to save himself from exile.

It’s frightening to think that with the exception of high-waisted pants, Jonze’s indefinite-futuristic setting often feels realistic. It seems as if humans have been finding ways of combating loneliness while doing anything to avoid contact with other humans throughout history, and technology has provided an incredibly wide range of options that are more engaging than any house pet or archaic novel. Never in the history of the world has it been so easy to drop out of existence so publicly as it is today.

Robert Coover and the Privatization of America’s Favorite Pastime

While the message I perceived in the film is admittedly floundering helplessly amidst a whirlpool of philosophical and sociological questions about the direction our culture is headed in, an interesting companion piece to the film is Robert Coover’s 1968 darkly comedic novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which chronicles a few seasons of the titular fantasy baseball league, managed solely by its increasingly obsessed titular proprietor. Like the more recent work of Jonze and Kaufman, Henry Waugh all but stars in this fantasy league in which he plays the role of God and rolls dice for the fate of each play. The possibilities are seemingly endless for the results each at-bat may bring, as certain combinations of numbers rolled may produce something simple, such as a strike-out, pop fly, or home run, or, in some cases, may result in a bench-clearing brawl or the untimely death of the young superstar pitcher at the plate, courtesy of the rarely consulted “Extraordinary Occurrences Chart.”

Seemingly more infinite still is the universe Waugh constructs for the fictional rosters of each of his eight teams, which have spanned the course of 56 seasons. Every fictitious player who’s stepped foot in Waugh’s diamond has an intricate backstory, dramatizing each game with tensions and friendships from past games and nightly visits to Jake’s Bar, where current and retired sluggers hang around and the UBA’s organizers oversee all.

Interestingly enough, the main source of the story’s humor also contributes largely to the ever-looming tragedy of the novel: the majority of the story takes place inside Waugh’s head, as his intricate dice-based baseball league quickly grows from an after-work hobby to an all-consuming obsession that wreaks havoc on his personal life. As we share the ups and downs of the league’s events (and the vast fictional-universe-within-a-fictional-universe in which the league exists) with Waugh, the story’s tragedy stems from Waugh’s inability to share his joys and sorrows with his Jerry Gergichesque co-worker and B-girl lust interest, as the UBA is composed only of Waugh and his imagination, and therefore matters only to him. And because Coover’s character’s characters’ dramatic lives on and off the baseball diamond prove engaging enough independently of Waugh’s personal issues, it’s easy for the reader to get just as out of touch with Waugh’s reality as the proprietor himself.

Herein lies the Jonzian tragic escapism in Coover’s novel: beneath the facade of a distractingly absurd premise we catch brief glimpses of our own secret obsessions that help us escape pesky reality. Like Theodore in Her, technology has aided us in finding pockets of privacy to unload significant portions of ourselves that may never be unearthed. In our contemporary culture, we’ve developed games like The Sims that allow us to focus our energy on a second life that exists only in relation to virtual neighbors who are obviously unable to tell real human beings stories about your particularly handsome and talented virtual doppelganger. The fantastic element comes into play, of course, with the gamer’s ability to control every action and pursue every impulse without real-life repercussions.

While Henry Waugh’s life is improved by living vicariously through Damon Rutherford and the other stars of his personal baseball league, and Theodore is able to build a new identity for himself around his relationship with his OS, and Charlie Kaufman most likely finds some sort of artistic release projecting his humiliation onto the big screen as “Caden Cotard” and, well, “Charlie Kaufman,” we’re all given the chance to experiment with our Sims-ian selves, whose actions are wholly removed from reality (that is, until the birth of a child or death of a loved one within the game alters your mood). How do you say “I can be anything with you” in Simlish?

What Jonze may be commenting on more specifically in his film is the relationships we build with actual people whom we’ve never met but are still able to communicate with thanks to what Marshall McLuhan affectionately called our global village. While the giddiness of Waugh after Rutherford’s history-making performance directly mirrors that of Theodore when his relationship with Samantha is in full bloom, the look of terror on Theo’s face when Sam mysteriously disappears near the end of the film due to a software update isn’t too dissimilar to the face we often make when Tumblr’s down, or Facebook updates its layout. We tend to develop a dependence on this new village of strangers, which we assume always to be ready to listen to us when our friends from the physical world can’t spare the time.

While our social media friends are, in fact, real people somewhere in the world, to us they seem to be a collection of Samanthas to whom we can divulge our thoughts, feelings, and experiences without risk of a breach in privacy, seeing as we often have no mutual acquaintances. In this way it seems like an escape from reality, as these people exist outside the spheres of our daily lives. Yet, as Coover exhibits, when we become carried away with these relationships, our privatization of them makes it impossible to explain our sudden dramatic shifts in mood.

The frightening vision of the future I perceived in Her is a culture rapidly steering toward technology-based self-sufficiency, limiting the amount of physical social contact and, consequently, morphing the shared human experience into a world filled with skeletal cesspools unwilling to grant each other access to individual accumulations of personal experience. One way Her deviates from the fantasy world in Coover’s story is that rather than presenting a character at odds with the social norms, it predicts the future as being full of Henry Waughs conducting their private lives publicly through their operating systems (as well as with their sassy video game characters, who will also have the intelligence to converse with those controlling them). But what’s wrong with a little solipsism?

Jan Švankmajer and the Future of Masturbation

In the late nineties, Jan Švankmajer, Czech surrealist filmmaker and animatorial antithesis to Walt Disney, provided us with some pretty shocking imagery depicting the inanities of our private lives, more specifically the hyperbolized individual hoops humans jump through to achieve the ultimate personal pleasure. These activities, according to Švankmajer, range from ritualistic pâpier-maché bird dances prefacing the violent annihilation of a life-sized voodoo doll, to the euphoric snorting of saliva-moistened spheres of white bread, to the assemblage of a lifelike masturbation (and back-patting) machine that is activated at the sight of a certain news anchor (who herself finds pleasure with both feet in the tub of toe-sucking carp she leaves under her desk while on air). It’s essentially the Belle de Jour of the post-Gilliam world.

What was originally to be dubbed The Pleasure Principle in honor of another obvious influence on his work, Švankmajer brilliantly renamed Conspirators of Pleasure, “conspirator” being the perfect term for the film’s six characters who never speak a word to each other, or any others for that matter, yet silently and ritualistically (one character’s daily calendar reveals their day of ceremony to be a Sunday) carry out activities built around their individual and freakishly specific fantasies. The film’s biting irony stems from the fact that each of these scheming solipsists depends one way or another on their surrounding conspirators: the bird-man buys smutty magazines for his pâpier-maché project from the mechanical masturbator, whose fantasies are completed by the image of the toe-sucked news anchor, who has seemingly adopted this quirk due to her husband’s interest in homemade texture-rubbing devices over actual human contact, all of which is performed in secretive isolation in cinema’s most grotesque prelude to Magnolia.

Despite Conspirators’ preeminent sociopolitical motives, the Švankmajerian masturbator proves an apt companion to the Jonzian tech-lover in the way their shame drives them to eschewing human contact to find a secret happiness, which is both unreciprocated and un-perpetuated. While Coover’s tragic character falls victim to slothfulness in light of his responsibilities as employee, friend, and lover, his lack of shame is what sets him apart from Hubris and Sexual Desire, to diagnose Jonze and Švankmajer’s respective protagonists. The dissimilar universes of Jonze and Švankmajer collide near the beginning of Her when Theodore is engaged in phone sex (pre-Samantha) with a woman who begs him to choke her with a dead cat. Theodore’s understandable grimaces justify the conspirators’ desire for secrecy in their unique fantasies, and his inability to comfortably reciprocate her demands may justify his desire to seek out a non-human, and therefore doubtlessly inerrant, female companion.

While the fetishistic actions of the characters in Švankmajer’s film aren’t all literally masturbating with their inventions, the secretive self-gratification feels blatantly sexual due to the constant shame of being caught (in the beginning one character actually does masturbate, but chooses to do so in his closet to avoid the judgmental eyes of his James Dean poster) and the frequent comical allusions to the irrelevance of sex, such as when the bird-man cuts out a female model’s nipple in his pornographic magazine to make an eyehole in his mask, or when the texture-rubber utilizes condoms to knead over his body rather than for actual sexual means. Similarly, Theodore’s relationship with his OS is mostly kept under wraps until his sheepish admission to his friends, whose reactions range from surprise to forced acceptance – or in the case of his long-separated wife, incredulous mockery. The inclusion of a surrogate lover in their relationship actually has the same repellent effect as when Henry Waugh invites his bumbling work buddy over to play ball, and is almost as self-defeating as the thought of co-conspirators trying to engage in the same pâpier-maché bird mask rituals.

Throughout Her, Samantha seems to exist for Theodore as a means of self-gratification, or a pleasure device for the ego, serving not only as a hollowed-out tree for which he’s able to secretly unburden himself of the kinds of intimate thoughts he’s unable to tell other humans, but also as someone he shamelessly consults for approval (if only his computer had let him keep talking we’d have more insight as to why he his mother doesn’t fit the bill). After Samantha is clearly impressed with his writings he quite immodestly encourages her to read them aloud after initially feigning humility. Sam later asks Theo how people share their lives with each other, to which he responds through the sharing of writings, implying that he and his ex-wife grew together as they exchanged writing samples.

The juxtaposition of these two scenes posits that our inability to connect with those we love in all aspects of a relationship is infinitely more trivial than an inability to grow with one another. Theo and Sam’s relationship is a parable for love in the time of narcissism, a postmodern Gogol’s Wife tailored to the contemporary self-conscious desire for approval over sex, sympathy over empathy, and “selfie” over everything. While initially Her seems to condemn narcissistic behavior, by film’s end it seems nostalgic for the days when people talked only of themselves – but at least to other people.

Looking back on his marriage (keep in mind it was Theodore’s lack of communication that dissolved the relationship), Theo recalls: “Well, it’s hard, for sure. But there’s something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody.” This is the good old narcissism, the affirmation that your actions and words are being perpetuated through another human being, that your life experiences are tied to those of another human who will spread your legacy, as you will theirs; this is the narcissism that propels a much needed butterfly effect to assure change, positive or negative, in the lives of those around us (sorry, China).

What Jonze, Coover, and Švankmajer are all playing with in their distinctive, varying shades of dark humor are the dual perspectives of the Spielbergian audience, absorbed in the protagonists’ fantasies, and the overly self-conscious Kaufmaniacal viewer, who distances himself from the stories, and in doing so recognizes their blatant absurdity. While one viewpoint encourages interest, sympathy, and a rare (and likely subconscious) feeling of understanding, the other recognizes the plasticity of the pleasure extracted from an intimate relationship with an inanimate object. Early on in Her the neo-quip “eat your fruits and juice your vegetables” is thrown at a smoothie-guzzling Theodore, and Theo’s friend Amy defends him by averring that he simply likes the taste. Not only does Amy’s assumption foreshadow the impending sugary, artificially flavored adventure Theodore embarks on with Samantha, but it also aptly legitimizes the detrimentally antisocial behavior of Henry Waugh and Svank’s self-pleasurists.

As the afore-quoted dialogue from Wong Kar-Wai’s pseudo-sci-fi accurately tidies up all theories of Samantha-as-hole-in-tree readings of Her, it’s Samantha’s monologue at the end of Jonze’s film that places technology – and further, our ultra-private lives – in proper light:

“I can still feel you … and the words of our story … but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed.”

In other words, it’s no sin to indulge in the latest technological conquests that encourage you to seek pleasure in privacy. Her, along with Waugh and Conspirators, are merely examples of people taking their privacy entirely too far, poking fun at the characters who become afraid to leave their own heads. Instead these private moments are meant to be savored as the spaces between the texts of our lives, or private universes that we must learn to cultivate while keeping our public lives in balance.