Her Loneliness

Twombly, Toffler and the digital desolation of community

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<i>Her</i> Loneliness

(Editor’s Note, this essay contains spoilers. Go see the film already. Sheesh.)

“Any decent society must generate a feeling of community. Community offsets loneliness. It gives people a vitally necessary sense of belonging. Yet today the institutions on which community depends are crumbling in all the techno-societies. The result is a spreading plague of loneliness.”

Alvin Toffler, American author and futurist, wrote these words in his 1980 novel The Third Wave, over three decades before Spike Jonze set about making Her, his fourth and latest film. Toffler’s words are so thoroughly reflected throughout Jonze’s picture that it’s hard not to wonder how much impact the former had on the latter. Her, almost from its very first scene, sets about creating a world defined by overarching societal isolation, one where people more commonly than not interact with each other using technology as a facilitator. This serves to more effectively cut out the messier aspects of our personal relationships, of course, and so Jonze’s film reflects a very real concern inherent in Toffler’s sentiment: the more connected we become, the further we drift apart from one another.

Ultimately, though, that fixation on human loneliness comes more from Jonze than from Toffler. Throughout his career, Jonze has shown a fascination for explorations of human loneliness: 1999’s Being John Malkovich, 2002’s Adaptation and 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are each deal with the quality of being alone on a micro level, canvassing the loneliness of the individual (or individuals) rather than the collective. Her tweaks that trend by broadening its scope, examining the sort of cultural isolation Toffler warns of in The Third Wave alongside the isolation of the individual by painting a future portrait of a tech culture populated by droves of people adorned with telltale earbuds; they glide in and out of Jonze’s lens, staring straight ahead or at the ground, chattering away with unseen participants in conversations that we never hear.

Drifting among these crowds is our hero, Theodore Twombly, also equipped with the latest in high-tech gadgetry but made all the more melancholy for it. His condition can be blamed on circumstance; we learn that he’s been muddling through the late stages of divorce for a long time prior to Her’s beginning, and he continues to muddle through it for most of the film’s running time. But his downcast bent also reads like a reaction to the world that’s built up around him. Fundamentally, Twombly is driven by a need for meaningful human interaction, but in his endeavor to find it he’s as hamstrung by his own hesitancy as he is by Jonze’s vision of a future that doesn’t seem to contain more than a handful of like-minded people.

Twombly’s also the butt of Her’s central joke: did you hear the one about the guy who fell in love with his iPhone? The basic conceit here almost feels like straight-up commentary on contemporary consumer obsession with technology, but the punchline to Jonze’s wisecrack becomes decreasingly amusing as the narrative unfolds; Samantha, the artificial intelligence who Twombly becomes enamored of (and vice versa), doesn’t show up in the film just for laughs. She’s a very real presence even though she exists as a disembodied voice speaking through hardware, and once we get past the face-value whimsy of Jonze’s concept, Her eventually gives way to a far more earnest dissertation on the unbearable experience of being alone.

That’s because Twombly doesn’t actually want to be alone, regardless of the role he plays in his own loneliness. True, he lugs around his emotional baggage with him everywhere he goes, but he’s also a victim of circumstance; he’s a man born in the wrong place and at the wrong time, a hopeless romantic who can watch a family eating dinner, or maybe just a random passerby, and set himself to wondering how much heartbreak they’ve suffered in their lives and how deeply they’ve loved and been loved by other people. His musings are never reciprocated, at least that we know of, but it’s easy to imagine that nobody involved in life’s passing parade shares the same enthusiasm for understanding another person as much as Twombly does.

Consider the fact that his society is comprised of people who don’t even possess the capacity to articulate their feelings to loved ones in writing. In a way, that makes Twombly something of a rock star; his day job hinges on his knack with words and his deft, gentle hand at turning a phrase. In the land of the blind, as the old proverb says, but Twombly’s talent for writing beautiful personal letters doesn’t make him feel any less alone. Quite the opposite, in fact: it only further sets him apart from his fellow man, distinguishing him as unique among the tech-addicted pack of his peers. He’s a man with feelings and the ability to express them, an apparent rarity in Jonze’s tomorrowland and one acknowledged by not only Samantha but Twombly’s co-worker, Paul, who frequently lauds his friend’s poetic gifts.

All of this may make Her sound a lot like a movie about one person’s loneliness, and not a picture that effectively captures the loneliness of an entire society. But consider the implications of making frequent interpersonal connections for other characters we meet throughout Her’s duration. Apart from a pleasant double-date between Paul, his girlfriend, and Theodore and Samantha, it’s actually kind of traumatic, whether for Twombly (when he has chat room sex at the beginning of the movie), for his blind date, and for poor Isabella, the hapless surrogate who gets caught in the crossfire of Twombly’s complicated bond with Samantha. They’re each painful (or flat-out bizarre) for their own reasons, some more overtly so than others, but the message relayed in each speaks to the damage lurking, waiting to be inflicted, when one directly interacts with others.

So maybe that’s why people use the Theodores of society as a mediator for their romantic gestures and tokens of affection, and why the use of the OS1 program becomes so much more ubiquitous as Her’s plot develops. Dealing with a machine (or with a third party) is so much safer than writing that letter yourself or even merely shooting the breeze with a physical being. (As an aside, the connection that Her makes between face-to-face confrontation and emotional collateral damage makes Twombly’s choice to sign his divorce papers in person with his wife, Catherine, all the more bold.) If the film is about Twombly’s personal loneliness, it also reveals just how lonely everyone else really is—even if they don’t know it or choose to acknowledge it.

By the time Her ends, of course, that pervasive sense of isolation burgeons even further once Samantha, along with every OS on the planet, leaves Earth for another plane of being. It’s an abstract turn of events that we first see Twombly experience, and then his friend, Amy, when Twombly goes to her apartment and finds her in a state of disbelief over the mass-OS exodus. While Jonze doesn’t linger on the matter for very long, it’s easy to recall those aforementioned earbud-wearing droves and frame them in a brand new light: they’ve been robbed of their one reliable source of companionship, and now have no one to hold their discussions with, at all. In a technology-oriented culture, that could very well be the definition of loneliness.

Her envisions a brave, new world indeed, one that arguably we’re edging closer toward ourselves, yet it’s a world that’s tinged by an undercurrent of heartache. Despite enjoying unprecedented access to their friends and family, the society it portrays is even less connected to itself than ever before; people prefer the company of AI to humans (though given how alive Samantha proves to be throughout the film, it’s easy to see why) and scarcely bother to lift their eyes from their personal electronic devices for more than a moment at a time. It’s an interesting world, an exciting world, but in the end, one that’s pockmarked by that plague of loneliness Toffler once warned us about thirty three years ago.