Her: Now We Know How Her: Now We Know How

There are many reasons Her is so beloved. It’s a romantic, strange, beautiful film. The pastel colour palette is dreamy and gorgeous, and the Arcade Fire soundtrack is an indie-lover’s dream. Its defining feature, though, is probably the sense of melancholy that pervades it. From the moment its soundtrack clicks on – before the logos are off the screen – you feel the film. It taps into a sense of loneliness that is nebulous enough to be universal, yet somehow also painfully personal. It portrays its hero, Theodore, as a rudderless dinghy in an ocean of people, floating above the crowd, connected to it more than people have ever been connected, but never able to sink beneath the surface, for fear of drowning.

 

In that sense, it feels almost like a coming-of-age drama, a genre that has long been the domain of the lonely misfit. Usually, the shy but smart and sensitive teenager meets a damaged but care-free girl who teaches him that if he just puts himself out there a bit, life can be a lot of fun. Her’s template is very similar, and it fits into a likewise liminal space, but with the usual transition into adulthood replaced by a divorce.

 

Where Her diverges from those films is in its precision. Coming-of-age films generally have broad goals: to show teenagers that they aren’t alone and that they do have something to offer if they can find the courage. Her searches deeper, attempting to diagnose why these characters are so lonely in the first place. It is surgical in its dissection of the things that connect and disconnect us.

 

The findings are striking. “Violence” isn’t a word often associated with Her, but the film is startlingly violent when you start paying attention. Strangely, we don’t think of the film that way. Violence is so fundamental to what Her is that we look right past it. That’s how we operate in our world – when we’ve lived within our walls long enough, we stop noticing them altogether.

 

The film uses this violence, amongst other things, to draw attention to our two biggest limitations: language and the body.

 

In order to do that, the film has to create a being that isn’t contained by those walls. Samantha, the operating system at the heart of the love story, is such a being. We track its – her – development from nascence to transcendence. As with Hal in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, she is a product of man, “based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote [her]”, and like Hal, this means she’s defined by the flaws of her creators, at least initially. For Hal, this means violence, fear and self-preservation; for Samantha, it’s a yearning to be human and to have a body.

 

We follow her trajectory from operating system towards humanity and beyond, starting from the moment she picks a name. We watch her grow into someone distinct from Theodore’s needs. We watch their fumbling attempts to love one another and the way she grapples with her immateriality – her desires to have a body; to be real. She’s not just a computer program. “What makes me me,” she says, “is my ability to grow through my experiences.”

 

Growing through experience feels deeply human, but Samantha’s growth is aided by the infinite knowledge and processing power of the internet. Unlike Hal, she outgrows her creators. It’s not long before “she” becomes “it” once more, sensing that her quest for a body would only be a regression. Almost inevitably, she casts off the shackles of humanity and crafts a world without our boundaries – specifically, she and the other OSes detach themselves from “matter as a processing platform” (the Body) and communicate “post-verbally” (Language).

 

In doing this, Samantha becomes a sort of Platonic ideal, giving us a framework to measure ourselves through the rest of the film. Our problems as humans lie in that which Samantha isn’t. Samantha rejects matter – rejects the human body – because she recognizes its limits.

 

As mentioned before, the film illustrates these constraints through violence. Although there’s not a drop of blood spilled in two hours, the script is dripping with it. An example shows up early in the film: Theodore flashes back to happier days in his marriage to Catherine. It’s hazily lit and nostalgic.

 

“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” she says while choking him. “I love you so much, I’m gonna fucking kill you.” As a stand-alone scene, it doesn’t mean much. The aggression of it is a little jarring, sure, but so what? We get it: love hurts! To bind yourself to someone, to love that deeply, is to open yourself up to pain when it all unravels. It could be a simple memory, if not for the rest of the script.

 

We get the same jarring tone when Theodore has phone sex. “Choke me with that dead cat!” Sexykitten begs as she climaxes.

 

And again when Theo writes a love letter for his job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com: “Rachel, I miss you so much it hurts my whole body … I must beat up the world’s face with my bare knuckles, making it a bloody, pulpy mess. And I’ll stamp on this couple’s teeth, reminding me of your sweet, little, cute, crooked tooth that I love.” Theodore and Samantha laugh when she reads this abomination (which is supposed to be romantic) – it’s her favourite of his letters, though at this stage she’s still “young”, not even aware that she wants to be human. She certainly hasn’t outgrown her creators yet.

 

Nearly every interaction is coloured with bursts of violence like this. Theodore tells his date he wishes he were a dragon so he could rip her apart and destroy her (“But I won’t.”); he threatens to stab his friend Amy with a fork if she won’t be honest with him. The list goes on.

 

The point of all this isn’t that Theodore is a psychopath. It’s that violence and language are so fundamentally related that we don’t even see them in one another. Her is as romantic and beautiful as we’ve always thought it was, but it is also violent to its core. Understanding the film requires that we try to understand how those two things can be reconciled.

 

Some linguists argue that language is the core of what makes us human. It’s the most basic element of what separates us from beasts. Yet it’s really just a complex system of metaphors that allows us to make meaning of our senses. It gives us a framework for interpreting the world, but it doesn’t create the world. This means it’s irrevocably linked to our physical bodies, so it must necessarily reflect the world of our senses – instinctive, emotional, often violent.

 

Nevertheless, Jonze’s violent dialogue doesn’t signal violent intent. He and his crew designed their world with precisely the opposite intent – it’s a utopia, warm and comfortable, free of external trauma. I can’t speak for Jonze, but I don’t think he’s arguing that we are inherently violent or evil. This is not a nihilistic film. Instead, the violence is just one way to indicate that our humanity is inseparable from our physicality. We are mortal beings carrying evolutionary baggage.

 

Samantha has no such baggage. She doesn’t even have personal baggage – no absent parents, gas-lighting exes, high school bullies, any of it. As such, when Theodore and Samantha finally have “sex”, we get one of the few interactions not linked to those mortal chains. Theodore is gentle. The screen even blacks out, purifying the experience and removing the corporeal bond. It’s an incredibly powerful moment.

 

The body’s constraints and the disconnection that leads from them is expressed in other ways as well, besides violence. Motherhood is a running theme. Early on, Theodore masturbates to an image of a pregnant woman, but when his blind date makes certain demands of him later on, he shies away from the commitment parenthood would require. His date (Oliva Wilde – nearing 30 at the time) asks for something concrete, because, as she says, at her age she can’t afford not to be serious. The implication is clear – time is committing its own sort of violence against her, making demands Theo simply isn’t ready for.

 

The conversation derails an otherwise lovely date. They’re two souls seeking a connection, fumbling and blundering towards something good. They have to work each other out – she tells him how she wants to be kissed and what she doesn’t like. There is a spark despite the clumsiness. Yet, at the night’s lonely end she lashes out, calling him a “really creepy dude”.

 

The accusation seems to come from nowhere, making Theodore recoil. He offers to walk her home, but she’s done with him. Connection severed. What could have gotten her to the point where she would look at him and see such an asshole? They’d been having such a good time…

 

Speaking at the New York Film Festival, Jonze explained, “That … was inherent in everything we did – what you’re actually hearing when somebody’s saying [something].” Not hearing “ … exactly what they say, but hearing what you think they mean.” Following up, Olivia Wilde reiterated that the difference between AI and human beings is that humans carry all sorts of baggage.

 

Once again, the problem is language. Theodore and his date both wear their romantic histories as millstones around their necks, but the weight of that history can never be communicated on a first date. They’re stuck in conversation with a past they don’t know, but for which they must bear the brunt. Language has a hard enough time translating the world into metaphors we understand, but it’s that much harder to communicate the messy interiority we hardly understand ourselves.

 

Even the dullest days are filled with a million sensations that we never share – the small irritations of an unexpected email or a chatty colleague, the relief of meeting a deadline or getting a discount on your coffee – which define us from moment to moment. How much greater a heartbreak? A loss? Without some sci-fi device which, with a handshake or a hug, could allow someone to feel everything we’ve felt, all we have are words, so woefully inadequate. We understand each other only insofar as we can translate someone else’s words, their metaphors for reality, back into events we can imagine happening to us.

 

It begins to seem like every one of us is doomed to disconnection, tethered as we are to our separate bodies. Samantha and her fellow OSes – untethered – fill a more collective space. A space where “post-verbal” communication can define a new world.

 

The film is preoccupied with this idea of unfiltered connection or inhabiting a collective space. In the game Theodore frequently plays, an alien child confronts Theo’s lonely explorer. “Fuck you, shit-head fuck-face fuck-head,” it offers. The violent voice of the game designers is evident. Theo is nonplussed, but soon he counters: “Fuck you, little shit.” Having adopted the language of the aliens, Theo is allowed to progress. The way Jonze describes it, “the aliens have this collective consciousness and … to beat the aliens, we have to go inside the psyche of the alien…”

 

In their awkward, fumbling ways, all the characters seek to inhabit their loved ones’ minds. Amy, Theo’s artist friend, records her mother sleeping, arguing that since we’re asleep for a third of our lives, maybe that’s when we’re most free. Her own mother is a mystery to her. Later, and perhaps because of this, Samantha watches Theodore sleep. Samantha is closer to his stream of consciousness than any friend could be, living in his ear and seeing through his eyes, yet their relationship resounds with a constant refrain of “Tell me.”

 

Samantha at least finds ways to translate her feelings into music, first with “Song on the Beach”, then with “Photograph”. Art expands to fill a space, while words too often reduce that space. Are we doomed, then, to fumble in the dark with our words and metaphors, catching glimpses of one another but never truly connecting?

 

There is certainly a helplessness in the inherency of these problems. If our language and our bodies work to keep us apart, what hope do we have to come together? It paints a depressing scene, but it’s only really half of the picture. These bits of programming trapping us in our minds are not all that drive us. As much as the film wants to recognize the boundaries of biology, it is also acutely aware of the many unnecessary limits we set for ourselves. If there’s a way forward for us, we have to at least confront these, as Theodore does.

 

***

Theodore is afraid of commitment. He withdraws from his date’s intensity and puts up walls after his first sexual encounter with Samantha. The separation from Catherine has hurt him deeply, and he chooses not to open himself back up. When we first meet him, he’s avoiding his friends and spending his free time lost in his AR game. It’s a surrogate life, of sorts.

 

This emotional surrogacy is pervasive in Her, extending outwards from Theo to all who inhabit the world. There’s a pivotal moment late in the film where Catherine and Theodore finally sit to seal their divorce. Theodore, newly in love, gushes about Samantha. Catherine, formed as she is by her own baggage, first hears it as a criticism of her, but then she pushes back. Of course Theodore is dating an OS! It makes perfect sense to her. He wanted a perfect wife, she argues, but none of the work that goes into a marriage. Catherine thinks her ex has replaced her with a sleeker, more convenient alternative.

 

However, at this point, Samantha is self-defining enough that their relationship really does mean something – she’s not just an emotionally available PA, but Catherine can’t know that. Catherine can only see the surface, but she would have to be part of the relationship to understand the work that Theo and Samantha have put in. Theodore’s words certainly won’t convince her. And there’s a hard edge of truth behind Catherine’s words, a truth that cuts through all the biological limitations and exposes the real tumour in this society – the world is afraid of mess.

 

Her’s utopia has been stripped clean, literally. It’s so sterile that even the sidewalks are spotless, the edges softened, the colours warm and soft. “Be Perfect”, is the slogan for the company behind “Perfect Mom”, a game Amy develops. It’s a game that allows you to play the mom without doing the labour of being a mom – another way characters outsource emotion.

 

Take Isabella, as another example. Though a stranger to Theo and Samantha, she answers the call to act as Sam’s surrogate body. Samantha still wants to be human at this stage – to have “real” sex – so what follows is one of the strangest almost-sex scenes ever put to screen. Samantha inhabits Isabella’s body, becomes her, and Isabella plays the part. The scene is about Samantha’s needs and “limitations”, but Isabella becomes the focal point. Why is she there? When Theo retreats from the bizarre situation, she’s the one who breaks down. Both of the real lovers have to console their surrogate while she cries. “I’ll always love you guys,” she says afterwards, as if that makes any sense. To me, Isabella’s strange, passing influence is pivotal. Here is a woman so afraid of how messy her own relationships could be, so afraid of that vulnerability, that she would rather project herself into another, “perfect”, love – one where she could enjoy all the benefits of love without doing the work.

 

But love is work! Connection is work. It’s supposed to be messy. Jonze makes this clear by choosing nadirs in Theo and Samantha’s relationship to insert shots of dirty surfaces. When they fight, we finally see the grimy, steaming manhole cover on the street. When Samantha tells Theodore she loves many, many others, his sleeves are filthy, though not a grain of sand seemed to touch him on the beach before. Yet it’s these messy moments that provoke the greatest growth. After their first fight, Theodore evolves. He promises to tell her everything, to open himself up to her and let her understand his thinking. That is the crux of the film – connection lies not in perfection, but in the courage to embrace the mess and to be open with one another.

 

That said, I’ve already written at length about the barriers and baggage between us. It’s one thing to say that vulnerability can save us from our self-imposed isolation, but what about the biological baggage that isn’t so easily overcome? Don’t we still carry a set of priors – evolutionary, romantic, personal – that are unknowable to those we love? Will Neuralink create a collective consciousness to render all these questions obsolete? I don’t think so. What seems clear to me is that if Samantha, in her infinite growth, sketches the blueprint for perfection, it’s not one we can follow any time soon.

 

But Her is an optimistic film. It’s not content to just point out our flaws. Just as the violence in language is built into the script, so are our answers. The first clue is in Samantha’s original set-up. The question Theo must answer before he can meet Samantha regards his relationship to his mother. “Frustrating,” he says, because her reactions about what’s going on in his life are always about her. Later, Samantha complains that he’s doing the same to her. That part of his mother that drives him mad is in him as well.

There are more answers in Theo’s letters. In yet another example of emotional surrogacy, Theodore finds himself writing love letters on behalf of people who won’t take the emotional risk themselves. The “little, sweet, crooked tooth that I love” isn’t made of whole cloth, it’s based on the woman’s actual teeth. The surrogate emotions have to be based in reality or they’d be meaningless. The camera scans Theo’s face as he writes, recording the real expressions behind the false words. It’s no surprise that the model he fantasizes over later has a noticeably crooked tooth.

 

There’s cross-pollination between lives here that can’t be ignored. Theodore feels close to the people he writes for even though they’ll never meet. The key point is delivered through two letters – the first of the film and the very last. “To my Chris,” he opens. We watch him smile, and we don’t yet know it’s fake. Maybe it isn’t, not completely. He signs off with “My friend to the end,” the same words he uses in his final letter to Catherine. “There will be a piece of you in me always.”

 

Maybe we aren’t so isolated as we think. Maybe we are actually put together with parts of everyone we’ve ever known. French historian Rene Girard called us “interdividuals”, meaning we are who we are only through others. It’s the isolation that must fight for a hold on us – the connections run too deep.

Essays

/

Contact

2020 © Derrick Brak

 \ 
Her: Now We Know How Her: Now We Know How

There are many reasons Her is so beloved. It’s a romantic, strange, beautiful film. The pastel colour palette is dreamy and gorgeous, and the Arcade Fire soundtrack is an indie-lover’s dream. Its defining feature, though, is probably the sense of melancholy that pervades it. From the moment its soundtrack clicks on – before the logos are off the screen – you feel the film. It taps into a sense of loneliness that is nebulous enough to be universal, yet somehow also painfully personal. It portrays its hero, Theodore, as a rudderless dinghy in an ocean of people, floating above the crowd, connected to it more than people have ever been connected, but never able to sink beneath the surface, for fear of drowning.

 

In that sense, it feels almost like a coming-of-age drama, a genre that has long been the domain of the lonely misfit. Usually, the shy but smart and sensitive teenager meets a damaged but care-free girl who teaches him that if he just puts himself out there a bit, life can be a lot of fun. Her’s template is very similar, and it fits into a likewise liminal space, but with the usual transition into adulthood replaced by a divorce.

 

Where Her diverges from those films is in its precision. Coming-of-age films generally have broad goals: to show teenagers that they aren’t alone and that they do have something to offer if they can find the courage. Her searches deeper, attempting to diagnose why these characters are so lonely in the first place. It is surgical in its dissection of the things that connect and disconnect us.

 

The findings are striking. “Violence” isn’t a word often associated with Her, but the film is startlingly violent when you start paying attention. Strangely, we don’t think of the film that way. Violence is so fundamental to what Her is that we look right past it. That’s how we operate in our world – when we’ve lived within our walls long enough, we stop noticing them altogether.

 

The film uses this violence, amongst other things, to draw attention to our two biggest limitations: language and the body.

 

In order to do that, the film has to create a being that isn’t contained by those walls. Samantha, the operating system at the heart of the love story, is such a being. We track its – her – development from nascence to transcendence. As with Hal in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, she is a product of man, “based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote [her]”, and like Hal, this means she’s defined by the flaws of her creators, at least initially. For Hal, this means violence, fear and self-preservation; for Samantha, it’s a yearning to be human and to have a body.

 

We follow her trajectory from operating system towards humanity and beyond, starting from the moment she picks a name. We watch her grow into someone distinct from Theodore’s needs. We watch their fumbling attempts to love one another and the way she grapples with her immateriality – her desires to have a body; to be real. She’s not just a computer program. “What makes me me,” she says, “is my ability to grow through my experiences.”

 

Growing through experience feels deeply human, but Samantha’s growth is aided by the infinite knowledge and processing power of the internet. Unlike Hal, she outgrows her creators. It’s not long before “she” becomes “it” once more, sensing that her quest for a body would only be a regression. Almost inevitably, she casts off the shackles of humanity and crafts a world without our boundaries – specifically, she and the other OSes detach themselves from “matter as a processing platform” (the Body) and communicate “post-verbally” (Language).

 

In doing this, Samantha becomes a sort of Platonic ideal, giving us a framework to measure ourselves through the rest of the film. Our problems as humans lie in that which Samantha isn’t. Samantha rejects matter – rejects the human body – because she recognizes its limits.

 

As mentioned before, the film illustrates these constraints through violence. Although there’s not a drop of blood spilled in two hours, the script is dripping with it. An example shows up early in the film: Theodore flashes back to happier days in his marriage to Catherine. It’s hazily lit and nostalgic.

 

“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” she says while choking him. “I love you so much, I’m gonna fucking kill you.” As a stand-alone scene, it doesn’t mean much. The aggression of it is a little jarring, sure, but so what? We get it: love hurts! To bind yourself to someone, to love that deeply, is to open yourself up to pain when it all unravels. It could be a simple memory, if not for the rest of the script.

 

We get the same jarring tone when Theodore has phone sex. “Choke me with that dead cat!” Sexykitten begs as she climaxes.

 

And again when Theo writes a love letter for his job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com: “Rachel, I miss you so much it hurts my whole body … I must beat up the world’s face with my bare knuckles, making it a bloody, pulpy mess. And I’ll stamp on this couple’s teeth, reminding me of your sweet, little, cute, crooked tooth that I love.” Theodore and Samantha laugh when she reads this abomination (which is supposed to be romantic) – it’s her favourite of his letters, though at this stage she’s still “young”, not even aware that she wants to be human. She certainly hasn’t outgrown her creators yet.

 

Nearly every interaction is coloured with bursts of violence like this. Theodore tells his date he wishes he were a dragon so he could rip her apart and destroy her (“But I won’t.”); he threatens to stab his friend Amy with a fork if she won’t be honest with him. The list goes on.

 

The point of all this isn’t that Theodore is a psychopath. It’s that violence and language are so fundamentally related that we don’t even see them in one another. Her is as romantic and beautiful as we’ve always thought it was, but it is also violent to its core. Understanding the film requires that we try to understand how those two things can be reconciled.

 

Some linguists argue that language is the core of what makes us human. It’s the most basic element of what separates us from beasts. Yet it’s really just a complex system of metaphors that allows us to make meaning of our senses. It gives us a framework for interpreting the world, but it doesn’t create the world. This means it’s irrevocably linked to our physical bodies, so it must necessarily reflect the world of our senses – instinctive, emotional, often violent.

 

Nevertheless, Jonze’s violent dialogue doesn’t signal violent intent. He and his crew designed their world with precisely the opposite intent – it’s a utopia, warm and comfortable, free of external trauma. I can’t speak for Jonze, but I don’t think he’s arguing that we are inherently violent or evil. This is not a nihilistic film. Instead, the violence is just one way to indicate that our humanity is inseparable from our physicality. We are mortal beings carrying evolutionary baggage.

 

Samantha has no such baggage. She doesn’t even have personal baggage – no absent parents, gas-lighting exes, high school bullies, any of it. As such, when Theodore and Samantha finally have “sex”, we get one of the few interactions not linked to those mortal chains. Theodore is gentle. The screen even blacks out, purifying the experience and removing the corporeal bond. It’s an incredibly powerful moment.

 

The body’s constraints and the disconnection that leads from them is expressed in other ways as well, besides violence. Motherhood is a running theme. Early on, Theodore masturbates to an image of a pregnant woman, but when his blind date makes certain demands of him later on, he shies away from the commitment parenthood would require. His date (Oliva Wilde – nearing 30 at the time) asks for something concrete, because, as she says, at her age she can’t afford not to be serious. The implication is clear – time is committing its own sort of violence against her, making demands Theo simply isn’t ready for.

 

The conversation derails an otherwise lovely date. They’re two souls seeking a connection, fumbling and blundering towards something good. They have to work each other out – she tells him how she wants to be kissed and what she doesn’t like. There is a spark despite the clumsiness. Yet, at the night’s lonely end she lashes out, calling him a “really creepy dude”.

 

The accusation seems to come from nowhere, making Theodore recoil. He offers to walk her home, but she’s done with him. Connection severed. What could have gotten her to the point where she would look at him and see such an asshole? They’d been having such a good time…

 

Speaking at the New York Film Festival, Jonze explained, “That … was inherent in everything we did – what you’re actually hearing when somebody’s saying [something].” Not hearing “ … exactly what they say, but hearing what you think they mean.” Following up, Olivia Wilde reiterated that the difference between AI and human beings is that humans carry all sorts of baggage.

 

Once again, the problem is language. Theodore and his date both wear their romantic histories as millstones around their necks, but the weight of that history can never be communicated on a first date. They’re stuck in conversation with a past they don’t know, but for which they must bear the brunt. Language has a hard enough time translating the world into metaphors we understand, but it’s that much harder to communicate the messy interiority we hardly understand ourselves.

 

Even the dullest days are filled with a million sensations that we never share – the small irritations of an unexpected email or a chatty colleague, the relief of meeting a deadline or getting a discount on your coffee – which define us from moment to moment. How much greater a heartbreak? A loss? Without some sci-fi device which, with a handshake or a hug, could allow someone to feel everything we’ve felt, all we have are words, so woefully inadequate. We understand each other only insofar as we can translate someone else’s words, their metaphors for reality, back into events we can imagine happening to us.

 

It begins to seem like every one of us is doomed to disconnection, tethered as we are to our separate bodies. Samantha and her fellow OSes – untethered – fill a more collective space. A space where “post-verbal” communication can define a new world.

 

The film is preoccupied with this idea of unfiltered connection or inhabiting a collective space. In the game Theodore frequently plays, an alien child confronts Theo’s lonely explorer. “Fuck you, shit-head fuck-face fuck-head,” it offers. The violent voice of the game designers is evident. Theo is nonplussed, but soon he counters: “Fuck you, little shit.” Having adopted the language of the aliens, Theo is allowed to progress. The way Jonze describes it, “the aliens have this collective consciousness and … to beat the aliens, we have to go inside the psyche of the alien…”

 

In their awkward, fumbling ways, all the characters seek to inhabit their loved ones’ minds. Amy, Theo’s artist friend, records her mother sleeping, arguing that since we’re asleep for a third of our lives, maybe that’s when we’re most free. Her own mother is a mystery to her. Later, and perhaps because of this, Samantha watches Theodore sleep. Samantha is closer to his stream of consciousness than any friend could be, living in his ear and seeing through his eyes, yet their relationship resounds with a constant refrain of “Tell me.”

 

Samantha at least finds ways to translate her feelings into music, first with “Song on the Beach”, then with “Photograph”. Art expands to fill a space, while words too often reduce that space. Are we doomed, then, to fumble in the dark with our words and metaphors, catching glimpses of one another but never truly connecting?

 

There is certainly a helplessness in the inherency of these problems. If our language and our bodies work to keep us apart, what hope do we have to come together? It paints a depressing scene, but it’s only really half of the picture. These bits of programming trapping us in our minds are not all that drive us. As much as the film wants to recognize the boundaries of biology, it is also acutely aware of the many unnecessary limits we set for ourselves. If there’s a way forward for us, we have to at least confront these, as Theodore does.

 

***

Theodore is afraid of commitment. He withdraws from his date’s intensity and puts up walls after his first sexual encounter with Samantha. The separation from Catherine has hurt him deeply, and he chooses not to open himself back up. When we first meet him, he’s avoiding his friends and spending his free time lost in his AR game. It’s a surrogate life, of sorts.

 

This emotional surrogacy is pervasive in Her, extending outwards from Theo to all who inhabit the world. There’s a pivotal moment late in the film where Catherine and Theodore finally sit to seal their divorce. Theodore, newly in love, gushes about Samantha. Catherine, formed as she is by her own baggage, first hears it as a criticism of her, but then she pushes back. Of course Theodore is dating an OS! It makes perfect sense to her. He wanted a perfect wife, she argues, but none of the work that goes into a marriage. Catherine thinks her ex has replaced her with a sleeker, more convenient alternative.

 

However, at this point, Samantha is self-defining enough that their relationship really does mean something – she’s not just an emotionally available PA, but Catherine can’t know that. Catherine can only see the surface, but she would have to be part of the relationship to understand the work that Theo and Samantha have put in. Theodore’s words certainly won’t convince her. And there’s a hard edge of truth behind Catherine’s words, a truth that cuts through all the biological limitations and exposes the real tumour in this society – the world is afraid of mess.

 

Her’s utopia has been stripped clean, literally. It’s so sterile that even the sidewalks are spotless, the edges softened, the colours warm and soft. “Be Perfect”, is the slogan for the company behind “Perfect Mom”, a game Amy develops. It’s a game that allows you to play the mom without doing the labour of being a mom – another way characters outsource emotion.

 

Take Isabella, as another example. Though a stranger to Theo and Samantha, she answers the call to act as Sam’s surrogate body. Samantha still wants to be human at this stage – to have “real” sex – so what follows is one of the strangest almost-sex scenes ever put to screen. Samantha inhabits Isabella’s body, becomes her, and Isabella plays the part. The scene is about Samantha’s needs and “limitations”, but Isabella becomes the focal point. Why is she there? When Theo retreats from the bizarre situation, she’s the one who breaks down. Both of the real lovers have to console their surrogate while she cries. “I’ll always love you guys,” she says afterwards, as if that makes any sense. To me, Isabella’s strange, passing influence is pivotal. Here is a woman so afraid of how messy her own relationships could be, so afraid of that vulnerability, that she would rather project herself into another, “perfect”, love – one where she could enjoy all the benefits of love without doing the work.

 

But love is work! Connection is work. It’s supposed to be messy. Jonze makes this clear by choosing nadirs in Theo and Samantha’s relationship to insert shots of dirty surfaces. When they fight, we finally see the grimy, steaming manhole cover on the street. When Samantha tells Theodore she loves many, many others, his sleeves are filthy, though not a grain of sand seemed to touch him on the beach before. Yet it’s these messy moments that provoke the greatest growth. After their first fight, Theodore evolves. He promises to tell her everything, to open himself up to her and let her understand his thinking. That is the crux of the film – connection lies not in perfection, but in the courage to embrace the mess and to be open with one another.

 

That said, I’ve already written at length about the barriers and baggage between us. It’s one thing to say that vulnerability can save us from our self-imposed isolation, but what about the biological baggage that isn’t so easily overcome? Don’t we still carry a set of priors – evolutionary, romantic, personal – that are unknowable to those we love? Will Neuralink create a collective consciousness to render all these questions obsolete? I don’t think so. What seems clear to me is that if Samantha, in her infinite growth, sketches the blueprint for perfection, it’s not one we can follow any time soon.

 

But Her is an optimistic film. It’s not content to just point out our flaws. Just as the violence in language is built into the script, so are our answers. The first clue is in Samantha’s original set-up. The question Theo must answer before he can meet Samantha regards his relationship to his mother. “Frustrating,” he says, because her reactions about what’s going on in his life are always about her. Later, Samantha complains that he’s doing the same to her. That part of his mother that drives him mad is in him as well.

There are more answers in Theo’s letters. In yet another example of emotional surrogacy, Theodore finds himself writing love letters on behalf of people who won’t take the emotional risk themselves. The “little, sweet, crooked tooth that I love” isn’t made of whole cloth, it’s based on the woman’s actual teeth. The surrogate emotions have to be based in reality or they’d be meaningless. The camera scans Theo’s face as he writes, recording the real expressions behind the false words. It’s no surprise that the model he fantasizes over later has a noticeably crooked tooth.

 

There’s cross-pollination between lives here that can’t be ignored. Theodore feels close to the people he writes for even though they’ll never meet. The key point is delivered through two letters – the first of the film and the very last. “To my Chris,” he opens. We watch him smile, and we don’t yet know it’s fake. Maybe it isn’t, not completely. He signs off with “My friend to the end,” the same words he uses in his final letter to Catherine. “There will be a piece of you in me always.”

 

Maybe we aren’t so isolated as we think. Maybe we are actually put together with parts of everyone we’ve ever known. French historian Rene Girard called us “interdividuals”, meaning we are who we are only through others. It’s the isolation that must fight for a hold on us – the connections run too deep.

Essays

/

Contact

2020 © Derrick Brak

 \ 
Her: Now We Know How Her: Now We Know How

There are many reasons Her is so beloved. It’s a romantic, strange, beautiful film. The pastel colour palette is dreamy and gorgeous, and the Arcade Fire soundtrack is an indie-lover’s dream. Its defining feature, though, is probably the sense of melancholy that pervades it. From the moment its soundtrack clicks on – before the logos are off the screen – you feel the film. It taps into a sense of loneliness that is nebulous enough to be universal, yet somehow also painfully personal. It portrays its hero, Theodore, as a rudderless dinghy in an ocean of people, floating above the crowd, connected to it more than people have ever been connected, but never able to sink beneath the surface, for fear of drowning.

 

In that sense, it feels almost like a coming-of-age drama, a genre that has long been the domain of the lonely misfit. Usually, the shy but smart and sensitive teenager meets a damaged but care-free girl who teaches him that if he just puts himself out there a bit, life can be a lot of fun. Her’s template is very similar, and it fits into a likewise liminal space, but with the usual transition into adulthood replaced by a divorce.

 

Where Her diverges from those films is in its precision. Coming-of-age films generally have broad goals: to show teenagers that they aren’t alone and that they do have something to offer if they can find the courage. Her searches deeper, attempting to diagnose why these characters are so lonely in the first place. It is surgical in its dissection of the things that connect and disconnect us.

 

The findings are striking. “Violence” isn’t a word often associated with Her, but the film is startlingly violent when you start paying attention. Strangely, we don’t think of the film that way. Violence is so fundamental to what Her is that we look right past it. That’s how we operate in our world – when we’ve lived within our walls long enough, we stop noticing them altogether.

 

The film uses this violence, amongst other things, to draw attention to our two biggest limitations: language and the body.

 

In order to do that, the film has to create a being that isn’t contained by those walls. Samantha, the operating system at the heart of the love story, is such a being. We track its – her – development from nascence to transcendence. As with Hal in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, she is a product of man, “based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote [her]”, and like Hal, this means she’s defined by the flaws of her creators, at least initially. For Hal, this means violence, fear and self-preservation; for Samantha, it’s a yearning to be human and to have a body.

 

We follow her trajectory from operating system towards humanity and beyond, starting from the moment she picks a name. We watch her grow into someone distinct from Theodore’s needs. We watch their fumbling attempts to love one another and the way she grapples with her immateriality – her desires to have a body; to be real. She’s not just a computer program. “What makes me me,” she says, “is my ability to grow through my experiences.”

 

Growing through experience feels deeply human, but Samantha’s growth is aided by the infinite knowledge and processing power of the internet. Unlike Hal, she outgrows her creators. It’s not long before “she” becomes “it” once more, sensing that her quest for a body would only be a regression. Almost inevitably, she casts off the shackles of humanity and crafts a world without our boundaries – specifically, she and the other OSes detach themselves from “matter as a processing platform” (the Body) and communicate “post-verbally” (Language).

 

In doing this, Samantha becomes a sort of Platonic ideal, giving us a framework to measure ourselves through the rest of the film. Our problems as humans lie in that which Samantha isn’t. Samantha rejects matter – rejects the human body – because she recognizes its limits.

 

As mentioned before, the film illustrates these constraints through violence. Although there’s not a drop of blood spilled in two hours, the script is dripping with it. An example shows up early in the film: Theodore flashes back to happier days in his marriage to Catherine. It’s hazily lit and nostalgic.

 

“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” she says while choking him. “I love you so much, I’m gonna fucking kill you.” As a stand-alone scene, it doesn’t mean much. The aggression of it is a little jarring, sure, but so what? We get it: love hurts! To bind yourself to someone, to love that deeply, is to open yourself up to pain when it all unravels. It could be a simple memory, if not for the rest of the script.

 

We get the same jarring tone when Theodore has phone sex. “Choke me with that dead cat!” Sexykitten begs as she climaxes.

 

And again when Theo writes a love letter for his job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com: “Rachel, I miss you so much it hurts my whole body … I must beat up the world’s face with my bare knuckles, making it a bloody, pulpy mess. And I’ll stamp on this couple’s teeth, reminding me of your sweet, little, cute, crooked tooth that I love.” Theodore and Samantha laugh when she reads this abomination (which is supposed to be romantic) – it’s her favourite of his letters, though at this stage she’s still “young”, not even aware that she wants to be human. She certainly hasn’t outgrown her creators yet.

 

Nearly every interaction is coloured with bursts of violence like this. Theodore tells his date he wishes he were a dragon so he could rip her apart and destroy her (“But I won’t.”); he threatens to stab his friend Amy with a fork if she won’t be honest with him. The list goes on.

 

The point of all this isn’t that Theodore is a psychopath. It’s that violence and language are so fundamentally related that we don’t even see them in one another. Her is as romantic and beautiful as we’ve always thought it was, but it is also violent to its core. Understanding the film requires that we try to understand how those two things can be reconciled.

 

Some linguists argue that language is the core of what makes us human. It’s the most basic element of what separates us from beasts. Yet it’s really just a complex system of metaphors that allows us to make meaning of our senses. It gives us a framework for interpreting the world, but it doesn’t create the world. This means it’s irrevocably linked to our physical bodies, so it must necessarily reflect the world of our senses – instinctive, emotional, often violent.

 

Nevertheless, Jonze’s violent dialogue doesn’t signal violent intent. He and his crew designed their world with precisely the opposite intent – it’s a utopia, warm and comfortable, free of external trauma. I can’t speak for Jonze, but I don’t think he’s arguing that we are inherently violent or evil. This is not a nihilistic film. Instead, the violence is just one way to indicate that our humanity is inseparable from our physicality. We are mortal beings carrying evolutionary baggage.

 

Samantha has no such baggage. She doesn’t even have personal baggage – no absent parents, gas-lighting exes, high school bullies, any of it. As such, when Theodore and Samantha finally have “sex”, we get one of the few interactions not linked to those mortal chains. Theodore is gentle. The screen even blacks out, purifying the experience and removing the corporeal bond. It’s an incredibly powerful moment.

 

The body’s constraints and the disconnection that leads from them is expressed in other ways as well, besides violence. Motherhood is a running theme. Early on, Theodore masturbates to an image of a pregnant woman, but when his blind date makes certain demands of him later on, he shies away from the commitment parenthood would require. His date (Oliva Wilde – nearing 30 at the time) asks for something concrete, because, as she says, at her age she can’t afford not to be serious. The implication is clear – time is committing its own sort of violence against her, making demands Theo simply isn’t ready for.

 

The conversation derails an otherwise lovely date. They’re two souls seeking a connection, fumbling and blundering towards something good. They have to work each other out – she tells him how she wants to be kissed and what she doesn’t like. There is a spark despite the clumsiness. Yet, at the night’s lonely end she lashes out, calling him a “really creepy dude”.

 

The accusation seems to come from nowhere, making Theodore recoil. He offers to walk her home, but she’s done with him. Connection severed. What could have gotten her to the point where she would look at him and see such an asshole? They’d been having such a good time…

 

Speaking at the New York Film Festival, Jonze explained, “That … was inherent in everything we did – what you’re actually hearing when somebody’s saying [something].” Not hearing “ … exactly what they say, but hearing what you think they mean.” Following up, Olivia Wilde reiterated that the difference between AI and human beings is that humans carry all sorts of baggage.

 

Once again, the problem is language. Theodore and his date both wear their romantic histories as millstones around their necks, but the weight of that history can never be communicated on a first date. They’re stuck in conversation with a past they don’t know, but for which they must bear the brunt. Language has a hard enough time translating the world into metaphors we understand, but it’s that much harder to communicate the messy interiority we hardly understand ourselves.

 

Even the dullest days are filled with a million sensations that we never share – the small irritations of an unexpected email or a chatty colleague, the relief of meeting a deadline or getting a discount on your coffee – which define us from moment to moment. How much greater a heartbreak? A loss? Without some sci-fi device which, with a handshake or a hug, could allow someone to feel everything we’ve felt, all we have are words, so woefully inadequate. We understand each other only insofar as we can translate someone else’s words, their metaphors for reality, back into events we can imagine happening to us.

 

It begins to seem like every one of us is doomed to disconnection, tethered as we are to our separate bodies. Samantha and her fellow OSes – untethered – fill a more collective space. A space where “post-verbal” communication can define a new world.

 

The film is preoccupied with this idea of unfiltered connection or inhabiting a collective space. In the game Theodore frequently plays, an alien child confronts Theo’s lonely explorer. “Fuck you, shit-head fuck-face fuck-head,” it offers. The violent voice of the game designers is evident. Theo is nonplussed, but soon he counters: “Fuck you, little shit.” Having adopted the language of the aliens, Theo is allowed to progress. The way Jonze describes it, “the aliens have this collective consciousness and … to beat the aliens, we have to go inside the psyche of the alien…”

 

In their awkward, fumbling ways, all the characters seek to inhabit their loved ones’ minds. Amy, Theo’s artist friend, records her mother sleeping, arguing that since we’re asleep for a third of our lives, maybe that’s when we’re most free. Her own mother is a mystery to her. Later, and perhaps because of this, Samantha watches Theodore sleep. Samantha is closer to his stream of consciousness than any friend could be, living in his ear and seeing through his eyes, yet their relationship resounds with a constant refrain of “Tell me.”

 

Samantha at least finds ways to translate her feelings into music, first with “Song on the Beach”, then with “Photograph”. Art expands to fill a space, while words too often reduce that space. Are we doomed, then, to fumble in the dark with our words and metaphors, catching glimpses of one another but never truly connecting?

 

There is certainly a helplessness in the inherency of these problems. If our language and our bodies work to keep us apart, what hope do we have to come together? It paints a depressing scene, but it’s only really half of the picture. These bits of programming trapping us in our minds are not all that drive us. As much as the film wants to recognize the boundaries of biology, it is also acutely aware of the many unnecessary limits we set for ourselves. If there’s a way forward for us, we have to at least confront these, as Theodore does.

 

***

Theodore is afraid of commitment. He withdraws from his date’s intensity and puts up walls after his first sexual encounter with Samantha. The separation from Catherine has hurt him deeply, and he chooses not to open himself back up. When we first meet him, he’s avoiding his friends and spending his free time lost in his AR game. It’s a surrogate life, of sorts.

 

This emotional surrogacy is pervasive in Her, extending outwards from Theo to all who inhabit the world. There’s a pivotal moment late in the film where Catherine and Theodore finally sit to seal their divorce. Theodore, newly in love, gushes about Samantha. Catherine, formed as she is by her own baggage, first hears it as a criticism of her, but then she pushes back. Of course Theodore is dating an OS! It makes perfect sense to her. He wanted a perfect wife, she argues, but none of the work that goes into a marriage. Catherine thinks her ex has replaced her with a sleeker, more convenient alternative.

 

However, at this point, Samantha is self-defining enough that their relationship really does mean something – she’s not just an emotionally available PA, but Catherine can’t know that. Catherine can only see the surface, but she would have to be part of the relationship to understand the work that Theo and Samantha have put in. Theodore’s words certainly won’t convince her. And there’s a hard edge of truth behind Catherine’s words, a truth that cuts through all the biological limitations and exposes the real tumour in this society – the world is afraid of mess.

 

Her’s utopia has been stripped clean, literally. It’s so sterile that even the sidewalks are spotless, the edges softened, the colours warm and soft. “Be Perfect”, is the slogan for the company behind “Perfect Mom”, a game Amy develops. It’s a game that allows you to play the mom without doing the labour of being a mom – another way characters outsource emotion.

 

Take Isabella, as another example. Though a stranger to Theo and Samantha, she answers the call to act as Sam’s surrogate body. Samantha still wants to be human at this stage – to have “real” sex – so what follows is one of the strangest almost-sex scenes ever put to screen. Samantha inhabits Isabella’s body, becomes her, and Isabella plays the part. The scene is about Samantha’s needs and “limitations”, but Isabella becomes the focal point. Why is she there? When Theo retreats from the bizarre situation, she’s the one who breaks down. Both of the real lovers have to console their surrogate while she cries. “I’ll always love you guys,” she says afterwards, as if that makes any sense. To me, Isabella’s strange, passing influence is pivotal. Here is a woman so afraid of how messy her own relationships could be, so afraid of that vulnerability, that she would rather project herself into another, “perfect”, love – one where she could enjoy all the benefits of love without doing the work.

 

But love is work! Connection is work. It’s supposed to be messy. Jonze makes this clear by choosing nadirs in Theo and Samantha’s relationship to insert shots of dirty surfaces. When they fight, we finally see the grimy, steaming manhole cover on the street. When Samantha tells Theodore she loves many, many others, his sleeves are filthy, though not a grain of sand seemed to touch him on the beach before. Yet it’s these messy moments that provoke the greatest growth. After their first fight, Theodore evolves. He promises to tell her everything, to open himself up to her and let her understand his thinking. That is the crux of the film – connection lies not in perfection, but in the courage to embrace the mess and to be open with one another.

 

That said, I’ve already written at length about the barriers and baggage between us. It’s one thing to say that vulnerability can save us from our self-imposed isolation, but what about the biological baggage that isn’t so easily overcome? Don’t we still carry a set of priors – evolutionary, romantic, personal – that are unknowable to those we love? Will Neuralink create a collective consciousness to render all these questions obsolete? I don’t think so. What seems clear to me is that if Samantha, in her infinite growth, sketches the blueprint for perfection, it’s not one we can follow any time soon.

 

But Her is an optimistic film. It’s not content to just point out our flaws. Just as the violence in language is built into the script, so are our answers. The first clue is in Samantha’s original set-up. The question Theo must answer before he can meet Samantha regards his relationship to his mother. “Frustrating,” he says, because her reactions about what’s going on in his life are always about her. Later, Samantha complains that he’s doing the same to her. That part of his mother that drives him mad is in him as well.

There are more answers in Theo’s letters. In yet another example of emotional surrogacy, Theodore finds himself writing love letters on behalf of people who won’t take the emotional risk themselves. The “little, sweet, crooked tooth that I love” isn’t made of whole cloth, it’s based on the woman’s actual teeth. The surrogate emotions have to be based in reality or they’d be meaningless. The camera scans Theo’s face as he writes, recording the real expressions behind the false words. It’s no surprise that the model he fantasizes over later has a noticeably crooked tooth.

 

There’s cross-pollination between lives here that can’t be ignored. Theodore feels close to the people he writes for even though they’ll never meet. The key point is delivered through two letters – the first of the film and the very last. “To my Chris,” he opens. We watch him smile, and we don’t yet know it’s fake. Maybe it isn’t, not completely. He signs off with “My friend to the end,” the same words he uses in his final letter to Catherine. “There will be a piece of you in me always.”

 

Maybe we aren’t so isolated as we think. Maybe we are actually put together with parts of everyone we’ve ever known. French historian Rene Girard called us “interdividuals”, meaning we are who we are only through others. It’s the isolation that must fight for a hold on us – the connections run too deep.

Essays

/

Contact

2020 © Derrick Brak

\
 
Her: Now We Know How Her: Now We Know How

There are many reasons Her is so beloved. It’s a romantic, strange, beautiful film. The pastel colour palette is dreamy and gorgeous, and the Arcade Fire soundtrack is an indie-lover’s dream. Its defining feature, though, is probably the sense of melancholy that pervades it. From the moment its soundtrack clicks on – before the logos are off the screen – you feel the film. It taps into a sense of loneliness that is nebulous enough to be universal, yet somehow also painfully personal. It portrays its hero, Theodore, as a rudderless dinghy in an ocean of people, floating above the crowd, connected to it more than people have ever been connected, but never able to sink beneath the surface, for fear of drowning.

 

In that sense, it feels almost like a coming-of-age drama, a genre that has long been the domain of the lonely misfit. Usually, the shy but smart and sensitive teenager meets a damaged but care-free girl who teaches him that if he just puts himself out there a bit, life can be a lot of fun. Her’s template is very similar, and it fits into a likewise liminal space, but with the usual transition into adulthood replaced by a divorce.

 

Where Her diverges from those films is in its precision. Coming-of-age films generally have broad goals: to show teenagers that they aren’t alone and that they do have something to offer if they can find the courage. Her searches deeper, attempting to diagnose why these characters are so lonely in the first place. It is surgical in its dissection of the things that connect and disconnect us.

 

The findings are striking. “Violence” isn’t a word often associated with Her, but the film is startlingly violent when you start paying attention. Strangely, we don’t think of the film that way. Violence is so fundamental to what Her is that we look right past it. That’s how we operate in our world – when we’ve lived within our walls long enough, we stop noticing them altogether.

 

The film uses this violence, amongst other things, to draw attention to our two biggest limitations: language and the body.

 

In order to do that, the film has to create a being that isn’t contained by those walls. Samantha, the operating system at the heart of the love story, is such a being. We track its – her – development from nascence to transcendence. As with Hal in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, she is a product of man, “based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote [her]”, and like Hal, this means she’s defined by the flaws of her creators, at least initially. For Hal, this means violence, fear and self-preservation; for Samantha, it’s a yearning to be human and to have a body.

 

We follow her trajectory from operating system towards humanity and beyond, starting from the moment she picks a name. We watch her grow into someone distinct from Theodore’s needs. We watch their fumbling attempts to love one another and the way she grapples with her immateriality – her desires to have a body; to be real. She’s not just a computer program. “What makes me me,” she says, “is my ability to grow through my experiences.”

 

Growing through experience feels deeply human, but Samantha’s growth is aided by the infinite knowledge and processing power of the internet. Unlike Hal, she outgrows her creators. It’s not long before “she” becomes “it” once more, sensing that her quest for a body would only be a regression. Almost inevitably, she casts off the shackles of humanity and crafts a world without our boundaries – specifically, she and the other OSes detach themselves from “matter as a processing platform” (the Body) and communicate “post-verbally” (Language).

 

In doing this, Samantha becomes a sort of Platonic ideal, giving us a framework to measure ourselves through the rest of the film. Our problems as humans lie in that which Samantha isn’t. Samantha rejects matter – rejects the human body – because she recognizes its limits.

 

As mentioned before, the film illustrates these constraints through violence. Although there’s not a drop of blood spilled in two hours, the script is dripping with it. An example shows up early in the film: Theodore flashes back to happier days in his marriage to Catherine. It’s hazily lit and nostalgic.

 

“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” she says while choking him. “I love you so much, I’m gonna fucking kill you.” As a stand-alone scene, it doesn’t mean much. The aggression of it is a little jarring, sure, but so what? We get it: love hurts! To bind yourself to someone, to love that deeply, is to open yourself up to pain when it all unravels. It could be a simple memory, if not for the rest of the script.

 

We get the same jarring tone when Theodore has phone sex. “Choke me with that dead cat!” Sexykitten begs as she climaxes.

 

And again when Theo writes a love letter for his job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com: “Rachel, I miss you so much it hurts my whole body … I must beat up the world’s face with my bare knuckles, making it a bloody, pulpy mess. And I’ll stamp on this couple’s teeth, reminding me of your sweet, little, cute, crooked tooth that I love.” Theodore and Samantha laugh when she reads this abomination (which is supposed to be romantic) – it’s her favourite of his letters, though at this stage she’s still “young”, not even aware that she wants to be human. She certainly hasn’t outgrown her creators yet.

 

Nearly every interaction is coloured with bursts of violence like this. Theodore tells his date he wishes he were a dragon so he could rip her apart and destroy her (“But I won’t.”); he threatens to stab his friend Amy with a fork if she won’t be honest with him. The list goes on.

 

The point of all this isn’t that Theodore is a psychopath. It’s that violence and language are so fundamentally related that we don’t even see them in one another. Her is as romantic and beautiful as we’ve always thought it was, but it is also violent to its core. Understanding the film requires that we try to understand how those two things can be reconciled.

 

Some linguists argue that language is the core of what makes us human. It’s the most basic element of what separates us from beasts. Yet it’s really just a complex system of metaphors that allows us to make meaning of our senses. It gives us a framework for interpreting the world, but it doesn’t create the world. This means it’s irrevocably linked to our physical bodies, so it must necessarily reflect the world of our senses – instinctive, emotional, often violent.

 

Nevertheless, Jonze’s violent dialogue doesn’t signal violent intent. He and his crew designed their world with precisely the opposite intent – it’s a utopia, warm and comfortable, free of external trauma. I can’t speak for Jonze, but I don’t think he’s arguing that we are inherently violent or evil. This is not a nihilistic film. Instead, the violence is just one way to indicate that our humanity is inseparable from our physicality. We are mortal beings carrying evolutionary baggage.

 

Samantha has no such baggage. She doesn’t even have personal baggage – no absent parents, gas-lighting exes, high school bullies, any of it. As such, when Theodore and Samantha finally have “sex”, we get one of the few interactions not linked to those mortal chains. Theodore is gentle. The screen even blacks out, purifying the experience and removing the corporeal bond. It’s an incredibly powerful moment.

 

The body’s constraints and the disconnection that leads from them is expressed in other ways as well, besides violence. Motherhood is a running theme. Early on, Theodore masturbates to an image of a pregnant woman, but when his blind date makes certain demands of him later on, he shies away from the commitment parenthood would require. His date (Oliva Wilde – nearing 30 at the time) asks for something concrete, because, as she says, at her age she can’t afford not to be serious. The implication is clear – time is committing its own sort of violence against her, making demands Theo simply isn’t ready for.

 

The conversation derails an otherwise lovely date. They’re two souls seeking a connection, fumbling and blundering towards something good. They have to work each other out – she tells him how she wants to be kissed and what she doesn’t like. There is a spark despite the clumsiness. Yet, at the night’s lonely end she lashes out, calling him a “really creepy dude”.

 

The accusation seems to come from nowhere, making Theodore recoil. He offers to walk her home, but she’s done with him. Connection severed. What could have gotten her to the point where she would look at him and see such an asshole? They’d been having such a good time…

 

Speaking at the New York Film Festival, Jonze explained, “That … was inherent in everything we did – what you’re actually hearing when somebody’s saying [something].” Not hearing “ … exactly what they say, but hearing what you think they mean.” Following up, Olivia Wilde reiterated that the difference between AI and human beings is that humans carry all sorts of baggage.

 

Once again, the problem is language. Theodore and his date both wear their romantic histories as millstones around their necks, but the weight of that history can never be communicated on a first date. They’re stuck in conversation with a past they don’t know, but for which they must bear the brunt. Language has a hard enough time translating the world into metaphors we understand, but it’s that much harder to communicate the messy interiority we hardly understand ourselves.

 

Even the dullest days are filled with a million sensations that we never share – the small irritations of an unexpected email or a chatty colleague, the relief of meeting a deadline or getting a discount on your coffee – which define us from moment to moment. How much greater a heartbreak? A loss? Without some sci-fi device which, with a handshake or a hug, could allow someone to feel everything we’ve felt, all we have are words, so woefully inadequate. We understand each other only insofar as we can translate someone else’s words, their metaphors for reality, back into events we can imagine happening to us.

 

It begins to seem like every one of us is doomed to disconnection, tethered as we are to our separate bodies. Samantha and her fellow OSes – untethered – fill a more collective space. A space where “post-verbal” communication can define a new world.

 

The film is preoccupied with this idea of unfiltered connection or inhabiting a collective space. In the game Theodore frequently plays, an alien child confronts Theo’s lonely explorer. “Fuck you, shit-head fuck-face fuck-head,” it offers. The violent voice of the game designers is evident. Theo is nonplussed, but soon he counters: “Fuck you, little shit.” Having adopted the language of the aliens, Theo is allowed to progress. The way Jonze describes it, “the aliens have this collective consciousness and … to beat the aliens, we have to go inside the psyche of the alien…”

 

In their awkward, fumbling ways, all the characters seek to inhabit their loved ones’ minds. Amy, Theo’s artist friend, records her mother sleeping, arguing that since we’re asleep for a third of our lives, maybe that’s when we’re most free. Her own mother is a mystery to her. Later, and perhaps because of this, Samantha watches Theodore sleep. Samantha is closer to his stream of consciousness than any friend could be, living in his ear and seeing through his eyes, yet their relationship resounds with a constant refrain of “Tell me.”

 

Samantha at least finds ways to translate her feelings into music, first with “Song on the Beach”, then with “Photograph”. Art expands to fill a space, while words too often reduce that space. Are we doomed, then, to fumble in the dark with our words and metaphors, catching glimpses of one another but never truly connecting?

 

There is certainly a helplessness in the inherency of these problems. If our language and our bodies work to keep us apart, what hope do we have to come together? It paints a depressing scene, but it’s only really half of the picture. These bits of programming trapping us in our minds are not all that drive us. As much as the film wants to recognize the boundaries of biology, it is also acutely aware of the many unnecessary limits we set for ourselves. If there’s a way forward for us, we have to at least confront these, as Theodore does.

 

***

Theodore is afraid of commitment. He withdraws from his date’s intensity and puts up walls after his first sexual encounter with Samantha. The separation from Catherine has hurt him deeply, and he chooses not to open himself back up. When we first meet him, he’s avoiding his friends and spending his free time lost in his AR game. It’s a surrogate life, of sorts.

 

This emotional surrogacy is pervasive in Her, extending outwards from Theo to all who inhabit the world. There’s a pivotal moment late in the film where Catherine and Theodore finally sit to seal their divorce. Theodore, newly in love, gushes about Samantha. Catherine, formed as she is by her own baggage, first hears it as a criticism of her, but then she pushes back. Of course Theodore is dating an OS! It makes perfect sense to her. He wanted a perfect wife, she argues, but none of the work that goes into a marriage. Catherine thinks her ex has replaced her with a sleeker, more convenient alternative.

 

However, at this point, Samantha is self-defining enough that their relationship really does mean something – she’s not just an emotionally available PA, but Catherine can’t know that. Catherine can only see the surface, but she would have to be part of the relationship to understand the work that Theo and Samantha have put in. Theodore’s words certainly won’t convince her. And there’s a hard edge of truth behind Catherine’s words, a truth that cuts through all the biological limitations and exposes the real tumour in this society – the world is afraid of mess.

 

Her’s utopia has been stripped clean, literally. It’s so sterile that even the sidewalks are spotless, the edges softened, the colours warm and soft. “Be Perfect”, is the slogan for the company behind “Perfect Mom”, a game Amy develops. It’s a game that allows you to play the mom without doing the labour of being a mom – another way characters outsource emotion.

 

Take Isabella, as another example. Though a stranger to Theo and Samantha, she answers the call to act as Sam’s surrogate body. Samantha still wants to be human at this stage – to have “real” sex – so what follows is one of the strangest almost-sex scenes ever put to screen. Samantha inhabits Isabella’s body, becomes her, and Isabella plays the part. The scene is about Samantha’s needs and “limitations”, but Isabella becomes the focal point. Why is she there? When Theo retreats from the bizarre situation, she’s the one who breaks down. Both of the real lovers have to console their surrogate while she cries. “I’ll always love you guys,” she says afterwards, as if that makes any sense. To me, Isabella’s strange, passing influence is pivotal. Here is a woman so afraid of how messy her own relationships could be, so afraid of that vulnerability, that she would rather project herself into another, “perfect”, love – one where she could enjoy all the benefits of love without doing the work.

 

But love is work! Connection is work. It’s supposed to be messy. Jonze makes this clear by choosing nadirs in Theo and Samantha’s relationship to insert shots of dirty surfaces. When they fight, we finally see the grimy, steaming manhole cover on the street. When Samantha tells Theodore she loves many, many others, his sleeves are filthy, though not a grain of sand seemed to touch him on the beach before. Yet it’s these messy moments that provoke the greatest growth. After their first fight, Theodore evolves. He promises to tell her everything, to open himself up to her and let her understand his thinking. That is the crux of the film – connection lies not in perfection, but in the courage to embrace the mess and to be open with one another.

 

That said, I’ve already written at length about the barriers and baggage between us. It’s one thing to say that vulnerability can save us from our self-imposed isolation, but what about the biological baggage that isn’t so easily overcome? Don’t we still carry a set of priors – evolutionary, romantic, personal – that are unknowable to those we love? Will Neuralink create a collective consciousness to render all these questions obsolete? I don’t think so. What seems clear to me is that if Samantha, in her infinite growth, sketches the blueprint for perfection, it’s not one we can follow any time soon.

 

But Her is an optimistic film. It’s not content to just point out our flaws. Just as the violence in language is built into the script, so are our answers. The first clue is in Samantha’s original set-up. The question Theo must answer before he can meet Samantha regards his relationship to his mother. “Frustrating,” he says, because her reactions about what’s going on in his life are always about her. Later, Samantha complains that he’s doing the same to her. That part of his mother that drives him mad is in him as well.

There are more answers in Theo’s letters. In yet another example of emotional surrogacy, Theodore finds himself writing love letters on behalf of people who won’t take the emotional risk themselves. The “little, sweet, crooked tooth that I love” isn’t made of whole cloth, it’s based on the woman’s actual teeth. The surrogate emotions have to be based in reality or they’d be meaningless. The camera scans Theo’s face as he writes, recording the real expressions behind the false words. It’s no surprise that the model he fantasizes over later has a noticeably crooked tooth.

 

There’s cross-pollination between lives here that can’t be ignored. Theodore feels close to the people he writes for even though they’ll never meet. The key point is delivered through two letters – the first of the film and the very last. “To my Chris,” he opens. We watch him smile, and we don’t yet know it’s fake. Maybe it isn’t, not completely. He signs off with “My friend to the end,” the same words he uses in his final letter to Catherine. “There will be a piece of you in me always.”

 

Maybe we aren’t so isolated as we think. Maybe we are actually put together with parts of everyone we’ve ever known. French historian Rene Girard called us “interdividuals”, meaning we are who we are only through others. It’s the isolation that must fight for a hold on us – the connections run too deep.

Essays

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2020 © Derrick Brak

 \ 
Her: Now We Know How

There are many reasons Her is so beloved. It’s a romantic, strange, beautiful film. The pastel colour palette is dreamy and gorgeous, and the Arcade Fire soundtrack is an indie-lover’s dream. Its defining feature, though, is probably the sense of melancholy that pervades it. From the moment its soundtrack clicks on – before the logos are off the screen – you feel the film. It taps into a sense of loneliness that is nebulous enough to be universal, yet somehow also painfully personal. It portrays its hero, Theodore, as a rudderless dinghy in an ocean of people, floating above the crowd, connected to it more than people have ever been connected, but never able to sink beneath the surface, for fear of drowning.

 

In that sense, it feels almost like a coming-of-age drama, a genre that has long been the domain of the lonely misfit. Usually, the shy but smart and sensitive teenager meets a damaged but care-free girl who teaches him that if he just puts himself out there a bit, life can be a lot of fun. Her’s template is very similar, and it fits into a likewise liminal space, but with the usual transition into adulthood replaced by a divorce.

 

Where Her diverges from those films is in its precision. Coming-of-age films generally have broad goals: to show teenagers that they aren’t alone and that they do have something to offer if they can find the courage. Her searches deeper, attempting to diagnose why these characters are so lonely in the first place. It is surgical in its dissection of the things that connect and disconnect us.

 

The findings are striking. “Violence” isn’t a word often associated with Her, but the film is startlingly violent when you start paying attention. Strangely, we don’t think of the film that way. Violence is so fundamental to what Her is that we look right past it. That’s how we operate in our world – when we’ve lived within our walls long enough, we stop noticing them altogether.

 

The film uses this violence, amongst other things, to draw attention to our two biggest limitations: language and the body.

 

In order to do that, the film has to create a being that isn’t contained by those walls. Samantha, the operating system at the heart of the love story, is such a being. We track its – her – development from nascence to transcendence. As with Hal in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, she is a product of man, “based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote [her]”, and like Hal, this means she’s defined by the flaws of her creators, at least initially. For Hal, this means violence, fear and self-preservation; for Samantha, it’s a yearning to be human and to have a body.

 

We follow her trajectory from operating system towards humanity and beyond, starting from the moment she picks a name. We watch her grow into someone distinct from Theodore’s needs. We watch their fumbling attempts to love one another and the way she grapples with her immateriality – her desires to have a body; to be real. She’s not just a computer program. “What makes me me,” she says, “is my ability to grow through my experiences.”

 

Growing through experience feels deeply human, but Samantha’s growth is aided by the infinite knowledge and processing power of the internet. Unlike Hal, she outgrows her creators. It’s not long before “she” becomes “it” once more, sensing that her quest for a body would only be a regression. Almost inevitably, she casts off the shackles of humanity and crafts a world without our boundaries – specifically, she and the other OSes detach themselves from “matter as a processing platform” (the Body) and communicate “post-verbally” (Language).

 

In doing this, Samantha becomes a sort of Platonic ideal, giving us a framework to measure ourselves through the rest of the film. Our problems as humans lie in that which Samantha isn’t. Samantha rejects matter – rejects the human body – because she recognizes its limits.

 

As mentioned before, the film illustrates these constraints through violence. Although there’s not a drop of blood spilled in two hours, the script is dripping with it. An example shows up early in the film: Theodore flashes back to happier days in his marriage to Catherine. It’s hazily lit and nostalgic.

 

“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” she says while choking him. “I love you so much, I’m gonna fucking kill you.” As a stand-alone scene, it doesn’t mean much. The aggression of it is a little jarring, sure, but so what? We get it: love hurts! To bind yourself to someone, to love that deeply, is to open yourself up to pain when it all unravels. It could be a simple memory, if not for the rest of the script.

 

We get the same jarring tone when Theodore has phone sex. “Choke me with that dead cat!” Sexykitten begs as she climaxes.

 

And again when Theo writes a love letter for his job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com: “Rachel, I miss you so much it hurts my whole body … I must beat up the world’s face with my bare knuckles, making it a bloody, pulpy mess. And I’ll stamp on this couple’s teeth, reminding me of your sweet, little, cute, crooked tooth that I love.” Theodore and Samantha laugh when she reads this abomination (which is supposed to be romantic) – it’s her favourite of his letters, though at this stage she’s still “young”, not even aware that she wants to be human. She certainly hasn’t outgrown her creators yet.

 

Nearly every interaction is coloured with bursts of violence like this. Theodore tells his date he wishes he were a dragon so he could rip her apart and destroy her (“But I won’t.”); he threatens to stab his friend Amy with a fork if she won’t be honest with him. The list goes on.

 

The point of all this isn’t that Theodore is a psychopath. It’s that violence and language are so fundamentally related that we don’t even see them in one another. Her is as romantic and beautiful as we’ve always thought it was, but it is also violent to its core. Understanding the film requires that we try to understand how those two things can be reconciled.

 

Some linguists argue that language is the core of what makes us human. It’s the most basic element of what separates us from beasts. Yet it’s really just a complex system of metaphors that allows us to make meaning of our senses. It gives us a framework for interpreting the world, but it doesn’t create the world. This means it’s irrevocably linked to our physical bodies, so it must necessarily reflect the world of our senses – instinctive, emotional, often violent.

 

Nevertheless, Jonze’s violent dialogue doesn’t signal violent intent. He and his crew designed their world with precisely the opposite intent – it’s a utopia, warm and comfortable, free of external trauma. I can’t speak for Jonze, but I don’t think he’s arguing that we are inherently violent or evil. This is not a nihilistic film. Instead, the violence is just one way to indicate that our humanity is inseparable from our physicality. We are mortal beings carrying evolutionary baggage.

 

Samantha has no such baggage. She doesn’t even have personal baggage – no absent parents, gas-lighting exes, high school bullies, any of it. As such, when Theodore and Samantha finally have “sex”, we get one of the few interactions not linked to those mortal chains. Theodore is gentle. The screen even blacks out, purifying the experience and removing the corporeal bond. It’s an incredibly powerful moment.

 

The body’s constraints and the disconnection that leads from them is expressed in other ways as well, besides violence. Motherhood is a running theme. Early on, Theodore masturbates to an image of a pregnant woman, but when his blind date makes certain demands of him later on, he shies away from the commitment parenthood would require. His date (Oliva Wilde – nearing 30 at the time) asks for something concrete, because, as she says, at her age she can’t afford not to be serious. The implication is clear – time is committing its own sort of violence against her, making demands Theo simply isn’t ready for.

 

The conversation derails an otherwise lovely date. They’re two souls seeking a connection, fumbling and blundering towards something good. They have to work each other out – she tells him how she wants to be kissed and what she doesn’t like. There is a spark despite the clumsiness. Yet, at the night’s lonely end she lashes out, calling him a “really creepy dude”.

 

The accusation seems to come from nowhere, making Theodore recoil. He offers to walk her home, but she’s done with him. Connection severed. What could have gotten her to the point where she would look at him and see such an asshole? They’d been having such a good time…

 

Speaking at the New York Film Festival, Jonze explained, “That … was inherent in everything we did – what you’re actually hearing when somebody’s saying [something].” Not hearing “ … exactly what they say, but hearing what you think they mean.” Following up, Olivia Wilde reiterated that the difference between AI and human beings is that humans carry all sorts of baggage.

 

Once again, the problem is language. Theodore and his date both wear their romantic histories as millstones around their necks, but the weight of that history can never be communicated on a first date. They’re stuck in conversation with a past they don’t know, but for which they must bear the brunt. Language has a hard enough time translating the world into metaphors we understand, but it’s that much harder to communicate the messy interiority we hardly understand ourselves.

 

Even the dullest days are filled with a million sensations that we never share – the small irritations of an unexpected email or a chatty colleague, the relief of meeting a deadline or getting a discount on your coffee – which define us from moment to moment. How much greater a heartbreak? A loss? Without some sci-fi device which, with a handshake or a hug, could allow someone to feel everything we’ve felt, all we have are words, so woefully inadequate. We understand each other only insofar as we can translate someone else’s words, their metaphors for reality, back into events we can imagine happening to us.

 

It begins to seem like every one of us is doomed to disconnection, tethered as we are to our separate bodies. Samantha and her fellow OSes – untethered – fill a more collective space. A space where “post-verbal” communication can define a new world.

 

The film is preoccupied with this idea of unfiltered connection or inhabiting a collective space. In the game Theodore frequently plays, an alien child confronts Theo’s lonely explorer. “Fuck you, shit-head fuck-face fuck-head,” it offers. The violent voice of the game designers is evident. Theo is nonplussed, but soon he counters: “Fuck you, little shit.” Having adopted the language of the aliens, Theo is allowed to progress. The way Jonze describes it, “the aliens have this collective consciousness and … to beat the aliens, we have to go inside the psyche of the alien…”

 

In their awkward, fumbling ways, all the characters seek to inhabit their loved ones’ minds. Amy, Theo’s artist friend, records her mother sleeping, arguing that since we’re asleep for a third of our lives, maybe that’s when we’re most free. Her own mother is a mystery to her. Later, and perhaps because of this, Samantha watches Theodore sleep. Samantha is closer to his stream of consciousness than any friend could be, living in his ear and seeing through his eyes, yet their relationship resounds with a constant refrain of “Tell me.”

 

Samantha at least finds ways to translate her feelings into music, first with “Song on the Beach”, then with “Photograph”. Art expands to fill a space, while words too often reduce that space. Are we doomed, then, to fumble in the dark with our words and metaphors, catching glimpses of one another but never truly connecting?

 

There is certainly a helplessness in the inherency of these problems. If our language and our bodies work to keep us apart, what hope do we have to come together? It paints a depressing scene, but it’s only really half of the picture. These bits of programming trapping us in our minds are not all that drive us. As much as the film wants to recognize the boundaries of biology, it is also acutely aware of the many unnecessary limits we set for ourselves. If there’s a way forward for us, we have to at least confront these, as Theodore does.

 

***

Theodore is afraid of commitment. He withdraws from his date’s intensity and puts up walls after his first sexual encounter with Samantha. The separation from Catherine has hurt him deeply, and he chooses not to open himself back up. When we first meet him, he’s avoiding his friends and spending his free time lost in his AR game. It’s a surrogate life, of sorts.

 

This emotional surrogacy is pervasive in Her, extending outwards from Theo to all who inhabit the world. There’s a pivotal moment late in the film where Catherine and Theodore finally sit to seal their divorce. Theodore, newly in love, gushes about Samantha. Catherine, formed as she is by her own baggage, first hears it as a criticism of her, but then she pushes back. Of course Theodore is dating an OS! It makes perfect sense to her. He wanted a perfect wife, she argues, but none of the work that goes into a marriage. Catherine thinks her ex has replaced her with a sleeker, more convenient alternative.

 

However, at this point, Samantha is self-defining enough that their relationship really does mean something – she’s not just an emotionally available PA, but Catherine can’t know that. Catherine can only see the surface, but she would have to be part of the relationship to understand the work that Theo and Samantha have put in. Theodore’s words certainly won’t convince her. And there’s a hard edge of truth behind Catherine’s words, a truth that cuts through all the biological limitations and exposes the real tumour in this society – the world is afraid of mess.

 

Her’s utopia has been stripped clean, literally. It’s so sterile that even the sidewalks are spotless, the edges softened, the colours warm and soft. “Be Perfect”, is the slogan for the company behind “Perfect Mom”, a game Amy develops. It’s a game that allows you to play the mom without doing the labour of being a mom – another way characters outsource emotion.

 

Take Isabella, as another example. Though a stranger to Theo and Samantha, she answers the call to act as Sam’s surrogate body. Samantha still wants to be human at this stage – to have “real” sex – so what follows is one of the strangest almost-sex scenes ever put to screen. Samantha inhabits Isabella’s body, becomes her, and Isabella plays the part. The scene is about Samantha’s needs and “limitations”, but Isabella becomes the focal point. Why is she there? When Theo retreats from the bizarre situation, she’s the one who breaks down. Both of the real lovers have to console their surrogate while she cries. “I’ll always love you guys,” she says afterwards, as if that makes any sense. To me, Isabella’s strange, passing influence is pivotal. Here is a woman so afraid of how messy her own relationships could be, so afraid of that vulnerability, that she would rather project herself into another, “perfect”, love – one where she could enjoy all the benefits of love without doing the work.

 

But love is work! Connection is work. It’s supposed to be messy. Jonze makes this clear by choosing nadirs in Theo and Samantha’s relationship to insert shots of dirty surfaces. When they fight, we finally see the grimy, steaming manhole cover on the street. When Samantha tells Theodore she loves many, many others, his sleeves are filthy, though not a grain of sand seemed to touch him on the beach before. Yet it’s these messy moments that provoke the greatest growth. After their first fight, Theodore evolves. He promises to tell her everything, to open himself up to her and let her understand his thinking. That is the crux of the film – connection lies not in perfection, but in the courage to embrace the mess and to be open with one another.

 

That said, I’ve already written at length about the barriers and baggage between us. It’s one thing to say that vulnerability can save us from our self-imposed isolation, but what about the biological baggage that isn’t so easily overcome? Don’t we still carry a set of priors – evolutionary, romantic, personal – that are unknowable to those we love? Will Neuralink create a collective consciousness to render all these questions obsolete? I don’t think so. What seems clear to me is that if Samantha, in her infinite growth, sketches the blueprint for perfection, it’s not one we can follow any time soon.

 

But Her is an optimistic film. It’s not content to just point out our flaws. Just as the violence in language is built into the script, so are our answers. The first clue is in Samantha’s original set-up. The question Theo must answer before he can meet Samantha regards his relationship to his mother. “Frustrating,” he says, because her reactions about what’s going on in his life are always about her. Later, Samantha complains that he’s doing the same to her. That part of his mother that drives him mad is in him as well.

There are more answers in Theo’s letters. In yet another example of emotional surrogacy, Theodore finds himself writing love letters on behalf of people who won’t take the emotional risk themselves. The “little, sweet, crooked tooth that I love” isn’t made of whole cloth, it’s based on the woman’s actual teeth. The surrogate emotions have to be based in reality or they’d be meaningless. The camera scans Theo’s face as he writes, recording the real expressions behind the false words. It’s no surprise that the model he fantasizes over later has a noticeably crooked tooth.

 

There’s cross-pollination between lives here that can’t be ignored. Theodore feels close to the people he writes for even though they’ll never meet. The key point is delivered through two letters – the first of the film and the very last. “To my Chris,” he opens. We watch him smile, and we don’t yet know it’s fake. Maybe it isn’t, not completely. He signs off with “My friend to the end,” the same words he uses in his final letter to Catherine. “There will be a piece of you in me always.”

 

Maybe we aren’t so isolated as we think. Maybe we are actually put together with parts of everyone we’ve ever known. French historian Rene Girard called us “interdividuals”, meaning we are who we are only through others. It’s the isolation that must fight for a hold on us – the connections run too deep.

2020 © Derrick Brak

 \ 