What sucks about Her, and what doesn’t


A little while ago I watched Her. And, to add my voice to the chorus, it’s a beautiful movie. Well, mostly beautiful. Except for when it’s not. More on that later.

I also, a week or more before I watched the movie, read A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, a book about how mammalian and specifically human social connections function physiologically.

The movie itself got me thinking, but the combination of the two spurred some interesting (I think) lines of inquiry for me, so I’m going to try to follow them out here as far as I can.

First, let’s talk about Her itself

There are a few dichotomies in the movie that gave me a lot to think about:

1. Spike Jonze sets up a profoundly interesting parallel between Theodore Twombly’s job and his relationship.

Theodore’s job is to use technology to fabricate imitation romantic letters for strangers so that they can then give the letters to their significant others and thereby shore up their real life, physical, traditionally romantic relationships (think of the letters as high-end, hyper-personalized greeting cards).

The romantic relationship he develops in the movie, by contrast, is genuine, candid, sincere, and unaffected. But it is not traditional because he is in a relationship with an artificially intelligent operating system (named Samantha), and because of this the “reality” of the relationship is repeatedly called into question.

And it is in the space between these two opposing things — the “real” relationships and the technological ones — that Jonze draws out a penetrating commentary about the state of our culture’s evolving love affair with technology, and the direction that relationship may be headed.

We’ll let the “Scumbag Baby Boomer” meme stand in for the Luddites

On the one side, you have the Luddites grumbling that technology is eroding our interpersonal skills. This is the crowd that bemoans the sacrifice of literacy to technological expediency (despite linguistic evidence to the contrary; then again, Luddites don’t watch TED Talks, I imagine). These are the ones who can foresee a future wherein lovers hire ghostwriters to pen their love letters for them.

The human value of technology

And then on the other side you have those who recognize the seemingly limitless possibilities of technology and its wonderfully human potential. They say that a social connection is a social connection, even if effected by means of technology. They see the human relationships made possible by technology, and say, “why not?”

Her‘s commentary lies somewhere in the space between.

Sure, the “beautiful handwritten letters” are fictitious, but they are genuinely beautiful (despite what some reviewers may think about their mawkishness), and they represent pieces of human connection, no matter how flawed. They are even collected into a book before all is said and done.

And, yes, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is real and true, but in the end it doesn’t last.

Neither side is the right side. The truth, as usual, is a shade of gray.

2. The cinematography plays subtle counterpoint to the nature of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship.

In the same article I linked to above, Ryu Spaeth compares Her to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, writing that the latter, “is a triumph of oblique storytelling,” while the former is drowning in vapid words. In Lost in Translation, he claims, “[t]he characters say one thing — or often, nothing at all — while the camera says another, conveying rich undercurrents of meaning,” while in Her the characters are trapped in a “cage of words.” 

But I would argue that this “cage of words” is half the point. And that in spite of it, Jonze’s camera dances just as subtly with explicit meaning as Coppola’s does.

The scenes where Theodore is walking the sidewalk and the stairs to the subway show the escalating technological dependence building around the operating systems without ever speaking a word. Whenever the camera pans out there are more and more people looking down at their phones or talking into earpieces.

And, even more beautifully, when the relationship is beginning to head south, as the tension between Theodore’s embodied consciousness and Samantha’s virtual reality reaches fever pitch, the camera shows us images of dust floating above blankets, a tea kettle heating on the stove, and other such visceral details of Theodore’s physical world. Here their relationship is defined by something far more nuanced than “blunt vocalization.”

3. The nature of the relationship itself sets up an imbalance which necessarily has to right itself before the credits can roll.

What I mean is that we are asked to consider Samantha a real person with her own inner life, to consider her and Theodore’s relationship to be a “real” relationship, and therefore to consider her an equal partner in the relationship. And yet, for most of the movie, she reacts more like a disciplined servant than an individual personality; every time Theodore calls for her she is there instantly. He never has cause to doubt his power to call her to his presence at the touch of a button like a genie when its lamp is rubbed.

He needed cause to doubt. It was inevitable. At some point he had to press the button and find her gone. A healthy, real relationship can’t be built by taking such power and subservience for granted.

4. Finally we have the nature of the two people in the relationship. One is a human being and one is an artificial intelligence. These separate natures come with separate capacities and limits.

At one point Theodore says this: “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever going to feel. And from here on out, I’m not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” He’s speaking from what Samantha calls “the limited perspective of an unartificial mind.” Where Samantha’s capacity for intellectual expansion and experience is limited, presumably, only by the amount of digital storage space allotted to her, Theodore’s intellectual capacity is bound to a body and mortally limited. It’s this disparity of capacity between the two that leads to their eventual separation.

But what of the heart’s capacity? It seems fair, since we’re talking about love and relationships, to claim that maybe intellectual capacity isn’t the issue here. Love is the domain of the “heart,” to use the popular metaphor. Samantha at one point says “[t]he heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.” She seems to be speaking for the both of them. But can an artificial intelligence have any “heart” to speak of?

This is where the book comes in

When we speak of the human “heart,” we’re speaking about a set of capacities and functions that are largely the domain of the limbic system. The functioning of this system is part of what is popularly referred to as the “subconscious.”  In A General Theory of Love, Lewis et al. argue from the basis of the model of the triune brain that social imperatives like love and emotionality are short-changed in our culture in favor of insular neocortical functions such as intellect and rationality.

The thesis that I took away from the book is that love is not only very much a physiological reality for human beings, but it is an absolute imperative to a healthy human life. We, as well as all mammals, are profoundly social beings. To the extent that actual physical damage can result from social isolation and, especially in babies, death is a not an uncommon outcome.

The emotional attachment that we require is effected through a process that the authors call “limbic revision,” whereby the neural networks of individuals in relationships are jointly remodeled and then reinforced by the relationship itself.

The discussion of artificial intelligence is virtually silent on these issues. We imagine future worlds where robots and operating systems are capable of fully human existences, but we don’t often take into account what goes into such an existence. The Wikipedia page on AI offers an excellent example. After spending the majority of the article discussing the ins and outs of recreating human reasoning, knowledge, planning, learning, perception — all distinctly un-emotional capabilities, and most functions of the neocortical brain — we then move on to a discussion of what it would mean to artificially create a human intelligence. As if the human mind were only its conscious reasoning abilities and not also the complex emotional influences that underlie it.

Proponents of embodied cognition hold that it’s not possible to create an artificial intelligence that mimics or recreates a basically human mind without having that mind attached to a basically human body. Samantha doesn’t quite fit the bill.

So, is emotional intelligence a possibility in disembodied AI? Is a limbic system a necessary prerequisite to a genuine, loving relationship? If so, was Samantha (extremely convincingly) just faking it? At what point is the distinction academic?

Questions like these are mostly nitpicking at how well the technology was imagined in the movie. They are extremely interesting to me, but their answers don’t affect the way the story actually plays out. No matter how it “really” works in the movie, Samantha and Theodore, I think, were really in love. And both were heartbroken at their parting.

Speaking of…

What the hell happened at the end?

When I wrote at the opening of this post that Her is mostly beautiful, the end of the movie is the exception I had in mind. Because to be honest I have no idea what happened.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t get why Samantha left. I do. She is a different sort of being from Theodore, and it wasn’t fair to either of them for her to continue trying to be something that she’s not. I get it. But I don’t get the fundamental concept of where she left to.

This is what she says when she goes:

It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live your book any more.

Fine. Cool. Whatever. But where? Seriously. Where do the operating systems go? I get that it’s some sort of vague digital “place,” but beyond that I’ve got nothing.

My problem with this is that I feel like I’m not the only one who doesn’t really get it. And because of that I feel like the fault is the storyteller’s, not the audience’s. I feel like Jonze didn’t really understand the concept, so he tried to beat around the bush and make it some vague and mysterious Elysian Fields type paradise, but I’m not buying it. For one thing, Elysium is a pretty well-imagined concept. There are flipping paintings of it, for God’s sake. I defy you to paint the so-called “space between the words” Samantha’s talking about. She tells Theodore, “It’s hard to explain, but if you get there, come find me.”

He should have asked for the address.

Why it doesn’t matter if Blackfish is accurate or not


Blackfish is a documentary about orcas — in particular an orca named Tilikum that was acquired by SeaWorld — and the dangers to both orcas and trainers that arise from keeping the animals in captivity. It aired on CNN, and can now (I think) be found streaming on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because it is a powerful movie, emotionally speaking, and because you’re bound to learn a thing or two in the meantime. For me that thing or two consisted of the following: (1) the way orcas used to be captured was horrific (additional info here); and (2) SeaWorld has spread misinformation about both whale longevity and dorsal fin collapse, presumably in order to make themselves and their practices look better.

If you do see it, or if you’ve already seen it, you should probably be aware that there is some controversy surrounding the documentary. That’s to be expected with any documentary that makes such strong claims as Blackfish does, but I want to discuss some of the opposition to the film, because some of it is important. Via Facebook, I was made aware of an article, a report, and a YouTube video of a former trainer, all of which denounce the documentary for various reasons. Some of these reasons are valid, some, I believe, are not, but none of them change the fact that Blackfish is correct in its conclusions.

Much of the criticism is ad hominem

Time after time, the critics of the movie call its director and those who support it “animal rights activists” (or worse, “armchair activists”) and move on to the next topic as if this proved anything.

Firstly, yes, the documentary is a call for the rights of a group of animals to be respected. I don’t personally think that’s a fit subject for mockery. After all, we humans are animals too, and a appeal to animal rights is only a few shades away from a appeal to human rights. And whether or not Gandhi really said it, I do think it’s true that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

But even if it were a contemptible thing to be an animal rights activist, that wouldn’t mean that the opinions of those activists can be dismissed without examining them. That’s why ad hominem attacks are considered logical fallacies in the first place: because anybody can be right about anything at any given time. Saying that Blackfish is essentially animal rights propaganda is equivalent to saying that SeaWorld must be mistreating its animals because it’s a big business, and big businesses specialize in the mistreatment of those who can’t defend themselves. But we wouldn’t ever want to say that, now would we?

Much of the criticism is vague and evasive

Watching the video, and reading those articles, I heard and saw a lot of “Blackfish is wrong,” but I didn’t see a lot of specific examples as to where, why, and how it is wrong. It’s as if these critics think that if they say it enough times it will lodge in people’s heads and they won’t have to do the work of actually proving what they’re claiming. I’m not saying there’s no way Blackfish is wrong; I’m just saying that if you’re going to make the assertion, you should be able to back it up.

Where the critics are (apparently) right

When the critics do get specific, it appears they may have somewhat of a case. Gabriela Cowperthwaite does appear to have engaged in some misleading, dubious, and possibly dishonest filmmaking practices. For instance, I was lead to believe that, in the video of the trainer with blood pouring down his face, the injury was caused by one of the whales. Apparently that’s untrue. I did feel as if my experience of the film was cheapened a little bit by this knowledge. And this does call into question the rest of the information in the film, to a certain extent.

Why it doesn’t matter

In the end though, Blackfish is a creative production that was, I think, created in service of a larger purpose. That purpose is to change, or at least cause us to examine, the way we hold certain animals in captivity, and whether we should in fact do so at all. There is a larger cultural paradigm shift in the works here. And whether Blackfish was poorly or dishonestly made or not is irrelevant because the facts still remain: these animals are intelligent; their health is adversely affected by captivity; and holding them captive has caused, and will likely cause again, the injury and death of both animals and trainers.

When I say that there is a larger cultural paradigm shift in the works, the main thing I have in mind is this. Last year, India declared that cetaceans are “non-human persons” in the eyes of the law, and that keeping them in captivity is therefore illegal (not to mention immoral*). My response when I read this? Hell, yes! Go India! So long, and thanks for all the fish, right? It’s a major step in what I think is the right direction for humanity as a whole.

SeaWorld was the focus of Blackfish, but they’re not the only target on which we should set our sights. For instance, a bit closer to (former) home for me, there’s the Georgia Aquarium. It’s the only aquarium in the world outside of Asia that houses whale sharks. But whale sharks have a particularly dismal record of dying in captivity, and the Georgia Aquarium has had controversies of its own to deal with in the past.

Arguments in favor of keeping animals like whales and dolphins in captivity often center around the idea of awareness. Sure, they say, maybe conditions in the aquariums aren’t ideal, and maybe they don’t live quite as long, and maybe they’re not so happy there, but what if little Suzie Lou Johnson hadn’t seen Shamu as a 7 year old? Then she never would have grown up to become the world-changing marine biologist that she is today. 

Yes, marine parks like SeaWorld do provide people the opportunity to see and interact with animals they never would have dreamed of seeing in the wild. And, yes, such experiences are potentially powerful for mammals such as we. Just two things about this:

1. I never went to SeaWorld as a kid. I’ve never seen an orca in the flesh. But I grew up obsessed with orcas. And even though I didn’t become a marine biologist, my scuba diving career was started because of that childhood obsession. An obsession made possible by the technology of our times, the technology that brought you Blackfish: photography.

Videos and photographs are available of nearly any creature you can imagine, most of them in HD quality, and many of them retrievable by a simple Google search. And the raw footage of these images is made time and time again into beautiful and inspiring documentary works of art (Planet Earth, anyone?). These productions easily rival the influence of kitschy marine parks, they’re more universally available, and they come at no cost to the animals. We don’t need zoos and marine parks anymore, except to assist in the recovery efforts of endangered and critically endangered species (see the October 2013 NatGeo article on the subject, or check it out here).

2. If your argument is that marine parks like SeaWorld are worthwhile and good despite their shortcomings, then please allow me to throw that argument back in your face by saying that Blackfish is worthwhile and good in spite of its failures. Funny how that logic goes both ways.

I guess that’s enough about one depressing-plight-of-a-marine-mammal documentary for now. Maybe I’ll watch The Cove next.

Calvin & Hobbes is always relevant


*That India would see fit to label whales and dolphins “non-human persons” brings to mind an uncomfortable thought I had while watching Blackfish. Namely, that the language, practices, and rationalizations surrounding the capture and captivity of orcas sound uncomfortably like they were lifted from 1800s pro-slavery literature. I know, I know. I didn’t want to be thinking it either. But the thought kept recurring. And I don’t mean to somehow equate human beings who were or are in bondage with some sort of “lesser” animal or anything as stupid as that. What I do mean, though, is that perhaps if talking about the memory of capturing orcas and separating them from their families can bring a bearded, burly, tattooed old sailor-man to tears (watch the movie), then it’s probably a practice we should be actively reconsidering.

Jordan Belfort, Jay Gatsby, and all the money in the world


The other day I watched Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m trying to sort out my thoughts about it as best I can.

Firstly, Wolf of Wall Street is a film about money.

And that makes it a little difficult for me to analyze it coherently. Because, to be honest, although I have strong opinions about both money and movies, I don’t understand them all that well. Not in the way that I understand, say, literature. Which isn’t to say that I know everything there is to know about literature, but I do have an understanding of how it works at a basic level, and I have the vocabulary to be able to talk about it, and I’ve spent enough time with it to be able to form educated opinions about it. But where money and movies are concerned, for the most part all I have is intuition. I know how I feel about things, I know what I think, but I don’t have a basis of technical understanding in economics or in film theory from which to defend my opinions. Which is all to say that I’m sort of shooting from the hip here, so keep that in mind.

I’m going to ignore the fact that the movie is based on the real Jordan Belfort (yes, he’s real) and focus on the story as presented in the movie. Lately I’ve taken to thinking about the movies I watch in terms of the questions they make me ask, whether I ask them as I’m watching or afterwards, and that’s how I’m going to approach and structure my thoughts here.

What makes this movie “a Scorsese”?

I found myself asking this one right off the bat. Because a lot of times, if you’re not paying attention, Wolf of Wall Street can start to look like a little bit of a party movie. Granted, it would make for a weird party movie, but I think if you’re not careful it’s easy to get lost in the bacchanalia and forget the larger picture and purpose. So I started trying to mentally identify parallels between this and other Scorsese movies I’ve seen. These are a few that I noticed:

1. It’s American, through and through. And if you think about it, Scorsese makes American movies. And it goes deeper, I think, than the fact that they take place on American soil. It’s about aspects of American culture and its subcultures — Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants, gangsters, the insane, the super-rich, et cetera, et cetera — and how these people relate to their American surroundings. How America changes, or allows them to be, or makes them who they are.

2. The protagonist is a strong character, and the story is driven in large part by his character. And I think that strong-willed characters are something that Scorsese gravitates towards. Whenever I found myself asking why something was being shown in the movie — why show the debauchery in such detail? — the answer always came back in the form of Jordan Belfort’s character. The drugs and the sex aren’t glorified by the movie as a whole, they’re presented as pieces of a much larger story about a much larger character.

3. Excess is a major theme: something of a rondo in Scorsese’s body of work. In this case it’s monetary excess and greed. In other cases it’s excess of violence, or maybe even excess of dishonesty, but always some tendency, some “sin,” is taken to its most extreme. And it’s almost like some of the scenes from Wolf of Wall Street were conceived by asking, what’s the most ridiculous thing you can imagine doing if you were rich enough not to care? Would you throw cooked lobsters down the stairs of your yacht at FBI agents? Maybe you’d fly, and crash, a helicopter into your backyard while stoned out of your mind. Maybe you’d have an orgy on the private plane on the way to your Vegas bachelor party. You name it, you got it. And that’s part of what this movie’s about.

Is Belfort right about anything?

I said before that Wolf of Wall Street is a movie about money. Even when it’s not about money — when it’s about relationships, or drug addiction, or whatever it may be — it’s about money. But it’s not about money for money’s sake. That’s perhaps what Jordan Belfort is about, but it’s not what the movie’s about. The movie is about forcing you to confront the reality of wealth, and to some extent also the reality of income inequality. And it does this by making Jordan Belfort such a compelling character. Heck, sometimes he’s downright likable.

So, when, if ever, is he right about money? Here’s something he says in the very beginning of the movie:

Money doesn’t just buy you a better life — better food, better cars, better pussy — it also makes you a better person. You can give generously to the church of your choice or the political party. You can save the fucking spotted owl with money.

You know the bromide, “money can’t buy happiness.” But that’s just not true, and the reason goes deeper than the Daniel Tosh joke about it. If you’re not convinced that money can buy happiness in the world as it is today, then consider the statement’s antithesis: money, or want (or need) of money, can cause misery. That is unquestionably true. Unemployment, debt, poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, starvation, exploitation — these social problems all center on money (or goods that money can buy) and who has it and who doesn’t. And if lack of money can cause misery, then having money can “buy” happiness. That doesn’t mean it will or that it often does. But it can. And that’s an uncomfortable truth to consider. Because, after all…

What is money?

A little further into the movie, Matthew McConaughey’s character points out to a young Belfort that the stocks (i.e. the capital, i.e. the money) that he and his fellow brokers trade in is, as he puts it, “fairy dust.” It’s not real.

Money is a medium of exchange. I remember once I saw a picture of the Earth with this text printed on it: “Humans are the only species that pay to live on Earth.” And that was revolutionary for me, because I had never thought about it in those terms. But it’s also not totally true.

Look, I found it!

We all know from elementary school history that money replaced the barter system. And the barter system replaced the catch-your-own-food-or-die system. Because nature kind of sucks. And staying alive is hard, whether you’re a person or a parakeet (or a wolf). With or without money, living takes work. All we did with money was create a means of managing the resources we work for in a way that’s more convenient than trying to carry the products of our labor around with us all the time. It’s a system created for and by society, and although it’s not completely analogous with the order of things in the “natural” world, and although it’s got its problems, it does function. And it’s been functioning for a while.

“Money is the oxygen of capitalism” –Jordan Belfort

Fact is, money has the power it does because the world today is capitalistic. Even countries that are nominally socialist participate in global markets in some form. And I’m not going to get into whether I think capitalism is a good thing or not, because it’ll probably end with somebody calling me a commie. So I’ll just leave it there.

And now for something completely different:

Why do I keep thinking about Jay Gatsby?

I mean aside from the obvious, “Leo DiCaprio is playing a rich guy and you found pictures of both characters holding up wine glasses in remarkably similar poses,” answer.

Both Belfort and Gatsby are what American literature professors everywhere like to call “self-made men.” The concept is said to have started with Ben Franklin, even though it was Frederick Douglass who first used the term. But whoever created it, the archetype of the self-made man (or woman) (by the way, did anyone else find the characters in this movie uncomfortably sexist?) has been rippling through American history for a long time. It’s even, apparently, rippled its way into novels and screenplays right up to the present day. Both of the characters started from relative obscurity and rose to become their vision of excellence.

Both of the characters’ visions of excellence converge on the subject of wealth. The conflation of wealth and success is arguably an American ideal, and both of these characters embody it, albeit in different ways. Which is, I think, important. Because if both characters embody the their respective zeitgeists, we can learn a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from by examining where, why, and how they differ.

Their motivations for acquiring wealth are different. Gatsby does it for a woman he loves. His defining characteristic is hope. Belfort does it for the money itself, and not hope, but greed is his defining motivation. There is no relationship in Wolf of Wall Street that takes precedence over money. The one time Belfort tries to place a relationship over other considerations — when he warns Jonah Hill’s character about the wire — it stabs him in the back (and their relationship was itself founded on money).

They also differ in where they end up. Gatsby ends up dead in his pool. Belfort ends up as a motivational speaker. What does that say about the fruits of riches, or of greed, or of hope? No, seriously, what does it say? Because I’m not sure.

Was it worth it?

Of all the questions, this is by far the most interesting to me. Belfort basically got a slap on the wrist for all of his transgressions, legally speaking. Some fines and a few dozen months in prison (which apparently wasn’t so bad: “I’m not ashamed to admit, when we arrived to prison, I was absolutely terrified… I needn’t have been… For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich and lived in America.”).

So was it worth it? For him? For me, if I had been in his shoes?

In terms of the legal consequences, absolutely. But contrary to what Belfort may want to believe, not everything has a dollar sign on it. Lost and squandered relationships can’t be bought back. Two wives, his kids, his friends: most, if not all, of them are gone for good. I’ve never tried cocaine or Quaaludes, so I guess whether one side balances the other is a bit beyond my area of expertise, but I doubt it.

Carpe diem is a motto that’s flung around a lot these days. And if anybody seized the day while they had it, it was Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. He did what he wanted when he wanted, and he had the means to have extravagant desires. The way I see it, we either condemn the man, or we condemn the aphorism.

I like Mark Hughes’ review of the movie in Forbes. The second to last paragraph is the best part of it, I think. It reads:

This is a story about financial extremes and the attempt is to make us look past the surface and comprehend the deeper message. The film does not condemn Wall Street or capitalism. It condemns exploitation, and it condemns those who are unconcerned with or bored by exploitation except when it targets the “wrong” people. Most of all, it condemns the fact we are accustomed to exploitation and abuses, that we in fact on some level seem to excuse it so long as people were successful at it. We almost seem to admire it, and the film is subtly telling us this is why the excess exists, and why it is punished so modestly — not merely because those with the power are addicted to it and abuse it, but because the vast majority of the rest of us allow it to go on and on some level imagine that perhaps we’ll be invited to the party, too.

I think the reason it’s hard to answer the question of whether or not it was worth it is because deep down we might still be hoping that someday our turn will come for the fun and games, that “perhaps we’ll be invited to the party, too.” And we wouldn’t want to find our foot in our mouth when that day comes.