Some Ramblings - Her (2013) by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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Oscar Bait
Fall...trees start turning their colored coats inside out and eventually shed their old wear and gear clearing out their warehouses in what becomes their final blowout season... Coincidentally, it is also time when movie studios bring their artsy features out of the closet, ones that they have held out until the hoarse-y summer's din died down. So snuggle up in the fall jackets and settle down for the Oscar fare where the sensitive battle it out with the subtle, where strong stories stake their ground out in the fertile land of varied imaginations....

An ant walks into a psychiatrist’s office takes the couch and starts pouring out its angst in its scheduled therapy session to its notes takes shrink, recounting how its life is riddled with anxiety and how being the middle child in a family of few million doesn’t divert any attention its way and how it all makes it feel so insignificant. There is an instant connection to the sequence with the audience whose reaction ranges from head nods in recognition down to hearty laughs at the ant’s plight. Step back a little and try understanding why situations as these (and many such) in animation movies that portray and project human fears and frailties on drawn figures find an instant connection with the audience. If the same sequence of the patient and his shrink were enacted by two humans, it would not evoke the same warmth as when were at play. ‘Her’ is a touching love story between a sensitive man and his artificially intelligent operating system that speaks in the voice of a woman. Many of the wonderful conversations that transpire between them about tastes, feelings, likes and behavior would seem banal if both the subjects were human. But in the current context where the operating system in itching to evolve, know about what it means to be human and find a way to develop a sense of feeling, the experience of witnessing a relationship between man and machine not in some superficial ‘computer is a man’s best buddy’ way, in a proper adult mature way would first throw the audience off-balance, but second, and this is more important, question the perception of love in the first place. Does communication, at the bedrock of the building of a connection, really require a flesh and blood entity on the other side of the conversation, or merely an understanding mind that can respond rightly? Before one shouts out categorically in favor of flesh and blood, reflect on the daily ritual in the newspapers of incidents concerning people falling in love, out of love, alleging the other party of fraud and misrepresentation, or making friends for life of people separated by the seven seas, all without ever meeting the other party in person on chats, phones, social media and other interactive tools. So, is love about giving or getting?

Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ is a bold piece of film making turning absurdities on their heads and questioning the conventional wisdom on matters relating to the true nature of love and what is it that humans respond to at a fundamental level. Known for his penchant of dealing in surrealism (‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Adaptation’), this original piece of writing (directing his own screenplay) calls into question the very concepts that mankind has held dear from the beginning of time, but which, due to advent of technology, are undergoing a tectonic shift in the way people perceive them. Though ‘Her’ is set in the near distant future where artificial intelligence in computers approach human levels in terms of holding conversations predicting the mood of humans’ tone and tenor in their voice, the idea is not so far fetched as to qualify it as science fiction with the advent of ‘Siri’ or other interactive navigational equipment in the high end automobiles already out in the market. When Spielberg was making ‘Minority Report’ a decade ago, he reportedly invited a bunch of scientists and anthropologists and asked them to predict how the world would turn out in about 50 years, where the movie was sited. And their consensual conclusion - intense personalization. 10 years already into that prediction, technology has already started a surrogate relationship with mankind in ways never thought before, with people unable to unplug themselves from the global network of constant, personal, faux-interaction. The dependence on technology is approaching the point where it is fast becoming an integral part of the familial structure of the society providing the necessary listening ear, crying shoulder and attentive eye in coping with daily grind. In such a situation, taking the next step to having fully functional (?) relationship with technology is not a great leap of blind faith. And when (and not ‘if’) it happens, it would be interesting to observe how society, which is already ‘in bed with it’ (pun intended), would view such a relationship - whether it deems it ‘weird’ or embrace it (eventually) terming it ‘organic’ (for a lack of better word).

‘Her’ (like ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ from a few years ago) could also be allegorical substituting the ‘weird’ or ‘unnatural’ partner in the relationship with an operating system, when, for all intents and purposes, the ‘unnatural’ participant could well be anyone that society currently ‘immoral’. Which again loops back to the original question, what is it, for mankind, that puts it off by putting a face (flesh and blood) to a troubled situation - ants in psychiatry - delightful, but people in the same situation - boring, man in a relationship with a talking operating system - charming, while man in a same-sex relationship - abomination. As ‘Her’ proves, if empathy is what that defines a union, the nature of the partner is never in doubt. (To borrow Ronald Reagan’s quote conservatism and Indians in a different context) Society is a lot more forgiving, it just doesn’t know it yet. And three cheers to Joaquin Phoenix for his sincere and sensitive portrayal of the human side of the proceedings. Bravo!

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