Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: May, 2014

Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)

I’ve heard people refer to Her as “the movie about the guy who falls in love with his computer,” but that’s not quite right. In truth, it’s a film about human relationships or, better yet, about human nature itself. An analog might be found in Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Der Himmel über Berlin (retitled Wings of Desire for anglophone audiences). Ostensibly about two angels, who observe the lives of ordinary people in postwar Berlin, it is really about the ups and downs (but especially the ups!) of being human. The angels are not so much protagonists as vehicles for Wenders’ poetic exploration of delights both mundane (a warm cup of coffee) and transcendent (falling in love). But therein also lies a difference between the two films. For Her principally concerns what happens when relationships go wrong — something, it suggests, that is as natural to our species as anything else.

Set in 2025 in Los Angeles, Her is very much an urban film. After all, that is where people are in the modern world — in cities, generally detached from nature and from each other, moving hither and thither according to the rhythms of business. In such an environment, computers are essential, helping with daily tasks and/or providing entertainment. So, when his marriage dissolves, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), decides to purchase a brand-new operating system, which is outfitted with artificial intelligence. It is meant to assist him like any other OS but with a crucial difference: it adapts and evolves in accordance with real-world experience. In other words, it is programed to develop along with its buyer. In his loneliness, Theo opts for a “female” OS named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, whose rich voice is put to full effect here), and before long a relationship begins. She serves as the companion he desperately needs — using a mic and an earpiece, they are able to be in constant communication — while he serves as a medium into a world she is eager to learn about.  They suit one another, and they are happy. But can it last?

Admirably (if somewhat tediously), Jonze tries to think this question through, both from the human and (to whatever degree it is possible) from the electronic side. Samantha realizes that she is unable to fulfill Theo’s sexual desires, and so — in a bizarre yet clever scene — she arranges for a “surrogate” to supplement her inadequacies. On the other hand, the benefits of disembodiment are lost neither on Theo nor on Samantha. Whereas Theo’s intelligence and lifespan are finite, Samantha’s are not. She reads entire books in a matter of seconds and is able to carry on multiple relationships at once. Ultimately, then, it is simply not possible for Theo to satisfy her. A mere mortal, with a host of flaws and insecurities, he can’t measure up to the intellectual prowess of the latest OSes.

Indeed, for Jonze, it is hard being human. We desire love above all else, but love — even when proffered digitally — is bound to let us down. Or maybe not. As Her comes to close, Theo seems to have a greater sense of who he is and what he needs, and he reaches out to a friend who has been similarly hurt. Here, perhaps, is the seed of a genuine human relationship, wherein human fragility is not conquered but embraced. It is a hint, however faint, at the paradox of the Christian message: one cannot truly begin to live until one has learned to die.

August: Osage County (dir. John Wells, 2013)

August: Osage County will, at the very least, make you appreciate your own mother. Based on Tracy Letts’ play of the same name, the story centers on Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the matriarch of an Oklahoma family on the brink of disintegration. The trouble, it turns out, has been brewing for years. As Letts tells it (he’s credited as screenwriter as well), suffering has been imposed on the Westons in almost Sophoclean fashion. Vi and her husband, Bev (Sam Shepard), grew up poor and hard on the rural plains. And though they managed to overcome their meager origins — Bev, in particular, has become a noted poet and homme de lettres — the past (to paraphrase Faulkner) is not even the past. Bev is as married to the bottle as he is to his books, and Vi is addicted to a cocktail of prescription narcotics, ostensibly to help her cope with oral cancer but, in truth, because she simply prefers to be high. So, when Bev goes missing, there is a genuine sense of foreboding, and the extended family descends on the Weston homestead. It is an irascible if colorful lot, headed by Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest daughter who appears destined to repeat the sins of her mother. That mayhem ensues is hardly unexpected.

In a sense, then, there is nothing all that surprising about August: Osage County. Still, the acting and writing are so good that it’s not hard to keep watching. What’s interesting, in particular, is how the movie can’t make up its mind on the problem of redemption, on the possibility of extracting good from the Westons’ dysfunction. Shall the parents’ sins be visited upon the children (Ezekiel 18:19-20)? For much of the film, the answer to this question would seem to be a resounding “yes.” Every character — from Bev to Barbara’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin) — bears some stain from the family’s history. This point is brought to a head in the film’s best moment, a family dinner that resembles a scene from Talladega Nights (yesthat Talladega Nights), even as it underscores Vi’s malignant asperity and its ability to squash any attempt to attain family harmony. That this scene involves a prayer is not insignificant. Vi is happy to tolerate “grace” before meals, so long as one doesn’t really expect grace to arrive. Hers, indeed, is a grace-less worldview: human beings always get what they deserve, and what they deserve is pain.

And yet, as the film ends, a punch is pulled. Sure, Vi meets a fittingly tragic end, but Barbara is given a glimpse of hope — a subtle but significant departure from the stage version, which, in turn, has invited a degree of controversy. Might the children escape their parents’ sins after all? That Letts and director John Wells allude to this question — and, with it, the question of redemption that has animated humanity’s religious sensibility for millennia — demonstrates its ongoing importance. To borrow from Barbara’s last scene, the warmth of the sunshine and the freedom of the open road always seem to beckon from beyond life’s otherwise oppressive disappointments.