The James Clayton Column: Valentine’s Day, Her and 21st century techno-love

With Her out on Valentines Day, James considers the topic of romance in the movies, and love in the techno-savvy 21st century...

Happy Valentine’s Day! Hip hip hooray for the over-commercial super-sappy celebration of romance and close personal relationships! I hope that this column finds you all swept up in sweet emotions and lovely feelings. I hope that you’re now breathless and gasping for air having been submerged beneath a sea of affectionate greeting cards, chocolate boxes and sexual propositions from attractive strangers.

If not, use your imagination – it’s so much better than reality, especially if reality is disappointing you on Valentine’s Day. Today you should be feeling the love and experiencing things that are ‘romantic’. Romantic action might be quite rare for many and that probably makes this novel – albeit, suspect – cultural event all the more worthwhile. Love needs to be lauded so hooray for love! Love is like oxygen! Love is a many splendored thing! Love lifts us up where we belong! All you need is love!

Love is great and this annual occasion acts as an impetus to rightfully acknowledge that. On February 14th you’re meant to openly express your affections to your paramour and lavish attention on your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife (or imaginary boyfriend, imaginary girlfriend, imaginary girlfriend or imaginary wife). They deserve it and love is wonderful, and we know this because a musical medley in the film Moulin Rouge! told us so. I urge you to seize the day and enjoy it with a special someone, even if that special someone isn’t actual real.

Need inspiration for a hot date? You could go paintballing like Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles did in 10 Things I Hate About You, though that might be a bit aggressive and messy for some. A sweeter idea – you could take moonlight stroll down to the derelict old house on the southeast side of town, throw stones at it and make wishes together if you manage to smash one of the windows. (If your love interest wishes for the moon, why, you better get a lasso and pull it down for ’em.)

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You could take them out for a dance and a meal at a theme restaurant, ordering them the $5 shake if they really want it. And I suppose you could also have lots and lots and lots of sex – tantric 007-and-Bond-Girl-on-a-rowboat-drifting-away-on-the-neverending-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-movie sex.

Alternatively, you could make your date night a trip to the pictures and hug and kiss on the back row in the dark while something romantic reels away on the screen. If none of the nearby fleapits are playing a Sonny Chiba marathon (True Romance understands true romance) you’ve got a couple of good options at the multiplex. It’s not a good idea to follow Travis Bickle’s dating method and take your beloved to watch a Swedish instructional sex documentary in a seedy porno theatre. The wiser choice would be going to a more conventional cinema to watch a freshly-released, slightly-unconventional romantic drama that I reckon may be the perfect film for Valentine’s Day 2014.

That film is Spoke Jonze’s Her and I think that ‘s going to be the movie I catch today, whether my imaginary lover is game or not. (And she will be game because my fictional girlfriend is one I’ve written up, Ruby Sparks-style, to do whatever I want in line with what I’ve typed up on a magic typewriter of creative will. I’m going to scribe up a good mood and amenability to the idea of going to the cinema. I’m also going to make sure that there is no possibility of her asking me to buy her a $5 milkshake because I can’t afford that kind of decadent dairy extravagance, my dear. Maybe I’ll throw a lasso around the moon, pull it down and give her that instead.)

Her is a movie about a lonely writer named Theodore Twombly – played by Joaquin Phoenix with a Super Mario moustache – who makes a living composing love letters for people who can’t express themselves. He’s also divorcing his childhood sweetheart who is played by Rooney Mara – an actress who never seems to have happy, lasting relationships in any of her movies.

Understandably a sad man, Theodore invests in a new OS1 – an artificially intelligent operating system – for company. Calling it Samantha, the unhappy introvert selects a female identity so that it talks to him with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Soon Theodore finds that he’s getting closer and closer to the ‘consciousness’ and possibly even falling in love with ‘Her’.

I’d say that this is a very important film, and not just for me personally as a lonely writer who’s had to invent an imaginary romantic partner to console himself on Valentine’s Day. As a movie seeking to explore human relationships with technology in the brave new world of the 21st century, it’s possible that Her may be a profound cultural moment. Other films have studied the strange (or estranged) digital age sociology of the times we’re living in or touched upon similar themes, but I have a hunch that Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-nominated feature might be the most potent and compelling yet produced.

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Her might be a shocking wake-up call or epiphany moment for a great many people. In Twombly’s infatuation with his OS1, viewers may see disturbing parallels to their own intimate personal ties to techno gadgets, artificial intelligences and digital devices. We’re advancing rapidly towards a transhuman or posthuman aeon (if we’re not, in fact, already in it) and Her is possibly a watershed highlighting this truth in a cinematic single story. A narrative revolving around a human being falling in love with an artificial consciousness is not outlandish – it may in fact be more authentic as a modern romance story than many of the more traditional, ‘normal’ romcoms doing the rounds recently.

As the world turns in time and sociocultural shifts happen eventually real world changes register on screen. Cinema is a historical document signposting morphing modern gender dynamics, the sexual revolution (those Bond films are the prime paragon of free love baby, yeah!), feminism and the mainstream acceptance of non-hetero sexual orientations. At a certain point technology creeps into the picture (it was probably at You’ve Got Mail) and from there we start to see its impact on human love lives. 

Movies started to roll out sequences where characters flirt through message boards, dabble with online dating sites and hit the web to fulfil their ‘adult’ needs. These scenes are clear indicators that confirm to the audience that the film is credible and takes place in the real world we’re familiar with. We can relate and understand that the characters on screen are just like us – they’re looking for love on the internet.

Enter Her as a poignant moodpiece, vividly realising modern love on screen and highlighting just how much technology and artificial consciousnesses have segued into our emotional lives. As we watch Twombly’s blossoming relationship with something that resembles an enhanced, more sentimental version of Siri, we see shades of ourselves and our own interpersonal connections in the near future if not in the actual now.

We’re closer to machines and artificial entities than we are to flesh-and-blood organic human beings, I pronounce in ominous tones while staring blankly into a dehumanised dystopian vision where ‘real love’ has been rendered obsolete. Look around you and you witness a world in thrall to ubiquitous screens, wrapped up in intense object fetishism and near-sexual longing for hi-tech products that stimulate the pleasure centres.

Always connected and hooked up (physically and mentally) to a nebulous online cyberspace, artificial consciousness has inextricably attached itself and come to exert control over human social interaction so that clean organic love might now be impossible. Relationships are built and run through social media accounts and there’s no olde-fashioned wooing or chivalry in an age where you can categorise, judge and completely figure a person (or, at least, an assumed persona) with a few clicks.

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It’s all artifice, of course. We’re attached to projected personalities, bonding with avatars and mistaking pixels for affectionate mates when we circumnavigate social media spaces, hang around message boards, play MMORPGs and so on. None of this is real – it’s all imagination and illusions extrapolated from insubstantial digital data and the impressions we’ve perceived on mesmerising screens. As we stare into them and surrender our hearts to them, we gradually lose grip of reality and our genuine, true human feeling.

My own feelings – my real, really real feelings – are now hurt. The attentions of my imaginary girlfriend will not ease the anxiety, nor will a quirky movie about a lonely guy finding unlikely love. Real world romance won’t cut it either, because all our notions of what love is and how to be romantic are informed by films, TV shows and pop songs  – manufactured pop cultural products – that sell us false unrealistic fantasies. (See Joseph Gordon Levitt’s recent directorial debut Don Jon for an excellent exploration of this.)

None of this is real, true love is dead and technology has taken over, and its omnipresence has ousted any ideal of real, true romance and guaranteed that genuine human feeling and emotional connection are an impossibility – just like the idea of dragging the Moon out of orbit with a lasso.

My imaginary girlfriend has gone away. My heart is broken and romance is dead in the 21st century. Happy Valentine’s Day!

James Clayton is a lonely writer engaged in a close-relationship with a computer that will never take him out to the movies, lasso the moon as a grandiose romantic gesture or buy him a $5 milkshake. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

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