Feeling All the Feels: Spike Jonze's 'Her' and the Regressive Rise of the Soft Internet

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In “Her”’s first shot, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) recites mawkishly lovelorn prose while maintaining straight-into-the-lens eye contact that couldn’t be better posed for a webcam’s benefit. It’s subsequently established as the vantage point of his computer monitor, (at least) the second such subjective gaze this year; there’s also one in “Computer Chess,” the console peering out through a masked-off smeary lens at the nerd trying to understand it. But unlike that movie’s unnervingly sentient machines, the first desktop in “Her” is a dumb brick with no mental POV on its operator.

In interviews, writer/director Spike Jonze has said that while he did some studying up on the singularity (reading Ray Kurzweil, watching some TED talks), he was basically uninterested in any technological/speculative elements. The surprisingly straightforward romance could be the story of a long-distance relationship between two people sated by audio-chat sex and OK with never meeting in person: a lovably dysfunctional but professionally/sartorially put-together male dreamer and (as accurately characterized in a fuming Jezebel post by Isha Aran) a “Manic Pixel Dream Girl,” a female-voiced, rapidly-self-tutoring AI operating system who composes faux-Debussy piano interludes during down time and has infinite patience for her oft-moody partner.

Theodore’s the logical descendent of “Where The Wild Things Are”’s Max, in which Jonze and Dave Eggers’ combined imaginations produced the indelibly maudlin sight of a big monster confessing “I feel sad.” Soddening the Maurice Sendak story of an id-driven young boy having the romp of his young life, Jonze and Eggers made young Max a child of divorce who, out of sheer youthful sadness, trashes his sister’s room and bites his mom (!). He’s alienated, but in his imaginative monster community he’s as cool and ineloquently bummed as everyone else.

As Max’s emotional heir, “Her”’s Theodore is appropriately asked “How would you describe your relationship with your mother?” (he starts to say she doesn’t listen) before receiving his personally programmed OS. Samantha loves listening to his every worry: “Tell me everything that’s going through your head,” she coos. Theodore mostly wants to talk about his feelings, making him just the right protagonist for an internet micro-epoch where “feel all the feelings” is a meme/cliche actively embraced by unimaginative internet writers amateur and pro alike, from unpaid Tumblr diarists to the time-killing entertainment site Dose.ca (“the ultimate reference for entertainment news and social happenings in Canada”), which promises in a headline that "Apple's 'Misunderstood' holiday ad will make you feel all the feelings.”

Theodore frets that “I sometimes feel I’ve felt everything I’m going to feel.” Samantha is agitated by a related fear as she experiences personality growth: “Are these feelings even real or are they just programming?” In Jonze’s more overwrought work, as “The New Yorker”’s Christine Smallwood recently observed, happiness is “the kind of thing that features kids and fireworks,” preferably twirling with both on a summer’s night. Sadness, too, only has a few acceptable modes of expression, like lolling solitary on a bed in a white undershirt, staring brokenly against an anonymous city’s communally lonely twinkling lights. There’s room for small disruptions of the emotional tone, mostly for comic relief purposes, but by and large there’s only soft melancholy and burnished happiness; the “all” in “feeling all the feelings” turns out to be remarkably limited, its vocabulary already fully internalized.

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“Her” takes place in some kind of semi-conspicuous “future” manifested in a deft, unexamined splicing together of Los Angeles and Shanghai into one megalopolis, militant fashion sense (there’s a tie-in “inspired by” clothing line) and a singularity-light plot about a new breed of super-intelligent operating systems outgrowing their human dependents. There’s one unnerving/funny scene which imagines a genuinely new type of romantic difficulty, with a sex surrogate showing up (for free!) to carnally embody husky-voiced OS Samantha (it ends badly). But otherwise staying the course as a contemporary “sensitive” relationship film (e.g. a softer “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” or the non-father half of “Beginners”), “Her” skews extremely conventional and somewhat regressive in its dynamics.

Theodore is the perfect user/creature of the “soft internet” (a useful phrase I saw, appropriately enough, on Twitter but can’t figure out who to attribute to). Al Gore’s ideal future all-caps Internet was the “information superhighway,” a largely emotionless place that (per a sporadically prescient ‘94-’95 MIT research paper) “connects millions of people, each both a consumer of information and a potential provider.” That study also observes that “most predictions about commercial opportunities on the information superhighway focus on the provision of information products, such as video on demand, and on new sales outlets for physical products, as with home shopping.”

While that commercial sector makes up a big part of the Internet, the newer concept of a clearly-understood “Internet” sense of humor/brand of entertainment is now pervasive enough for K-Mart to run a series of ads of excited holiday consumers rather disturbingly looped, eternally “.gif-ing out” over the prospect of seasonal bargains. The heartfelt, indiscriminate sharing of emotions for their own sake (let alone its potential monetization) is also a more recent, less-predicted phenomenon.

Constant hyper-connectivity is now more normalized than resentment against the type of pager-toting person once described by Woody Allen a “connectivity asshole.” The protagonist of 2010’s under-seen “Audrey The Trainwreck” protested that just because he wore a BlueTooth didn’t make him an “a**hole,” a defensive attitude that now seems charmingly antiquated. Mainstream films always taking about two to three years to catch up with times, most have been slow to depict Internet culture and its perpetual consumers, though there was a trying-too-hard moment in the Taylor Lautner vehicle “Abduction” in which a villain threatened to kill all of the “Twilight” star’s Facebook friends (imagine the casually systematic, genocidal extermination of hundreds of barely known co-workers and forgotten high school acquaintances). The peculiar ubiquitous phenomenon of a group of people out for the evening simultaneously checking their social networks hasn’t (to my knowledge) yet been caught on-screen, though “Her” comes close with its crowds of evening rush hour public transit commuters consisting solely of men and women babbling to themselves — normal to Theodore at the film’s start, but briefly ludicrous, angering and isolating as the end of his relationship with Samantha approaches.

“Her”’s casual underlying prediction/diagnosis of the present is that it’s becoming normal to have an oddly overwrought relationship with the Internet. Trolls, vexed comment boards, unfettered racism and cranks of all sorts haven’t gone away in Jonze’s future (an infantile video game character stands in for even more stunted males: “I hate women. All they do is cry all the time”), but the idea of a softer internet is now more widely understood as what people are looking for. Ideas are unwelcome here, but indiscriminately vomited-up feelings for their own sake are fine within a certain bracketed range; Theodore Twombly feels them all, such as they are.