#127: The Talismanic Image

For Halloween this year I dressed up as Theodore Twombly, Joaquin Phoenix’s character from the movie Her. It’s probably my second-favorite movie. I saw it a few times when it first came out, and rewatched it again over the weekend to get pumped up before going out in costume. Rewatching it reminded me of just how beautiful and timely it is, and how incredibly full of life. Have you seen it? I hope you have.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the little cut-aways in the film, particularly when Samantha, the AI character, is talking and Theodore is listening through his earpiece. The picture will cut from a shot of Theodore’s reactions to his point of view, to the thing he’s looking at but not really looking at; the space he’s staring into when he’s staring off into space. We see oil stains on the ground where there had just been a car. A tea kettle on a burner on a gas stove. Motes of dust in the light on the edge of a bed.

I find myself asking: Why did the director choose these images? Why do they fit so well? And the answers that come are immediate and numerous. The kettle is Samantha’s growing intelligence and consciousness, about to boil over beyond Theodore’s understanding. The oil spots are the “human stain”, the insignificant mark we leave on the infinite asphalt of the universe. Those dust motes dance and fall the way we dance and fall through life, roused by a lying-down god. The images remind me of the times I’m staring at the kettle while someone else’s voice – a friend, a podcast host – speaks into my ear. They remind me of the heightened sense of awareness after a breakup; the time on the subway I noticed how the chest of the man sitting across from me was rising and falling, and the chest of the woman next to him was rising and falling, and how everyone in my car was breathing and alive and were born and had parents! I think of DB writing about Susan Piver quoting Gloria Steinem: “When you’re depressed, nothing has any meaning. When you’re sad, everything does.”

Instead of being heavy-handed symbols the cut-aways in Her are talismanic. We read into them how we want to read into them, and they belong as much to each of us as they do to the film. You can sense that they cropped up organically in the writing and making of the film, were images that the alive story suggested rather than instruments used by a storyteller to prove a point. E. and I have talked on the phone about these kinds of images, the ones that come up as we’re writing and feel right intuitively before they feel right intellectually. They’re very much like dreams; they must be seen and recorded before they are to be interpreted. You open a door without knowing who’s behind it, and only later do you realize why you meet who you meet.