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‘Her’ and the Creative Impulse

The following post  contains some minor spoilers for the Golden Globe-winning film “Her.”

Spike Jonze’s “Her” opens with its sad sack protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoneix) composing a heartfelt letter. The letter is rich with the warm particulars and tiny corners of a loving relationship long enjoyed and cherished.

However, we learn that the sentiments in the letter aren’t from Theodore’s heart. Theodore works at a company which specializes in custom letters and greetings, composed with lyrical and sincere prose by its employees based on details and photos provided by the client.

At first, Theodore’s job feels like writer-director Jonze tipping his hand about precisely what “Her” is up to: Theodore’s a sensitive guy one year into the end of his marriage, and at first blush, it makes sense that his job is a kind of way of deferring his own emotions (outsourcing them to others who are in turn, outsourcing their sentiments to Theodore).

It would be easy to get behind that reading of Theodore’s job if the letters were maybe a little glib, a little silly, or bad. But several of them are quite beautiful: a note from a wife on the occasion of her 50th year of marriage, or a young man’s playful letter focusing on his girlfriend’s crooked tooth. Jonze captures the little details and casual voice that we develop in our relationships — the shorthand, the flow, the curious little details about ourselves and our partners that anyone else wouldn’t really understand.

Theodore makes art as a service (a sentiment vindicated later in the film when a publisher takes notice of his work).


"Such Great Heights" by EeVien Tan

And it’s at this point that “Her” becomes a movie not only concerned with relationships, but the creative impulse — specifically making something in times of crisis and transition. Theodore has his well-regarded letters, and as she evolves, Theodore’s operating system girlfriend Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson) has her music (and physics, and writing), and Theodore’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams) attempts to give form to a documentary about her sleeping mother while her day job has her creating a game based around being the perfect mom.

It’s really Samantha who draws our attention, though: the revolutionary operating system tells Theodore (and us, the audience) that she’s evolving day by day — it’s through her creative expression that she’s able to find a language for that evolution.

Amid the heartbreak and note-perfect details about love and breakups, “Her” says that we create not in spite of, but because of.

Jonze keeps it small and keeps it human: we never see any of his characters struggling heroically to create anything. The fact that they create is just a background detail to the narrative which is more concerned with the chcracters’ various romantic and personal complications.

“Her” tells us that art is a way of articulating things that we might sometimes otherwise not be able to voice. It’s more direct with Theodore and Samantha, and handled at a right angle when it comes to Amy, who struggles to find a shape for her documentary while her marriage is falling apart (Jonze also inserts one of those perfect moments where a non-creative offers criticism masked as advice when we dare to put our guts on display in front of others). We never find out what happens with Amy’s documentary, but it’s almost irrelevant — the frustration and emotions she’s struggling with are less of a problem and she’s found a way to articulate her feelings.

And that’s what makes it so effective and so true about the creative impulse: for most of us, it’s not some heroic endeavor that we spend a lot of time talking about (and those that do, usually aren’t making anything more than a lot of noise).

It’s a beautiful, nearly perfect work of art about art, full stop.

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