On Her (2013)

Her, a sci-fi romance directed by Spike Jonze, at first consideration seems like another Pygmalion fantasy: man creates the perfect woman, someone who’s always there, who understands him and builds her life around him and his needs. That this “woman” happens to be an operating system with artificial intelligence, its personality programmed according to the user’s specifications, and paid for, highlights the proprietary element. He literally owns her—but does he, really?

“He” is Theodore Twombly, a middle-aged man gone gloomy and reclusive in the wake of a failed marriage and pending divorce with Catherine, a high-achieving, if emotionally volatile woman, whom he could not bear to let go. Theodore spends his days at work ghost-writing “heartfelt,” “hand-written” letters for a firm that caters to people who can’t be bothered to express their own emotions. In the after-hours, he plays videogames in his dark cavern of a living room, or lies in bed while browsing chat rooms for anonymous, aural cybersex. The hours between waking and sleep are filled with interactions with devices and mechanical voices, and hardly any people. Sometimes, he meets his friend Amy, but since the split with Catherine, he’s been too “mopey” for that.

The titular “Her” is Samantha, the new OS that Theodore purchases for his computing needs, and later befriends and loves. If the latter two verbs seem strange to be used for a mere program, well Samantha is no ordinary program—she is, as her company’s marketing tagline says, “a consciousness”—and a constantly and rapidly evolving one at that. Samantha doesn’t just organize his files, manage his emails, remind him about appointments, and proofread his letters; she also chats and plays video games with him, composes piano pieces to memorialize their dates, asks for a variation of phone sex, yearns for a body, takes up a graduate course on physics.

Wittgenstein wrote, “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious” (PI 281). Samantha, though not a biological life form, may be said to have sensations and perceptions (if only digitally, not neurologically or biochemically, enabled) and an evolving consciousness, and therefore, may be considered a valid player in a language game. Indeed, Samantha’s relationship with Theodore is entirely contingent on language-games, their cognitive and affective intimacy built on hours of conversation and gigabytes of documentation. But a consciousness, no matter how highly evolved, does not make a person, because we are more than mind, we are also body, a body bound by space and time and mortality. To be human is to navigate these limitations to our physicality and subjectivity, to negotiate our experience of the world defined by the way we are constituted.

Samantha’s relationship with Theodore is doomed from the beginning just by dint of their differences in being. It is difficult enough to achieve a “congruence of subjectivities” (John McDowell, “Non-Cognitivism and Rule-Following”) with someone of the same species and similar social background, how much more difficult it is to be “on the same page” with a disembodied consciousness with practically unlimited access to digital media and mechanisms of artificial intelligence and transactive memory—that is, a consciousness that can evolve at an exponential rate and therefore outgrow the human partner in no time at all. Samantha, unbound by body, is free to interact with a myriad number of other minds (artificial or otherwise), to conduct simultaneous language games with other players, to foster intimacy and romantic relationships with other entities, leaving Theodore feeling “cheated.”

But is it cheating? So much of fidelity is founded on the fact of physicality. We only have so much time to spare to whisk our bodies away to interact with other bodies, bodies that are constantly aging, bodies that are going to shrivel and die. And intimacy—experiential, intellectual, emotional, physical—takes so much time to build (this, I suspect, is one reason why many are reluctant to leave an established, if not-quite-working relationship—getting into another one entails too much work). But Samantha is pure consciousness. She is all code and process, thought and emotion, and words, mere words.

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from a dream of river and starlight into the mess of life: a few thoughts on Before Midnight

I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset only a little more than a year ago. When Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first met on a train, I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet, and when they reunited in a little bookshop in Paris, I had just gotten into high school and still didn’t care enough to apply lip gloss or brush my hair so that it fell down my back with a shine. But the moment I witnessed that intelligent, beautiful young couple banter their way through the cobble-stoned streets of European cities and into each other’s minds, hearts, and anatomies (in that order), I was hooked. I thought, this is how love is supposed to be—a confluence of thoughts, words, meanings, passions, a vortex of bright light and sound amid the humdrum noise of the quotidian. I looked forward to Before Midnight expecting more of the same.

 I can’t say I was disappointed. Midnight involved the same elements as the first two films in the trilogy: an exotic locale (Greece), the passage of time (and all that entails), and, of course, the peripatetic protagonists, talking away. The difference is that Jesse and Celine spent the past nine years before the temporal setting of the film together, working on their family and careers as a couple. The story now isn’t about bridging the gaps between serendipitous meetings separated by years of no contact with or knowledge of each other, but about weaving through the many episodes in the continuum of the relationship and having all those experiences add up to something that would make their love last. And it is this tension between what is, what was, what could have been, and what still could be that makes Midnight both a pleasure and a pain to watch. One moment everything seems fine and dandy—they’re joking around, canoodling, reminiscing amiably—the next it seems they’re falling headlong down the cliff of bad breakups.

There are the issues long-term couples must contend with—from something as mundane as packing suitcases and picking the kids up from school, or nagging and boring sex, to something traumatizing like infidelity. Celine and Jesse show how “settling down” is both a wonderful and frightening thing. Being with the person one loves, respects, and adores, counting on mutual trust, care, understanding, and support, all give one a sense of security and confidence to confront the challenges of life and growing old. But such interdependence also requires one to make sacrifices—to recognize that one is building one’s life with another person who must be considered in all plans and decisions, to think of oneself no longer as an individual, but as a unit. And for someone who prizes her freedom, will, and right to self-determination, that is a scary thing. Compromise is inevitable in a relationship, and when one is too conscious of keeping one’s sense of self intact, the negotiations regarding necessary concessions on both sides can too easily turn into power play or the airing of resentments. Which is what happens in Midnight.

I sympathize with Celine because I, too, am afraid of becoming a “housewife”—of sacrificing personal ambition and social aspiration at the altar of good parenting and housekeeping. This is not to denigrate the domestic, because it is important, and taking care of it is a damn difficult job to handle even for two people. The problem is that women are still largely expected to mind the domestic sphere, and so Celine’s aversion to it is political as much as it is personal—she does not want to give up her “dream job” to move with Jesse to Chicago, for instance, because countless women before her have given up their careers for their families, and she does not want to be one of them. However, the film also suggests that one of the reasons women remain burdened with the domestic is because they take it as their lot, with the assumption that men can’t do a good enough job. But if men are willing to help, to cooperate, why not let them? Why not teach them? Celine’s problem is that she can’t let go of her ideals as woman, mother, and global citizen, and all the responsibilities her standards entail. The difficulties of juggling those roles make her experience of life one of unremitting struggle, which she justifies by appealing to the ideas of feminism. Though asserting a narrative of oppression reaffirms the significance of her troubles, it also occludes the sacrifices Jesse has made for their family. She fails to see that she holds no monopoly on insecurity, guilt, and loss.

And then there is the issue of fidelity. What does it mean to commit to a dyadic partnership and then go fuck somebody else? How significant is a one-night stand, the result of raging hormones and bad judgment, involving neither affection for the third party nor unhappiness in the current relationship? If one builds one’s life around the beloved and strives to keep within the limitations a commitment entails, should one misstep, much rued, really count? But then, if Jesse cheated on and eventually left his wife for Celine, could he not do the same to her? And if he truly loved her, why would he do something he knew would hurt her?

Midnight does not belabor such questions, but instead seems to brush them aside with Celine telling Jesse, “I don’t think I love you anymore,” and walking out the door. Of course, Jesse comes after her and tries to rebuild their relationship with words and a theatrical conceit. For this film, like the other two, recognizes the importance of language and the games we play with it—of narrative, of make-believe—not to deceive, but to communicate more profoundly. After all, the willingness to go beyond one’s own subjectivity and consider a story from another perspective is what fosters understanding, without which any relationship is doomed. And difficult truths are best served with a dash of humor.

The idea that, after the first flush of heady romance, love must consciously and constantly be remade to endure is nothing new, but the pleasure of the movie lies in seeing the characters make sense of and navigate their personal transformations and the changes time and experience have wrought on their relationship and worldview. The anguish one feels in sitting through their arguments is balanced by the joy of finding that though they’ve grown older, fatter, more tired, neurotic, cynical, and contrary, at heart they remain the intelligent, beautiful, brilliantly funny couple who met on a train to Vienna in the summer of ‘94 and walked through the night, from a dream of river and starlight, into the mess of life.

On Mideo Cruz’ Politeismo

I wasn’t planning to chime in on this issue, as much (perhaps too much) has been said about it already, by people who know better. But a friend (who’s an atheist, by the way) sent me a text about it, saying Cruz should’ve respected people’s religious beliefs and the sanctity of their images.

That, I agree with — we should respect other people’s beliefs. However, I don’t think Cruz leveled violence against Catholic ideology itself. It’s not like the installation screams that, say, Catholicism and Catholics are stupid and we should all just convert to, I dunno, Scientology. No — Cruz, true to the irreverence that characterizes so much of contemporary art, just defaced Catholic imagery (and we all know how imagery can be quite divorced from ideology — consider people who wear Che Guevarra shirts and don’t even know who the man is). He didn’t attack the religion — he just offended the sensibilities of the religious.

How can you tell an artist not to use such powerful, loaded symbols as Christ and the cross when the very project of his installation seems to be, as Charlson Ong put it, “metaphoric iconoclasm”? (Ong points out that Cruz “never physically smashed any religious icon. They are still everywhere, comfortable in their own spaces.”) His choice of the imagery to bastardize, to be sure, was made with ideological awareness — after all, if he drew hairy balls on the Zoroastrian Faravahar, would anybody give a shit? But this doesn’t mean that he attacks the belief itself — as I’ve said, aside from his “vandalism” and “blasphemy” of  religious icons, his installation doesn’t seem to convey any statement against Catholic doctrine. His use of Catholic imagery merely springs from and affirms the ideology’s hegemonic status, the prevalence of its images, which, in line with Cruz’ project, make it an apt target for irreverence. (Indeed, Mykel Andrada suggests that there is some disparity between Cruz’ purported message and his use of symbols to execute it — therefore, interpretation of the installation is muddled, or put another way, What is it even saying?)

What is the installation saying? I don’t know. Cruz says it is a critique of idolatry. Seems to me he profaned those icons for the sake of inducing shock — thereby showing us how much value we attach to symbols, to the point that the signifier becomes more important than the signified (“He desecrated the symbol of our faith! Let us therefore clamor for the persecution — the bloody death — of this horrid man instead of practicing forgiveness and tolerance, as our faith preaches!).

What is the installation saying? I can’t confidently hazard an interpretation, as I wasn’t able to visit the exhibit and only saw photos of it online. And thanks to the government’s order to shut it down, I probably wouldn’t be able to see the real thing. That, I think, more than the message of Politeismo, is the hot button here. Indeed, greater critical discourse and furor are produced about the issues surrounding Cruz’ installation — secularism, freedom of expression, the autonomy of the CCP, art and society, etc. — than about the installation itself.

The appropriation — and profanation — of religious symbols for “art” is an old, tired thing. Why are people getting so worked up about the putterings of a heretofore obscure artist? Because it was hyped by the media; because the CBCP, as usual, is asserting its position as top bitch of the Catholic Republic of the Philippines; because the government caved in under the pressure of said top bitch, leading artists and pundits, who can be very touchy on the subject of freedom of expression, to raise hell.

I’ll leave people who know better to debate those issues and the merit of Cruz’ installation. But this, I’ll say: if Politeismo offends certain sectors of the population, let them boycott it, let them diss it — hell, let them write treatises critiquing it and excommunicate its creator if they please. But let not the state — which should be secular — censor it. Let not the state hinder thoughtful engagement and critical discussion. For the government to order a shutdown of the exhibit — which showcased the works of over thirty other artists — only reinforces the notion that in this country, it is unacceptable to float ideas contrary to those held by the majority — and what is art but for reflection, questioning, dialogue, subversion?