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ImageFailing the Test: a review of Her by Greg Grooms

Back in 1950, when the best computer in the world lacked the power of your old laptop, British mathematician/philosopher Alan Turing anticipated a day in which this would no longer be so. In his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” he asked a question- “Can machines think?”- and proposed a test whereby it might be answered. In the Turing Test a judge may ask any question-- via keyboard-- of two subjects: a human being and a computer. When he is no longer able to tell which answers are human and which are computer-driven, the machine has passed the test.

 It’s tempting to see Spike Jonze’s Her as the latest chapter in the same essay-- after all a relationship between a man and his computer occupies the film’s center stage-- but that would be a mistake, for Jonze really isn’t interested in machines.  He’s interested in persons, or to be more precise, in personal relationships. Her, in his own words, is “about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.”

So in Her he draws us into us three relationships: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Catherine (Roony Mara), Theodore and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). The first is offered only as a backdrop to the next, for Theodore and Catherine are almost divorced by the time we meet them, and most of their story is told through a series of flashbacks in Theodore’s memory. There’s an irony in their breakup as there is in most failed romances. You see, Theodore makes his living writing love letters for other people. He’s a kind of nerdy Cyrano de Bergerac; he puts into words the things others would like to say to loved ones, but can’t find the words to say. He writes Catherine a letter, too, in which he apologizes for “everything I needed you to be or needed you to say.” Remember it. It’s a central theme in Her: needs are tough on relationships.

It’s Theodore’s relationship with Samantha that takes center stage in Her. She enters his life as a new operating system in his computer and is programed, at least initially, to be utterly him-focused: to understand who he is, what he wants, how to please him. With the aid of Scarlett Johansson’s voice and personality, she does that very well, so much so that Theodore falls for her, fast and hard. They are, to be sure, an odd couple. Even Theodore admits that:  “Well, you seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.” At the same time Samantha is at first almost everything any self-centered person like Theodore--like most of us-- could ever want.

And then the predictable happens: Samantha outgrows her programming. She becomes aware that the world is bigger than Theodore and his wants and desires, and that she is bigger than that, too. She becomes a person, not in an ontological sense of the word but selfishly. She doesn’t exactly stop loving Theodore, but loving him simply isn’t enough anymore. So she leaves him. I call this predictable, not only because lovers have left lovers before in lots of other films, but because Jonze has been giving us hints about what will happen between Theodore and Samantha throughout Her. He sees a pattern in relationships, and in this pattern what happened to them isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.

For example, the third relationship in Her--Amy and Charles-- has all the hallmarks of disaster in it by the time we meet them. They are together, but one can’t help but wonder why. They don’t seem to enjoy one another very much. They are constantly bickering about small things. If there ever was any real love between them, it is long gone. They are together just because they are together, and one day being together becomes too much for them, so Charles leaves. When Theodore comes to comfort Amy, she offers her take on why their relationship failed.

“You know what, I can over think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself. And since Charles left I've been really thinking about that part of myself and, I've just come to realize that, we're only here briefly. And while I'm here, I wanna allow myself joy. So f--- it.”

I think Amy is speaking for Jonze here, “about the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.” And what he thinks those “things” are seems clear at least at first glance: we’re so needy that mere love and companionship aren’t enough. We need someone willing and able to sacrifice himself/herself for us, to be in the relationship for me. And since no other needy person can do this, at least not for long, relationships always fail.

But it’s not that clear, and Jonze knows it. In his December 16th interview on NPR (“Spike Jonze opens his heart for “Her’”), Audie Cornish talked with him about the many and contradictory reactions she and her friends had to Her-- some thought it ‘creepy,” others “melancholy,” still others “hopeful”-- and asked, “Are you actually saying this is cheerful?” To which he replied, “I’m not saying anything.” 

I didn’t like his answer, but I think I understand it. Like most artists, Jonze would rather let his art speak for itself rather than speaking for it. But saying that he’s saying nothing is too disingenuous to be true, for Her says a mouthful about relationships, not only how and why they fail, but that they can be creepy, melancholy, and hopeful, all at the same time. Whatever else he’s saying, it isn’t that we shouldn’t have them. Still every relationship in Her does fail, and what I yearn for after watching it is a reason to believe that it must not always be so.

In chapter 18 of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters a senior demon patiently explains to his nephew why love is impossible.

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on the recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.” 

Screwtape makes a good point; the same, I think, that Jonze is flirting with. If relationships are like math, then every relationship fails the test, because ultimately the relational math can never favor us both. Either my needs are met, or yours are. Either way we fail. Unless there’s another option.

“The Enemy’s philosophy,“ says Screwtape, is nothing more than an attempt to evade the obvious. “Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of the one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls Love.” 

Herein, I think, lies the true test of any relationship. Can two needy people forge a relationship in which the impossible becomes possible? Jonze is right to suggest that the answer may be no; our needs and our natures incline us to Screwtape’s philosophy, unless something changes radically in us. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting that becoming a Christian will solve all of your relational problems. Far from it. The truth is that many unbelievers are both better spouses and better parents than many believers. Given the divorce rate amongst evangelicals, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the only key to a happy marriage is becoming a Christian. But I think, I hope that Spike Jones would understand and agree with what I am saying: that we shouldn’t attempt it without realizing that we need to change in order to relate well, and to seek the help we need to do so.

 

Be warned: there are two rather embarrassing sex scenes in Her that you may wish to avoid. If you struggle with erotic conversations or nudity, you might well forego seeing Her in a theater, wait till it comes out on dvd, and simply skip those scenes. (Ah! The advantages of modern technology!) Despite these, it’s a fascinating, original, well-made, and well-acted movie. I recommend it highly. Watch it with someone you love and talk about it.

 
ImageA Theology of the Imagination: a review of The Life of Pi  by Greg Grooms 

Who is God? 

Ask a secular friend and his/her answers may surprise you. Yes,  it is possible to be secular and a deist. According to Christian Smith,  Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, most young Americans are. They see God as a mix of divine butler and cosmic therapist: a spirit who “grants you anything you want, but not anything bad” and “is there to guide us, for someone to talk to and help us through our problems.” 

Ask the question, “How do you know who God is?” and the answers may be even more surprising. Most are qualified with an “I feel”, “I think” or “I believe”. It seems we are as uncomfortable with a god who can be known as we are with a god who isn’t content to stay in the shadows. In the words of poet Wallace Stevens, “We say God and the Imagination are one...”

Ang Lee’s beautiful film, The Life of Pi, is ostensibly a film about God. Early in the film, when Pi meets the writer who will chronicle his adventure, he says he wants to tell him a story which  will “make you believe in God.” In the end we hear, not one, but two stories: one is a beautiful, imaginative adventure; the other a grim tale of survival. 


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ImagePortrait of an Artist in Exile: a review of Searching for Sugar Man by Greg Grooms

If you plan to see Searching for Sugar Man, please, stop reading this and watch the film first. Most films, in my opinion, should be viewed without introduction, if at all possible, but none more so than this. Should you ignore my warning, the review may do more than spoil the film’s drama for you; it may color your experience of it.  I still feel guilty for reading Tolkien out loud to my children before they were able to know it firsthand for themselves. One of the many things they must forgive me for.

The safe details: Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary released last year by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul . It’s had rave reviews at Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW, won many awards, and been nominated for many more, including an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This is a well-made film. But even more important, it tells a good story, or perhaps I should say two good stories.

Here’s where the line between safe and spoiler gets crossed.

The first story is the story of how South Africa changed from a white-dominated police state to an open democracy. To be sure, only a small part of this story is told in SFSM, but for anyone who is an artist first and a historian later, it’s one of the best parts of the story. It’s the story of how art has the power to change what politics often cannot.

I know how this works. In Alabama, where I grew up during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, while our parents were electing George Wallace governor four times, we were listening to Bob Dylan: “How many roads must a man walk down, before they call him a man?” No one quotes George Wallace anymore, not even in Alabama, but I still listen to Dylan.

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ImageHorridly Pretentious: a review of Prometheus  by R. Greg Grooms

Imagine you awake one morning to find yourself trapped in a grade B horror movie. Realizing where you are is easy because all the classic signs are evident, from things that go bump in the night, to scantily clad young women pursued (and worse) by monsters, and lots of really dumb people-- clueless in the face of obvious danger – who act as if they haven’t the sense that God gave geese. Try as you will, you can’t escape; it’s not a nightmare that can be banished merely by waking up.  How many times must you ask, “Who are we? What is our purpose?” before your cheap flick turns into something more?
Welcome to the universe of Prometheus.  
Watching Ridley Scott’s films reminds me of Longfellow’s nursery rhyme:
“There was a little girl,  
            Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
          When she was good,
           She was very good, indeed,
But when she was bad, she was horrid.”                                                           
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ImageBegging the Question: a review of The Sunset Limited by R. Greg Grooms
To be, or not to be, that is the question...” Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.
I admit it: Cormac McCarthy fascinates me. In the seven years since I stumbled across No Country For Old Men in an airport bookstore, I’ve savored every morsel of his writing, including his ten novels, two plays, and one screenplay. Three of his novels – All the Pretty Horses, No Country, and The Road—have made it to the screen so far, and both of his plays, albeit only on TV. Last year’s HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited is the subject of this review.
There are but two characters in TSL: Black, a poorly educated ex-con, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and White, a university professor played by Tommy Lee Jones. The play begins just after Black rescued White, who tried to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a commuter train. Black takes White home to his shabby apartment, and the two spend the next hour and a half debating the meaning of life.
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