Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

It's only real if it wrecks your life: HER, THE WAY WE WERE, LOVE AFFAIR

O Love, thou coaxer of dopamine and norepinephrine through miserly neruological alleyways, you can cure illness, reduce obesity, turn blue meanies into pink happies, sound trumpets and sport horns like the satyr Pan, Zeusishly cause lightning that the thirsty soul imbibes like wine as it zaps the chains from the mind and the sleeping corpse beneath it to electric life. You make once dumb love songs on our car radio suddenly profound. Our old life and crusty ways in rear view mirror fade as you drive us into the warm and final Aerosmith shot of Dazed and Confused dawn sunshine.

But then evening falls- the car stops, the door opens, and you too fade in the rear view mirror after dropping us unceremoniously off in the middle of highway nowhere. "This is where you get off," you say. There's only so much lightning our Frankenstein shell can take and you've got bolts to throw before you sleep, not that you ever do.

Love in the age of digital communication has led to something so instant it's impossible to internalize and therefore no change in the persona has been possible. We can't sit down at ye olde desk to write to our distant love with Ken Burns' fiddle music mournful in the background because there's never a time when our lover's voice can't be there, here, wherever... Verizon... 4G. No distance or mountain high enough; you can be Tom Hanks on coast-to-coast radio Sleepless in Seattle and wow a nation of ladies with a moment of near-but-not-all-the-way tearful sincerity in your voice, have them all fall in love with you, without even meeting you, because of course they've all imagined a perfect animus-reflective ideal via your sincere tinge. But that's what you are, right, Tom? A sincere tinge? Don't lose the octave-dropping edge of grief in your voice, or not be what they dream when you're seen, and you're gonna wind up with a Meg Ryan atop the Empire State Building, ala the end of Love Affair. 

I hated Sleepless in Seattle because it was the reminder my own relationship in Seattle had been a lie; the sex stopped and we began to gnaw at each other because hot as she was, and cool as she was, we were just not 'in love' in that special thunderbolt way, because I was a poet and my true love became a hybrid of Joni Mitchell singing how she wanted to shampoo and renew me again and again while I drove past a Virginia Slims billboard of a girl with long blond straight hair who looked like one of my best friends back in Syracuse whom I loved in a platonic courtly way. She, Joni, and the giant Virginia Slims girl swirled together into what I even knew at the time was an anima ideal, having studied Jung, with her, back in Syracuse. So now, alone in my car on that route I learned to cry again; my anima began to finally talk to me, using Joni and a colossal-size model with a cool white cigarette, and letters and thoughts of my friend back east, through which to project. My real life / 3D girlfriend in Seattle sniffed this out and thought my being platonic with a cute smart blonde back in Syracuse was impossible. When we saw When Harry Met Sally at the $2 theater in Edmonds she felt proved right and we broke up during the credits, and I still hate that movie.

This is the power of the signal, which is part of our unconscious too, the part neuroscientists and Amazon basin psychonauts are gradually coming to realize: the unconscious core of the soul doesn't come from within the mind or heart but rather is beamed into the pineal gland from an outside source. We are a signal ourselves, from some far off planet or even deep within our own, some fathomlessly long DNA serpent dreaming us from within the structure of the world. We can catch glimpses of its scales in the reflection of neon off the bathroom tiles or at night in the streaky painted light on the blacktop after a rainstorm, but we can't see it directly, or hide from it ever, and either way the voice on the radio singing about love or talking about it is a combo of two signals that are connected at both ends - receiver and transmitter- both just old Svengali talking to himself again. True Love is literally written on the wind, a billion cellular coded mash notes coursing through our atomic structure every second, a net of support so intimate no mask can survive it. No Walter Mitty can have his fancy flights, nor an American keep his Hustle once this signal strikes. Only in Her does it meet a receptive transmitter, and then only because it is a pure signal and it's found a dude who wouldn't know a mask if it came up and spooked him.

Like the less successful film Surrogates (see: The Wringer of Ringerhood), Her takes place in a Catfish future wherein everyone can be whomever else they want in virtual reality, and for some reason choose they selves. Meeting other 3-D real time people has lost much of its feigned jocularity in Spike Jonze's succinctly imagined future; no one smokes or makes wretched small talk or goes on benders; bluetooth sex chats with strangers are as natural as Ambien isn't. If Don Draper could see what his Madison Ave sincerity carousel would lead to, would he ever had turned against Luckies? Better to smoke indoors at the martini bar of masque-on-mask artificiality than be healthy in a bubble of self where a computer voice validates your every movement like a conductor on baby's first potty train.

As a Pisces born during the psychedelic free love eclipse of 1967 I am late to the party or far too early most of the time, so I know too well that when you go out dressed as someone else your old self may not be there when you come back, but accepting that and disguising anyway is something called maturity. I've had my soul shaved into nothingness by transdimensional clockwork gorgons so I also know too well the self is not a constant, anymore than a tornado or polar vortex is separate from the air around it. But I've also known the loving rush of brain exaltation and excitement that can come just from love e-mails, IMs and phone calls, and a mix tape. I vividly experienced how the absence of pictures in those early days of the internet (c. 1995) worked to boost the endorphins. As when we imagine a character in a novel, our love stayed a haunting gorgeous screen of fluid features in our mind. No purer form of anima projector screen has e'er existed. No face-to-face meeting has ever surpassed that giddy rapture.

My first realization of this, the aghast misery of 'the big reveal,' precipitated what AA would call my 'bottom' --after a few months of bliss via long letters and amor-fou-phone calls she sent me a care package: a photo, a watercolor with a romantic original poem, and a mix tape. The poem was... okay, the songs super sad like I love (it was the early 90s, so lots of grunge pop), but her photo was from when she was a child of about twelve, with a cat.

Hmm. From when she was a child... with a cat.

You can guess the rest if you've seen Catfish, or know how internet dating works, and the way alcoholism fuels clinical depression and vice versa. Now there's no excuse but back then the World Wide Web was almost exclusively AOL chat rooms, all the Catfish tricks were still brand new, and I was a prize chump. I flew to Denver to meet her anyway, too drunk to figure a way out. It was the spring of 1997 and the arrival gate bar was serving doubles for the price of singles. Within ten minutes of getting off the plane I had parked us there until she came out of focus. Denver, man, was a blur after that.

Flash forward ten years, falling in love with a fellow writer on the phone from 3,000 miles away.  I wrote this post on Coming Home (1979) for her; photos galore to vouchsafe her mad hotness, twelve hour stretches whisked by breathless on the phone, me hardly daring to switch my phone to the other ear lest I miss a second. A bad cold had brought my voice down an octave and an opiate-enriched Tussianex prescription made me self-assured, our voices merged like two sinuous serpents. Then Christmas came, dragging us apart to our separate families. I went from slithering through the warm, whispered waterways of our shared vocal embrace to shouting into elderly phones just for a single mundane pleasantry to be heard by my 95 year-old granny. My self-assurance withered under my dad's heat ray glare.

My new phone love didn't return my call for almost a month. Really it was just four days, just long enough to break the whispered waterway connection. I had mailed her pictures, you see, in the interim, along with a poem, a watercolor, and a mix tape...

Blood of the Lamb Lenses

Five years later I finally did find a true love that managed to begin on the internet via long long letters of adoration, this one a big Rilke and Thoman Bernhard fan, and it ended in real life cohabitation. And last year during a three month flash of blissful enlightenment brought about by pre-apocalyptic euphoria and galactic alignmentI got to experience the literal reality of the 'everything looks rosy' or 'rose-colored glasses' or 'washed in the blood of the lamb' effect. I was seeing an actual rose-tint over the world and everything seemed to be infused with a healthy crimson, a flush in the world's cheeks. It didn't last of course, and I had forgotten about it until seeing Her. The whole damn film is rosy. But maybe that's the problem. Any acting teacher or therapist would surely weep with joy over Phoenix's sublime and constant state of emotional nakedness, his wrenching honesty, his palpable joy and heartbreak. But that's all we really see of this guy - his heart-sleeve vulnerability and grueling honesty. It's a such a lonely word and everyone is so / untrue, for a reason. A man without a mask unnerves even his gooiest friends sooner or later. He's not even really a man, just a crossroads between tears and doofus grins.

On the other side of the manly coin, consider The Way We Were (1973): Robert Redford's final goodbye to Babs at the end, an accidental run-in after not seeing each other for years--is the first real emotion he has in the film and maybe in his whole career--is so powerful, I cry every time... or would if I had seen it more than once. Redford ("the Natural") can't act in the emotional naked Phoenix style and that is his strength. When he finally does crack the mask, the walls come down where you didn't even know walls were. That's what art is supposed to do: break down walls where you didn't know walls were. Redford's entire stone-faced oeuvre is worth enduring for this one crystal-like clear water fountain / to the sea / moment. Is this single vulnerable crack equivalent to, or equal to, all of Phoenix's performance in Her? I think so. At what point does an unmasked man go from touching to douche chill-icky? Answer: when he had no mask to smash in the first place.

A true story memoir about a beautiful golden WASP Adonis lured out of his quail and ale club by a bohemian Jewess intellectual socialist played by Barbara Streisand, The Way We Were is a star-crossed romance that goes on far longer than most, across acres of history, the lovers crossed as if forever. He initially shacks up with her against all his better judgment and friend advice, partially because, let's face it, WASP girls don't take lovers, only husbands. Babs ain't so brittle. For the progressive socialists, shacking up's no big deal. I can vouchsafe from experience that intellectual Jewish sensuality is totally terrific, a shnozz or some physical imperfection fades in the mystical connectivity of their spirit and electromagnetic heat. And Bab's got such a light spirit you can see why he comes to see her as more than a booty call. There's a complex layer of completion-seeking added when a bronzed Adonis not in touch with his feelings melts for a heart-on-sleeve Brooklyn motormouth. Opposites attract for a reason, it's a polarity thing. A north needs a south for a proper axis.

That's why you can tell the love affair in Her isn't real, not that it matters, which is the point. Minds meet, excite each other, enrapture and engage and then they are no longer the same minds. You can't expect them to stay with the person their previous mind chose as a lover, that would be cruel. Love is an accelerated learning process, absorbing the other persons likes and dislikes and philosophies, and then what? Moving onto the next lesson. But TRUE love is cruel, a teacher who never lets you out of first grade. Opposites can change all they want, but since there's no overlap they can never make each other's input redundant.

Redford and Streisand's characters grow apart not because they've outgrown one another but because around each other they've stopped growing, period, and only later, at the end of the film, when they run into each other on the street, all betrothed to proper class and religiously affiliated spouses - and only then, after it all has happened - does Redford finally crack, because he had stopped growing for so long with her and even without her and now, crack goes the mask - the naked self spurts forth ungainly but true. In Breezy, for example, a whole fifty years of hardened crust cracks right off Bill Holden when he spontaneously bursts into a child-like smile of rapture on the beach with younger girl Kay Lenz, and it's beautiful and makes me weep for joy because he spent those earlier decades being tough. It's the epiphany moment of the hopelessness of love, that impossible star-crossed fate where even if you each ditch your old life and together make your grab for the gold it will never survive, just as it can never die, and so you do it anyway, and ten years later you wonder if it even ever existed (as in Before Midnight), but this one moment on the beach stands tall as a reminder of the vast acres of self you could have claimed that are now forever lost no matter which road you take. But this is at least one road being taken, now. Where it leads to is irrelevant, and you proved to yourself that given the chance to smash your mask, even knowing you'll never get a mask that good again, you smash it? That's bravery...

But in Her, Phoenix the actor stands naked before us from the get-go, hitting these painful notes that are masterfully honest and Jones' script backs him up with eloquent moments like being crouched on the subway steps while a rush of commuters file around him while hearing of how his digital love is having intimate conversations with thousands of other operating systems, juxtaposing how cut off we are from even the surface of our fellow man--streaming past in that commuter rush. All we have when in the Catfish-verse of virtual perfection is the illusion of connection, and the hope of one day uniting with the machine reflection, the 'what we wish we were' vs. 'how we are,' the hope we can one day merge so well that our Frankenstein Skynet Robbie the Robot This is for Pris, Cherry 2000 Absolut vodka Demon Seed love child shall stand as proof that Lady Skynet and John Conner can unite the Capulets and Romulans after all.

 A man moseying along the crowded bubble of his electric navel / real world destroyed
The woman looking outside the bubble at the real world  /  Communist
Two souls alone together in the shipboard bubble / real world inaccessible
Then there's Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Leo McCarey's Love Affair (1939). Now as a man who now only cries when he passes a liquor store window display, I don't care for Irene Dunne in most things. Studs like Cary Grant and Charles Boyer are too good for her, sez I. But in Love Affair her prissy ball-busting schtick is needed because it is so unlike Charles Boyer's nostril-breathing sensualist --she's the Redford, he's the Babs. But they're the only first class passengers traveling alone on a trans-Atlantic cruise, brought together by their miserable separate tables, so opposites sizzle. Director Leo McCarey is peerless at matchmaking, using precision walk-ons to break down all walls and hardness: a talkative chipper landlady, a trio of weird little girl harmonizers (with Irene Dunne on ukulele), an endearing orphanage manager the kids call Picklepuss, a charming art gallery owner, a smitten club manager, a drunk guy carrying a Christmas tree all the way up to 182nd Street, a heavenly orphan choir singing not too loud there's a baby upstairs, gathered around Dunne's sick-bed, and the celestial Maria Ouspenskaya in her greatest role as Boyer's Yoda-like grandmother. Not a single mean word or ill will in the whole film, just two people cautiously reading the signs that fate's throwing at them and quietly slipping free from all their original plans. And we worry about the final big meeting like saps, because everyone else in the film is also aware of how vital these meetings are, the one thing that can cut through all the crap and yank us right out of our lives, even if it's for the worse, is the one thing worth doing. Fortune favors the bold but love doesn't give a shit about fortune or anything else. In Before Sunset, Hawke misses his flight, doesn't cancel or change it, just outright misses it, because Delpy's smoldering to Nina Simone; Amy Jolly kicks off her thousand dollars shoes and barefoot marches off to follow the Legion. It's the grand gesture, so make it while you're high.


And in that height of highness, it's not just the lovers themselves but the romance of light and shadow and sound caressing Boyer and Dunne over glistening rear projection seas that has to pound its board against the surf of uncertainty; the landlocked future already preventing them from being together, like some poison chocolate pink champagne aphrodisiac. You only know for sure it's love when it wrecks your life. If your favorite thing was golf, love will ensure you can never play again; if you loved to touch, your true love hates being touched; if you like to ski, your true love stabs you in the kneecap. You are giving up the shiniest cheap car collection in the world for one battered but sturdy BMW to last you the rest of your life. Before in relationships you would just mark the hours 'til your escape, even if the girl or boy seemed perfect for you, but when true love calls even a Boyer or Redford becomes just a smoov version of Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel! But dig, the trick is 'becomes' not already is, Phoenix! Now crow! Crow into the empty screen for a chance to glimpse your soul's secret norepinephrine stash! Crow before the charm's unwound and your sockets empty of all but stray current. Crow damn yo... (end transmission)


  1. "Her takes place in a Catfish future wherein everyone can be whomever else they want in virtual reality, and for some reason choose they selves." Brilliant! I really wanted to like this movie, but I could never realty to Theodor. He wouldn't put effort into Rooney Mara but got excited about his gameboy? I thought it would work as a kind of Teen Lit premise, but you nailed it on this one, she couldn't wreck his life. There wasn't even anything seen as forbidden or weird about him falling in love with Windows 95 - which, admittedly, people once camped out to buy that shit - except for his ex wife telling him he was a douche. I think a story of a person in love with a Stephen Hawking level debilitate would be a story worth telling. I thought when "she" mailed off his letters to a publishing house that he would get fired for violating some company protocol. That would have at least been a conflict. But, not in this pantywaisted world.

  2. My friends and I are really split on HER. For the life of me, I think I am going to have to get new friends. The more they defend completely loving it and how brilliant it is and topical and whatever, the more I go from Eh, to hatred. And for everything I say about what doesn't work for me, the points you and I both listed, the more they say - But that's what Spike Jonze meant to do! I compare The2 to Llewyn Davis in a lot of ways - LD plays other peoples' songs, with his eyes closed, T2 writes other peoples correspondences. LD - chases a cat through a subway car- T2 - chases a video game Video game character through a tunnel. LD Mocks real folk music when he sees it - T2 hides from real love every time it presents an opportunity. Whereas the Coens were more than willing to let the audience make up their own mind about Llewyn Davis, Jonez seemed to insist that I feel for this dewy loss of a man. I think I could have appreciated Her if the point of view wasn't forced on me.


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