A few weeks ago, I went to grab lunch at a takeout food spot near the office. It’s the sort of place where you move down an assembly line, telling the servers behind the counter what to add to your plate at each station. Immediately ahead of me in line was a woman about my age looking intently at her phone. Over her shoulder, I saw that she was scrolling through photos on Instagram.
She reached the first station and looked up. Rice or greens? “Greens,” she said, barely looking up, and resumed scrolling as she shuffled to the next station.
Protein? “Chicken,” she said. Resume scrolling and shuffling.
Three sides? “Uhh…Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, sweet potato.” Scroll, shuffle.
Then it was time to pay. The woman handed over her credit card. As she waited for the cashier to return it, she scrolled through a few last Instagram photos.
I don’t know why this scene made such an impression on me. Like you, I probably witness something like it every day.
Twenty minutes into watching “Her,” Spike Jonze’s film about a man who falls in love with the Siri-like artificial intelligence program that manages his digital devices, I thought, How the hell is this going to work as a two-hour movie? Specifically, how did Jonze think he was going to keep viewers’ attention for that long with a narrative that mostly involved a man interacting with a wallet-sized piece of plastic, glass and metal?
That Jonze succeeded — that “Her” is not just watchable but visually beautiful, emotionally honest, resonant, funny and deeply moving — is exactly why I’d like to see it win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this weekend.
If the Oscars were like the Winter Olympics, and the Best Picture category was figure skating, “Her” would be heading into judging with a huge advantage, having selected for itself a program with the highest difficulty and then pulled it off flawlessly.
In fact, the Oscars are a bit like Olympic figure skating, but mostly in that an inherent conservatism in the judging tends to encourage the same sorts of acts year after year. In skating, we get “Carmen” and “Bolero”; in film, it’s period pieces and tales of triumph over disability. Politics and politicking also play a bigger role than they’re supposed to in both competitions.
The plugged-in prognosticators seem to think it’s a three-way race for this year’s Best Picture award, among “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “American Hustle.” “Gravity” was absurd but boasted some technically bravura sequences. “American Hustle” felt like too many other ’70s crime capers and didn’t leave much of an aftertaste.
As for “12 Years a Slave,” well, this is the part where I admit that I haven’t seen it yet. I know. But even without having seen it, I’m willing to grant that it has that most crucial quality in a Best Picture: It is Important. By almost every critic’s lights, it’s thoroughly deserving of the Academy’s recognition.
It’s hard to compete with slavery for Importance. But “Her,” in its own ways, is an important film, too. In the low-stakes context of early-21st century Western culture, the relationship between humans and their technology may be the most important subject going. The way that smartphones have not only entered the fabric of our lives in the last few years but come to dominate it — what could be a bigger story than that?
That “Her” succeeds as well as it does is due to a sneaky bit of misdirection. Watching Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore lose himself in his phone and his video games while the flesh-and-blood people around him fade out of focus, we know there’s a lesson in there for us somewhere.
But when it arrives — spoiler alert, for those who haven’t seen “Her” yet — it’s not the one we’re expecting. Theodore’s mistake isn’t falling in love with something that’s less than human. Just the opposite. Although she’s only an operating system, Scarlett’s Johansson’s Samantha ultimately achieves a fuller, richer humanity than Theo himself, because, unlike him, she’s willing to do the difficult, scary work of making authentic connections with people who understand her. The phone is only the form factor; Samantha is very much a person. Theo’s mistake is in using technology to avoid doing that work.
“12 Years a Slave” may have something important to teach us about our past, but “Her” has something important to say about the present. Are we listening — or are we too busy distracting ourselves with our screens?