Me, Her & Llewyn Davis

Sidenote: this essay of sorts, probably reads better and makes more sense if you’ve seen both HER and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.  I recommend both of them highly:

Even as I write this I sense a sudden burst of solipsism that is immediately bringing me down. There’s a voice in my head screaming “Don’t write about yourself, write about the movie!” It feels like this Charlie Kaufman-like vortex of identity crashing into personal expression, primarily the result of seeing two recent movies I would consider to be all-time favorites. I would say that my top five of this year, somehow complements my personality as well as being ideal examples of what I consider to be great movies mostly due to an emotional response. But I was sitting on the el-train in Chicago after seeing INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and HER, and noticed my reflection on the window. I realized how easy it’s been to get lost in my own head even with this incredible world passing by. But at that exact moment, I hadn’t correlated two memorable images from two movies that I watched back-to-back involving protagonists sitting on a train, looking out. One is lost in love, the other is lost. One smiles at the sight of his own reflection while the other “is” a cat. I began to pick up on themes as they pertained to my own life, and once the synapses started firing, I immediately questioned whether it was self-indulgent to immediately equate myself with characters that are, to some extent, full of themselves or so insanely focused on fulfilling their own needs. For better or worse, both movies spoke to me despite knowing they can be perceived as flawed for others. I like that I identify with these two individuals in similar ways at different times.  I can see myself being occasionally envious or selfish like Lleywn, and simultaneously lovelorn like Theodore from HER.  One person might be destined to end up beaten in alleyways for good, while the other might be content sitting on a rooftop with a friend who shares his plight. I relate to the latter more than the former, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at someone’s Facebook photo and thought to myself some variation of Llewyn’s dismissive, drunken retort, “I like their sweater.”

Writing about HER is akin to dancing about architecture. My initial analysis: HER felt like love at its most pure, filtered through universal concerns and personal experience. I can understand that maybe Jonze is telling a simple love story that ignores the outside world surrounding him.  Upon reflection, that film felt like something more than a love story I could commend, even if I’m reaching for transcendence that for some, is not attainable. But at the very least, you must be able to pinpoint moments when you’re sitting beside the one you love with sheer bliss coursing through your veins. The outside world ceases to exist and the sound of their breath can be akin to a song that saved your life. I can’t blame viewers for being a bit more aware of this movie’s faults or tendency to twee out, and when I hear these reservations, it reads (or sounds) a bit like cynicism but I know it’s not. It’s a subjective interpretation, like any review. ROOM 237 pretty much sums up why this occurs. You could watch HER, and shrug it off while I could watch the same movie and cry out of sheer happiness. I sought out details in HER that I could latch onto. Maybe the ukulele-playing and “data” joke make some people vomit, while it put a stupidly sappy smile on my face probably in remembrance of when I did that shit for my girlfriend. So I am writing this word-soup with hesitation, because it involves that side of “self” that reads like indulgence, but I can’t say that HER isn’t a bit indulgent in its own way. Maybe it’s not batshit crazy indulgent, but certainly a bit idealistic at times with its romantic notions, that is until reality sets in for the couple. Speaking of reality and inserting it into fiction, I began to sense that maybe by putting myself in the movie, it made me love it all the more. Which reads like narcissism, but I assure you despite my bouts of self-doubt, I have a tendency to appreciate myself more and more with each passing day. I know deep down that movies are like “an empathy machine,” as Roger Ebert once said.

Obviously knowing the history of Jonze’s failed relationship with Sofia Coppola made me view HER as an exercise of therapy, rather than a science fiction statement about technology. For some, that’s been done a gazillion times, but it never ceases to amaze me. The scene where Theodore meets with his soon-to-be ex-wife immediately felt like Jonze working through his own divorce, only Theodore’s ex-wife is a writer, not a filmmaker. Separating “self” from two recent movie viewing experiences is part of the impetus to even write a review, but it will probably read as an existential contemplation cloaked in psychoanalysis. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been highly aware of my weaknesses to try and watch a movie without thinking of how it reflects me as a person. Therefore, it has struck me that maybe narcissism is partially inevitable, on both part of the filmmaker, and the viewer.

Awhile ago, a friend of mine seemed to suggest that even in everyday conversation, I find a way to sneak in my own experiences into other people’s stories or daily interactions. I wasn’t necessarily conscious of it, but now I notice when it happens, and part of me feels a hint of guilt. I was concerned that maybe I was seeking validity and not recognizing that as indulgence. To go even deeper, I began to notice that my own mother always seems to interject with something along the lines of “Well I did that” or “I feel this way” even when relaying something as mundane as what I went through at work. I began to recognize this trend of the “Me” factor, and its effect on conversations I was having. Even when I was piecing together clips for the movie podcast i host, a lot of my reviews were about how the film reflected my own life especially when discussing favorites from years past. I used to say that deep down, watching movies or listening to music was therapy. And suddenly, I began to sense that maybe my “need” for personal connection to art, was clouding the analytical part to where I couldn’t be swayed that a movie was “bad.” If it was bad, then why did I feel good? Sure there are exceptions along the lines of GOODFELLAS, to where I could not see myself in that world at all, but admired the craft of the filmmaker at play. While GOODFELLAS is now revered as a classic, there are detractors of Scorsese’s latest as being derivative and indulgent especially in regards to its length. When it comes to two very recent movies that I fell head over heels for, I was wondering that maybe, they were saying “Narcissism cannot escape.” (Maybe the optimist in me is screaming, “It’s not narcissism, it is empathy!”). For Theodore in Her, self-involvement brings him peace. For Llewyn Davis, there is hell to pay. I felt a kinship to both sides. It’s as if Theodore is the creepy romantic, while Llewyn is the hapless asshole, both socially difficult to manage. It’s not all black and white though. I can’t outright proclaim that each side has a place in my personality spectrum, but I definitely felt closer to these characters and not necessarily because I’ve done the same things they have. I just understood them, again, to a fault that maybe interrupts the process of valid critiques. By constantly trying to figure myself out, I will experience joy in realizing that I can connect to myself in others, while also recognizing that self-absorption can lead to repeated acts of damnation and detachment. Seeing these two movies back-to-back felt miraculous and timely, but I realize that they did that for me, and not for everyone else. So I can’t outright think that someone is not “getting” either movie when they don’t find value, I can only perceive the feeling as my own and putting into words is not indulgence, but an act of sharing that either makes sense for some or comes across as overreaching for something almost as an act of desperation to connect.

Llewyn almost seems destined and determined to detach, partially due to trauma he experienced with the death of his collaborator. Or maybe he is just an asshole, and by the end of the film, is content with that. There is no striving for change, just like the Coen Brothers subvert the possibility of an arc. They’re only striving to tell a simple story about a lost soul who might be doomed. Some might find beauty and freedom in that, while others feel sorry for his disposition. In Her, Theodore is shakingly desperate to connect again but is unsure how to, much like the two lead characters in LOST IN TRANSLATION (overreaching for some semblance of interpersonal narratives coinciding through different visions?). Even a temporary connection will suffice, but how rare is that in the face of an inevitable conclusion. A prolonged connection is sustainable through finding the right person who finds you to be “suitable” to spend time with. But even technology offers the non-verbal promise of sustainability and longevity. Filmmakers make art with this technology, which can offer the experience of visionary immortality. We want to believe that by being loved and loving someone back, it can lead to transcendence beyond immediate needs - after effects from what we’ve provided, whether it results in an offspring or not. The act of love is rarely selfless, since we hope for reciprocation. Even an artificial intelligence eventually realizes that love is hard to control. Is it worth it to keep trying? For Theodore and his ex-wife, they accept that love is not meant to be maintained, even with a vow of better or worse. What makes Her incredibly special, to me, is that it redefines the idea of “real.” Personal connection always HAD to be physical for me, until I decided that after my broken, failed relationship, that a long distance relationship was actually healthier since distance was necessary. I couldn’t believe someone could stand my physical presence due to the fact that someone who professed marriage to me, decided that I was exhausting and emotionally difficult to manage. But I still needed to believe that I could connect since I partially define my existence by being able to interact with others, which has always been a challenge.

After living with a friend who once confronted me with the opinion of actually being a narcissist, it made me reevaluate the whole “selfless, nice guy” persona that I relied on. And in the past, much like my own father, I was told that I should “do more things for myself” rather than focusing on the needs of those around me. HER came at me, with a truly deep-rooted conflict of my own relationship with technology. Interfaces with Facebook and Twitter often leave me uneasy because it focuses on the “me” and what I am doing, thinking and feeling. A lot of outlets on the Internet feel like advertisements of “self” in hopes of validity. It’s not an act of vanity, but a reaching out to others despite the actual physical contact.

My biggest fear is that this type of interface will dominate to the point of isolation. And I was initially worried that HER was going to be supremely melancholy about the effects of technology. Then I began to realize that HER is really about relationships outside of texts, photos, FourSquare check-ins, etc. Theodore and Amy have enough self-awareness due to their dependency and their careers, but also make time for face-to-face conversation. What has always bugged me about Facebook and Twitter is my own personal preference for actual vocal inflection and context. I can listen to hours of podcasts despite not being able to talk back directly. I walk around with earbuds in, aware that I’m potentially blocking out the outside world, for a personal preference of listening to others share their ideas and thoughts and opinions, sometimes in stream-of-consciousness fashion. What excited me the most about HER was something that maybe some have overlooked: the foundation of listening and being aroused (not always sexually) by a voice. A voice of comfort and companionship that felt eerily similar to my two experiences involving long-distance relationships. Yes there was phone sex, but what strengthened our relationship was that it focused on listening rather than looking. I have never felt too self-conscious when talking through Skype or on the phone, so I can buy how people connect and develop a connection simply by talking and listening. HER seems to celebrate that strong belief I’ve always possessed regarding the art of listening. I know it’s not a major component of its thesis, but it’s what I gravitated towards once Samantha and Theodore became more than two people talking back and forth. The act of listening and connecting beyond physical bodies, and how not having one has its drawbacks, but having one does too. I think both movies also show the drawback of getting lost in the needs of the “self,” and whether or not that is good or bad.

If Llewyn is content with not being able to connect and inhabit prolonged relationships (he clearly doesn’t care how he comes off to others), then let him be and don’t demand otherwise. He may be lost in the fog indefinitely, occasionally wounding an animal (which might be an extension of himself). On the flip-side, if Theodore realizes now how to love someone, and possibly himself, then there is hope that he can aspire for something real. Better yet, he has mutual support from his friend Amy on that rooftop. (I could most certainly point out that my best friend Heather has constantly been cited as an Amy Adams doppelganger, but that’s beside the point and doesn’t really add to why I think the movie is so special). The tears I experienced with HER as well as a pivotal moment involving Lleywn’s father, were unmatched to anything else with the exception of the final scenes of UPSTREAM COLOR. I still struggle with whether or not my interpretation is worth reiterating and discussing, since it probably doesn’t translate well to say variations of “me me me me” while reviewing a movie. That’s why I say, ignore what others think and just see these two movies. Maybe you’ll love one and not the other, or maybe you’ll be indifferent to both. But if you want to see why I have a tendency to love and doubt myself sometimes at the same time, just examine both characters in both films. There’s no guarantee you’ll see yourself reflected in a subway window the way I did recently, but if you’re lucky, you’ll see an orange tabby cat looking back at you.

James Laczkowski