November 18, 2013
Los Angeles has a fascinating history of being depicted on the silver screen. (Thom Andersen made a movie about this!) It's only appropriate given that since the nascent days of Hollywood, Southern California has served as the empty stage from which filmmakers could create an infinite number of settings for the camera. Spike Jonze's latest film, Her (which screened twice this past week at AFI Fest), continues in this tradition and can even be seen as a spiritual successor to another famous depiction of Los Angeles: Los Angeles in 1982's Blade Runner.
The L.A. of Ridley Scott's film was a dreary, dark, dystopic nightmare set in 2019. Equally indebted to the traditions of film noir and science fiction, Blade Runner was a cornerstone of cyberpunk. It also brilliantly tapped into the zeitgeist of the beginning of Reagan's America. Japan's rise as an economic superpower rankled a country run by men that had fought in a war against them decades earlier. The perpetual acid rain that fell upon the populace still living on earth (the 99%, no doubt) was what the environmental movement had warned us about a decade earlier. Blade Runner's Los Angeles was our fears realized.
At first the setting of Her hardly seems sinister. The weather is consistently nice (so much that an LA Times weather forecast email is deleted without being read in the beginning of the film) and the Los Angeles of an unspecified near-future year is very clean and built up. Shiny new skyscrapers that don't exist yet in 2013 populate the skyline. The Los Angeles of Her is a technological and developmental utopia. The streets of Los Angeles are squeaky clean and the wide walkways and pedestrian bridges make it a perfectly fine city to walk in. Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly is never seen driving anywhere, but instead taking the highly-developed subway system to take him where he needs to go. The scourge of poverty appears to be wiped away from the sectors of the city we ever see. The aesthetic can be best described as if an Apple Store vomited all over Southern California. Theodore works for a company in DTLA that creates "handwritten" love letters and lives a short subway ride away in the "Beverly Wilshire City Tower," overlooking DTLA (One Wilshire is seen outside his bedroom window). It's the perfect look for a movie about one man's literal love affair with technology.
As an aside, it's a fun thought experiment to pretend that Her is a sequel set many years in the future to (500) Days of Summer, given the setting and similar occupations the protagonists hold.
Underneath the iSheen is a disconcerting reflection of our current zeitgeist. As Bryce J. Renninger suggested, the whiteness of the movie suggests a gentrified dystopia. If the wealthy haven't left for the Off-World Colonies of Blade Runner, they've pushed minorities and the poor out of downtown and Echo Park and further into the unseen margins.
Keen viewers will recognize some of the skylines and exteriors in the film as Shanghai. This may not seem like an unusual choice, as it has become de rigueur for Hollywood films to be partially shot in China, and Shanghai may have the densest collection of modern skyscrapers in the world. What better real-world location to use to depict a near-future city?
But Shanghai is not a setting in Her, and aside from a brief vacation in the mountains, Theodore Twombly never ventures outside of Los Angeles. Shanghai stands in for Los Angeles, and the obvious real-life Chinese setting is never hidden from the viewer. Chinese signage that could easily be digitally scrubbed or simply moved off frame is always apparent. In Spike Jonze's near future, the Chinese have exerted their influence on the world. In the thirty years since the release of Blade Runner, China has taken the place of Japan in American culture as the new Yellow Scare. At least in Her, this alternate reality is less visually oppressive than the video billboards of Blade Runner and not as on-the-nose as the standard currency of last year's Looper.
Along with the Chinese signage, the surveillance cameras of Shanghai remain in the frame and eerily suggest the ultimate reality of the Edward Snowden revelations. This aspect of Chinese culture was explored earlier this year in Johnnie To's excellent film Drug War. In Her, the fact that your operating system can read all of your emails without your permission and that Big Brother watches you as you walk down the street appears to be the price we pay for our squeaky clean urban utopia.
Fear not, though, as Her is pure speculative fiction. After all, the subway in Los Angeles makes it all the way out to the ocean.
Her will have a limited release on December 18th with a wide release on January 10th.