Cinematic Soapbox #1: Spike Jonze encapsulates love, loss, insanity and everything in-between in just over 3 minutes

Welcome to “Cinematic Soapbox!” Much like the AV Club’s Scenic Routes, I will discuss a movie, scene, series of movies, series of scenes, genre or some other cinematic element, why I think it works and what it means to me. I am obviously not the level of writer that Mike D’Angelo is so don’t expect the same quality and thoughtfulness he brings to his column. 

Ah, love. What an abstract yet utterly complicated idea. Armistead Maupin once said that love is the only transcendent experience. It has motivated quite a number of our species’ actions for the short time we’ve been on this rock but we are no closer to understand what exactly it is. Only the emotions that come with it. As the great poet Haddaway once iconically asked….

Movies rarely capture the brutal, often melancholic insanity love instills. Particularly romanic love. We often either see the really bad or the really good. Any attempts at a middle ground usually end up with the expected happy ending. Movies that critics argue as “realistic” are usually about bad, unhealthy relationships. I want to stress that is by no means wrong or bad. Movies, by definition, need to be thematic. They warrant scenes of loud melodrama. In fact, while I can’t personal relate to a grand majority of those scenes, I enjoy them none the less when in the hands of great writers, actors and directors.

But what about movie that actually presents you with the story of an actual, truly realistic relationship? A movie that features all the ups, the downs, the insanity, the beauty of two people falling in and out of love with one another without devolving into overblown dramatics? Not only can I name you a movie that does this, I can tell you how it does so in a single fucking scene and it does so with a man that has fallen in love with what equates to a computer.

Spike Jonze is one of my favorite all-time filmmakers. In just 4 movies that he has directed in the past 15 years (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are and Her), he has done more than most directors have done with 10 movies in the same amount of time. His most recent film, Her, just very well be my favorite for a number of reasons that I could spend hours on but will save you from by getting to the point.

I don’t really get emotional during movies any more. Sure, I feel emotions but I don’t usually let my emotions get the better of me. I didn’t cry, not that that is a bad thing. People often mesh getting emotional with crying. The last movie to successfully make me shed a tear or two was WALL-E which will probably make an appearance on here at some point if I keep this going long enough. This movie fucking floored me. It stayed with me for a good few weeks after I saw it the first time. It just kept rattling in my brain. It made me go back and reexamine every romantic relationship I had ever been in (an astounding 3…4 if you want to count a month long fling my freshman year of college) or had pursued. It haunted me because many of the moments rang true to moments I had experienced (albeit heightened dramatically). I have never fallen in love with a computer (although a past girlfriend did compare me to one) but I actually related to Theodore, something that next-to-never happens to me in romantic movies. He doesn’t come any closer to understanding it by the time the credits roll, but he sure comes out a little wiser (if not more emotionally bruised). Scenes where he struggled to find his footing with Samantha and the various (human) women in his life reflected more than one I’ve found myself in. But the scene I kept coming back to again and again was the scene on the beach.

To provide a smidgen of context, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoneix) and operating system (OS), voiced by Scarlett Johansson, have just had sex (or I guess whatever you want to call sex with a man and his computer talking to one another) and decided to purse a relationship, albeit a highly unconventional one. The two have decided to spend the day together at the beach. This is wrapped up by Theodore discussing his past relationship with his ex-wife, Catherine, (Rooney Mara).

I guess to explain why this scene works so well for me personally is to discuss what ostensibly amounts to the two parts  that make up the overall scene: the date and the discussion/flashback.

The date is fairly simple. The two go to the beach and talk a little. Samantha sets the score with some music she has composed herself. Arcade Fire’s score is absolutely on-fucking-point here as it is the perfect music to score moments I’ve found myself in. Those crucial few days you find yourself at the beginning of a relationship in which you really like someone and they really like you too. We (well, me in particular) don’t find ourselves in these situations that often so there is a weird melancholy you just can’t put your finger on. You’re incredibly excited but overwhelmingly scared. Everything is in front of you both, but everything is also against you. You are on the precipice of a relationship that could change your life for the better, for the worse, or not at all. Frances Ha did a spectacular job of summing this sensation up:

Ergo this scene is nearly silent with exception to the score and the score note-for-note perfect at conveying what needs to be conveyed.

The scene switches to near the end of the day, where Samantha brings up Catherine, a woman she knows only about by reading all of Theodore’s correspondence with her through e-mail as well as pictures. (She’s a computer so she has access to all of these things…which is kind of terrifying when you consider Theo has opted to purse a relationship with her.)

Jonze opts instead to give us brief moments that comprised a relationship that had to have lasted a couple of decades. There are no crucial moments shown. Their first meeting for example or their ultimate falling out. We see them talking; the two meeting a friends’ baby; we the tail end of an argument. In other words, the boring stuff. The boring stuff, as I’m sure you’ve been told by your parents, are the things we remember most. The boring moments are things I find myself replaying over and over as I grow older. Simply getting a text from my girlfriend, knowing that she was thinking of me, are things I long for more often than not. To me, this scene is completely comparable to the “Married Life” sequence from Up with the soul-crushing. (I get it, Pixar. I’m going to die one day. I don’t need you to remind me in each one of your fucking amazing movies, you bastards!)

This scene tells us EVERYTHING we need to know about why these two were attracted to one another and broke up with a few sentences and wordless clips. Contrast that of an argument scene from Revolutionary Road that drops us in on a “smidgen” of tension that has been building before the movie began:

Once again, I want to stress that this isn’t wrong. I’ve seen my fair share of heated arguments between two people. It’s just not true to my experience. When I am in a heated argument, neither of us have anything remotely clever to say to the other. That usually comes later. For a grand majority of healthy romantic relationships (or at least ones I’ve been in), the bad moments are no more earth shattering than the good. They are equally mundane. Quiet aggression substitutes screaming matches more often than not. These often lead yelling later, but these quiet, dumb, passive aggressive moments are more commonplace and boring and ultimately memorable (TO ME) than the moments that land on the extreme emotion cortex portions of my brain.

I’m not trying to make some sort of grand statement on love. My thoughts on the subject change on almost a daily basis and on how depressed or happy I am at any given time. I’m simply conveying how a simple scene in a movie effected me in a way that I was not anticipating in the slightest. It did so my showcasing the wholly extraordinary, yet completely mundane intricacies that make up being in love with another person. If you have not seen the full movie, I highly suggest you seek it out and see if you agree or disagree with everything I’ve said here.


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