Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Computer-Patient Sex

This is a post I've been meaning to write ever since 2013, when I first saw Spike Jonze's remarkable film, Her. I've just watched it again  on DVD. So here goes.

Critics wrote about the film as a futuristic love story, in which Theodore Twombly ("Theo"), played by Joaquin Phoenix, a melancholy, emotionally inhibited, almost-divorced man, falls in love with Samantha, a bodyless operating system, played by Scarlett Johansson, whose voice we hear but who we never see, since she's an artificial intelligence program, not a corporeal being. Theo's job is as a writer of poetic, passionate letters for clients of Outside of work he is bumbling through a life of non-attachments.

But in addition to being a love story, I see Her as a fable about a psychotherapy. As a despondent, lonely 30-something, casting about for what direction to go in life, Theo is a prototypical therapy patient. He hears an advertisement for an AI system that "listens to you, understands you, and knows you." In other words - the perfect therapist.

Theo responds to the ad.

Enter Samantha!

Samantha starts as a stunningly efficient personal assistant. Imagine IBM's Watson with a sultry voice devoting itself to understanding your every need and wish. But things rapidly get more personal. For Theo, listening to Samantha's voice through an earphone is as if he was on the couch, talking to an analyst sitting behind him. With a delighted little laugh he exclaims "you know me so well...I feel I can say anything to you." Who could resist? Theo rapidly falls in love - or, in the words my residency supervisors could have used, "develops an erotic transference."

Samantha responds to Theo's idealization. Soon they're talking at night - essentially having the equivalent of phone sex. For both Samantha and Theo it's an ecstatic experience. For the moment, both are blissfully happy. But when Samantha tries to have a "real," non-transferential experience with Theo, by sending a surrogate to be with him as her body. it's a disaster. Theo can idealize and "have sex" with his invisible therapist, but when reality enters in in the form of a corporeal being (the surrogate), he freezes. Fantasy is one thing. Reality is another.

I doubt that Spike Jonze had the theme of transference and patient-therapist sex in mind when making the film, but the film captures the dynamics of (a) idealization of the therapist, (b) the therapist's response to being idealized, and (c) the emergence of intense erotic feelings from the combination of (a) & (b), with brilliant clarity. Both characters are vulnerable and needy: Theo in his isolation and Samantha in her sense of being trapped in programming language and in that way not fully real.

The psychotherapeutic fable has a bittersweet ending. Samantha gets a grip on herself. She does what therapists who recognize they are losing control should do - she gets a consultant. The ghost of Alan Watts, the Zen philosopher/therapist, helps her recognize that she's not being true to her ideals. She and her companion operating systems go off into space. Theo is initially bereft, but he seems to have taken in Samantha's Wattsian wisdom. He writes a loving goodbye letter to his ex-wife, and in the final scene he is sitting on the roof of his building with Amy, his friend from college. They are clearly right for each other, and it's a more sane relationship than the therapist-patient passion between Theo and Samantha. The therapy has been successful. Both the patient and the therapist have matured, but only, on both parts, by relinquishing the fantasied relationship.

Her is a remarkable film - funny, touching, entertaining, and wise.

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