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That movie about Joaquin Phoenix’s mustache

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–Welcome, new readers. I don’t always write about Russian toilets!  Check out some of my other posts on almost being shanked in Jerusalem, Russian medical advice, being Jewish, my MBA, Big Data,  being terrible at cooking, and women in tech.  –

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Mr. B and I went to see “Her” last week  because all of my hipster news sources (The New York Times) mentioned that this was The movie to see.  If you have a couple hours  to kill and feel exceedingly happy about your life (and who isn’t feeling positively joyful in this bleak unending Northeastern nuclear winter?), I highly recommend watching it. You will leave feeling like you hate computers, humanity, the fact that it has an unGooglable title, and most importantly, Joaquin Phoenix’s mustache.

I wanted to see Her because everyone has been raving about how seamlessly Spike Jonze integrates human life and technological interfaces.  Also you’re legally not allowed to continue owning an Apple product until you’ve seen this movie. Spoilers below.

The film is about Theodore,  in his late 30s, who is recently-divorced. Theodore is sad, not only because he was emotionally unavailable to his now ex-wife,causing said divorce, but also has an artisinal (but soul-crushing!) full-time job which allows him to afford  an incredibly large,well-decorated, and  sunny (but empty!)  apartment in Future Los Angeles, which looks a lot like current Los Angeles, only with higher-waist skinny jeans. Also, everything in Theodore’s world looks like Instagram,because in the future, the X-Pro filter is vintage again.

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One day while after writing handwritten letters for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com ( in the future, the internet still exists and we are back from the current fad of websites named like the author was having an involuntary keyboard spasm {Zap.ly, spark.io, blarf.er}) Theodore spots an ad for a new operating system that learns about you as you interact with it, and evolves.

He installs it and decides to give her a female identity, Samantha. This is a deceiving name because she has  only none of the fun, hijinks, and nose-twitching of the actual Bewitched character.  She doesn’t have much of anything. Samantha exists solely as a voice in Theodore’s  futuristic media center (just an earplug) and his futuristic phone (just a phone), so it’s up to the viewer to imagine the implications of interacting with something that is entirely non-human but acts like a human, and something that can never be seen, only heard.

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Theodore, lonely because he cannot commit to anyone in his real life, decides to commit to what is essentially the smarter,  futuristic equivalent of a call-center voice recognition system.   The rest of the movie is about the implications of having a relationship with something that is not real, but that challenges the viewer’s perception of what “real” means, and what computers will be capable of in the future. (In the future, computers are capable of phone sex, and it is awkward to watch. Really awkward. )

The questions the movie is supposed to bring up are all Kurzweil-ish: how do you know when something’s intelligent enough to make its own choices? How do people deal with technology, and how will this impact us in the long-run? How will humanity change in the face of things it invents?  And, most importantly, how can we get a cushy job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com?

The future as Jonze envisions it would probably be easier to imagine if it wasn’t so much like the present; his brave new world  is a huge Apple commercial, and if this is where we’re headed, then, I speak as a loyal Apple user who wrote a creepy eulogy about Steve Jobs, but get me a ship off this planet. There is nothing in this movie that makes me believe it was shot at any time other than two weeks ago.

A month ago, Mr. B went to New York for a hackathon and I went to the Museum of Sex (yes.) One of the exhibits was the printout of Anthony Weiner’s explicit Facebook chats with all of his various mistresses. The timestamp was 2010-2011. Does something like that belong in a museum yet? I had the same feeling watching this movie.

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The second issue is that Theodore was a character who was insanely hard to sympathize with. His marriage ended because, as he says, he was hiding feelings from his wife and couldn’t communicate, he delayed signing his divorce papers, and he went on dates where he couldn’t emotionally commit to Olivia Wilde. He is a wishy-washy individual who can’t get excited about anything except video games and nude pictures of pregnant celebrities. He ear-dials a phone sex operator just to hear the sound of someone’s voice. Most unforgivably,  he wears impeccably-ironed button-down shirts. No one can iron that well in real life.

The last problem is that Jonze doesn’t offer any hints or solutions to this problem of human loneliness, which is so pervasive in our society. I already know that I’m addicted to my phone, and I already know that Google’s search algorithms are getting so smart that they are filtering out search results that are otherwise valuable, thus altering our collective understanding of the internet.  Some people are more connected than ever on Facebook, but don’t know their own neighbors.  My question is, what do we do about it?

I know I use my phone as a crutch.  Tell me how to stop. Or, don’t tell me. Artistically show me through Instagram shots and strategically-placed emo music.  1984 takes us through the logical conclusion to the invasion of privacy. What’s the logical conclusion to being married to our phones? “Her” doesn’t make it clear, because the ending is a bit of a cop-out.  There’s nothing at stake, and nothing lost.

If the answer is, as it is in the movie , that people need other people more than they need sexy disembodied Scarlett Johansen in their ear, playing them hipster piano music that she composed in her tiny computer chamber, then that’s obvious, because people need other people in real life.

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No matter how good the machines get, they’re missing something intrinsically human. When Mr. B and I discussed this after the movie, his position was that even humans are programmed. We’re just a collection of random reactions that are limited by what our meat-brains think. How are we different than a computer, really? At least a computer as advanced as Samantha. And I didn’t have an answer then, but I have one now: humans can override their programming. Humans have free will. Humans that didn’t like chocolate when they were born eat gallons of Nutella now. Computers can never do that. They are constrained. And because they’re constrained, they’re not genuine.

The next question is, if machines aren’t better than humans, as they’re not, then how do we reclaim human contact ? How do we start to trust people more than computers again?   This was the point of thinking in the movie where my circuits, sugar-rushing from theater Milk Duds, overloaded. I just wanted to see a movie, man. I didn’t want to be sucked into existential discussions of singularity.

Of course, this line of thought may be exactly what Spike Jonze was looking for in a reaction, in which case, damn you Spike Jonze, and yes, I would like a pair of the high-waisted hipster pants in women’s large, thanks. Oh, right, and please invent an interface to make me less depressed in February.

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Boy, European movies sure are depressing

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This post contains spoilers about a movie you probably never want to watch anyway because it will make you want to stab yourself, and all of humanity.
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A couple weeks ago, Mr. B and I watched I Girasoli (The Sunflowers), a 1970 Italian movie featuring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

We’ve had great success watching other Loren-Mastroianni combinations. They’re electric on screen together. What’s astounding is that they played opposite each other for close to 20 years and they never once played the same characters. They’re that good.

 

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Our favorite so far has been Leri Oggi Domani, a comedy with three scenarios about men and women, including a woman in Naples who keeps having babies so she doesn’t have to go to jail, a Milanese socialite bored by her husband, and a prostitute who urges the local priest to commit comedic sins.

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So, I decided this one also would be great, especially since it was directed by the same guy who did most of their movies.

The thing you have to understand about why watching this movie is important is that Mr. B and I have diametrically opposing tastes. I like to watch movies that teach me something about humanity, make me think about myself, and show me places I’ve never been before. Mr. B likes watching Pacific Rim.

So, the wheedling has to start a couple days beforehand. First, I curate the movies available to watch by going through them, one by one. Then, I watch the first five mintues of about six movies a piece to see if it could ostensibly interest him. Then, I have to bring it up casually over dinner, usually via guilt trip.

“We don’t do anything after work together anymore,” I’ll cry into my stir-fry. “Ok,” he’ll say. “What do you want to do?”

“Let’s watch a movie,” I’ll say, brightening. “I have a couple picked out.”

“Ok,” he’ll sigh.

But that’s not the end. Because he has to be interested in the movie. So the first five minutes are critical. Otherwise, the whole exercise goes down the drain.

So, I Girasoli being a Loren-Mastroianni collaboration, I thought we were golden.

We start watching. A field of sunflowers. Ok, great! Nice, light-hearted movie! About Italy! And Sophia. All is well. I had also made popcorn for this viewing, so we started eating.

The sunflowers and the opening credits end, and we see a woman, late 30s, dressed all in black, at an Italian train station or post office, begging for information about her husband, who is a prisoner of war in Russia.  She is struggling to hold herself together. (But she has great eyebrows)

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That’s cool, I thought, still eating the popcorn. She’s going to be classy and widowed until the middle of the movie, when her and Marcello reunite and have tasteful European sex. Go ahead and cry. It’s going to be ok.

Sophia goes to another, stooped, elderly woman, also in black. This is Marcello’s mother. “I’ll find him,” Sophia says with resolve, and the camera pans out to a wall full of photos of Italian soldiers, lost forever in the Soviet Union as sad music plays. That’s fine, I thought, but I could already feel Mr. B tensing up beside me.

“Hey, so, how did the Italians even get to Russia,” I asked him as Sophia was going home, to her lonely house, her lonely, uninhabited marriage bed, a broken woman, broken by years of war and years of promises, and the elderly mother shuffles along. “Didn’t they fight for, like, three days?”

“They fought?” Mr. B asked, grabbing a handful of popcorn.  We were still at the sarcastic jokes portion of the film.

But then, oh crap, Sophia looks at the picture of her husband in uniform, and it’s time for a flashback. Of how they were young and stupid, of how they were carefree, of how they met and got married in a week so Marcello wouldn’t have to go the army, of how they made love and honestly, quite a large amount of pasta in a small, romantic hut somewhere in the Italian imagination. Of how the war exploded around their regular human lives and seeped into the cracks of their existence like misery.

Oh God, it was starting.  I put down the popcorn.  Mr. B tried to move away on the couch, feeling that this movie was about real human emotions. He was already plotting his escape.

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And then,  after two weeks like this in limbo, their nerves strung out with love and fear, Marcello went back to the army, to the front.  This, apparently, was not a lighthearted Italian comedy.

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And then the Eastern Front. Jesus Christ.  I mean, I know I’m ready to do Stalingrad, but not like this.

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You can’t eat popcorn when people are losing toes right and left.

Ok, so Marcello somehow makes it through the winter and  survives that. So, happy ending, right?

NO.

Sophia lives a lonely and isolated life for YEARS. She has no word of him. He never returns. She goes to this office and that office and meanwhile lives in the cold embers of their two weeks of love. And then guess what she does?  Guess?

Yeah, she goes to the Soviet Union to look for him.

She goes through every nook and cranny.

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This was in the 50s. And guess what? She finds him! Except guess what, he’s fully integrated into Soviet society and he married a Russian woman! The look as she sees him embrace his new wife and his !daughter! and she boards the train:

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Do you want to die yet?

But there’s more. Because she goes back to Italy and tries to lead a normal life. But guess what she can’t because holy crap she found her dead husband after nine years and he’s someone else’s husband and father now and what’s worse is that that someone doesn’t even know how to eat a nice prosciutto or cook pasta al dente, mainly because there is no pasta in the Soviet Union. That’s the real tragedy.

Anyway, so guess what happens next? Nothing. She lives her life alone. But then! Somehow, he gets out of the Soviet Union (in the late 50s!!!) and goes to Italy and now he’s in Milan and now he’s in a hotel and now he’s picking up the phone, dialing her apartment and it’s ringing and pick up Sophia, goddamnit, pick up, for the sake of all that’s good and holy, pick up and reunite with your husband, make it right, heal the wounds, do it, and oh she’s picking up the phone now but she’s completely quiet…speak, Sophia, ciao, ciao, say it, say it, and she says pronto and he says pronto and then there is a silence…I’m coming over he says and then you are SO happy because this movie is so CRUEL to your emotions and you are dying inside then he’s in the taxi and it starts to rain and he runs to her dark apartment, up the stairs, she puts on makeup in the mirror in the dark, go, go, go you say, nine years will be nothing once you’re together again and happy, and now, hurry open the door Sophia, for him, do it, and all of a sudden they are together and they kiss passionately, and yes! it’s a happy ending, but wait, noooo, they break and it’s awkward, because the baby-the baby??? starts crying in the next room, goddamnit Sophia, and everything is broken now between them, they are different people, they have separate lives, and he leaves and goes back to the Soviet Union on the train and that’s the end of the movie.

God.

What a horrible, horrible, beautiful film.

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Long story short, I’m sorry Mr. B. I’ll watch The Walking Dead with you next time.

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Chico y Rita

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So good. Love. Life. Loss. Gain. Revolucion. Dizzy Gillespie. Sex. Shoe-throwing. All in cartoon form!

It’s like Disney for people whole like to listen to NPR and say offhandedly, “You know, I was recently watching a cartoon about the jazz movements in pre and post-revolution Cuba” and make everyone roll their eyes.  The only people worse than people who absolutely cannot stop talking about the artistic integrity of this film and how amazing it was are those people who listen to Buena Vista Social Club and who can even tell you their favorite song (Dos gardenias per te .) Those people who would call the movie visually stunning and full of heart.

God, I hate  those people.

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