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Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Lost for words? He's no help

I knocked Primce Igor but it wasn't part of Borderlines; the transmission from New York just occurred at the same time and at the same venue. However the first truly duff Borderlines film screened yesterday. It failed strangely.

Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, directed by Spike Jomze (who did Being John Malkovich which I liked), falls in love with the operating system of his mobile phone/computer. If you share a universal love/hate relationship with Windows 7 you may find this preposterous. Don't worry.

The software isn't an operating system but an artificial intelligence program capable of adapting itself to the intellectual and emotional needs of the user and interfaced with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. At first the trickiness is beguiling but before halfway the story just bores. Imagine a love affair via telephone with a supreme blue-stocking from Oxbridge.

Phoenix, the dullest man in the universe, is dismayed when he discovers that Scarlett - whose audio favours he thought to be his alone - is sharing herself simultaneously with 6381 dimwits. That's what computers do, dummy!

It wasn't boredom that got me down but outrage. I didn't actually count but Phoenix's vocabulary must be limited to 700 words. "How're you doing?" he asks. When Scarlett returns the favour he replies, “I’m good.” Asked to elaborate he says, “Real good.” An exchange repeated a dozen times but it feels like a million. Asked again by the patient Scarlett he perhaps adds, “I dunno. Difficult to put it into words.” And on, and on. I started predicting and I was way ahead of him.

Never has language been so poverty-stricken, so bare, so repetitive, so dull. I came away ashamed of my mother tongue. Don’t see it (Or, rather, hear it.) Please!


  1. I think most of the brains in Hollywood were fried some years ago, and how this kind of project gets a hearing (and financing) is a mystery. I was suspicious from the first burst of marketing and passed. Unfortunately we were not so wise twice and innocently showed up for the Hunger Games movie, which caused my husband to say at the end "There goes three hours we'll never get back."

  2. Have not seen it. Perhaps the movie is designed on some level to express the dismay you felt, to wave the spiritual poverty/demise of language flag. I like Phoenix as a rule, thought he was very good in "The Master". Guess I'll read some reviews.

  3. Oscar and Golden Globe for screenplay, numerous other wins, several for music. "Universal acclaim" (Metacritic), etc. I'm afraid I'm going to have to try it. Not yet NF available.

  4. Stella: Perhaps I should have added this is only my view. I was aware that that Her had won prizes and I would have been far kinder to it had it been a "difficult" movie. As it was it all seemed only too obvious.

    MikeM: By all means do (see it).I knew it was well regarded, I read the reviews and was attracted by the idea of a man falling in love with an OS. But my main complaint (the poverty of the language) is at least easy to verify. Don't get me wrong: simple language can be used to great effect, as in Beckett. But this is nothing language, a string of social clichés, an unwillingness to communicate on any other level than the inflection of humdrum words. Phoenix's performance may well be exemplary but you can't make bricks without straw.

    An ironic comparison occurred within twenty-four hours. In Her Phoenix has a well-paid job for which he was presumably well educated. Nobody in Nebraska is well-educated, nobody uses "big" words, yet the language is vivid and moving and the movie says something about old age and filial obligation. The director apparently roped in Bruce Dern from some of the mad roles he's recently played and the result is very believeable: a man cut off from the world by deafness, a rickety body, a lack of familiarity with modern concerns, experiences in the Korean war (though this is only hinted at), a man with "nowhere to go" other than this crazy, vain Odyssey. Beautifully supported by Will Forte as his son.

    Her is more ambitious of course but it is impossible to believe that the director had thought the story out. Perhaps my views are coloured by the fact that the majority of my six years in the USA was spent "improving" articles written mainly by Americans - mostly academics. And to give the writers credit many wrote me letters thanking me for what I'd done - something no English author would ever have considered.

    As to the point you make about the dismay I felt I did ask my wife if she thought I was missing something. That the impoverished language was wholly intentional, aimed at underlining the shallowness of the Phoenix character. But if so those in charge were in danger of flouting one of literature's immutable laws: an author may write about a boring character but must not bore readers in doing so.

  5. I feel almost obliged to watch it now to see if I agree with you. The Oscars suggest that not everybody did. I wonder what would have happened if he had tried to write it as a book first. Maybe he would have had to use more interesting language.

  6. I sampled the soundtrack on Youtube. Grievously boring. I should know by now to trust the contempt I feel annually when I read about (never watch!)the Oscar/Golden Globe nonsense.

  7. B2/MikeM: I'm mildly flattered that you were both sufficiently interested to take this into a second exchange. Realising that my opinion ran counter to powerful forces, I re-read some other views and thought again. I was interested that Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, my go-to guru, acknowledged that many "adored" the movie, that he appreciated its technicalities, but then wished he could love it.

    One act of compensation is necessary. Scarlett Johansson, reduced just to her voice, expressed her side of the affair with convincing tenderness and I have nothing but praise for that. All the more reason to query why the script required Phoenix to be so dull.

  8. Media reviews, though more favorable than yours, had already put me off seeing this film. We need to retain a grip on reality and yes, above all on the gift of language. Thank you. I will steer well clear of it. On first hearing about it I thought it was a daft idea. Even at 80 I am addicted to flesh and bone.

  9. Oh, thank you for telling me what happens (He realizes--duh--that She is not his alone)---I found this movie so stupefying, nothing but "a string of social clichés," as you say, I left before the end.

    I did, however, like when His ex-wife makes a scene in the restaurant, something like, "He thought I was too intense and now he's dating his laptop."

    Btw, I popped over here from The Crow's post about the death of her blogfriend Joe. My condolences on the loss of your friend, who sounded wonderful.
    I was touched that in his very last post, he wrote, "Cheerfulness is my chief object in life even when it seems to be a fleeting virtue."

  10. Just now watched it. Found it spellbinding.