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Thinking pop culture

Her, Hungry Ghosts and Rethinking Intimacy

On the morning of December 30th, 2013, I was woken by a hovercraft.

I’d opened the hotel room curtains and the smog was thick, the skyscrapers slick, and locals had evidently donned their pollution masks as readily as their scarves.

I was in Shanghai and I was, at least momentarily, convinced that I’d woken up in the future. (I’d later discover that the “hovercraft” was actually a saw that would spend six days ear-splittingly cutting up the floor above me).

Apparently the future is chaotic, is Asian, is dirty air and face masks. Is dumplings next door to Starbucks next door to more dumplings. It’s people giving weird looks to a chubby half-ethnic woman. It’s filthy, it’s Bladerunner, it’s fantastic.

Because I see connection in everything, I don’t think it was a surprise that I’d be in Shanghai only weeks before seeing Her. Spike Jonze’s I’ll-fitting-pants future Los Angeles steals much from the city. We get to keep the Bonaventure - my favourite hotel - but a spiffy-looking metro system replaces LA’s current shambles. Equally, LA’s street grime is replaced by the eerily spotless streets of Shanghai.

Aside from helping me to understand Her’s aesthetics, Shanghai’s real gift was a swift lesson in intimacy. Intimacy, cyberspace style.

As far as policy names go, “Golden Shield” is notably spectacular: a gilded moniker for the censorship regime also known as the Great Firewall of China.

Not that I needed convincing that Internet censorship is a wretched proposition, but being without YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and porn for a week and I ached to walk out onto Nanjing Road and screech “how do you do this everyday?”


My earliest recollections of using the Net was being 15-years-old, sitting in a TAFE library and exchanging chatroom pleasantries with Russians. Always the Russians.

At 15 the chatroom seemed novel. Fascinating. Cutting-edge. The preoccupation lasted a month, maybe two. And suddenly connecting with strangers in Makhachkala seemed rather empty.

Hello Shanghai.

What started as a test to work out what debauchery might have slipped through the Shield, I soon discovered that people still chatted in text-based chatrooms. More than this, that in a world of webcams and Second Life, that text-based dirty talk was still enough to sticky-up the keyboards.

Here was a porn substitute far more suited to my word-fetishism than any videos of grinding strangers. How had I never “cybered” before? I’m all about the dirty dialogue; about intimacy through language. I only ever fall for men who I want to talk to as much as I want to sleep with.


So the film is flabby, a bit too Lost in Translation-thieve-y and Joaquin Phoenix’s face is too constantly on for my tastes. But it’s good. It’s worthwhile. And it spotlights some really interesting talking points about intimacy.

Her centers on Theodore (Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system, Samantha (throatily voiced by Scarlet Johannson).

Even before my brief Shanghai cybersex foray, the premise of Her didn’t seem all that outlandish. In 2014, Theodore’s affections seem nowhere near as whackjob as falling for a rollercoaster, say, or the Eiffel Tower.

And yet, while I might relate - insofar as text messages and emails have played a pivotal role in every romantic entanglement I’ve been in - such messages on their on probably wouldn’t have satisfied me.

And this perception of lack is at the centre of Her.

In a number of scenes, Theodore wakes and the very first thing he experiences is the warmest of warm greetings from his operating system. Part of Samantha’s appeal - part of the plausibility of him falling for her - is that she anticipates his every need. She (learns to) laugh at his jokes and put up with his ukulele playing and be present - and absent - all at a push of a button.

And amidst receiving lashings of attention and being “understood” in a way that people instinctively crave - and getting to it all on his terms - for Theodore, it still feels like something is missing.

Even when he starts having “sex” with Samantha - masturbating while her voice conveys the impression that she’s doing the same - again, it’s not enough. Shanghai taught me that such sex actually has much more appeal than I could have ever imagined. Equally is reminded me that it could never be solely satisfying.

Her offers a handful of interesting messages. The one I find most interesting centres on what the Buddhists refer to as the “hungry ghosts” and what KD Lang would term constant craving. It’s an idea as applicable to love as it is to material acquisitions. That there’s never really enough. That nobody gets loved quite the way they want to.

Rather than presenting love between man and “computer” as akin in ridiculousness to love between man and pillow/tree/goat, Her in fact, is quite a bit deeper, offering commentary on the permanent ache of “wanting more”. A familiar message, sure, but permanently resonant.

Finn Brothers “Disembodied Voices”

The final episode of my four-part “Wednesday Mornings” radio show airs live on 3RRR (102.7FM) on Wednesday the 12th of February at 9am.

You can listen to the first, second and third episodes online. In the final episode we’re talking Melbourne food, theatre and photography. Tune in!

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