Her: A Gentrified Blade Runner


Update: Of course I’m not the only one to get upset about Her’s Los Angeles.

Her is a movie as we know about a near future where interactions with operating system helpers, our “OS”es, displace those with our fellow humans, until they have no more use for us. This line of thinking, which runs from the Velveteen Rabbit to I, Robot, is well trod, and Spike Jonze adds a well-thought-out story to the canon.

What I found more fascinating than the CHI (computer-human interface) plot was Jonze’s depiction of the future of Los Angeles. Having just seen Thom Andersen’s critical film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the credibility gap between Los Angeles’s ever-widening economic inequality over the last 70 years and its portrayal in Hollywood film, walking into Jonze’s 21st century Southern California is an even more disorienting and disquieting experience.

Our hero, Theodore Twombley, lives in Beverly Wilshire City (a proxy for Los Angeles’s westside) and works either there or in a simulacrum of Downtown Los Angeles (the One Wilshire building and other towers still standing in this near future). These cityscapes bleed together, so that from higher up there is a vision of Sao Paulo-like skyscapers that extend to the mountains and to the sea.  Gleaming highrises are linked by windswept, uncrowded elevated walkways. Along these paths are gaudy security cameras mounted on every lamppost. By 2060 or whenever, the clunky-looking camera mounts would most likely be a thing of the past, so I guess these are here to assure the public that the L.A.P.D. has things under strict control.

There is no garbage on these “streets”.  Even entrances to the subway seem clean and efficient, with a steady stream of nearly-all-white knowledge workers moving to and fro. The subways run quietly and happily everywhere (the happy Los Angeles Metro map of the future has already been posted on today’s internet for the curious), and bullet trains can take our workers on vacation to Donner Pass for the weekend.

Her Metro Map
Her Metro Map

The people who live and work here are predominantly white and well-educated. There is one scene where a dapper black man busks with a fedora upturned for tips, and a split-second shot of a middle-aged woman sweeping the floors of Beverly Wilshire City while Theodore is not feeling too well about his inevitable break-up with his OS. And while Samantha is being given a early tour of the variety of humans who live here through Theodore’s iPhone camera, we do see one or two Latinos.

The rest are all white hipster or post-hipster young and middle-aged types. They work in what seem to be low-stress, high-paying creative endeavors, letter-writing or game-designing. And they have all gone to or talk about “Harvard”, “magna cum laude”; they strive to become the “class mom”, and if they are not lucky enough to get one of these sweet creative jobs, they can at least work as “lawyers”, so that’s OK. Luckily we can check off that there is no gender inequality in Her L.A. Theodore’s brilliant PhD ex-wife was raised in a household of “high expectations”, he tries to date a Harvard woman with an incredible CV, and so on.

These lucky folk spend their days in workplaces  colored by Deborah Sussman in pastel, so that cube workers are always seeing things through rose-colored glasses. People eat well, remembering to chew their fruit for the fiber (if you want to juice anything, juice the vegetables).  They wear sustainable fabrics in unpretentious styles (lots of sweaters and J. Crewish colored shirts).

They sport overly large messenger bags (Amy Adams’s is especially big) or gym bags or backpacks, and talk blithely to each other or to their OS through earpieces.  There are no dramas beyond those of sexual tension and marriage; apparently no one lacks for money.

What we don’t see is what happened to the 12 million or so Southern Californians who didn’t go to Harvard or didn’t become lawyers. I expect that they have been sent over those mountains to the desert and for the few who are employed as moppers, they can take the bullet trains to work 100s of miles away.

You have to wonder whether Jonze is consciously mocking such a future for Los Angeles or accepting it as the positive end result of the marriage of capitalism and technology. His is a surfer’s dream world, always looking on the positive sunny side of things, a day at the beach of the Emerald City without any economically-depressed denizens.

And I wonder if the beauty and navel-gazing aspect of the whole thing (even the OSes are expert self-analysts following the precepts of Alan Watts) has been tamely accepted by the Hollywood Industry, the folks whose children go to Harvard Westlake school and do actually yacht out to Catalina for a picnic away from the masses on a regular basis.

Thom Andersen had an interesting insight into the environment presented in Blade Runner. Where most viewers saw it as menacing, Andersen delights in the fact that the Los Angeles streets in Blade Runner are filled with real people, density and there are shops and interaction going on.

The surroundings of Her are scarily too similar to where I sit in Kentfield. The “class mom” game is being played out for real every day here, and the one percent meet in quiet cafes to talk about their marital problems; the rest of society (poverty, under-education, a future without the promise of work) is hard to see.

Los Angeles 1973 in 12 Acts

The Outside Man
The Outside Man

Last night I finally had the opportunity to watch Thom Andersen’s superb meditation on the politics, public relations and naivete of filmmakers who have used Los Angeles as a backdrop or a character in their movies. Andersen who grew up in Los Angeles, was associated with the USC film school and now is a professor at Cal Arts, created Los Angeles Plays Itself in 2003.  The two-hour film is apparently “unplayable” outside of personal screenings because it makes use of clips of more than 200 copyrighted works to demonstrate Andersen’s points about what is and is not in the frame. Obtaining the clearances for these beautiful images (including some from my personal favorites: from Kiss Me, Deadly to Zabriskie Point to The Long Goodbye) apparently would require a very large budget (perhaps AFI could step in and foot the bill?), so you have to find a time and place where Andersen might want to show the film privately if you want to enjoy it on the big screen.

However,the film is available on YouTube either as a single video, or in a series of 12, with an index to the set provided on the Open Culture website, which is the way I saw it. After watching you can see also find the complete list of films referenced in a posted copy of the script or in a Letterboxd list.  All that remains is for the book to be published, with footnotes to further reading on the history of Los Angeles’s studios, city politics and events.

Andersen covers the Los Angeles built environment in the first half of the film but then gradually shifts focus to the social. In his view of the history of movie-era Los Angeles, there are a series of earthquake-like events that have occurred decade after decade and that reveal how the public image of Los Angeles as portrayed in just about every Hollywood production (as well as in the movies of artists and European outsiders) has become ever more distant from the reality on the ground. He also goes to other well-know critics of Los Angeles’s built environment, David Gebhard and MIke Davis, to support his argument of the social decline of Los Angeles.

Chronologically, he relates these damaging events:

The 1920’s consideration and subsequent rejection of a regional, municipal trolley system that would have been a complement to the ever expanding influence of suburban development and the dominance of the automobile.

The Zoot Suit riots of 1943, that exposed the cruel victimization of the Los Angeles Latino community.

The 1949 Los Angeles City Council rejection of a light-rail plan, in favor of postwar freeway expansion.

The debate over public housing in 1951-53, where newly appointed police chief William Parker conspired with media and business interests in the McCarthy era to portray the public housing movement as Communist-influenced. The program was abandoned, prefiguring the further decline of poor areas of Los Angeles.

The Parker era’s step-by-step deepening of a climate of paranoia (coinciding with the Film Noir years), where the L.A.P.D. strove to meet the idea robotic, all-powerful, all-seeing ideals of Jack Webb’s Dragnet.

The Watts riots of 1965.

The destruction of downtown’s Bunker Hill neighborhood, unleashed by real-estate deals set up by the Richard Riordan administration from 1973-86.

Coincident with the sterility of downtown redevelopment was a planned further deteriorization of public transit. Andersen gives examples that were brought in a class-action suit: reductions in routes, de-publication of route maps, etc.

The Rodney King riots of 1991.

Andersen carefully observes how “enlightened” filmmakers from the Hollywood tradition realized how Los Angeles’ dream era has ended and that the social fabric is torn, but could not work outside of their privileged viewpoint and their scant knowledge about the vast plain of the Los Angeles basin, confining their protagonists’ psychological problems to the white suburban motifs of Raymond Carver (as in Altman’s Short Cuts). Finally, Andersen finds praise in the film’s last segment for the more truthful people- and family-focused work of African-American neo-realist filmmakers working in the 90s in the films Bush Mama, Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts. He also returns again and again to the rarely seen Kent MacKenzie neo-realist picture about Native Americans in downtown, The Exiles, made in 1971, at a time when the dream mirror was really cracked.

Parallel to the main line of social commentary, Andersen does bring up the treasure trove of film stock that can be mined for archeological and historical purposes. For me, an outsider who arrived in Los Angeles in 1973 to study its architecture, and remained there until 1982, watching the film was a beautiful nostalgic journey, and the concept of nostalgia or period-piece films is a large theme in Los Angeles Plays Itself.  In particular, I now need to find a copy of Jacques Deray’s 1973 film The Outside Man, which Andersen describes as an almost perfect snapshot of the city at that moment in time. He separates the non-Hollywood films of the 70s and 80s as either “low-tourist” or “high-tourist”. The distinction for me is that “low-tourist” films play Los Angeles for laughs or thrills through stereotypes, and “high-tourist” films attempt to reveal the kitsch, the ugly and the dysfunctional parts of the basin with more sublety, using art-film techniques.

I found a few of Andersen’s grind-axes a bit humorous. He is a consummate East sider and mocks the gilded movie-industry that can’t bear to locate a movie east of Vine St unless the location is in the hills, at landmarks like Griffith Park or Union Station, or downtown with its dead-world skyways and office towers. He does admit to overcoming his East-sider prejudice against Jacques Demy’s exquisite Model Shop, on subsequent rewatching, at least. And he is repulsed by the acronym “L.A.” That kind of crankiness is widespread in the Bay Area, too, where “S.F.” and “Frisco” and “San Fran” are looked down on.  I love L.A.

I had a few great flashbacks while enjoying Los Angeles Plays Itself. And I will be adding some of these great and not-so-good films to my Letterboxd watchlist, thanks to Andersen’s teasers: D.O.A., Detour, The Night Holds Terror, The Street With No Name, Love Streams, Messiah of Evil, and Gone in 60 Seconds (the 1974 H.B. Halicki original, that Andersen describes as the best car-chase movie ever made). I don’t think I will be watching these however (you have to draw the line somewhere): The Glimmer Man, The Omega Man, Earthquake, Escape From L.A.L.A. Story or Hanging Up.

If you love or hate Los Angeles (Andersen delights in showing quite a few apocalypse-L.A. film clips), don’t miss this film.