A highly entertaining post from Buzzfeed.com presents forty movies that define L.A. Included on the list drawn up by Buzzfeed staffer Louis Peitzman are selections that are tawdry (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), scary (Pulp Fiction), goofy (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), and baffling (Mulholland Drive). Though L.A. films tend – for some reason -- to focus on the grotesque side of life, there are even some entries that are downright romantic, with (500) Days of Summer earning top honors in that department. Of course I noticed some serious omissions. Where, for instance, is The Graduate? In any case, a new release that just won a Golden Globe for best original screenplay deserves some attention as a romantic, though quixotic, L.A. film. I’m talking about Spike Jonze’s latest, Her.
Her, as everyone knows by now, chronicles the love between a young man and his computer operating system. I knew in advance that Joaquin Phoenix, surprisingly convincing as a gentle and sensitive soul, would fall hard for the OS of his smartphone, bewitchingly voiced by Scarlett Johansson. What I didn’t expect going in was a fascinating view of L.A. as the city of the future. The world of Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is hardly the dystopia we see in L.A. science-fiction flicks like Blade Runner. Instead, it’s quite lovely, and in many ways familiar to a longtime SoCal resident like me. Downtown L.A., where most of the story is set, includes such familiar landmarks as Disney Hall, the Biltmore Hotel, and various iconic high-rises. But these features of the current cityscape are dwarfed by much sleeker, much taller buildings, like the one in which Theodore lives. (The filmmakers went to Shanghai to shoot a number of that city’s fanciful skyscrapers, then used CGI to incorporate them into today’s L.A. skyline.)
Another remarkable aspect of the L.A. of the future: apparently no one drives. Entering one of the city’s most colorful metro stations, Theodore hops a train to take his love (safe in his pocket) to the beach. The “subway to the sea” has long been a dream of certain L.A. politicians, so I’m glad this film proves that it will one day become a reality.
But my favorite futuristic detail about Theodore’s life involves his job. As a valued employee at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, he sits in a cubicle, crafting emotional messages for clients who are too tongue-tied to express their own thoughts. (Shades of Cyrano de Bergerac, now that I think of it!) The futuristic twist is that Theodore need only speak his artful words aloud: his computer screen automatically translates them into the handwriting of the ostensible sender. Perhaps in the future that’s as close as we’ll come to a from-the-heart personal letter. Which means that the handwritten thank-you note I received the other day from fellow author Pat Broeske is something I should definitely treasure.
Much of the publicity surrounding Her has detailed how Johansson’s entirely vocal role was originally played by the British actress, Samantha Morton. Morton was tasked with speaking her lines on set, hidden in a black plywood box, to create a sense of genuine interaction with Phoenix’s Theodore. It was only later that Jonze decided to substitute Johansson’s expressive voice for Morton’s. Somehow it seems most appropriate: in a story where human beings are so disconnected from one another that a man can fall deeply in love with a computer function, the actress around whose voice Phoenix built his performance gets replaced by someone entirely different. But entirely wonderful. No surprise that Theodore’s beloved OS is such a hit on double dates.