The emotional meanings of Her and Cloud Atlas

I watched both Spike Jonze’ Her and Cloud Atlas again this last weekend, and I have been contemplating what they each have to say. It’s a funny thing, meaning in film. I think that most films have something to say, even the most banal of summer blockbusters. Whether or not what they have to say is worthwhile is a different matter, of course, but they are saying something. Listening to what Her and Cloud Atlas have to say has proven somewhat elusive, even as they are straightforward with their meanings.

I’ve written about Cloud Atlas before, so I won’t revisit it much, but I haven’t written about Her before. This was my second viewing of Her, the first being in the theatre when it was released. At the time I instantly knew it to be my favorite film of 2013, just as I immediately knew Cloud Atlas was my favorite of 2012. Also like Cloud Atlas, it wasn’t until this second viewing that I realized Her is something truly special and began to truly understand it.

Her is a film about relationships, which is obvious, I suppose. It’s about a specific relationship, between Theodore and Samantha. It’s also about all relationships, and the idea of relationships, and what they have been in the past and what they will be in the future. It is simultaneously real and ideal. Specific and generic. It wants us to look at our relationships and ask, “what are they, really?” Why do we do the things we do in our relationships? Are our more traditional ideas about what relationships should look like when it comes to sex, communication, monogamy, and so on really a proper fit for the 21st century?

What makes Her so brilliant is that it doesn’t answer these questions in with a simple yes/no, or even in some sort of shade of grey. It answers it emotionally, and that answer varies from person to person. To understand the answer is to feel it. It is an answer almost defies words, and is based as much on the film as what you bring to it. Blue Valentine tried to discuss the same thing but didn’t understand how to approach it, which is why it failed so hard ultimately (I really don’t like that film…I’ve tried to like it, but I just can’t).

Her does many things right, and one of them is how it truly conveys what it feels like to be in a relationship. We feel those moments of pure bliss, those feelings of pure love more powerful than any drug. We also feel those moments of abject terror, and self-loathing, and malaise, and contentment, and curiosity and wonder and everything else.

Cloud Atlas is very similar, which is something I didn’t realize until two to three viewings in. It’s message felt very elusive at first, a result of me trying to find some philosophical meaning to it. The relationship between Hae-Joo and Sonmei made me realize thatwhat Cloud Atlas has to say is, ultimately, emotional. Cloud Atlas isn’t focused on relationships like Her, but they play an important role. Cloud Atlas is about the struggle between love and fear, and how that has played out throughout human history. To truly understand it is to feel it. To know the depth of love, and the depth of fear. To know how that feels is to know why it motivates us to do what we do. To see which side of oppression and freedom someone falls is to know which emotion controls them.

I am fully cognizant of the irony of discussing the emotional meaning of films in blog form. Any discussion here is ultimately destined to not discuss the actual meaning of these films. The topics of the films discussed are nothing new in Cinema, and don’t make for brilliant films in and of themselves. What makes Her and Cloud Atlas so brilliant is the emotional conveyance. Not just that they tell the stories they do, but how they do it. They are impactful in ways few other films are, as long as you know how to approach them. To try and “figure them out,” to piece together a puzzle, is to miss the point. To truly experience these films, you have to let go of the puzzle and allow yourself to feel them. Only then, can you truly understand them.