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The Theme of the City in Her (2013)

Her (2013) is a film directed by Spike Jonze. It tells the story of Theodore, who after going through a painful divorce falls in love with his operating system called Samantha (Jonze, 2013). The film is entirely set in the Los Angeles of the future, where technological developments have deeply changed the landscape of the city and the lifestyle of its citizens. This is clear from the opening scene where the workplace of Theodore, his way home, and his apartment are shown (Jonze, 2013, 0:00:00 to 0:05:57). The scene is full of very important elements that could be analyzed in depth because of its role of introducing the viewers to the futuristic and technologically developed world of the protagonist. This article focuses on the multiple faces of Los Angeles present in the film.

The first important aspect to highlight is the strong presence of surrogates or substitutes, as Hawthorne (2014), an architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times suggests in his article. In fact, in the following scene, everything already presents a substitute. Theodore's job is to write personal letters for people who find difficulty expressing their feelings (Jonze, 2013) [Figure 1]. The protagonist writes very detailed and touching love confessions or birthday wishes based on the information that his clients provide him (Jonze, 2013). Because of this, Theodore's job is to substitute the real writer of the letters (Jonze, 2013). In a similar way, the city of Shangai, where the movie was shot, is used to represent the future version of Los Angeles (Hawthorne, 2014; Jonze, 2013). Later on in the film, there are two other elements explored: the virtual reality in which Theodore starts living is supposed to compensate for his unhappy real life; the A.I. called Samantha is considered a surrogate for the human girlfriend he cannot find (Hawthorne, 2014; Jonze, 2013). This strong presence of doubles suggests that the reality presented is not as beautiful as it looks (Hawthorne, 2014). The modern architecture and infrastructures, the aesthetically pleasing design, the streets full of young and healthy people, and the absence of cars make it look like an ideal city of the future. Harrison (2014), a writer for Expedictionary, explains in his article that this apparently perfect look of the city vanishes once we notice the absence of races other than white people. In fact, the film is dominated by the presence of white high-middle-class citizens while Hispanic people do not even appear (Harrison, 2014). This is deeply problematic because nearly fifty per cent of the population in Los Angeles has Hispanic origins (Harrison, 2014). By not including them in the ideal futuristic Los Angeles, the film suggests that technological developments and wealth will only be available to white people, and so people from other races will not be included (Harrison, 2014).

Figure 1: Theodore at work writing a birthday letter in "Her" (Jonze, 2013).

By the end of the opening scene, it is clear that Theodore has a very unsatisfying and depressing life (Jonze 2013, 0:00:00 to 0:05:57). Later on, the main cause is revealed to be from divorcing his wife. Theodore does not have any other source of happiness in his life (Jonze 2013, 0:05:57 to 0:06:57). In fact, the sequences in the elevator and on the train show that the society in which Theodore lives is very individualistic (Jonze 2013, 0:03:50 to 0:05:10) [Figure 2]. People do not talk to each other because they are immersed in the interaction with their operating systems and only have unavoidable relationships and desocialized free time (Schou, 2014). Simmel (1903), a German sociologist and philosopher, described individualism as necessary to maintain because of the tendency in society to see people as a uniform group with a single historical and cultural heritage. However, in Her (2013), this is presented as the carrier of loneliness, isolation and sadness. Through the sequence of the elevator and the train (Jonze 2013, 0:03:50 to 0:05:10), the film applies Simmel's (1903) theory by portraying bodily closeness in order to make the intellectual distance more noticeable. These two sequences also convey the idea that the city is so active and functional that it becomes too much to deal with and brings the individuals to their alienation.

Figure 2: Theodore in the elevator listening to music and avoiding social interaction in "Her" (Jonze, 2013).

The city has been a recurring theme in literature. Like the essay titled "Street Haunting: A London Adventure" (1942) by the famous writer Virginia Woolf, Jonze's film (2013) describes in great detail a city we cannot see nor experience in real life. Woolf (1942) described in her essays the magic of London in winter during the first half of the 20th century; instead, Her (2013) uses elements from the past such as vintage clothing and a soft and warm colour palette to describe a near future where technology has a much more central role in people's lives than nowadays (Kaptain, n.d; Harrison, 2014). Despite their huge difference in time, both cases show the audience is thrown into an unknown city and society that feels real and actual. The movie Her (2013) borrows another element from literature known as flaneur. Many writers gave their own interpretation of what flaneur means (Woolf, 1942; De Certeau, 1974; Elkins, 2016). For example, Woolf (1942) describes it as "rambling the streets of London" (p.19) while Elkins (2016), writer and translator, defines it as "one who wanders aimlessly', [who] was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel-covered passages of Paris" (p. 3). Likewise, the philosopher De Certeau (1974) describes this idea by calling it Wandersmiinner, meaning the people who walk, which the writer considers "an elementary form of th[e] experience of the city" (p. 93). This figure is also represented by Theodore and his walks in the city of Los Angeles in Her (2013), especially in the opening scene when Theodore crosses the city to walk from his office to home [Figure 3]. Despite his route being the same, his walking style becomes slow, and he is now interested in the landscape around him. This matches the literary figure flaneur or Wandersmiinner, one who walks aimlessly across the city just for the pleasure of doing so (De Certeau, 1974). Theodore also matches the description of Elkins (2016): "A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention [...]. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into reverie" (p. 3). As a matter of fact, Theodore is a single white man without hobbies or financial difficulties and is constantly lost in his own thoughts (Jonze, 2013).

Figure 3: Theodore as 'flaneur': walking the streets of his city with interest and curiosity in "Her" (Jonze, 2013).

To conclude, despite the movie Her (2013) discussing many themes, the city is central to the story. The theme of the city, in this case, Los Angeles, presents a double face, a characteristic that is repeated in many elements in the story (Hawthorne, 2014). In the movie, Los Angeles appears perfectly clean, beautiful, and modern. However, at the same time, it also includes a darker side which does not include Hispanic people who are a big part of the population of Los Angeles (Harrison, 2014). The city is also constituted by a very individualistic society. According to Simmer (1903), individualism helps to avoid the idea of a unified mass; in the movie, it is the cause of the loneliness and sadness of the protagonist. Interestingly, the movie discusses the very topic of technology's role in society by using literary city figures such as Woolf's (1942) description of the city of London and the flaneur or Wandersmiinner (De Certeau, 1974; Elkins, 2016).

Bibliographical References

De Certeau, M. 1974. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. 91-110

Elkin, L. 2016. “Flâneuse-ing,” Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. London: Vintage, 3-23.

Harrison. 2014. ‘Film Cities: Spike Jonze’s Her and Los Angeles as Radiant City’. Expedictionary (blog). 23 January 2014.

Hawthorne, C. 2014. ‘Spike Jonze’s “Her” a Refreshingly Original Take on a Future L.A.’ Los Angeles Times. 18 January 2014.

Kaptain, K. (n.d.). How Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ Movie Crafted An Optimistic Future. Retrieved 30 March 2023, from

Jonze, S. (Director). (2013). Her [Film]. Warner Bros Pictures.

Schou, S. 2014. Spike Jonze’s Her: Sci-fi as social criticism.

Simmel, G. 1903. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” On Individuality and Social Forms. Ed. Donald N. Levine. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971. 324-39.

Woolf, V. 1942. “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 19-29

Visual Sources


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Lucia Cisterni

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