A Film That Moved Me, Jesus on Right Judgment, & a Literary Anecdote

Thursday night I watched a movie on one of the streaming services. The movie captured me from the first scene. When I saw who the main actor was I was still more encouraged. Each movie I have seen him in has been excellent. In Signs, his character saw early on what others could not and/or would not see. In Gladiator, he played the coward, a shell, a traitor as despicable as Judas Iscariot. And in Her, the movie I watched last night, he played a writer. Well, a writer of sorts. He played the character Theodore, a writer in a Los Angeles-based company that employed wordsmiths to compose “real letters” to be sent to real people, but the whole operation was accomplished by ghostwriters like Theodore and the gadgets they used. Or did the gadgets use them? Who was real? The writers? The machines? The words? And what constituted the real versus the unreal?

Theodore voice-typed love letters into a computer, had the machine alter the font sizes and styles to fit the various customers’ scenarios, and . . . Voila! Out came scripts ostensibly penned from the hearts of bereaved grievers–a lovestruck Romeo, heartbroken Pip whose Estella had crushed him, a Jay Gatsby still reeling from his own Daisy’s cruelties, etc.

These letters are sent to readers who would believe the letters were written by those with whom they’d been involved. But it was all a charade. Behind the ‘real’ letters were writers, sure, but not the ones the receivers thought. Theodore’s gifts were used, but deceptively.

To further complicate things, Theodore is going through a pending divorce. He had loved his wife but they’d grown apart. Their tempers had begun to increasingly flare at each other. They knew each other so well they knew how to wound quicky; and they did. But still the love was there, alongside the cruelties. Both were real. The joys and the sorrows. Real joys and real sorrows, real loves and real cruelties, because Theodore and his wife were real people. The bad came with the good.

But as the divorce looms ever closer, Theodore grows lonelier by the day. His peers sense it. He ex-girlfriend from years before senses it. He entertains himself via video games and the internet, but grows bored in his work. He longs for the real. His solution, he entertains, may be a new OS. It’s an operating system (OS), another form of artificial intelligence (AI) that can and does read and sort his emails, sort through Theodore’s contacts, learn Theodore’s likes and dislikes, makes him laugh, and even titillates him. It’s not long before Theodore falls in love with his OS who is named “Samantha.” But Samantha, of course, is not a real person. She has no body, no birthday, no mom or dad, never was late for cheerleading practice, never got a pimple, never kissed a boy. She is artifice, after all, made up, conjured, an OS.

This is where the movie gripped me most. Here was Theodore, laughing and sharing his life with Samantha, showing her the “real world” of CA beaches, sand, surf, and sun, umbrellas in the sunshine, subway stairwells, and the spartan nature of his apartment, etc. Samantha was seeing the tangible world of Theodore, but also his heart, his imagination, what was “really real” to Theodore. The ideas, the hopes, the loves, etc. that helped inform and shape him into who he was. And in so doing, Theodore rediscovered what was most important and “most real” in his life: connection. And Phoenix succeeded masterfully. The pathos he elicited from me as a viewer was stirring. He was superb. The cinematography was spectacular. Of course there were suggestive scenes of an adult nature but it was not a prurient film or glandular. It aimed to address (perhaps not answer) questions of what many people are actually striving for.

There’s often a huge differene between what “briefs well” and what people actually believe. It is like when Jesus was in Jerusalem near the temple. He taught so often about discerning truth from mere appearance: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). There is the facade and there is the genuine. Discernment is key.

It took Theodore a long time to let go of his wife via divorce, only to see how much he did love her. It took Theodore a long time to let go of the image he had of “Samantha,” the operating system (OS) in his computer, that was pure artifice. But the artifice was used to teach Theodore. He reconnected with who he was, what made him tick, with the real people in his real world that he actually loved and who loved him back. Maybe the number was small. But is that not the way of so much in life? When it comes down to it, is it not the genuine that is to be desired rather than the artificial? “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” is the way Solomon phrased it.

One of my favorite writers is the author William Gay. There’s a great story of him when he was at a reading event a few years back. A lady trying to make a public spectacle of him confronted him while he was having a drink with his friend at a diner in a small TN town. The lady came up to him and said, “We’re ready for you, Mr. Gay, but you need to come now and leave your friend here. It’s time for you to be with the crowd.”

“My friend will come, too, then,” Gay responded.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Gay,” the woman said. “But he cannot come. The people are here to see you.”

“Then they’ll see neither,” Gay responded. And he and his friend kept enjoying their drinks.

The lady left, having learned something about William Gay.

Gay’s friend, interviewed many years later, said, “That was William’s way. If he was your friend, he was with you all the way.”

In his own way, I think that’s what Theodore was driving towards. It just took him some time to see it for himself. He longed for one who would be with him all the way. He longed for the real rather than the artifice. The faithful vs. the fairweather friend.

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