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by Bryce J. Renninger
October 14, 2013 6:03 PM
155 Comments
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Spike Jonze, Why Are There No Brown People in Your Future Los Angeles?

At the New York Film Festival this weekend, Spike Jonze created a sensation with his film "Her," the festival's closing night selection that features Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a man who falls in love with a voice-input, voice-output operating system named Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Twombly comes into his relationship with Samantha after a devestating divorce.  He spends his days at work as a wordsmith at a company called BeautifulHandmadeLetters.com which creates heartfelt letters for those that are less talented with words to send to their loved ones.  When his work day is over, he heads home to a gorgeous condo building and plays video games.

At the press screening Q&A for the film, Jonze, who wrote and directed the film, said that as life continues to get better for people, especially in New York and Los Angeles (a point he was not pressed to elaborate upon), people are simultaneously becoming more and more tethered to their technological communication platform.

READ MORE: Review: Why Spike Jonze's Weird And Wonderful Technological Romance 'Her' Is One of the Best Studio Movies of the Year

In discussing his inspiration for the imagined future world for "Her," Jonze said he spoke with Lincoln Center and Highline architect Liz Diller and she asked him if he wanted the film to be a utopian or dystopian story.  He didn't divulge his answer to that question, but he did explain that the question helped him understand what he should do in creating the atmosphere for the film.  

I'd like to answer Diller's question myself:  Jonze has made a dystopia of gentrification.

It is not until late in the film when Twombly decides to go to Catalina Island that one realizes that the film is set in a Los Angeles not too far in the future.  This is surprising because the exteriors are shot in Shanghai, and there don't seem to be any Latino people in the whole damn film.  The main cast of characters is all white, except for a few East Asian-American women who serve as women for the core crew to date.

On one level, this is not surprising.  "Her" is a studio film, and Hollywood, to put it lightly, does not depict America as it can be seen on its streets.  Jonze also doesn't really have a reputation for being attuned to the world's diversity in his filmography otherwise.

But this is a film that creates a world here a hipster handwritten letter company is a viable business able to rent out a large office in a skyscraper.  In this near future, poverty is invisible and Los Angeles's nearly 50% Latino/Hispanic population has disappeared.

Jonze is so invested in the same techno-Orientalism that inspired cyberpunk culture that Los Angeles's own buildings do not embody its own future well enough; one must go to the imagined epicenter of tech capital, East Asia, to shoot believable skylines.

That being said, "Her" is an astute observation of how many users interact and rely on information and communication technologies.  I, in fact, loved the film.  It's funny and sweet without being sentimental or overdetermined about a thesis on humans' relationship to technology.  The performances are great, too.  Phoenix is in the whole film and he is captivating.

But in the interest of simplifying the film's story, the fat was cut, and the fat was Los Angeles as it truly is, a city with a minority white population and the same income inequality that plagues the rest of the country.

Perhaps this would be fine if this was just one solitary cultural object.  "Her" is a part of a larger cultural beast, recently documented in George Packer's recent New Yorker piece on Silicon Valley's new politics.  Here is his comparison of the valley in 1978 and 2013:

The neighborhoods of the Santa Clara Valley were dotted with cheap, modern, one-story houses—called Eichlers, after the builder Joseph Eichler—with glass walls, open floor plans, and flat-roofed carports. (Steve Jobs grew up in an imitation Eichler, called a Likeler.) The average house in Palo Alto cost about a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Along the main downtown street, University Avenue—the future address of PayPal, Facebook, and Google—were sports shops, discount variety stores, and several art-house cinemas, together with the shuttered, X-rated Paris Theatre. Across El Camino Real, the Stanford Shopping Center was anchored by Macy’s and Woolworth’s, with one boutique store—a Victoria’s Secret had opened in 1977—and a parking lot full of Datsuns and Chevy Novas. High-end dining was virtually unknown in Palo Alto, as was the adjective “high-end.” The public schools in the area were excellent and almost universally attended; the few kids I knew who went to private school had somehow messed up. The Valley was thoroughly middle class, egalitarian, pleasant, and a little boring.

Thirty-five years later, the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars. The Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot is a sea of Lexuses and Audis, and their owners are shopping at Burberry and Louis Vuitton. There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.

As Silicon Valley goes, so goes our imagined future in films like "Her."  Is it time for us to take note and listen to who we're writing out of the future?

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155 Comments

  • ROd | January 24, 2014 10:44 PMReply

    There's a black person in his office in the first 5 minutes of the film..

  • Eduardo | February 6, 2014 7:58 PM

    Black is not Mexican.

  • Eduardo | February 6, 2014 7:58 PM

    Black is not Mexican.

  • Eduardo | February 6, 2014 7:58 PM

    Black is not Mexican.

  • Eduardo | February 6, 2014 7:58 PM

    Black is not Mexican.

  • Eduardo | February 6, 2014 7:58 PM

    Black is not Mexican.

  • Eduardo | February 6, 2014 7:58 PM

    Black is not Mexican.

  • ROd | January 24, 2014 10:44 PMReply

    There's a black person in his office in the first 5 minutes of the film.

  • Eduardo | February 6, 2014 7:59 PM

    Black is not Mexican.

  • ROd | January 24, 2014 10:44 PMReply

    There's a black person in his office in the first 5 minutes of the film.

  • ROd | January 24, 2014 10:44 PMReply

    There's a black person in his office in the first 5 minutes of the film.

  • ROd | January 24, 2014 10:44 PMReply

    There's a black person in his office in the first 5 minutes of the film.

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  • BB | January 20, 2014 5:46 PMReply

    I saw the film yesterday, did any of the commenting individuals actually see the film? First of, the film is beautiful, visually and in writing. As for the issue of race in the film, people of color are well represented in the film. Every shot, that is set in a public setting, there are extremely diverse cast members represented. There is actually an overwhelming representation of East and South Asian Americans in the film and there's definitely no lack of African Americans either.

    I noticed everyone is dressed in "J Crew of the future" garb, they live/work/play in a highly "Eames meets Apple" designed world that shows no sign of any poverty. The main characters have jobs in the tech industry and are highly educated, they make referrences to getting phds and master degrees. Most of the shots are in highrises, or public spaces that are not street level. If you you took the time to watch the film, you would notice these clues.

    These all have been conscious choices. It's a vision that future Los Angeles will have an extremely large highly-educated middle/upper class that may have little to no interaction with the "street level" poverty/classes. This may be why they all are living the same lifestyle.

    Think about the trends of today, the slowing down of immigration from Central/Latin America, the growing immigration from Asia, the cultural dominance of Apple and Google, the growing abundance of college educated people, the gentrification of our largest cities, the growing job market in computer science and technology. If these trends continue, Her may be an accurate depiction of the future.

    There is a lot of material in the film to dissect, so much that it would be very annoying to post it in a comment box. Thats why all of you should go see it.

    Spend more time enjoying and soaking in the art of a film instead of counting how many people look like you on the screen.

  • BB | January 20, 2014 5:45 PMReply

    I saw the film yesterday, did any of the commenting individuals actually see the film? First of, the film is beautiful, visually and in writing. As for the issue of race in the film, people of color are well represented in the film. Every shot, that is set in a public setting, there are extremely diverse cast members represented. There is actually an overwhelming representation of East and South Asian Americans in the film and there's definitely no lack of African Americans either.

    I noticed everyone is dressed in "J Crew of the future" garb, they live/work/play in a highly "Eames meets Apple" designed world that shows no sign of any poverty. The main characters have jobs in the tech industry and are highly educated, they make referrences to getting phds and master degrees. Most of the shots are in highrises, or public spaces that are not street level. If you you took the time to watch the film, you would notice these clues.

    These all have been conscious choices. It's a vision that future Los Angeles will have an extremely large highly-educated middle/upper class that may have little to no interaction with the "street level" poverty/classes. This may be why they all are living the same lifestyle.

    Think about the trends of today, the slowing down of immigration from Central/Latin America, the growing immigration from Asia, the cultural dominance of Apple and Google, the growing abundance of college educated people, the gentrification of our largest cities, the growing job market in computer science and technology. If these trends continue, Her may be an accurate depiction of the future.

    There is a lot of material in the film to dissect, so much that it would be very annoying to post it in a comment box. Thats why all of you should go see it.

    Spend more time enjoying and soaking in the art of a film instead of counting how many people look like you on the screen.

  • BB | January 20, 2014 5:45 PMReply

    I saw the film yesterday, did any of the commenting individuals actually see the film? First of, the film is beautiful, visually and in writing. As for the issue of race in the film, people of color are well represented in the film. Every shot, that is set in a public setting, there are extremely diverse cast members represented. There is actually an overwhelming representation of East and South Asian Americans in the film and there's definitely no lack of African Americans either.

    I noticed everyone is dressed in "J Crew of the future" garb, they live/work/play in a highly "Eames meets Apple" designed world that shows no sign of any poverty. The main characters have jobs in the tech industry and are highly educated, they make referrences to getting phds and master degrees. Most of the shots are in highrises, or public spaces that are not street level. If you you took the time to watch the film, you would notice these clues.

    These all have been conscious choices. It's a vision that future Los Angeles will have an extremely large highly-educated middle/upper class that may have little to no interaction with the "street level" poverty/classes. This may be why they all are living the same lifestyle.

    Think about the trends of today, the slowing down of immigration from Central/Latin America, the growing immigration from Asia, the cultural dominance of Apple and Google, the growing abundance of college educated people, the gentrification of our largest cities, the growing job market in computer science and technology. If these trends continue, Her may be an accurate depiction of the future.

    There is a lot of material in the film to dissect, so much that it would be very annoying to post it in a comment box. Thats why all of you should go see it.

    Spend more time enjoying and soaking in the art of a film instead of counting how many people look like you on the screen.

  • BB | January 20, 2014 5:44 PMReply

    I saw the film yesterday, did any of the commenting individuals actually see the film? First of, the film is beautiful, visually and in writing. As for the issue of race in the film, people of color are well represented in the film. Every shot, that is set in a public setting, there are extremely diverse cast members represented. There is actually an overwhelming representation of East and South Asian Americans in the film and there's definitely no lack of African Americans either.

    I noticed everyone is dressed in "J Crew of the future" garb, they live/work/play in a highly "Eames meets Apple" designed world that shows no sign of any poverty. The main characters have jobs in the tech industry and are highly educated, they make referrences to getting phds and master degrees. Most of the shots are in highrises, or public spaces that are not street level. If you you took the time to watch the film, you would notice these clues.

    These all have been conscious choices. It's a vision that future Los Angeles will have an extremely large highly-educated middle/upper class that may have little to no interaction with the "street level" poverty/classes. This may be why they all are living the same lifestyle.

    Think about the trends of today, the slowing down of immigration from Central/Latin America, the growing immigration from Asia, the cultural dominance of Apple and Google, the growing abundance of college educated people, the gentrification of our largest cities, the growing job market in computer science and technology. If these trends continue, Her may be an accurate depiction of the future.

    There is a lot of material in the film to dissect, so much that it would be very annoying to post it in a comment box. Thats why all of you should go see it.

    Spend more time enjoying and soaking in the art of a film instead of counting how many people look like you on the screen.

  • BB | January 20, 2014 5:44 PMReply

    I saw the film yesterday, did any of the commenting individuals actually see the film? First of, the film is beautiful, visually and in writing. As for the issue of race in the film, people of color are well represented in the film. Every shot, that is set in a public setting, there are extremely diverse cast members represented. There is actually an overwhelming representation of East and South Asian Americans in the film and there's definitely no lack of African Americans either.

    I noticed everyone is dressed in "J Crew of the future" garb, they live/work/play in a highly "Eames meets Apple" designed world that shows no sign of any poverty. The main characters have jobs in the tech industry and are highly educated, they make referrences to getting phds and master degrees. Most of the shots are in highrises, or public spaces that are not street level. If you you took the time to watch the film, you would notice these clues.

    These all have been conscious choices. It's a vision that future Los Angeles will have an extremely large highly-educated middle/upper class that may have little to no interaction with the "street level" poverty/classes. This may be why they all are living the same lifestyle.

    Think about the trends of today, the slowing down of immigration from Central/Latin America, the growing immigration from Asia, the cultural dominance of Apple and Google, the growing abundance of college educated people, the gentrification of our largest cities, the growing job market in computer science and technology. If these trends continue, Her may be an accurate depiction of the future.

    There is a lot of material in the film to dissect, so much that it would be very annoying to post it in a comment box. Thats why all of you should go see it.

    Spend more time enjoying and soaking in the art of a film instead of counting how many people look like you on the screen.

  • BB | January 20, 2014 5:44 PMReply

    I saw the film yesterday, did any of the commenting individuals actually see the film? First of, the film is beautiful, visually and in writing. As for the issue of race in the film, people of color are well represented in the film. Every shot, that is set in a public setting, there are extremely diverse cast members represented. There is actually an overwhelming representation of East and South Asian Americans in the film and there's definitely no lack of African Americans either.

    I noticed everyone is dressed in "J Crew of the future" garb, they live/work/play in a highly "Eames meets Apple" designed world that shows no sign of any poverty. The main characters have jobs in the tech industry and are highly educated, they make referrences to getting phds and master degrees. Most of the shots are in highrises, or public spaces that are not street level. If you you took the time to watch the film, you would notice these clues.

    These all have been conscious choices. It's a vision that future Los Angeles will have an extremely large highly-educated middle/upper class that may have little to no interaction with the "street level" poverty/classes. This may be why they all are living the same lifestyle.

    Think about the trends of today, the slowing down of immigration from Central/Latin America, the growing immigration from Asia, the cultural dominance of Apple and Google, the growing abundance of college educated people, the gentrification of our largest cities, the growing job market in computer science and technology. If these trends continue, Her may be an accurate depiction of the future.

    There is a lot of material in the film to dissect, so much that it would be very annoying to post it in a comment box. Thats why all of you should go see it.

    Spend more time enjoying and soaking in the art of a film instead of counting how many people look like you on the screen.