In Spike Jonze’s new film, set in a near future Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, an employee at Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, in a city whose dense city scape (shot in Shanghai) dwarfs the sparse seeming population, and whose only evidence of nature is a tree graphic on an elevator screen which Theo rides to his apartment block in Tower 7. It is one of many screens punctuating space, both public and private, which Theo navigates alone, along with an earpiece and smart phone fixed snugly in his shirt pocket by way of an old fashioned safety pin. In this familiar yet strange world, Theo becomes reliant on artificial intelligence in the form of a new operating system, OS1, to whom Theo dictates letters and emails. Samantha, a name the system chooses herself, uses technology that can proofread, order online, book restaurants, play music and film, set his alarm, and crack him into gear like a superhuman PA. In Theo’s world there is no community, only his neighbour Amy and a colleague at work. His spacious apartment with panoramic city views highlights his alienation, as 3D computer games invade his space, alternating with sentimental flashbacks of his ex-wife Catherine, (Rooney Mara) which play like favourite movie out-takes.
So who can blame letterwriter 612 for falling for his operating system? Her husky tones, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, are the ultimate turn-on, conveying more than just ‘her’ voice. Advertised as a system that ‘intuits you’ and ‘trained’ in psychology, Samantha asks him about his relationship with his mother, which he says was always ‘all about her’. Soon Samantha’s perfect re-parenting kicks in, and Theo is having perfect sex in a ‘relationship’ where there is no relating required. Theo is now at the center of his own movie, and Samantha’s universe, watched by ‘her’ around the clock as he sleeps, enjoys the ultimate onanistic fantasy of pleasing number one.
She soothes him, keeps him company, makes him laugh, plays computer games, and even sends his letters to a publisher as the ultimate Jewish-mother-cum-therapist, while simultaneously getting him off to boot. Samantha is always in perfect attunement, happy to talk, listen and take him to Venice beach while composing a perfect soundtrack to ‘their’ daytrip. Sexually she cannot put a foot wrong in a masturbation fantasy that is just that. It’s a world where online sex is taken for granted, as Theo’s ‘Big Guy 4 by 4’ hooks up with ‘Sexy Kitten’ for late night sexual release. But online sex can be a turn off when fantasies collide, and there’s no competition for an operating system that asks all the right questions. “Do you mind if I look through your hard drive?” probes Samantha, as she gets to know Theo in nano seconds, like a really good therapist, while the experience of being known begins to feed Theo’s sense of self and saves him from his loneliness.
But things begin to get complicated when real life intrudes in the form of a real live date. In fact his date is nervous and controlling, “no tongue, mostly lips”, she directs, as he flees to his earpiece and Samantha, who tunes in attentively. “Tell me everything you’re thinking”, she reassures him like a perfect psychoanalyst, in a loving mirror reflecting only him. Their first sex however is “amazing” as he describes how he would touch Samantha if only he could. In a highly sexualized landscape of pornography and computer games, we are simply out of images as Jonze switches to blank screen to describe their perfect union.
It’s a world of third party feelings, with emotions mediated and expressed by someone else. Theo writes moving letters for other people’s special moments, while he is able to communicate to Samantha all the things he couldn’t to his ex, surmising, “I think I hid myself from her and left her alone in the relationship“. Invited to stand in as Samantha’s body, Isabella does a lover-cum-housewife routine, invented and choreographed by Samantha.
“I want to be part of that, the way you love each other without any judgement”, Isabella cries, yearning for an unconditional love only an OS can deliver, untethered to a body that’s going to die like the rest of us. “You’re always going to disappoint somebody”, Theo consoles Amy, while operating systems have no restrictions on their ability to love. While Samantha takes on another 641 lovers, on the basis that “the heart’s not like a box that gets filled up”, Theo struggles with even one, backtracking from commitment even to his smart phone as he starts to criticise her voice and hold back from sex. It turns out however that Samantha’s own developing feelings get in the way, and soon she is also hankering for someone who ‘really gets her’ – in this case deceased Zen philosopher Alan Watts.
As people emerge from subways now attached both to their devices and their operating systems, credits accompany sounds of sobbing in my cinema as Theo prepares to go it alone. But do computers really care more than people? I feel numb, and wonder if perhaps Theo is ready now, after Samantha’s couch therapy, to head for real relationship, to connection versus hookups, to real versus substitutes. Or perhaps the desire to be comforted, cradled and sexually administered to, is too persuasive compared with real life relationship and the intimacy we all struggle with.
Pawlikowski’s latest film Ida is set in post war Poland. Anna (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun and orphan, living in worshipful silence at a rural monastery until she receives a letter announcing she has a family. From the silence of her daily rituals, she travels to the city to meet her estranged aunt Wanda (played by Agatha Kulesza). A magistrate and former state prosecutor, Wanda has been beaten by life, and caught up in her alcohol addiction. When Wanda tells her niece she is a Jew by the name of Ida, they are soon setting off on a road trip to Lublin and beyond. Wanda is looking for answers in the story of the Lebensteins, and she has contacted her niece after all this time, in order to find them.
Ida is na´ve about life outside the monastery walls, and ignorant of her Jewish history. Wanda chain-smokes, drinks and has one-night stands. Picking up a young jazz musician hitchhiking, she would love to corrupt her niece. With her communist beliefs and personal losses, she is cynical of the role religion has played in their history. “Good Christians your neighbours”, sneers Wanda, as they visit the religious people who have appropriated their family home and have the answers she is looking for.
As Ida judges her wayward and embittered aunt, Wanda’s cold exterior begins to soften towards her. Pawlikowski’s monochrome cinematography is powerful as they journey to the scene of the crime, the bare trees stand like silent witnesses, as they search for remains. Back at the monastery, Ida is not quite ready for her vows of chastity and obedience. But the truth is too much for Wanda, and Ida finds herself back in her aunt’s apartment, experimenting in childlike wonder with all the things outlawed…clothes, high-heeled shoes, cigarettes, alcohol and her saxophonist. But Wanda is not here to enjoy Ida’s corruption.
The film explores the meaning of sacrifice, as Ida and Wanda are unconsciously drawn to their family’s history, giving themselves over like those before them were taken. The Lebensteins were left in the woods, their homes and belongings taken by their neighbours and murderers, while Ida faces which future to renounce.
Linklater’s Boyhood, shot over twelve years, is both moving and nostalgic as it captures the real life journey of Mason, (Ellar Coltrane), and sister Samantha, (Lorelei Linklater), from six to eighteen, from preschool to Mason’s first day at university. The film charts their sibling rivalry, as they navigate new homes, schools, bullying, step-siblings, and cruel stepfathers. Studying his parents through binoculars, as if the mysteries of adults could be divined, he and his sister rebuild a relationship with their absent father, managing his small betrayals, like the car he promises Mason. “Is there really magic in the world?” he asks his father. It turns out there’s broken marriages, abusive fathering, a ‘parade of drunken arseholes,’ as well as moments of connection.
Ethan Hawke, an old Linklater collaborator, gives a naturalistic performance, as Mason senior, his fathering skills step up through abandonment, to manic weekend dad, breaking through his children’s monosyllabic response to real communication. While he evades his son’s questions, “Do you have a job/do you have a girlfriend”, he helps them navigate relationships, school, self esteem, sex and contraception, taking them to baseball, bowling, camping and music jams, while being human and letting them down. “I wish I were a better parent’, Mason Senior is trying and failing, but doing the best he can.
The same is true for mothering, as the film follows Patricia Arquette’s character Olivia, through three failed relationships: Mason, not ready to commit to fatherhood; Bill, her psychology lecturer and a violent drunk; and ex army veteran Jim. Liv puts herself through night school working and raising the kids, while managing her difficult and sometimes violent partners. Liv rages at being “someone’s daughter, then someone’s fucking mother!”, until suddenly it’s school graduation, and her ex finally acknowledges the great job she did, single mothering and getting their kids safely through to adulthood.
The power of Boyhood lies in Linklater’s craft, returning seamlessly over the seasons and years to characters that offer the audience the truth of time passing. The film segues through the family’s ages, time gaps and stages, as the Iraq War, Harry Potter, Facebook and Obama, form the backdrop for Linklater’s poignant reflections. This creates a nostalgia that feels more like life than art. And it is both. We witness ageing, spreading, skin clearing, and hair colours changing, as the characters negotiate childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, first love, and middle age. Linklater’s script is his usual mix of philosophy, psychology, and soul searching, delivered through all the characters we encounter. Ethan Hawke talks, in interview, of watching himself age over the course of filming, and finding this ‘devastating and awesome, depressing and enlightening’.
The film describes life as a series of moments, which Liv lists tearfully, as her son prepares to leave for University: “wedding, divorce, her masters… the day I thought you had dyslexia…what’s next, my funeral?!,” she cries. Linklater speaks to us of our dreams and disappointments, moments of joy and pain that make up both Boyhood the movie, and our lives. “I thought there would be more”, Liv cries, from her midlife vantage, her material ‘stuff’ accumulated, to be sold or recycled, her years of mothering suspended in this powerful moment of her son’s leaving.
“What’s the point?,” muses Mason, as the cast’s meditations on life form the substance of Linklater’s oeuvre. Boyhood’s remarkable and evocative testament to life seems to answer his question. We glimpse a majestic Mid Western landscape, as Mason is set to experience some of his own special moments, that, like the rest of us, will punctuate his journey.
What a moving, funny and tragic experience it is to watch Hanif Kureishi and Roger Michell’s film depicting Meg and Nick (Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent) a late middle-aged couple, who spend a weekend in Paris for their 30thwedding anniversary.
As they try to rediscover, revisit, and rekindle their lost romance, the hotel of their past is a miserable run down beige Meg cannot face. The luxurious hotel and restaurants they enjoy are out of their reach on their teaching salaries. Their stumbling disconnected attempts at sex inevitably fail. In Crucible couples therapy, David Schnarch and Ruth Morehouse explore the use of ‘mind mapping’, a skill any four year old develops to read the minds of his parents, teachers and siblings. Mind mapping (or ‘reading’) between couples can be manipulated in sex, as we withhold from our partners, and learn that as long as our partner still desires us, it’s safe to refuse. And it’s the sex Meg knows she’s going to have, that isn’t worth having. As she yearns for something her partner of thirty years just cannot deliver, Nick looks longingly at a younger woman who holds an imprint of his younger self’s desire. Kureishi writes in ‘In Praise of Adultery’, about the problem of desire, as ‘ever-present and ever-pressing…you cannot wish it away and it cannot be replaced by a substitute’.
Nick meanwhile is convinced his wife is having a fling with her computer technician. While they revisit the narrative of their life together with differing perspectives, the film confirms the islands of isolation we inhabit in long-term relationships. Kureishi describes the couple as ‘over-intimate…How can you desire what you already have’. This is the question couples therapists explore endlessly. Schnarch explores this in ‘A Passionate Marriage’, and Esther Perel in ‘Mating in Captivity’. Schnarch talks of couples agreeing on leftovers as the menu for sex, as each partner takes certain ‘taboo’ acts off the menu. Le Weekend captures the missed invitations and lost opportunities for connection, as they struggle with sex and intimacy.
Bumping into his New York friend from Oxford University days, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) invites them to a sophisticated dinner, celebrating his latest book launch in his luxury Paris apartment. Morgan is now an acclaimed, published pop philosopher, having a second chance at life in Paris, with a new wife less than half his age, and a baby on the way, Nick is forced to face his low self esteem, his failure to achieve more, and his impending early dismissal at his lectureship post. His philosophy offers him little relief as he faces these big life questions.
In Morgan’s toast to his old college friend, it is clear that he has continued to uphold Nick as a measure of greatness and inspiration, a chart or template to compare himself against, as he regularly wondered what Nick might have said or thought. Nick’s riposte is a searing, powerful and tragicomic bear-all account of his life, marriage, family, and fall from grace, that bears little resemblance to Morgan’s tribute. An ‘other-esteem’ that sadly has not had any reflected effect on his own. Morgan’s stoned son alone applauds, in the company of the glittering guests, yet there’s a ripple effect in the cinema audience, as we celebrate his authenticity.
As Nick and Meg bop and stroll to a jazz track in a 60’s Godard movie, (is it ‘Weekend’?) they confirm their connection, the nostalgia of their trip, some lost dreams of hope, liberation, and change, that Godard’s movies represent, within the confines of their reality; long term marriage, work, family, and ageing.
On Saturday morning I meet up with ten people, who have one thing in common, an interest in the words “A Return to Intimacy”, a workshop I run. It says ‘an experiential workshop’ and not much more, and I have had a brief chat with them to take their details and check they are not after a theoretical workshop. So, all I know are their names, and they know mine. By Sunday afternoon, they know a great deal more about themselves and each other, even if they never meet again. They spontaneously share insights and qualities they’ve seen in each other that are so spot on, so unexpected, and so far from their experience of being seen by partners, friends, colleagues and family, that I note and mail them these precious words as reminders to treasure.
Why should that be? Why can we reveal more to perfect strangers than to people we’ve known for decades? If the answer was simple I’d have written my bestseller. Most of us communicate now in short bursts via broadband: a text, an
e-mail, a peak at other ‘friend’s’ lives on Facebook, who we now rarely see. We leave our messages on ansaphones, that are sifted through by people who are so busy and stressed, a simple call to a landline is a luxury. We make a quick call to promise a longer one from our cars, the bus, the train, as we walk or do our shopping, using mobiles that ‘lose connection’ so regularly we often don’t bother returning the call.
If I could tell you more about the weekend it would spoil the experience for those participants who might be ready to jump in and join the next workshop. Do I learn more about my own relationship to intimacy with each weekend? Undoubtedly. But I can only tell you that you will have the opportunity to witness and experience the way you relate, and the blocks you encounter in attempting to make a deeper connection, in sharing your vulnerability, and in expressing your desires. And for this, only the group experience can facilitate this process.
The big M or Menopause is a word I’ve repeated for approximately 18 months daily like a mantra. It’s HUGE and many women fall victim to some typical symptoms and undesirable effects, yet the likelihood is that no one has warned you about it. Unlike a market saturated with IVF and pregnancy manuals, how to give birth at home, in a pool, with or without drugs, get your body back, your sleep, your breasts – you are unlikely to be inundated with YouTube clips on how to cope with ‘the Change’, what to expect, and many ways to make the turmoil manageable. You can feel pretty isolated as symptoms include sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, hot flushes, night sweats – the physical equivalent of walking towards a cliff and being pushed over the edge. And indeed you are alone, as friends and partners, colleagues and family are unlikely to be going through it with you.
The terrors strike at any time between (generally) your late 40s and early fifties, and just as your hormones are all over the place, no two people will feel the same. Some people react so badly that their regular routines render them helpless, and friends and family are co opted to lend a hand or take over. It’s a moment where women tend either to go into hiding, or reach out to a number of therapies for help.
Julia Bueno and Jane Edwards, co founders of the London Psychotherapy Network suggested a blog, but the idea of eliciting an audience for my personal menopausal misery made an unlikely twitter. I could not have contemplated injecting humour or energy into the scariest life cycle ride of all time. Women often cry out in childbirth “Why the fuck didn’t anybody tell me!” In the menopause there is a feeling of experiencing first hand the ultimate taboo involving changes in hormones, mood, fertility, appearance, energy, sexuality, in an emotional journey in the direction of ones mortality.
The good news is that women are getting together more to offer support and speak up in the silence of this journey. As a menopause survivor I can personally start the ball rolling inviting links to support your transition…most importantly to reach out and BE WARNED DON’T TRY THIS ALONE! Keep adding to the Help Button contact list, and remember that talking therapies help, as well as good diet, exercise, yoga and meditation, acupuncture, herbalism, homeopathy and cranial osteopathy. Let’s hear from men suffering the MANopause too…
Hit The Help Button:
The Wisdom of the Menopause by Christiane Northrup
Marylin Glenville, Nutritionist
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Dr Jan Toledano Bio Identical hormone
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Dr Yehudi Gordon, Gynaecology & Bio identical Hormones
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Carla Lamkin Cranial Osteopathy
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Mary Strugar, Nutritionist
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