Noah (2013)

Noah, a remarkably perceptive short film about the consequences of relying on social media alone to gauge what is happening in real life, has first-rate visuals and a climax immersed in a quiet pathos. 

NoahCanada
4.5*

Directors:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Screenwriters:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Director of Photography:
Patrick Cederberg

Running time: 17 minutes

A kind of Lady in the Lake for the age of Facebook, the 17-minute-long Noah is only shot from the point of view of its central character. The twist is that this POV shows only one thing: the screen of a Macintosh computer, conveying thought processes to us as we skip from Wikipedia, Facebook and Skype to YouPorn and Chatroulette, often to the soundtrack of whatever is playing on iTunes. But we need nothing more, because in so many respects life today is “lived” online, and much of the power of this film lies in the two young directors’ firm execution of rhythmic pans and zooms to build suspense at exactly the right moments.

Co-created by Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman, who were students at Ryerson University during production, the film stars Sam Kantor as the titular Noah Lennox, who is in his final year of high school, but it takes a few screens before we even know what he looks or sounds like. After all, how often are our own faces projected back to us when we are online? But our fingerprints are all over our Internet history, and thus, we immediately recognise Noah (and parts of ourselves) when we see him open Safari to start browsing.

With porn running in the background, he opens Facebook to chat with his girlfriend, Amy, who says they have to talk. He opens Skype to chat with her, but the interaction is awkward because he is not really paying attention, and she is obviously about to broach a serious topic: life and their relationship after high school graduation. The connection is lost, and there is silence, although Noah can see that she received and read his “hello?” on Facebook during this time.

Thus begins an obsessive quest for answers, as Noah browses Amy’s Facebook photos, notices one guy’s name coming up again and again, then wonders what this is all about and eventually pries his way into and violates the most sacred of Amy’s online spaces: her Facebook profile. To ratchet up the tension, Cederberg and Woodman punctuate hyperactive pans and zooms with well-placed pauses to convey hesitation and to make us feel like we are not only inside Noah’s skin but also feeling the same anxiety he is. A cursor hovering momentarily over a button is the calm before the storm as we realise he is about to cross their relationship’s Rubicon.

Noah is insightful, hip and one-of-a-kind. The compelling artistry of its visuals, made elegant thanks to seamless editing and other post-production work that successfully imitates the darting movements of the eyes, and the continued topicality of the themes of technology and isolation mean this film has not aged a day since its release. There is not a single moment that could be trimmed from the film without tarnishing the perfect integration of plot and form that the filmmakers sought and achieved. By the time we reach the climax, which appears like a brilliant sunrise over the soggy marshlands of all that came before, the feeling is one of pure empathy with Noah.

Many a viewer will be drawn to and fascinated by the form but stay to live through this particular moment in the life of a total stranger because the devices and the emotions they evoke are so familiar. And that is something that doesn’t have every day.

Noah is an ark captained by two gifted filmmakers whose execution matches their vision and who steer the narrative seemingly effortlessly towards its majestic conclusion. It is daring and dazzling, and its depiction of a moment of life online feels damn authentic.

Her (2013)

Romantic drama inside a colourful science-fiction framework puts its finger on the reasons why people stay together and/or grow apart.

her-spike-jonzeUSA
4.5*

Director:
Spike Jonze

Screenwriter:
Spike Jonze

Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema

Running time: 125 minutes

It can be a constant battle for those in a relationship to remain together even as the two individuals grow in their own direction. Whatever sparked that initial euphoria may soon become nothing but a memory of two people meeting each other at a point in their lives that now seems vastly different from where they find themselves today.

This is but one very astute insight from Spike Jonze’s romantic drama Her, one of the most perceptive films about people and relationships since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s work of art that perfectly welded intelligence, emotion and comedy back in 2004. Her is similarly accomplished, as it takes a situation where a happy ending appears to be inherently impossible and makes us experience not just the emotional but also the intellectual fluctuations of its evolution by plumbing the depths of the human soul.

Set in a Los Angeles of the near future, the film examines the consequences of a decision made by the recently separated Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) to upgrade to a new operating system. Like most people, his current OS is functional but rather impersonal, and his physical and emotional isolation, along with the late-night porn, indicate that he needs more intimate interaction in his life.

The new OS, which he speaks to and which speaks back to him in a way that is cosy and understanding and with a sense of humour, has a name, and even though it doesn’t have a body, it resembles a person in most other ways. It is “Samantha”.

One of the best casting choices for this film was the voice of Samantha. It is important that we can visualise her, and that many in the audience will feel an attraction to her. The moment she starts speaking, we know it is Scarlett Johansson, and we can “see” her just as well as Theodore thinks he knows her.

In no time, it becomes obvious that this is not just going to be an OS to read back Theodore’s e-mails and proofread his online documents, but that Samantha will be an operating system for his soul – one that fills the void that was created when his wife left him. From the very first moment, we know Theodore will fall in love with Samantha. We also know that a relationship that is purely virtual, in which the couple can’t touch each other or be touched by a facial expression, is unlikely to last very long.

And yet, Her goes about its subject with the utmost understanding for why people come together, stay together or grow apart. It doesn’t frighten us with unnecessary drama, as it could so easily have done by transforming Samantha into a hysterical, mayhem-spreading virus that blackmails him to satisfy her own needs. On the contrary, Samantha remains a mostly level-headed being that is aware of its own development and is unsure how to handle the impact of change on a relationship she obviously cares about.

But while she has the world’s knowledge at the tips of her cables, she doesn’t have the same experience as Theodore when it comes to actual social interaction. No relationship is easy, but when you are used to interacting with a physical person and now you suddenly switch gears and expect the other person’s voice and intellect alone to keep the two of you together, it is going to be particularly tough. “What’s it like to be alive?” Samantha asks him.

Interestingly, as if to make herself believe that she is as real as Theodore, Samantha often uses the word “actually” in her speech. She is an artificially intelligent organism that can use its interactions and experiences to develop and adapt, and she is obviously unlike anyone Theodore has ever dated before, but the relationship can only grow to a certain point before her invisibility becomes a serious obstacle. Her artificial origins also raise questions such as whether her feelings are “real” or programmed, and whether it matters, since many of our emotions are also responses based on conditioning or context.

One of Her’s highlights is a scene in which an escort, who has been hired by Samantha to be the body while she provides the voice, arrives at Theodore’s apartment to be a surrogate for his virtual girlfriend. All at once, the problems of the relationship are crystallised, as Theodore suddenly has to confront the fact that his girlfriend will always remain just beyond his grasp.

This disconnect is visible in other ways in film, as we see busy streets and corridors filled with people, all of whom are talking to the operating systems plugged into their ears, but almost no one is talking to anyone else.

Throughout the film, the rich and deeply resonant score by Arcade Fire enriches our experience by seemingly channelling exactly what the characters are feeling with its gentle, wordless numbers. And the product is a glorious mix – just as one would expect given the theme of the story – of sounds and images, that moreover has understanding for the maturing of a relationship, from two people sharing a laugh to them meeting and getting along with each other’s friends, to making sure the other person feels like they are being heard, listened to and understood.

This emotionally intelligent film, a love story for the 21st century, marks a return for Jonze to the world of entertaining think pieces, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, after his disappointing previous project, Where the Wild Things Are.