Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Two Twomblys: Similarities Between the Artist Cy Twombly and the Movie "Her"

Last night I finally got to a theater to see Spike Jonze's newest film, Her. I don't usually go out to the movies, but I've been a fan of Jonze ever since Adaptation (anyone who claims Nicholas Cage can't act has obviously never seen that film) and I decided he was worth it. Obviously Her, being an Oscar-nominated film, didn't disappoint. Joaquin Phoenix is as lonely and mildly dysfunctional as ever, and Scarlett Johansonn manages to give an operating system a convincing sense of humanity. But I'm not here to be some sort of film critic. The world is full of people better qualified for that position than I am, and they've already written plenty about Her.

What I am here to talk about is the connection between the film's main character, Theodore Twombly, and his namesake, an artist named Cy Twombly. For one thing, the film's color scheme often seems lifted directly off of Cy's canvas:

Left: Cy Twombly, Ferragosto I, 1961
Right: Spike Jonze, Her, 2013

Left: Spike Jonze, Her, 2013
Right: Cy Twombly, School of Athens, 1964

Many critics have already drawn comparisons between the two Twomblys, mainly because Theodore is a writer and Cy's work often centers around writing, but I wanted to see if the similarities ran deeper than that. I did some research and found several parallels, not necessarily to Theodore, but to the film's overall concept.

Spoilers below

First of all, Cy's paintings are not simply about writing. John Berger wrote that Twombly "visualizes with living colors the silent space that exists between and around words." This phrasing is strangely similar to what Samantha (the operating system that Theodore falls in love with) says when she leaves him. "It's like I'm reading a book," she says, "and it's a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now."

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1971

Cy's work also deals with the relationship between content and form—in his paintings the two are inseparable. This is an interesting contrast to the movie, where Samantha exists as a consciousness (content) without a body (form). The film explores how humanity (if you choose to call it that) can manifest itself without a physical aspect. I suspect Cy would have taken issue with the idea, as Theodore does when he begins to wonder whether he's only involved with Samantha because he can't handle "real" emotions.

Finally, Cy's approach to art is not to choose a subject to portray, but rather to create something that becomes its own unique subject. "Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history," Cy says of his work. "It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realisation [sic]." This reminds me distinctly of Samantha's journey through the film, beginning as a programmed system and eventually becoming an unfathomably advanced consciousness. She changes and grows as she learns about who she is and about the world around her – she is never anything other than what she realizes about herself.

Left: Cy Twombly, Sunset, 1957
Right: Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1968

In 1979, Roland Barthes wrote the following about Cy Twombly's work: "It is in a smear that we find the truth of redness; it is in a wobbly line that we find the truth of a pencil." I would add the assertion of the movie Her: it is in a shaken breath that we find the truth of humanity.

All Cy Twombly paintings and related quotes via

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