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January 1999

Two Adams, two Eves, and other thoughts

I have been gorging on the movie, You Have Mail. It is a rather delightful romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In the trade it is known as a date movie. I can commend it without reservation to those persons who will enjoy it.

I shall not argue with those who say that this activity on my part is rather like main-lining sugar and that intellectual diabetes is the inevitable consequence of such an indulgence. Fie on such critics, say I. Let them suck vinegar candies and be damned. Pigging out and indulging one’s cravings every once in a while is an important part of life.

It is an essential feature of the romantic comedy that the course of true love does not run smooth. Oddly enough the course of true love so often does run smooth in real life; people meet, date, fall in love, and marry with great regularity. No doubt there is some great dramatist who has written that story; I just don’t happen to be aware of him (or her – perhaps only a woman could write that story.) Male dramatists are locked into Tolstoy’s dictum – every happy family has the same story; the stories of unhappy families are all different.

One of the great traditional plots is “Boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl” with the SF variant “Boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy builds girl.” You will note that this plot follows the traditional roles – male pursues female – or as the wit puts it, the male pursues the female until she catches him. The nature of the “losing” is not prescribed by the formula; it is left to the ingenuity of the author. The usual ploy is a misunderstanding of some sort.

BGG:BLG:BGG is not the only formula available. If I apprehend matters correctly Harlequin romances rely on the torn female soul – the heroine both is greatly attracted to the hero (who exudes desirable masculinity) and hates him. In due course passion triumphs and true love prevails. I beg you to forgive me for not knowing the precise details of the formula.

Still another formula is the courtship in disguise. The essence of it is that the hero (sometimes the heroine) has two identities, one of them as an unsuitable suitor and the other a desirable suitor. The dramatic moment comes when the desirable suitor is revealed in his or her true self.

It is a common enough trick, one that the great bard himself used to effect. That, though, is not necessarily an endorsement. By rumor, Shakespeare placed no great stock in his comedies, believing them froth produced for the mob, whence titles such As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing. I shall be honest and admit that I cannot quite keep all of his comedies straight in my mind. He also had a deplorable surplus of Henry’s and Richard’s – a playwright really ought to content himself with one Henry and one Richard at most. At that, we should be grateful that he was not French. Imagine having to sit through a dozen Louis plays. It would be convenient for PBS, though; they could recycle French drawing rooms through play after play.

A difficulty with the dual courtship plot is that the postulated situation is so often artificial; in ordinary life most people have but one public identity. (The variety of private identities that people litter their souls with is a matter for the serious dramatist and is not presently to the point.) It is one of the charms of our modern age that technology has rescued the dramatist.

The plot of You Have Mail turns on the anonymity of email. Our hero, Tom Hanks, and our heroine, Meg Ryan are engaged in an email romance under conditions of anonymity. They exchange neither names nor personal details of their lives; instead they chatter about little nothings that are meaningful to them.

The peculiarity of this intercourse is that they know each other and yet do not know each other. Under these circumstances it is possible to know someone in day to day life and someone else on the internet and yet for these two people to be the same person. So it is here. Our hero and our heroine know each other in real life but not by their internet personae.

Thus we have two heroes, Adam I and Adam II, and two heroines, Eve I and Eve II, Adam I and Eve I being their mundane personae and Adam II and Eve II being their internet personae.

On the internet they are quite taken with each other. In the mundane world matters are elsewise. For sundry reasons of no moment here she dislikes him. He, initially interested, responds by disliking her. The internet lovers arrange to meet. At the place of meeting circumstances are such that he learns that she is she but she does not learn that he is he. Their meeting takes place, not as their internet personae but rather in their mundane personae. It does not go well. He forswears her in his mundane personae but is drawn back to her in his internet personae. In due course he realizes that this is the woman for him.

The stage is now set for the Courtship By Two Adams. In his own guise he courts her, concealing that he is courting her under the mask of establishing a friendship. He even advises her on relationship with her internet lover. All of this done is the context of the usual Hollywood conventions for shared crazy romantic moments.

In due course Adam II arranges to meet her. Before she does so Adam I indicates how he feels about her. She is duly flustered and clearly realizes that she has feelings that she hadn’t realized she had. She goes on to meet Adam II in person and, upon learning the truth, says to him, “I wanted it to be you.” They embrace and all ends happily.

The cynic might be skeptical about her not recognizing his operations, females generally being quite alert in matters romantic. Tis not so. It is a peculiarity of their sex that females, once they have accounted a male to be a friend, remove him firmly their thoughts as a romantic possibility, or at least such is the convention in literature and drama. It is even common enough in real life, whence the disconcertment of many a male who discovers himself to being cast as a brother when he had quite different intentions in mind.

There is a considerable amount of ambiguity concealed within the courtship by Adam I. (This ambiguity is a tribute to the acting abilities of Meg Ryan.) The extent to which she realizes she is being courted by Adam I and to which she is aware of the possibility of the identity of Adam II (and when she first, if ever, recognized the possibility) is left for the viewer to ponder on.

One of intriguing facets of the movie is the Pride and Prejudice motif. P&P; is quite the favorite book of our bookish heroine and it pops up regularly in the exchanges between the sundry Adams and Eves. Now the conventional reading of the title, I surmise, is that Darcy represents Pride and Elizabeth represents Prejudice. At one point Adam I, playing the role of the philistine, says (approximately), “She was prejudice, or was she pride?” Now that is an astute question – it is Elizabeth’s pride as much her prejudice that is at issue in P&P.; Darcy’s prejudice is also an issue albeit one that is much less obvious.

The truly intriguing thing is that our Adam and Eve are very much playing out the roles of Elizabeth and Darcy. Behind the scenes the movie is a (very loose, modernized) retelling of P&P.;

The butterfly in the subway is delightful.

Romantic Comedy

In an email exchange a critique was raised by a specialist in romantic comedies who insisted that the ending was underdone. It lacked, by her account, the crucial scene where Boy apologizes for his deceptions and perhaps other sins, and Girl forgives him. Oh, and he also has to promise to drop his AOL account. Then concluding embraces begin. This, she said, is utterly necessary, and reasons that someone must have imposed a time constraint on Nora Ephron et al. I commented in reply (response edited):

There is no denying that this story does not follow the standard formula which runs: “The man does wrong, comes to senses, apologizes, she forgives him. All ends happily in a reconciliation” formula. Pride and Prejudice will do quite nicely as an example. The catch is that this story does not fit the major structure of the standard formula.

The formula is still there, underneath, but the apology comes much earlier when he writes to her after the blow up at the cafe. The traditional formula doesn’t work because she cannot forgive him at that time, i.e., he is apologizing both for NY152 and for Joe Fox but she doesn’t know that.

In a major sense though, there is a missing apology and forgiveness scene. Kathleen Kelly never forgives Joe Fox in a forgiveness scene and she is, by the rules and female sensibility, entitled to one. More precisely, the scene is there but it is muted. It happens when he visits her while she is sick. He owns fault several times – “I was the horrible one” and “you’re entitled to hate me” – and asks forgiveness – “I want to be your friend”. In turn she does forgive him but it’s subtle. She dismisses his fault owning each time he owns up, e.g., “I don’t hate you” but that’s not the forgiveness; that’s mostly civility. (There is some forgiveness involved since she is de facto admitting him to the ranks of acceptable human beings.)

The real forgiveness is not verbal at all; it is all done with facial expressions after he stops her from coming out with a zinger when she is sitting in bed. That’s a major “realization” scene, although exactly what it is that she realizes is not explicit. However that is when she forgives Joe Fox which is why he can “bump into her” with them being on friendly terms.

It really is a marvelous scene.

A forgiveness scene at the end, however, would be out of place because she already has forgiven him for his major transgressions and she and he both know it. The one open issue is that he has concealed from her that NY152 and Joe Fox are the same person. He does apologize – that’s the shrug of the shoulders when he appears with Brinkley – and she accepts and forgives with “I wanted it to be you”.

The really tricky thing about the whole end of the movie from the sick room scene on is that she realizes at some level that (a) she is being courted, and (b) that Joe Fox might be NY152. Indeed, the courtship is necessary because he has to show her that Joe Fox is the kind of person that could be NY152. In a sense that is the real apology, one of deeds and not of words.

The Feminist Slant

The following comment by Chris Rasmussen appeared in soc.women:

I am disheartened by the warm reception, particularly from women, “YOU’VE GOT MAIL” is receiving. While it boasts strong performances from both Ryan and Hanks, and is, for the most part, a thoughtful contemporization* of the classic “Shop Around the Corner,” the bothersome thing is this: Joe puts Kathleen out of her life’s business – even after he learns that she’s the woman he loves. And when Kathleen learns that Joe is her mystery internet love, she says “I wanted it to be you.” Is this the kind of model women today want to follow in their romantic pursuits? The answer, penned and directed by the Ephron sisters, is, sadly, yes.

With the previous successes of movies like “THE PIANO,” where the central female character is drawn to someone who humiliates, debases, or otherwise abuses her, it shouldn’t be shocking at all that people accept the relatively mild act of ruining another’s livelihood in YOU’VE GOT MAIL as simply the ’90s vision of screwball comedy. But the underlying message in the current version strikes me as insidious – that it’s OK for someone to destroy the life of another if he’s Tom Hanks, and the woman will be grateful, and love him nonetheless. After all, as Joe says, “It’s not personal; it’s business.”

Have Americans of the ’90s become so desensitized to acts of cruelty that we merely accept phrases like, “It’s not personal; it’s business” as a valid excuse?

I replied with the following:

As a preliminary note we are talking about a movie and not real life so there a couple of levels involved, i.e., what is involved in the story itself and what is involved in the writers choices. If we talk about what else the people portrayed might have done it remains that we are speculating about alternatives within a story that someone has written.

That said, within the context of the story Joe Fox has no alternative but to put her out of business. It is the very existence of his store (and he can’t go back and remove it) that destroys her business. After watching the movie I did go back and speculate on what he might have done and there isn’t much. The business problem is that the big store erodes her customer base. Her loyal customers stayed with her but she lost the casual trade. This would have happened even if she could have matched prices. The best I could come up with is that Fox Books would have subsidized her store (justified as a community service move) by supplying her at their prices, promoting her store within their children’s department, and perhaps giving her shop a training contract (to train their clerks by having them work at her shop.) In short, it might be possibility for her shop to survive as a subsidized dependency. This wouldn’t play dramatically and probably wouldn’t in real life. So that is a given: her shop is going to go under.

There is a larger issue here. Creative destruction is intrinsic to capitalism. Businesses compete. Businesses thrive and they fail. For the general consuming public this is good. Fox Books, in the movie, gives the general public a better deal in terms of convenience and price than its competitors do. The supermarket gives its customers a better deal than the Mom & Pop stores.

There is another side to this though. A business is not simply an economic institution; it is also a social institution. People invest their lives and selves into the companies that they work for (or own.) A Walmart’s comes into an area and a suite of small businesses go under. This is an immediate tragedy for those who owned and worked in those businesses; it also changes the tone of the environment.

This is a big social issue and I have no answers and take no position. I will note that countries like France and Japan take the view that the traditional farming practice is a social institution integral to the national character and that they adopt strict regulations that ensure that the traditional farms are viable. Likewise in the US communities often adopt zoning regulations that rule out fast food chains and big discount stores to preserve community character.

In the movie Kathleen suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding. At one point Joe Fox says to her “I’m in the book business” and she replies “I am in the book business.” She is wrong; she is a shopkeeper; he is a business man. He understands how business on the large scale operates; she does not. Her entire publicity campaign is futile because it doesn’t address her business problem.

The recurring refrain is “It isn’t personal; it’s business.” The refrain does not have the most savory source – it is from _The Godfather_ and it is how the criminal syndicate rationalizes its activities. However there is a real truth (and a real falsehood) here.

The employees of a corporation act on behalf of their corporation in competition with other corporations. To them, it isn’t personal – it is business. If I run a company (and I have) I do not take it personally that my competitors try to take business away from me nor do my competitors take it personally that I take business away from them. It’s the way business is. But there is a safety valve. If my company fails I can go out and get a position with another company. My relationship with my employer isn’t personal – it’s business.

The relationship of a shop owner to his or her shop of long standing is more than business; it is personal. But it is personal to her.

I will submit that it isn’t quite to the point to characterize the situation as “man ruins woman’s livelihood and sweeps her into his arms” to put it baldly or more generically “abuse is rewarded with love”. It just isn’t that simple.

There is an undertone to the movie – do we want to live in a world which operates on the ethical level of _The Godfather_? One of the little messages of the movie is that Joe Fox recognizes and admits to is that there is something not quite right about the pat formula that he lives by.

There is a facet which is part of the dramatic complication but which also has a larger element. Until he courts her in the last section of the movie (from the sick room scene on) she does not and cannot see him as a person. In the party scene she comes at him with all claws out – he is not “Joe Fox, human being”; instead he is “Joe Fox, demon”. You don’t have to be polite to demons. The dramatic element is standard, of course – it is par for the course for the female (or sometimes the male) to dislike the other person until love conquers all.

Note that Joe Fox is hated for what he is, knows it, and resents that hatred.

Just as a tangential note I will express my polite doubts that a Joe Fox could be quite as clever and insightful as he is portrayed as being in the last part of the movie. It was a brilliant piece of maneuvering to get her to say “I don’t hate you,” something that few people could pull off in real life. (Of course he had the script writer on his side but still …)

The last section of the movie is very ambiguous. There are three men in her life, Joe Fox bad guy, Joe Fox good guy, and NY 152. She clearly recognizes the possibility that some or all of these people may be the same person. How and when is left open.

All of that said the story has real elements of tragedy and I would probably be very depressed by the movie if I had been the owner of a small bookstore that went under because a Borders or a B&N; had opened nearby.

As a further note, the story does repeat the conventional “powerful male, wooed female” formula. In real life it could be the other way around but I don’t know if people would want to see that movie.

Note: The Shop Around The Corner

You’ve got mail is loosely based on the play, The Shop Around The Corner. If my apprehension is correct, the movie The Shop Around the corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, is fairly close to the original play. You’ve got mail is not; YGM retains the basic gimmick (the anonymous romance by mail) and the restaurant scene which is a direct remake of the original restaurant scene. Other than that, the plot and characters of You’ve got mail are quite distinct from The Shop Around The Corner.

This page was last updated January 7, 1999.

table of contents
original stuff
January 1999