7/31/20: Nora Ephron vs. The Internet

Yesterday, I saw Julie & Julia (2009) for the first time, and I’m glad to report that it is now my second favorite Nora Ephron movie (not counting This is My Life, which is virtually unavailable in the Philippines).

The Ephron filmography had been one of my big blindspots for so long, and it was thankfully filled in after my favorite podcast, Blank Check with Griffin and David, started their most recent miniseries on her directing work. Watching her films now over yet another extended quarantine has been pretty good; romcoms, as we all know, are famously comfortable, and Nora Ephron did redefine the genre not only once, but quite a few times. Of course, this only points to the fact that Ms. Ephron was so much more than a commercial filmmaker; her films with the longest lasting cultural influence naturally contain her deepest ideas. When I came around to Julie & Julia, for instance, I found myself asking the same question I had just a few weeks ago, while watching You’ve Got Mail (1998): am I supposed to think that Nora was too optimistic about the Internet?

It’s strange to have grown up and personally witnessed the Internet’s slow descent into oil refinery dumpster fire over the last twenty-so years. It’s practically to the point that You’ve Got Mail’s plot is, in our day and age, high-concept: two strangers who turn out to be business rivals come together via the Internet and gradually self-improve until they fall in love. The night after I saw the film, I told my family over Zoom: “She got it sooooo wrong! But man is that movie good…” I consequently wondered how Nora would respond if she were still with us now, if she could see how far we’ve come with catfishing, trolls, reply guys, and fake accounts—just the tip of the iceberg.

Well, now I have reason to believe that she must have seen the writing on the wall, because Julie & Julia is undoubtedly imbibed with the same brand of optimism towards the virtual landscape albeit a decade later. Moreover, its reliance on the Internet to drive a deeply relatable story about a woman trying to fulfill a self-determined project in a New York still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 makes the stakes of Julie & Julia even bigger than its predecessor.

I don’t mean to get too meta so early on in this essay, but I, like Julie Powell (Amy Adams), am a writer who’s sort of floating in the liminal space at the moment. In April, I finished writing a manuscript for my novel that I felt pretty happy about, but have since then put a bit on the shelf, waiting until my mind can be fresh enough to give it another pass that I can stomach. I had spent all of 2019 working furiously on making the novel feel cohesive, and, as far as I can tell, it is… but is it? People who are not me who have read it so far have given mixed answers, so I have to make room for reconsidering when I read it in full again. Until then, I am trying to fill my time with things to do, and writing shorter form things feels somehow like a trick I am learning to master once again. So it’s fitting that I start off this blog by talking about a movie in which a writer starts her own blog, and while I do naturally envy the historical success of Julie Powell’s endeavor, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was genuinely excited the moment Julie and her husband (who I’m going to assume is actually just Chris Messina) pick a blog template. The movie is firmly centered on Julie’s project of self-determination. It asks the question of how a person can pick herself up in a time when the shadow of harrowing loss and societal tragedy still hangs overhead. In Julie’s case, apart from 9/11, she is dealing with the realization that nothing has happened for her the way she hoped. In her 30s, she continues to doubts herself as a writer, and even when she receives a dreamboat of representation and publication offers towards the end of the film, she has to be reminded by Chris Messina that she is a writer and has been for as long as we’ve been watching.

Now the reason I say ‘centered’ is that Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep) story, I think, leans more on Julie’s than the other way around. Since Julie already looks up to Julia, the film’s structure naturally builds up the expectation that after we have seen both Julie and Julia achieve their goals, they will eventually meet and Julia will validate Julie’s efforts. However, this is Ms. Ephron’s way of pulling the rug out under the feet of the unfamiliar (I, for one, went into the film with as little context about the real life Julie and Julia as possible), because that never happens and much to Julie’s incredible disappointment, word of Julia Child’s disapproval eventually finds its way to Julie. Where Julia had no real trailblazer to follow or approval to seek but that of the publishing establishment, Julie’s conflict then becomes the struggle to validate herself in spite of Child’s disdain. But of course, Julie cannot have anyone to look up to without Julia undertaking her own journey, which not only parallels Julie’s but also concretizes the idealized version of Julia whose approval she seeks. And so the movie must present us with both Julie and Julia’s stories as though they were the same. One of the biggest parallels between Julie and Julia is that both of them are trying to complete their projects in the context of both personal and societal tragedies: Julia and her husband move to France in the decade following the Second World War, as they try to deal with their childlessness; Julie’s story takes place in New York in 2002, and the shadow of 9/11 is clear, especially as Julie works fielding calls from victims and family members.

Julie finds her blog to be an escape from daily life, as she says in one scene. It is clear that while she is writing to be read, the lack of readership at the start of her project can’t stop her from fulfilling her commitment. As much as she is writing to be read, she is writing because her sense of self-worth derives from a love for the thing she writes about. And if the people she hates in her life can get away with writing about having sex on airplanes, then why can’t she get away with writing out her attempt to finish Child’s cookbook? This through-line presents the Internet for its positive potential, and harkens back to Nora Ephron’s magnum opus, in which the Internet is the seat of all hope for Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan). I would even say that what’s so great about You’ve Got Mail’s title is that it isn’t an anything title in the way of romcoms that eventually followed (say, for instance, Something’s Gotta Give), it deliberately points to the exact moments when Joe and Kathleen become their best selves: when the connection comes through and they hear the magic words.

What’s incredible about You’ve Got Mail is that the whole movie builds on the idea of how hard it is to be that best self all the time. The viewer is led to believe that Kathleen is a more morally competent character when the film begins, but that’s because, by her own admission, she can’t bring herself to be mean or to possess the killer instinct that would allow her business to succeed. And Joe, by all accounts, is the reverse of that: though essentially a nice, self-assured guy, he is the third in a line of successful businessmen whose only pursuits are luxuries and frilly, unfulfilling relationships. In the conflict between him and Kathleen, Joe actually teaches and encourages her to be mean, if only to give her store a semblance of a fighting chance. If there’s any indication of hope for Joe, it’s not just in the way he’s genuinely kind towards his 11-year-old aunt and 4-year-old nephew, it’s also in Joe’s attentiveness to his grandfather Schuyler’s wistfulness for the lost love of his life, who turns out to be Kathleen’s mother. If Julia must walk so that Julie may run, Schuyler must stumble so that Joe can actually stand a chance of walking successfully for the first time in his family’s soulless history.

Joe succeeds in the struggle to close up Kathleen’s shop, but at the great cost of seriously upending her own self-determination. Kathleen is constantly shaken by the pressure of living up to her mother’s legacy, which she ultimately, tragically knows she can’t fulfill. It’s not her destiny to build something like The Shop Around the Corner from the ground up and become a cherished name in the hearts and minds of the local community, as her mother did. What she values most is being her mother’s daughter—throw expectations out the window. Although she manages to shift careers by the end of the movie, that does nothing to undercut the pain of looking into the store one last time and seeing the memory of her and her mother left behind. She is let down, and Joe, to his credit, recognizes the need to be a real friend to her before he can reveal that he has been her online penpal the whole time.

In You’ve Got Mail, the power of the Internet is rooted in the ideal of human relationships—not only finding our best selves, but managing that self in front of an other. In Julie & Julia, Ephron decides to tell the story in a way that roots the power of the Internet in something else—taking control of one’s own life in the wake of overwhelming circumstances. It’s the thematic decision that, incidentally, ties Ms. Ephron’s final film to her first, where Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner) tries to follow through with her aspirations as a stand-up comedian while managing the emotional and temporal burdens of being a single mother in This Is My Life (1992). It’s the sort of decision that makes Julie & Julia a kind of spiritual sequel, if not a thematic follow-up to You’ve Got Mail.

In both of these films, Ephron introduces us to characters who are flawed, but not superficially so. I think the problem with some of her less successful films, like Mixed Nuts (1994) or Lucky Numbers (2000), is that the characters that lead them do not come off as being morally retrievable or relatable from the get-go. The Ephron viewer yearns less for a happy ending than they do for a comeuppance, which, well, never really comes or lands squarely. That was never the case in You’ve Got Mail or Julie & Julia. I always wanted them to get exactly what they needed.

It’s useless to speculate but I would have really loved it if Nora Ephron were still around to give us one more film about her hope in the Internet. I’m often quite shy and unsure of my voice, and that often gets in the way of having any presence here at all. I want so much for someone to still believe that I can totally be my best self around here.