January 1999
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

:), IMHO

This message is just for you. Everybody else is welcome to read it, but this month's column is directed to my dear friend on the internet. No, not you! Stop reading this - why does everything have to be about you? This is really just from me to you. And you know who you are.

We know each other only through e-mail and newsgroup postings, and a great deal of instinct and imagination. Our friends would say we don't really know each other at all, that you can't know someone unless you've met face to face. But we know better, don't we.

I saw a film today. Big surprise, right? Like I don't see a movie nearly every day. This one made me think about you. And me. And us.

Another big surprise - it was another remake. Guess 1998 has been the Year of the Remake - I count 40 from the USA alone. Plus, there was an equal number of sequels (not counting American History X, smartass!). Kind of makes you appreciate the raw originality of Barney's Great Adventure.

This one is called You've Got Mail. Just like Sleepless in Seattle, it was directed by Nora Ephron and stars America's favorite sweethearts Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. This time, Meg and Tom are two New Yorkers who meet anonymously in an internet chat room and begin developing a close friendship via e-mail (sound familiar?). They cross paths repeatedly and clash in person, little realizing that their "Meat Space" nemesis is their cyberspace sweetheart. Hanks, it seems, comes out the winner in business, but once he learns that Meg's his be-loved, he's off to save pen-pal Ryan.

The original was made by Ernst Lubitsch in 1940, based on a play by Nikolaus Laszlo. Back then, it took about fifty years to download your e-mail. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan are clerks in a humble Budapest gift shop and unknowing correspondents. In a true update, I guess they'd both be working at Wal-Mart (hey, that word's in my spell-check!). But that kind of thing doesn't work in a romance of the '90s - who fantasizes about poverty? To make everything all peachy, Hanks' character is a rich vice president in his family's chain of big book stores. Even though Meg is just the owner of a little independent book store (endangered by Tom's new location opening nearby), she still pulls down enough dough to afford a nice West Side apartment. Yeah, so Tom has a yacht and Meg doesn't - their lives don't seem that different. Ephron probably didn't want anyone focusing on the economics. She just made sure Tom used a laptop from powerful Big Blue IBM Corporation, while Meg has a friendly, spirited, whimsical Apple MacIntosh e-z computer.

Adding to the '90s realism, our fabulously attractive and witty pair are both already involved with significant others (how could they not be?). Tom is involved with publisher Parker Posey, while Meg's beau is Village Voice columnist Greg Kinnear. To Ephron's credit, she doesn't start right off the bat portraying these two as complete dorks. Later, we learn that Parker's an unashamed self-centered bitch (ala Seinfeld), and Greg's a glory hound Luddite prick. You'd think that Tom and Meg would've found out more about them before moving in, but casting stones in hindsight is 20/20 in prescription glass houses, so they say.

However, it's notable that all involved are people that make their business in words. The other media have been making a big deal about how this flick males wry commentary on how the internet has changed modern society, but e-mail is just the medium of the moment. It's almost certain that you're reading this on the internet right now, unless you're reading it in my book collection of Feed Hollywood columns - published posthumously after an irate Robin Williams poisons my popcorn in retaliation for something unkind I'm going to write about him (just to gall him, I'll choke on the popcorn before the poison hits). You're still reading words that I wrote, whether it's in electronic ink or the old fashioned genetically-altered soy-based kind from exotic India.

Actually, it's more significant that the internet is not a major focus in this film. In fact, the internet is such a big deal that it's not a big deal anymore (even in the movies), as accepted a part of American life as every other commercial pretends it is. This marks a radical change in the way the net is portrayed in pop culture. We started out with War Games, in which any sharp teen with a fancy computer and a 300 baud modem could change his grades, alter his phone bill, cheat on his homework, or set off a thermonuclear doomsday device. Back then, the internet - and computers themselves - were portrayed as a magical playground. Few films showed the mundane way these machines really worked. Hackers tried to rally support for the Wired romantic ideal of a sexy new generation of kids. Poseur geeks straight out of Nike ads were shown rattling away wildly at keyboards, screenviews soaring through VRML landscapes, when all they were really doing was copying a file. Instantly dated, when the kids in this film weren't thrusting their fists in the air and shouting "Hack the world!", they were inpressing each other with their new 14.4 modems and 16M RAM chips.

Since we couldn't be fooled into thinking the www was the exclusive domain of excitable young trendies, they tried to make us afraid of it next. In The Net, nice girl next door Sandra Bullock getsa her whole identity taken away simply because she has an e-mail account. Note the heavy symbolism. Movies like Ghost in the Machine had monsters crawling through the cables to get us. Even in the recent Strangeland, villain Dee Snider uses chat rooms to lure his victims, but the internet is shown as something scary only to those unfamiliar with it. A trend is just a trend, and no one gives much thought to a pair of fancy designer shoes until someone wearing them chops up a couple people.

The true subtext of the film, and what makes it worthwhile, is its examination of the secret world of the written word. Via e-mail, Ryan is dry witted and speaks her mind, while Hanks' compassion and humanity come to the fore. Face-to-face, he's a hard-nosed businessman, while she always backs off to make others more comfortable. Neither view shows the entire personality, and the mask of anonymity gives them power. Once they meet in person, their clash immediately changes them, each taking on the other's attributes in some way. As they begin to get to know each other in "real life", they begin to see beyond their trappings and become attracted to the inner person they already know online. Simultaneously, they begin to deceive each other online, the sword of honesty is beaten into the plowshare of falsehood. Things get confusing, with the now familiar Approach-Avoidance Syndrome adding to the psycho-comedy.

Outside of these intriguing elements, this movie's got a bad case of the cutes. We all know that Hanks and Ryan suffer from a supernatural onscreen cuteness, and together their cute-osity expands exponentially. Though the leads don't interact with the rest of the cast as much as in the original, our pair is still backed up by cute character actors like Maureen Stapleton, Dave Chapelle, and Dabney Coleman. Hanks has a cute dog. Ryan has a cute staff. Coleman has a cute fiancÚ. A cute little girl sings "Tomorrow". Help me somebody! For we lonely souls that go to sleep each night with our faces buried deep in tear-stained pillows, these fantasies of the cute life where every scene is punctuated by cute pop tunes in the cute borough of New York are a bit too much. However, it's reassuring to see a story where two nice people can fall madly in love without even touching, and it all ends with a great big screen kiss.

However, I would've liked to have seen a bit more realism in this movie. For example, why is it we never see Meg or Tom get booted off of AOL? *

For those that must know, here's a top ten of the new films I saw in 1998. Either they were really good, or I need to get to the theater more often.

  1. Saving Private Ryan - smash-mouth WW2 drama
  2. The Truman Show - stae of the village idiot farce
  3. The Butcher Boy - psycho tyke
  4. Blade - hyper '90s version of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
  5. Dark City - dopey but grand fever dream
  6. The Big Lebowski - eccentricity deluxe
  7. Strangeland - new twist on the old creepers
  8. Ronin - tense euro-thriller throwback
  9. Babe: Pig in the City - fantasy overture
  10. Six-String Samurai - ambition on a budget

Please write in and change my mind about all these entries.



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