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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Never Smile At a Crocodile, Especially When Over the Rainbow. You Might Get…. Nailed

As part of what has turned into a series of posts here about the subversive, subtly literary, multiple subtexts of Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, I am now ready to reveal the answer to my quiz question posed earlier today:

In addition to the fact that it's a really great line of dialog, what is the deeper reason why Nora Ephron has Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) shoot the following zinger at Joe Fox (Tom Hanks)?:
 "If I really knew you, I know what I would find -- instead of a brain, a cash register, INSTEAD OF A HEART, a bottom line."
Hint: in part, it has something to do with Jane Austen, including the kind of subtle allusions to P&P and Much Ado About Nothing that Ephron hid in plain sight in her "light" romcom…

And the answer is THE WIZARD OF OZ!  Now I will ‘splain myself, including (at the end) an explicit tie in of the meaning of this allusion in You’ve Got Mail to Pride & Prejudice!

To begin, once you have that answer in mind, you should realize why I gave you that hint, which is an unmistakable allusion to The Wizard of Oz, which includes the following memorable song lyrics…

“If I only had a brain”  (the Scarecrow) and “If I only had a heart” (the Tin Man)

…and is of course also based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

"All the same," said the Scarecrow, "I shall ask for brains INSTEAD OF A HEART; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one."  

Once you start to think about it, you may already realize this is only the proverbial tip of a rather large iceberg, a truly amazing, wild literary ride that the late, great Nora Ephron has slyly constructed for your pleasure…but also for your enlightenment as to her deeper (and I claim, radical feminist) intentions in hiding this literary/cinematic allusion in plain sight in her film.

Joe Fox and the Wizard: isn’t the parallel also obvious once you think about it? Joe talks about using The Godfather as his playbook in life (which is not very encouraging, from a female perspective, when you think about Michael Corleone’s cold-blooded, reptilian behavior toward his wife Connie), and I believe him. But even more so, Joe imitates the Wizard of Oz’s mode of operation: i.e., he constructs an elaborate technology-driven alternative fantasy reality for a girl—or at least a woman who calls herself “shopgirl” —a fantastical Electronic City where Kathleen, this latter day Dorothy, can go just by clicking (not her heels, as per the Shoes books she so loves, but) her mouse, as she responds like a Pavlov lab rat to the siren song of “You’ve Got Mail”.

And speaking of “reptilian” Michael Corleone, how about the hidden meaning behind the soundtrack’s including the following not long (as I recall) after Kathleen meets Joe:

Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile
Don't be taken in by his welcome grin
He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin
Never smile at a crocodile
Never tip your hat and stop to talk awhile
Never run, walk away, say good-night, not good-day
Clear the aisle but never smile at Mister Crocodile
You may very well be well bred
Lots of etiquette in your head
But there's always some special case, time or place
to forget etiquette

This is Nora Ephron warning Kathleen to be wary of Joe not when he is being an arrogant, selfish jerk when he interacts with Kathleen ftf in the first half of the movie, but Joe the Wizard of AOL, who smiles through the words he types on the computer monitor.

So, let’s pause. Do any of you think I am overdoing this, seeing more than Ephron intended? Perhaps, you are thinking, Ephron, like her alter ego, Kathleen, simply loved The Wizard of Oz….

[from the screenplay] Kathleen turns the CLOSED sign on the door over to read "OPEN" and she activates the computer system.  She looks around, and we see a small but charming children's bookstore, with wooden shelves, a tiny area where kids can sit and read, some charming posters and a glass case full of first editions of the Oz books and Alice In Wonderland, etc.  There's a playful display of witches, lit with twinkle lights covered with orange pumpkin globes and a sign reading "The Ten Best WITCH List"  and a collection of witch books -- "The LION, The WITCH and the Wardrobe," "The WITCHES," "The WIZARD OF OZ." On the counter is a glass jar full of sugar-free lollipops.

…and thought it appropriate to include a few winks in that direction, with no subversive intent at all? Maybe all those “witches” are just a harmless sly wink at all the famous witches in The Wizard of Oz?

Well, let me now lay out for you all the OTHER winks (besides all those witches, and Kathleen’s zinger) which show that The Wizard of Oz was in fact a KEY subtext that Ephron wished to ping subliminally in her viewers’s minds repeatedly throughout the film, and always in a thematically subversive way:

ONE: [From the screenplay]
FRANK What I was thinking as I was trailing him was that eventually I would have the COURAGE to say hello to him, you know, not in a horrible, intrusive or slavering fan-slash-acolyte kind of way, but more like, "Hi."  "How ya doing?"  "Have you ever thought about trading up in the sock area?"  "Who knows, maybe he's read my work --and then we'd become friends, and eventually I'd introduce him to you--you know how much he loves children's books, there's a whole long section in Relativity's Smile about THE WIZARD OF OZ-- and then maybe he'd come out of hiding so he could help save the store.
KATHLEEN What are you talking about?
FRANK From Foxbooks.  I mean, if things got tough, he could help rally support --

Frank bores Kathleen with his neurotic plans for approaching a famous author (upon reflection, it must be JD Salinger Ephron means us to think of, an author as to whom, not coincidentally, I believe, Jean Miller, Salinger’s friend/lover(?) spoke in  Salinger as follows: “He talked a lot about Judy Garland and child actors, the innocence of actors and the beauty of their purity. He liked the innocence of childhood before pretension set in: the clear, simple way she sang in the Wizard of Oz.”  
Is it just a coincidence that the main theme of Salinger is the disturbingly Machiavellian behavior some of his former (and much younger) female companions have alleged? This is more than a throwaway  reference to The Wizard of Oz, And, who knows, maybe Nora Ephron, with all her New York literary connections, knew something we all don’t know yet, and Relativity’s Smile will turn out to be the title of a Salinger novel soon to be found in a book store near you!?

TWO: Isn’t Parker Posey’s Patricia being so sneeringly over-the-top nasty meant to remind us of Edith Hamilton’s sneeringly delicious Wicked With of the West? It would be wonderful to watch clips of them both one after the other on YouTube!

THREE: [from the screenplay]
JOE (V.O.) Dear friend: I cannot tell you what happened to me last night, but I beg you from the bottom of my HEART to forgive me for not being there.
He deletes "for not being there."

So, how curious that Joe Fox, whose lack of heart is a real problem during the first half of the film, must hide behind his Internet connection before he feels safe referring to his heart.

FOUR: Mr. Matuschek from The Shop Around the Corner (1940), the most famous allusive source for You’ve Got Mail, was played by Frank Morgan, who (surprise, surprise) played the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, or only a year before.  I hope nobody will try to tell me that Nora Ephron might not have realized this.

FIVE: The strange unreality of an Internet love affair in which the two parties have not even met in the flesh is given eloquent voice by Kathleen in one of her emails to Joe:

“KATHLEEN: “The odd thing about this form of communication is you're more likely to talk about NOTHING than SOMETHING. But I just want to say that all this NOTHING has meant more to me than so many... SOMETHINGS. So, thanks.”

What’s really interesting is that this was NOT in the screenplay as originally written, it must have been added during filming.

Anyway, consider the striking resonance of Kathleen’s acute observation with the following dialog in The Wizard of Oz:

DOROTHY No. But it wasn't a dream --it was a place. And you - and you - and you - and you were there.
PROFESSOR    Oh --    (others laugh)
DOROTHY But you couldn't have been, could you?
AUNT EM Oh, we dream lots of silly things when we --
DOROTHY No, Aunt Em -- this was a real, truly live place.  And I remember that some of it wasn't very nice....
Camera shooting down past Aunt Em --
DOROTHY ...but most of it was beautiful.  But just the same, all I kept saying to everybody was, I want to go home. And they sent me home.
Dorothy lying in bed -- Aunt Em sitting by her -- Professor at window -- Uncle Henry -- Zeke -- Hunk and Hickory standing by – they laugh -- Toto jumps up on to bed -- Dorothy takes Toto in her arms DOROTHY Doesn't anybody believe me?
UNCLE HENRY Of course we believe you, Dorothy.
DOROTHY Oh, but anyway, Toto, we're home!

Ephron is hinting to us that Kathleen should think more about the “nothing” of her online relationship with Joe, and be suspicious of it, as it may all be a “dream” constructed especially for an audience of one—her—by the ultrasly Joe Fox.

SIX (and last, the one you probably thought of first when I revealed my answer)
Just think about how similar the ending of You’ve Got Mail is to the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy sings that greatest of all popular songs:

AUNT EM Now, you just help us out today, and find yourself a place where you won't get into
any trouble.
DOROTHY Some place where there isn't any trouble….Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?
There must be.  It's not a place you can get to by a boat or a train.  It's far, far away -- behind the moon -- beyond the rain

Those who’ve seen You’ve Got Mail many times, as I have, don’t need a prompt to remember the scene at the end of the film which also involves a girl and a dog:

Suddenly she hears a noise.  A dog barking. [and that’s exactly when “Over the Rainbow” begins playing]
And Brinkley comes around the corner.
VOICE Brinkley!  Brinkley!
And hold on Kathleen as she sees.
JOE And she starts to cry.
And he comes to her.  And puts his arms around her.
JOE Don't cry, ShopGIRL, don't cry.
KATHLEEN I wanted it to be you.  I wanted it to be you so badly.
And as they kiss, we hold on them.
And crane up and away as we see them, a couple kissing in the park on a beautiful spring day.
A dog is leaping around them. And as we get further and further away from them, the screen turns into
And the dog turns cartwheels and flipflops.
And we tilt up to see the clouds and the sky
and hear the sound of computer keys, clicking, clicking, clicking

Now, I could just write Q.E.D, but instead I will point out that Ephron’s overarching point, what she’s been driving at the entire movie, but eschewing the soapbox feminist oratory for the gentle whisper in the audience’s ear, is, I believe, the following. Nora Ephron was saying to all the women watching the film, “YOU’VE got mail”, meaning YOU are in danger too, sitting out there, eating up this romantic fantasy, and particularly the especially toxic female fantasy, the idea that you can reform a man in need of reform, by the sheer power of your love, and his desire to win your love fair and square.

Ephron is saying this is a disease which may destroy all your happiness, and this disease has a name, “Male”, and so Ephron is playing doctor delivering her diagnosis to her female audience, if they only can hear it: “I’m sorry to inform you that the tests have come back, and, alas, it’s the worst---“You’ve got MALE”!

Kathleen Kelly gives up her own dreams during the course of the movie, and yet feels grateful to be chosen by the man who did this. We must hope that he really has been changed, but we must question his tactics, which are all designed to let him avoid a true apology and request for forgiveness. It seems he asks her to forgive him just before he springs his identity on her, so that she will be inhibited from getting angry at the end when his elaborate deception is revealed.  

And I conclude with the promised Jane Austen connection—as I have previously blogged, seeing even more clearly how You’ve Got Mail is totally anamorphic, i.e,  it is amenable to two opposite interpretations: one extremely romantic and positive, the other extremely disturbing and negative, and which one you see depends on your point of view as to the sorts of clues that I’ve been blogging about in this film for nearly three years now.

And those familiar with my Jane Austen shadow story theories will immediately recognize that this is exactly what I’ve been saying about all of JA’s novels, but most of all Pride & Prejudice, which may just be the greatest female fantasy of reform of a man every written! 

What it reconfirms to me, then, is that Ephron totally got the doubleness of P&P, and saw that Darcy either does reform, or he just PRETENDS to reform!

And I will leave off at that precise moment, hoping I’ve given you something to think about the next time you reread P&P, or rewatch You’ve Got Mail.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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