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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When Kathleen Met Joe (decades after Nora met Jane, two centuries after Lizzy met Darcy, & FOUR centuries after Beatrice met Benedick!)---and Bertie too!

 The sad first anniversary of Nora Ephron’s all-too-early death came and went less than a month ago, and  once again, I’ve been reminded of how clever and insightful a literary scholar Ephron must have been, and You’ve Got Mail is Exhibit A in evidence thereof.  

I first posted about the erudition about Pride & Prejudice hidden in plain sight in You’ve Got Mail a year ago…..

…and the prompt for my post today was my realization the other day (while re-watching an hour’s worth of You’ve Got Mail already in progress on cable tv) that this seemingly what-you-see-is-what-you-get, unpretentious romcom (that’s what I took it for when I first saw it in a movie theater 15 years ago) covertly alludes in a sophisticated way not only to the Jane Austen novel which Kathleen Kelly brings to dinner, but also to the Shakespeare’s comedy which itself is so significant a covert source for Pride & Prejudice, i.e.,  Much Ado About Nothing! (which I recently posted about, vis a vis Joss Whedon’s wonderful adaptation):

The scene in YGM which brought that latter allusion to MAAN into sudden awareness for me comes when Shopgirl (Kathleen) is already waiting at the restaurant for NY1952 (Joe), and has a copy of P&P in hand with a rose inside it. Joe is warned by employee/wingman/scout Kevin that Shopgirl is actually Kathleen, who, Joe knows, hates Joe for putting her out of business. Joe must decide whether to go in and meet her:

KEVIN What are you going to do?
KEVIN You're going to let her just wait there?
JOE      Yes.  Yes I am.  That's exactly what I'm           going to do.  Why not?

But then Joe promptly reverses himself, comes in and starts trashing NY1952 (of course, himself!) for standing Kathleen up, and Kathleen, in defending her online bosom buddy, draws blood from Joe:

KATHLEEN     If he's not here, he has a reason,            because there is not a cruel or careless bone in his body.  I can't expect you to know anything about a person like that. You're NOTHING but a suit.
A beat.  Joe gets up.
JOE    THAT IS MY CUE.  Good night.
Joe leaves.

For starters, both of those exchanges show each of the unwilling lovers mouthing the word “nothing” (as in Much Ado About…). But they also pick up, respectively, on two of Beatrice’s many zingers in MAAN. First this one from Act 2 Scene 1:

LEONATO       Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes: his grace hath made the match, and an grace say Amen to it.

As you can see, Ephron’s allusion to “cue” is ironic, because Beatrice is prompting the tongue-tied Claudio to embrace and kiss Hero, whom he has just “won” in courtship, whereas Joe is noting that Kathleen’s insult is his prompt to leave the courtship lists defeated, with a mortal wound to his heart.

And the second allusion to MAAN turns out to be the lead-in to the first one! It is when Beatrice, speaking about Benedick, refers to him as the Elizabethan version of “a suit”, i.e., a man who isn’t really there, an empty man with no mind, guts or heart:

BEATRICE      It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man: but for the stuffing,--well, we are all mortal.

So, how brilliant was Ephron, and also so subtle—the best allusions are those which do not announce themselves with self-congratulating explicit fanfare, but which instead slide into the audience’s ears and eyes, subliminally. The above are the quintessence of the latter category.

And so it turns out that Ephron has layered her modern love story of sparring lovers on top of what are arguably the two most influential romantic comedies in all of English literature, both with their sparring lovers. And, to get her point across to the knowing viewer, she inserts a subtle repeating hint to that effect throughout her film, by using the word “nothing” significantly, not only in the two above-quoted scenes, but also numerous times more, including the following most significant ones—significant, because, despite the characters’s protestations, they are not “nothing” but “something”, i.e., about love:

CHRISTINA     What's going on with you?
CHRISTINA     You're in love.
CHRISTINA     Well, don't do it.  The minute you do, they lose all respect for you.
KATHLEEN     It's not like that.  We just E-mail. It's really NOTHING, on top of which I'm
                        definitely thinking of stopping because it's getting --
CHRISTINA     Out of hand?
KATHLEEN     Confusing.  But not really.  Because it's            NOTHING.
KATHLEEN     You're turning my apartment into a typewriter museum.
FRANK            I'll stop.  I'll try.  I probably can't. I see one and my knees go weak.  Anyway,
                        what were you starting to say?
KATHLEEN     When?
FRANK            Before.
KATHLEEN     That woman on television, right? Sidney-Ann.
Frank nods.
FRANK            I mean, NOTHING's happened or anything.
KATHLEEN     I think she's a Republican.
FRANK            I can't help myself.
SHOPPER        Thank you.
As she walks away.
KATHLEEN     (to herself) They know NOTHING, they know absolutely NOTHING.
KATHLEEN (VO) Six months ago, when you and I first met, I knew everything about myself -- what I
would be doing for the rest of my life and even the person I would be doing it with.  Now I know NOTHING.
KATHLEEN     -- It was business.  What is that supposed to mean?  I am so sick of that.
                        All it means is it's not personal to you, but it's personal to me, it's personal to
                        a lot of people. (she shrugs helplessly) What's wrong with personal anyway?
JOE                  NOTHING.
KATHLEEN     I mean, whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.

And note as to that last exchange, in which the male surprises the female with a version of  “Touche”, there is the following telltale source exchange in P&P:

"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."

And there are yet a few more “nothings” in YGM worth “noting”:

JOE                  I knew it wasn't possible.  What can I say?  Sometimes a person just wants the
                        impossible.  Could I ask you something?
KATHLEEN     What?
JOE                  What happened with that guy at the cafe?
JOE                  But you're crazy about him –

And two more usages of “nothing” were added after the final screenplay. First, this one:

BIRDIE:           You feel like a big fat failure now. But you're not. You are marching into the unknown armed with... [pause] NOTHING. Have a sandwich.

But my personal favorite out of all of them is this one, when Shopgirl emails NY1952:

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.

Kathleen’s speech filled with “nothings” and “somethings” shows that while shooting the film, the allusion to MAAN became even more salient to Ephron, and so she added that speech to imply it as much as humanly possible without being explicit!

[Added 7/21/13: Perhaps Ephron was even scholarly enough to have read Jane Austen's letters, and in
 Kathleen's email to Joe  we are being given an echo of what Jane Austen wrote to sister Cassandra:
Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?"]

All of this erudition, when recognized, brings a deeper humor when we hear the following dialogue between Joe and Kathleen when Joe visits Kathleen at home not long before the romantic climax:

JOE                  George says hello.  He told me you weren't feeling well.
KATHLEEN     How is George?
JOE                  Great.  He's revolutionizing the place. No one is allowed to work in his
                        department who doesn't have a Ph.D. in children's literature.

A Ph.D in adult literature, he should have said, because there’s a lot going on here beneath the breezy  surface, even beyond that superficial joke. Consider the following:

George, you’ll recall, worked for Kathleen till she went out of business, but now has apparently gone to work for Kevin. Which must make us wonder whether Kevin and George have perhaps covertly conspired to bring Joe and Kathleen together? George speaks to Kathleen, hears that she is sick, reports this to Kevin, so that Kevin will tell Joe, thereby prompting Joe to visit Kathleen.

Isn’t this sounding an awful lot like all the friends who bring Beatrice & Benedick together, by devious means, in the middle of MAAN?  

And…coming full circle back to Pride & Prejudice once more, I suggest, via my reading of the shadow story of P&P,  that Ephron is also showing, covertly, that she understands that various friends (Charlotte Lucas and the Gardiners, most prominently) were covertly working throughout the novel to bring Lizzy and Darcy together!

Ephron, in short, has demonstrated a profound grasp of the tangled romantic web initially spun by Shakespeare, overlaid by Austen, and then given a third layer by herself, carefully interwoven with her two great literary “ancestors”!

And now that I revisit the allusion in YGM to the shadow story of P&P, I realize that Ephron may well have seen very deeply into it. For example, Joe Fox is shown to be deeply flawed as a lover because of having been raised by his father, a rich careless, selfish man. That fits uncannily with my sense of Darcy’s father as having been exactly that way too!

And how about this--- Joe’s father remarking twice on the irony of his latest girlfriend running off with the nanny seems a hint toward the irony that pervades the shadow story of P&P, vis-à-vis Charlotte’s unrequited lesbian feelings toward Elizabeth.

And what’s perhaps most telling of all in this vein is the scene in which Kathleen visits the Fox SuperStore and initially, in spite of herself, seems dazzled by it all, before the sales associate’s incompetence breaks the apparent spell. And note that at this moment Joe watches Kathleen unknown to her as she enters his “Pemberley” —which is exactly what I think happens in P&P! And so, when Kathleen does ultimately embrace Joe, who has finally unmasked himself (recall the elaborate masquerade party in Messian early in MAAN!), is it being too cynical to wonder whether Kathleen’s willingness to forgive Joe for his extended deception of her will depend, at least in part, on her having seen that NY1952 is a rich powerful man? Food for thought!

There’s even more, but I will save it for another time, as I wish to end with something I only sussed out with the help of Google.

As I watched Joe walk his big loveable dog, it suddenly occurred to me that Ephron had inserted here a very sneaky subliminal joke about Darcy and Bingley, to wit: the name of Joe Fox’s dog (which is funny anyway, for a Fox to have a dog, given that in Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s day, dogs chased foxes!) is Brinkley, which sounds a great deal like Bingley!

And what tells you that it was intentional on Ephron’s part is that, for most of P&P, Bingley behaves like Darcy’s dog, obeying his every command in an impulsive unreflective way, giving him undivided obedience.

But if even that wasn’t enough to prove it to you, consider that P.G. Wodehouse (who was himself a well known Janeite), in his Bertie & Jeeves stories, has a character initially named Brinkley, who is Bertie's (sounds suspiciously like “Birdie”) valet at one point, but whose name Wodehouse changed to Brinkley midway in the series, so that he could use Bingley as the name of the manor or court where some of the action takes place. And isn’t a valet the very epitome of a man who takes orders from another, more powerful man?

So, Ephron has added the finishing touch with this bit of wordplay, adding Wodehouse as a fourth layer to her house of literary allusions!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Lady Disdain said...

Haha, you were right! I guess my name tipped you off to the fact that I would find this interesting :D But I don't think you knew that "You've Got Mail" is one of my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE FILMS EVER?! Yeah, probably not...but it is. I also love "Pride and Prejudice" so pretty much jackpot, ding ding ding!

However, I can't say that I'm totally convinced about the comparisons to Much Ado. I can see the parallels between the "suit" and "cue" lines, which I think are cleverly inserted. But I just can't see the insertions of "nothing" as being intentional - it just feels like stretching somehow. Having said that, it is entirely possible that Ephron meant to include those references and just let them be subtle in their own way. I just don't buy it at this point.

Also, I don't find myself convinced with the theory that George and Kevin tried to hook Kathleen and Joe up.

You say that "George speaks to Kathleen, hears that she is sick, reports this to Kevin, so that Kevin will tell Joe, thereby prompting Joe to visit Kathleen." However, it was George himself who told Joe that Kathleen was sick in the film. I also got the impression that Joe didn't want to reveal his project "that needed tweaking" to either his friends (Kevin) or family (his dad, etc) until he'd at least made sure that Kathleen liked him for him. Kevin seemed to back off after that scene in the film where Joe tells him that "She was a real bitch."

I also can't agree with this. "
For example, Joe Fox is shown to be deeply flawed as a lover because of having been raised by his father, a rich careless, selfish man. That fits u
ncannily with my sense of Darcy’s father as having been exactly that way too!" During Lizzie's visit to Pemberley we find out that Darcy Sr. was an equally just and caring master and landlord/estate holder (whatever the term for that was in those days, slips my mind now) as the current Darcy is. Darcy himself states in his letter to Lizzie that his father was a kid and just man (also emphasized by his kindness and acceptance of Mr. Wickham Sr, who was after all just his steward). The only thing he could really be at fault for is his pride due to his status, which he and his wife passed onto their son (telling him not to mix with those in other circles, etc, again outlined in Darcy's letter, I think).

But I definitely think there are parallels to P&P - as you say, it's a pretty obvious comparison in the film. I also noted that Brinkley insertion and had a laugh to myself :P Though it was rather degrading to Bingley but then he doesn't really prove himself as stronger in the books soo...

As to Kathleen's visiting Fox Books and being dazzled - I don't think the dazzlement was a reaction to the grandeur of the store, but to the warmth of it. She sees that it offers a place for people to sit and read, and for children to enjoy books, that it is a place for booklovers. Initially she only believed that Fox Books believed in making money so I saw that scene as one of her reconsidering her judgments and herself. (The combination of Lizzie reading Darcy's letter and visiting Pemberley - there, too, it's the respect for Darcy and the affection his employees have for him which impresses her the most. No doubt the wealth was impressive, but it's the man's character which undergoes a huge change in her eyes.)

Anyways. Whew. Long comment. But I do love all three texts, the book, the film and the play so this was definitely an interesting read, even if I might not agree with all of it :)

Arnie Perlstein said...

Lady Dis, I KNEW you loved YGM, because I read your post in Goodreads in which you picked up on the Bingley-Brinkley wordplay--of course I found your post because I had the same idea a few days ago!

If you browse in my blog, you'll begin to get a sense of what I call the "shadow story" of P&P, in which Darcy is a dark character indeed. There are two stories in each of Jane Austen's novels, independent parallel fictional universes.....

Thanks for your wonderful reply!


Anonymous said...

The whole scene outside the cafe before they meet is taken almost verbatim from the original ("The Shop around the Corner" with James Stewart).

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you, Anonymous, whoever you are, I watched the YouTube clip of that scene outside the restaurant, and then in the restaurant, and you are of course 100% correct, Ephron must have really enjoyed stealing that wonderful scene and making it even better.

I also read through the screenplay of The Shop Around the Corner, and could find no direct evidence of intent to allude to either Pride & Prejudice or Much Ado About Nothing.

However, I did find the following lines which did suggest to me that Much Ado About Nothing may well have been in the back of the mind of the screenwriter:

Matuschek (the boss): That was a nice party last night.

Kralik (the hero): Yes, Mr. Matuschek.

Matuschek: Yes, I had a lot of fun, didn't you?

Kralik: Yes.

M: I'm glad you enjoyed yourself so much. That little poem that you wrote in Mrs. Matuschek's guest book......did you make that up yourself?

K: It's sort of half and half.

M: How do you mean?

K: Half Shakespeare and half me. I just changed the lines around
to suit the occasion. I made that last line rhyme with Matuschek, that's all.

M: Mrs. Matuschek liked it very much.

K: Thank you.

M: You made a fine impression on her. Mrs. Matuschek thinks a lot of you.

And the above exchange turns out to be significant, because Matuschek later fires Kralik out of jealousy of his wife.

So this all suggests to me a good awareness of Shakespeare, which makes it more likely that the verbal war between Kralik and Klara Novak is at least in part inspired by Beatrice and Benedick.

After all, at the end of Much Ado, we hear the following:

Claudio: And I'll be sworn upon't that he loves her; For here's a paper written in his hand, A halting sonnet of his own pure brain, Fashion'd to Beatrice.

HERO: And here's another Writ in my cousin's hand, stolen from her pocket, Containing her affection unto Benedick.