Resistance Is Futile

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in The Silicon Alley Reporter
January, 1999

Series Title: Brave New World

Resistance Is Futile

You've Got Mail Isn't About Email or True Love It's About The Superbrand and the End of American Culture __________________________________________________________

"Capitalism is a pimp-and-ho system. You are either a pimp or you're a ho."

--KRS-ONE __________________________________________________________

Ernst Lubitch's The Shop Around the Corner (MGM, 1939) is one of those movies in which James Stewart finds love and redemption on Christmas Eve. A sweetly timed and felt sitcom about self-knowledge, communication and love set in Matuschek's & Co.'s department store in Budapest between the wars, "The Shop," is a quiet presence on many critic's Top 100 lists. The premise, after Nikolaus Laszo's play, was roughly: "what if the person whose personal ad you answered were driving you (Stewart, less schticky here than usual) wild with love letters; and you found out she (wee Margaret Sullivan) was the person working right next to you; and you didn't particularly get along with her, although you were already in deeply in love with her?"

The novel technology (newpaper personal ads, with their PO box anonymity) was to be a lens for examining the spiritual life of an average man and a woman of the day. For Lubitsch, the piece was about the unreconciled difference between our private epistolary selves (philosophical, sincere) and our public commercial personalities (deceptive and petty). The journey of self-discovery begun in their letters leads them through troubled waters to each others arms with seconds remaining on the clock.

The waters are troubled mostly because Jimmy and Margie are working kids in the big city: trying to pay the rent on their bedsits, improve themselves, maybe find someone to share a strudel with. Jimmy has made 1st Salesman after nine years on the job, when Margaret walks in off the street desperate for a job in an era of Hungarian mass unemployment. Both are working long hours, and pissing each other off as they compete for the approval of a fickle Napoleonic boss. In the end though, their love elevates them above hard knock economics, and Hollywood knew Americans in 1940 could relate.

Fast forward sixty years to a shiny GiulianicizedUpper West Side. Tom Hanks, empirebuilding CEO of Fox Books (read: Barnes & Noble) is cheerfully and methodically driving the independent bookdealers of America out of business. In the shadow of his new superstore is plucky Meg Ryan's "Shop Around the Corner," dealing books to kids just like her sainted mother before her. Unbeknownst to each other as they queue up for Grande Skim Lattes at Starbucks--wearing Gap Khakis and reading USA Today--Hanks are Meg Ryan are also ardent AOLovers: Shopgirl and NY152.

Hanks (who is precisely the Jimmy Stewart of the 90s) dials up with a ThinkPad with Windows 95, is funny, self-confident, great with kids, and an endearingly amoral "Godfather"-quoting millionaire capitalist to boot. Ryan has a Powerbook with System 8 and some Issues: insecurity, a business on the edge, the wrong boyfriend, an inability to express anger. But she's Meg Ryan, she reads aloud to the kiddies, and they get along pretty good until she finds out that he's Joe Fox, Angel of Death.

Then it's his turn to discover a secret. As in Lubitch, Loverboy goes to their first scheduled meeting carrying a flower to match hers, peeks through the cafe window and sees--oops!--Meg Ryan, walks away; and then comes back pretending it's a coincidence, to talk to her. Which self is she, really? How can he get to the girl inside, the one he loves, the Epistolary Self? It's a man-sized challenge of sensitivity and cleverness.

But here the two films diverge radically. While Hanks is busy trying to charm his way into her chinos, the Shop is driven out of business, despite some bleeding-heart whinging from her Upper Westie clientele. Meg Ryan breaks up with her lame-o boyfriend (who, disturbingly, writes a mushbrained Left-Luddite column quite like this one for the "Observer" ) and she emotes briefly on Maureen Stapleton's shoulder.

Then a scene takes place which in another movie could have quite a chilling power: the bankrupt neighborhood businesswoman locks up the shop for the last time, goes around the corner and braces herself to take a walk through the belly of the beast--the superstore that killed her. If America keeps going this way, we'd all be thinking, the whole thing will be one big dumb shopping mall soon, right? This has got to stop! And from there on out, the movie would have one goal, the All-American one--the little guy taking a stand, showing the fatcats what resistance looks like.

What happens instead in Nora Ephron's script: Meg Ryan shuffles, impressed, through the big, bright, cheerful megastore, gets teary in the kids department--which it turns out is, totally fine, except the service could be better--and then retreats to her Laura Ashley apartment to have the flu and a good cry. The next day guess who shows up with daisies, her fave flower! Having resolved her problem expressing anger, Meg Ryan opens the door and punches Tom Hanks right in the face--not. Actually, she zooms around tidying up used Kleenex, lets him in and within minutes is making simpering intimations that the missionary position and a Martha Stewart dream home in Connecticut is a definite maybe. Within minutes, in a public park, the deal is done. Meg Ryan may have lost the family business, but she got a husband--a rich, sensitive one, too, with a sailboat and a big golden retriever named, wait for it, Brinkley. You go, girl!

You've Got Mail isn't about finding our true selves in the safe space of the Internet, or about love's transformative power. It's another story we all know by heart: big bank eat little bank; the ueberbrand chain stores benefit from a brutal economy of scale, and resistance is futile. Once the corporations who run America have fucked us economically, the best we can hope for is that they will roll over and fuck us conubially, for old times' sake, for the rest of our lives. And by then, America will be gone. Somehow Nora Ephron didn't realize that her '90s remake of "The Shop Around The Corner" was less a romantic comedy than a tragedy.