May 24, 2013

1998: The Technological Timecapsule That Is YOU'VE GOT MAIL

Ah, 1998. Dial-up modems. Book stores. Meg Ryan's career.

We're flashing back all the way to 1998 in today's mini-photo essay on the tech interfaces in Nora Ephron's YOU'VE GOT MAIL. Itself a Clinton-era update on the 1940 Lubitsch comedy THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, YOU'VE GOT MAIL is ludicrously dated even fifteen years after its release in a way that the earlier film is not. A large part of this is due to the rapid evolution of email and the Internet during that time. AOL Instant Messaging seems archaic in a way that sending and receiving letters in the mail simply doesn't.

If we ignore the inane love story (and it's best to), a lot of YOU'VE GOT MAIL is about changes in technology. Or, rather, in metatextual retrospect, the irony of shifting technologies makes the storyline of YOU'VE GOT MAIL nearly obsolete. Here's the jist: Meg Ryan (and her hair) run a cutesy kids bookshop called (cutesily) The Shop Around the Corner. Tom Hanks runs the big, bad corporate box conglomerate that serves lattes with its best-sellers and moves into the quaint, old-fashioned neighborhood to ruin Meg Ryan's life. AH BUT. The two are unwittingly in lurve with each other, having exchanged anonymous, soul-bearing missives via ye olde email. WHAT TO DO. Will Tom Hanks allow his brick and mortar monstrosity swallow Meg Ryan's overpriced niche book store??? Will they live happily ever after???

Watching this in 2013, I'm glad to say this doesn't matter because both businesses have been made obsolete by and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are probably now 13-year olds Skyping each other in their parents' living rooms.

Anonymous file folders

Anyway, this interface business. The film starts off with a clever title gag, turning the Warner Bros. logo pixelated and then revealing a desktop background onto which the titles are projected. This is cool for a number of reasons. First of all, it presupposes (accidentally, albeit) the accessibility of the Warner Bros. brand on the Internet. When YOU'VE GOT MAIL was released, movies had tie-in AOL Keywords that you could search and get info about the flick. But nowadays you literally have access to the WB catalog via Warner Archive Instant, the studio's streaming service. The titles are a nice way for you to enter the world of the film, which just happens to be the world of "virtual reality" (as they used to call it in the '90s).

Check out these retro screens from AOL circa 1998.

The sending and receiving of email is fetishized via the anticipatory close-up. The big moment.

In which the main characters extoll the sexy virtues of online courtship.

Meg and Tom switch from email to IM for their heated debate over THE GODFATHER. (He's right; she's wrong.)

The agony of defeat.

The desktop.

The quaintness of spam email circa 1998

If you took a shot every time someone said the title of this movie, you'd be drunk within the first ten minutes.

The all-time accurate face of a person posting their opinion on the Internet.

It's not just the email and IM interfaces that are now a part of the archival past. Meg and Tom's respective book stores have been pretty much put out of business within the measly span of fifteen years.

Pretty much the only surviving cultural signifier in the movie is the Starbucks both leads consume with zeal. It seems that people are still (and increasingly) willing to leave their house for caffeine, but everything else they prefer to get online.

In a subplot we have Meg Ryan's boyfriend Greg Kinnear, a newspaper writer. I know, right? Newspapers! This guy is obsessed with old media, from newspapers and magazines to typewriters.  He's contrasted with his (obviously not right for him) girlfriend via their media consumptions.

This dude and his newspapers, I swear.

Greg Kinnear is another character whose job would most likely have been made obsolete by modern technology. He'd either be a rogue blogger (probable) or still a news reporter for an online publications. That Kinnear yearns to create copy on an outmoded typewriter touches on the tech nostalgia that will only increase as more and more old technologies are thrown over for the new. Which is really the theme of the movie. Or, rather, since it's a romcom, the coming together of the protagonists mirrors the synergy of their respective technologies. Meg (email) ditches Greg (typewriters) for Tom (email), even though Tom's business (big box book store) will almost inevitably drive Meg's small book shop out of business. So what does Tom Hanks do? He quits. Which solves the problem for the film, but not for the characters' reality.

YOU'VE GOT MAIL provides a snapshot of a particular time, pre-Dot Com boom but post-nobody having the Internet. It's kind of an odd, niche, coming-of-age time in our technological era. It's worth note, too, that since 1998 pretty much no one has come up with a better way of conveying online communication than the shot/reverse/shot of the screen/user/screen with the V.O. of what they're writing. Some modern films like SCOTT PILGRIM have tried and succeeded in capturing the feeling of what it's like to communicate via multiple technological shorthand (see my review here), and IRON MAN has taken technological interfaces to the next level with the HUD (see here). Nevertheless, I look forward to the future romantic comedy that is able to break away from the decades-long tradition of showing technology as is and actually communicating the feeling of Skyping, texting, connecting via social media, etc. If YOU'VE GOT MAIL is any indication, we have another fifteen years to wait for this to happen.


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