Looking back to look forward: Christmas time in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail
It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees. Do you know that Joni Mitchell song? "I wish I had a river I could skate away on?" It's such a sad song and not really about Christmas at all, but I was thinking about it tonight as I was decorating my Christmas tree and unwrapping funky ornaments made of Popsicle sticks and missing my mother so much I almost couldn't breathe.--Kathleen Kelly, You've Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998)
Nostalgia is the commodity of Christmas. Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol first captured the essence of the holiday's nostalgic tone by reimagining the past of its protagonist while also heralding his uncertain future. The Christmas season is built on myths and traditions, passed on from periods and people of the past. It is a period where historical trends and traditions are built on top of each other until there is no easily discernible origin. It is a time for childhoods to be relived through the reconfiguring of memories and an underlying reassurance that each new Christmas has the promise of all being well and that perfection is just within reach. The multi-billion dollar seasonal industry is in fact rooted in that anxiety about the future because what we really want to buy most is a connection to an idealised and perfect past.1 The holiday season can make people feel connected to the past that they have experienced, the past that they have imagined and to other people across time and cultural barriers.
Christmas for Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in You've Got Mail is precisely rooted in that nostalgia. She is facing the closure of her beloved children's book shop at the hands of her future (and as yet unknown) object of affection, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the proprietor of the big bad corporate Fox Books. As she hangs homemade ornaments on her shop's Christmas tree, she is handling the physical memories of her childhood with her now deceased mother. She quotes the lyrics of a sad Joni Mitchell song and talks of grief stealing her breath, over the non-diegetic wistful strains of Roy Orbison's "Dream". Hidden beneath the grandeur of the tree she is forced to watch happy shoppers walk past with their bags from Fox Books, signalling the final death march of her beloved Shop Around The Corner.
The holidays are notorious for making people feel alone but nostalgia can be a psychological substitute for feeling connected to people and relationships that move across time and space. Kathleen Kelly's late mother Cecelia is a figurative character throughout the film, not only personally for Kathleen but also across enemy lines at Fox books. Joe's grandfather, the great patriarch of the conglomerate, speaks fondly of Cecelia Kelly and her quaint shop. He mentions several times throughout the film that he "thinks he exchanged letters with her" placing a kind of fated generational destiny on the unfolding romance of Kathleen and Joe.
The entire Christmas sequence runs for a little over a minute, a tiny portion of the total film's running time. Yet You've Got Mail is often billed or classed as a Christmas film. Like other "Christmas" films, it often gets a run on network television in the weeks of December, leading up to the big day. It is odd that it is often classified this way, especially as the narrative quite purposefully highlights the changing over of each season in relation to the events and growing romance between Kathleen and Joe. Extrapolating this seasonal quirk of collective memory, we must look to writer/director Nora Ephron's canon as clue to why You've Got Mail is lumped in with holiday films.
Ephron's entire oeuvre occupies a temporality between nostalgia and future, remake and adaptation, new and trailblazing. Her most commercially successful and fondly remembered films, Sleepless in Seattle (1993), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and You've Got Mail, are all riffs, remakes and remediations on Hollywood golden era predecessors. Sleepless in Seattle takes narrative cues from An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957) and allows its characters within the film to discuss specific plot points of the film as each narrative dot is connected within each text. When Harry Met Sally takes a gentler approach and rather than remaking, it uses the 1942 film Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) as a mutual obsession for its protagonists, highlighting the maturing of the characters' relationship throughout the film as they opine on whether Rick and Ilsa should have ended up together. You've Got Mail is the most explicit remake, taking Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner and repurposing the narrative of real life antagonists falling in love anonymously through letters into the 1990s digital age of email. There is barely a frame of You've Got Mail that does not refer back to the film's thematic or generic pedigree, creating a text that in some ways reads as both a pastiche of and homage to the Hollywood canon of romantic comedy.2
In all three films, Ephron uses advancing technology to not just update or remake classics for a modern audience but seeks to remediate an authenticity in the "old fashioned" romantic comedy genre through the postmodern electronic era. Gerald Gaylard describes this double temporality as "postmodern archaic": a quality that "uses the enablements and blandishments of digital technology to test and ratify current notions of virtuality and reality by comparison with a (remembered) version of the past."3
In You've Got Mail's Christmas sequence, Kathleen remarks that the Joni Mitchell song "River" is "not really" about Christmas at all. As demonstrated, part of Ephron's skill as a filmmaker lies in embedding texts within texts to create new meaning. And yet the soundtrack doesn't use "River" to illustrate the scene, but rather uses the song lyrics to illustrate Kathleen's grief. It seems either entirely clever of Ephron or perhaps just a reflective coincidence that "River" is a song of despairing drama brought on by Christmas. Much like Kathleen's moment of old and new grief alone under the Christmas tree. It is shorthand into nostalgia for both Kathleen and the audience and is clue to how You've Got Mail can often be mislabelled a Christmas film.
That You've Got Mail still has an audience now, almost 20 years later, is a testament to its nostalgia-driven but future-orientated romance. The 1998 email and dial up technology is truly outdated for a modern audience, who are more than likely consuming the film now through streaming or downloading, technologies that are unimaginable to the world of the film. Ephron saturates her text with nostalgic impulses in order to link her characters and her worlds through time and space; by embedding nostalgia in the film, Ephron has almost guaranteed a constant future audience, eager to revisit and remember times gone by.