The Underrated “You’ve Got Mail”
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Mar 25, 2013
Considering how much technology has permeated our culture in the last decade and how much it continues to evolve through transient shibboleths, a film like You’ve Got Mail seems destined for dismissal. With a title that was relevant for all of a few seconds in the mid to late ‘90s, and a gee-whiz approach to then-novel iconography that shows off the embarrassing pock mocks of an internet still in its infancy, the film appears as though it’s earned its reputation as woefully antiquated. In 1998, the internet was but a whimsical curio for casual, non-technical users. In one scene Joe (Tom Hanks) messages Kathleen (Meg Ryan) on AOL Chat unexpectedly: “I had a feeling you’d be online.” Those were the days when someone could be offline; it constituted, in fact, most of the day. The internet is now, of course, as ubiquitous as oxygen and electricity.
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Because email is written communication, an artificial technology, it heightens this process of idealization and allows Joe and Kathleen to more fully flesh out the person they want to be in a way that could never develop with face-to-face communication. And since each loathe what the other represents, despite their chemistry, Joe and Kathleen would never have even considered each other as a potential mate.
Email becomes their sanctuary, a medium to escape the trials and tribulations of New York City adult life, its chaos and uncertainty, its harsh realities and constant annoyances, a way to avoid their loveless relationships with people who are a reflection of their worst selves. Kathleen’s boyfriend Frank (Greg Kinnear), a pretentious pseudo-intellectual/newspaper columnist dead-set against technology, is Kathleen at her worst. He clings to the old, scoffs at the new, and will never understand the irony of favouring electric typewriters over computers. In a similar way, Kathleen, who favors handkerchiefs over Kleenex, does not want to accept the fact that her store, whilst a cherished part of the community, follows an outdated business model. As she learns to lead the bigger life she’s been afraid of having, Joe is equally tired of being just a suit, having more money than he knows what to do with, and distant family relations that leave him unsatisfied.
It may be easy to write off You’ve Got Mail as weirdly old-fashioned—you might wince when you hear that distantly familiar dial-up sound, which becomes an aural motif in the film–but it is just as possible to celebrate it, because the film is witness to a particular time in internet culture when it wasn’t considered a culture at all (or at most, a sub-culture). The film is a rare snapshot of a past we don’t typically care to remember, a time in which the internet was a barely realized, highly idealized technology that could facilitate barely realized, highly idealized romantic love.