Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
This week: penguins are roaming free in Chicago; revisiting classic romcoms in an age of isolation, including: remote dating in You’ve Got Mail, long-distance friendship in My Best Friend’s Wedding, nostalgia in Sleepless in Seattle, trying roommates in Notting Hill, and forced time-outs in The Holiday.
Okay, I would like to formally file a complaint about the fact that all this time in isolation hasn’t left me with the dewey, glowing skin of a much younger celebrity. I know that’s not how any of this works but I have never been particularly interested in making reality’s acquaintance. All my thinking is magical thinking. Or, if not magical, at least pretty tricky. My brain factory is run by Anansi the Spider. So, yes, I know that celebrities look they way they look with lots of products and procedures and whatnot and, to be honest, many of them look pleasingly normal when they do livestreams from their houses wearing their big eyeglasses (no celebrity can see!) and their hoodies. Knowing that and internalizing that, however, are two different things. I sit in my house, eating junk food, not drinking water, and being stressed every minute of the day and I think “Yes, this is what my skin has been asking for. Let me go look at the mirror where I will find myself miraculously transformed like the Witch in Into the Woods.”
That’s not how that has worked thus far. So I am filing a complaint. I mean, I haven’t touched my face in AGES; surely that should count for something! Why is my skin breaking out, particularly during a time when my human contact will all be comprised of extreme close-ups on video chats. Every meeting and hangout is like “Hello, welcome to the Zoom conference sponsored by adult acne.” Frankly, I think it’s unfair that when human contact is drastically reduced, the canals of Venice become pristine and beautiful, but when human contact is reduced for me I immediately become some weird hybrid of Tom Hanks in Cast Away and literally any teenager. Showing up on these Zooms, I feel like those newscasters in the first Batman movie who had to stop wearing makeup because the Joker poisoned it.
Of course, there’s no actual reason that I can’t wear makeup on conference calls except the fact that I absolutely do not want to. I am barely interested in getting dressed at all. My whole week has been comprised of various items of clothing that could best be described as “not pants” so a full face seems out of the question.
I did order a bunch of Korean skincare products, however, because I decided that the problem wasn’t food/stress/nature but rather simply that I hadn’t thrown enough money at it. Magical thinking! “During this extended period of isolation, I will definitely make the most of it by getting extremely into skincare, something I haven’t been into previously and which I don’t really have an interest in even as we speak.” Every time I wash my face or do one (1) sit-up, I can clearly see the moment when I’m finally able to re-engage with society and I have fully She’s All That’d myself. People are coming up to me like “Eric?! Is that you! You look so good and even though we watched this transformation occur slowly over months of Zoom conference calls, we are nevertheless shocked and impressed.” I have so many quarantine hobbies that I seem to think I’m going to suddenly take up. I’m going to be a completely different person after all of this. Specifically John Legend. I’m going to be John Legend when all this is done. It’s possible. Quarantine rules and magical thinking! See you on the other side!
This week, there’s one Eric Reads the News column and five entries in a new series we’re calling Remote Rewind, which is all about rewatching classic films with the lens of our present moment. This week I did rom-coms; next week I’m doing movie musicals. This isn’t just an excuse to write about my favorite films. Movies are a common language and can provide a respite when we’re all talking about the same stressful thing. I wanted to write about escapism in a time where escape is hard if not impossible. And I wanted to write about connection through films and through emotions in a time of disconnect. It was actually surprising to me how much each of these rom-coms had to tell us about a moment when we’d be stuck in our houses, reaching out online, sticking our faces in the Zoom cameras. I think there’s some good writing here and I hope you enjoy them and perhaps take a break in your day, if you can, and re-watch a favorite.
In disaster movies, it's usually a bad sign when animals are roaming free through the remnants of society but what if—go with me here—it's actually the best thing and no other thing will ever compare? After Chicago's Shedd Aquarium temporarily closed to the public, a trio of the aquarium's penguins were allowed to take in the many sights on a supervised but unstructured tour. And, honestly, good for them!
Why are we discussing a 22-year-old romcom in the Year of Our Anxiety 2020? Because maybe we have a little more time on our hands, maybe we're looking for something that will distract, and maybe we're all thinking anew about the benefits and drawbacks of venturing into the world virtually. You've Got Mail, with its soundtrack of AOL dial-up and its notable lack of cell phones, is certainly a product of a bygone era, but the core ideas of the film couldn't be more timely as the nation retreats to our homes, logs on, and reaches out.
The thing I continue to be gobsmacked by, 14 years later plus however time works in self-isolation, is the idea of home exchange. The plot of The Holiday is set in motion by a simple Google search by Cameron Diaz's Amanda, who's looking for vacation homes. She finds an adorable Coventry cottage owned by Kate Winslet's Iris and decides to rent it. The catch is that the site is dedicated to house swaps—Iris would stay in Amanda's L.A. mansion in exchange for Amanda crashing the Coventry pad. Somehow both parties agree to this over chat despite the fact that Amanda isn't even a registered user of Home Exchange and Iris hasn't even seen her house! And they are both strangers! Your honor, I object! Amanda has not agreed to the terms and conditions. This all smacks of a scam. Everyone in this scenario is too trusting and they need to take a timeout.
"Oh! It's like An Affair to Remember!" Becky (Rita Wilson) declares. Met with blank stares, she launches into an emotional retelling of the film that, 27 years after Sleepless in Seattle's release, will make you happy-cry every time you watch it. I say this with absolutely no hyperbole: Wilson deserved and still deserves an Oscar for this scene. Justice for Rita Wilson!
Talking about this scene plays out like emotional inception: You start by describing a masterful comedic performance of a character being overwhelmed by the memory of a movie she loved and, in the telling, you get overwhelmed by the memory of a movie you loved. The feelings of the teller and the feelings of the character intertwine and suddenly it's one joyful, tearful mess. One of the things Ephron explores so masterfully in Sleepless in Seattle is how thin the line is between memory and the present. Film is the perfect vehicle for this concept, as it transforms us at the moment of viewing and pulls us back to that transformation every time we remember it.
When presented with the chance to re-watch the film for this piece, I took the opportunity to also try to maintain some semblance of social connection with a new friend. You see, we met a few weeks ago and hit it off and decided we should be friends and—in a remarkable feat for adults in the present day—we actually made and kept a plan to grab dinner together. At the end of the dinner, we did that thing where you say to another person, “We should be friends—no actually, I mean it. We should text each other and hang out and not do that thing where we say we’re going to do it but life gets in the way.” And we meant it. And so we did text. And then a week later the gravity of a pandemic hit home and things started closing and soon we were sequestered in our separate homes less than a mile apart for weeks.
In retrospect, it's remarkable—but unsurprising—that writer Richard Curtis sets Notting Hill's penultimate scene, one of the most romantic ever put to film, at a press conference. I speak from years of experience in the hallowed field of equestrian journalism when I assure you few things are less romantic than a press conference. Of course, one shouldn't be surprised that Curtis makes this choice; this is the same person who began Love, Actually by waxing rhapsodic about airports. The man loves chaotic crowded spaces! Let him live! I'm only a few days into isolation and I'm just about jonesing for a junket. But the irony of Notting Hill is that for all the very public romantic gestures, the heart of the film lies in quiet moments behind closed doors at home.
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Quarantine rules and magical thinking!