Nora Ephron’s Wit Will Be Missed

Photo of Writer Nora Ephron

I got to thinking about Nora Ephron lately over the frustration at the lack of any kind of visual media, film or television, for grownups, that represents any aspect of the lives of people over a “certain age”. Media pretty much stops telling your stories once you are creeping into your late 30’s and 40’s. You may have 50 years left on the planet but your stories have basically become irrelevant.

Your cultural references are ancient history, inconsequential, relegated to the dustbin. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” (everyone in my generation knows where they were during this 20th century seminal event that probably changed the political direction of our country for all time), the Vietnam War (all the guys that weren’t at your ten year high school reunion because they died in 3rd world jungles. Have we learned that lesson yet?), the Civil Rights Movement (we have a black president but the old racism just finds new, less overt forms to de-legitimize), the Women’s movement (you look around at Republican politics and wonder if women’s liberation ever happened).

Current movie makers don’t seem to realize or care that there are multiple generations of grownups out there who could care less about cartoons, comic book heroes, or grown man-boys talking about or to the dangling parts of their anatomy ad nauseum, apparently the male version of a rom com. The best films, especially comedies, have cultural links from past to present, that connect and ground multiple generations. But most filmmaking today is flat and empty, it has none of this. Meaningful cultural references are few and far between. 

Nora Ephron did this in her essays, journalism, and screenwriting like know one else I can think of, with possibly the exception of Woody Allen. Both New Yorkers, interestingly. The ability to comedically weave multi-level connections to our cultural landmarks – movies, music, significant political events. To elevate the mundane in our lives through wit. In her essay “The Six Stages of Email” is there anyone alive from the pre-computer generation who can’t relate to her initial elation at discovering email, “It’s so great!… Who said letter writing was dead?” to her ultimate let-down as she discovers how time wasting and lacking in intimacy this form of communication can be — “Help! I’m drowning. I have 112 unanswered e-mail messages. I’m a writer — imagine how many unanswered messages I would have if I had a real job. Imagine how much writing I could do if I didn’t have to answer all this e-mail”.

So I was thinking about Nora Ephron when I read the news of her death on June 26, 2012 at age 71 from pneumonia as a consequence of leukemia. It was a shock, the voices of a generation who thinks of itself as “forever young” are dying out. The incomparable voice of Nora Ephron has gone silent, an inconsolable loss. Who will tell those stories now in the way only she could do? She could find the humor in those little quirks of modern life and you laughed because she somehow found the humorous essence of so many of the idiosyncracies of this particular cultural moment in time.

The daughter of Hollywood screenwriters, Nora moved to New York to start her writing career in journalism after graduating from Wellesly in 1962, working as a summer intern in the Kennedy White House in 1961, and writing her first screenplay for the movie “Silkwood” starring Meryl Streep. Her next screenplay was an adaptation of her own autobiographical novel, “Heartburn”, also starring Meryl Streep on the big screen. Nora’s script for the 1989 hit movie directed by Rob Reiner “When Harry Met Sally” sealed her romantic comedy cred, leading her ultimately to directing her own films and becoming one of our generation’s most successful filmmakers.

What Nora Ephron did as a screenwriter and filmmaker goes beyond just basic romantic comedy territory. She created a kind of cultural lexicon. In “Sleepless in Seattle” the statement that “It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than find a husband after 40” has an hilarious ring of truth to it. Meg Ryan’s infamous faked orgasm scene in the middle of a busy restaurant from “When Harry Met Sally” (see video below) prompted the unforgettable line from a nearby diner, “I’ll have what she’s having”.

From the same movie, Billy Crystal explaining to Meg Ryan on their long drive to New York after college that “Men and Women can’t be friends” because the sex always gets in the way, crudely telling her that even if a guy isn’t attracted to a woman he still want’s to bonk her. And Meg Ryan’s reply “Too bad, cause you’re the only person I knew in New York”.

This idea of the impossibility of friendship between men and women was an enduring theme through several of Nora’s films. It’s a theme that seems to have a seed of truth to it in real life but her films took a revisionist view that made that friendship come to fruition even under fairly impossible circumstances. Tom Hanks puts Meg Ryan out of business in “You’ve Got Mail” but after running into him inadvertently a number of times, she asks, “Are we becoming friends?”. Even after proclaiming “men and women can’t be friends, because the sex always gets in the way” in “When Harry Met Sally”, Billy Crystal goes on to have a 10 year platonic relationship with Meg Ryan before they ultimately realize they are in love.

Nora Ephron’s wit was as evident in person as in her writings. Check the following links for a series of clips from interviews with her on a range of subjects, as well as clips from her movies, and including an hilarious AFI riff on having Meryl Streep play you in movies and in real life:

New York Times Nora Ephron Video

Nora Ephron Interview Clips

The world is a dimmer place today, some of the light has gone out of it. Nora Ephron, whose writing always illuminated the sharp corners of our cultural voibles, had to leave early. Her wit will be forever missed.

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Death of the Republican Party

Republican Black Tuesday
The presidential election is over, the people have decided and now it’s time to move on. The American democracy endures through all indications sometimes to the contrary. No one on the winning side is making outrageous, arrogant comments like George Bush’s (paraphrasing) “I’ve won political capital and I intend to use it”. It’s hopeful and positive. There’s just one black stone dragging the whole thing down.  A bloated, rotting corpse is stinking up the landscape and needs to be buried. This current incarnation of the Republican Party is dead and they don’t seem to know it, like a roving pack of un-dead that just won’t lay down and “R.I.P”.

This particular group of fringe looneys, billionaire puppet masters, brainwashed true believers, far-right ideologues, and lost-boy legislators have all put their feet in the same cement block and jumped into the river together, tying their fates irrevocably to one another and sinking together for some reason. The despair that this group of lemmings feels as they plummet to the bottom of their collective fate seems based upon the lies they’ve been sold while sipping the communal Fox News Kool Aid about the impending doom awaiting them with four more years of the Obama presidency. It’s the Black Monday through Sunday that they have all been apparently experiencing every day of the Obama presidency due to the doom and gloom spin machine.

Now the Monday morning quarterbacking begins. It seems like the Kool Aid ran out for a time and a few Republican voices of reason were heard, most notably from talk show host conservative Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. It was shocking to finally hear a Republican voice of reason advocating throwing the far-right fringe kooks, the talk radio lunatics, the schoolyard bully namecallers, and the Fox News fairy dust empire under the bus. A conservative actually advocating that the Republican Party, if it wants to succeed, needs to stop letting these groups speak for them. Click the following link to hear a part of that conversation before they decide to recant it, as Republicans always seem to do. It could be the last of this kind of reasonable talk you will ever hear from a Republican, relish it, it may disappear under a poof of fairy dust:

Joe Scarborough Video – “Why the Republican Party Lost”

Shoot the Messenger, Keep the Message
There is much talk about the message, the messenger, how to appeal to minorities, to women, etc.  The Democratic Party doesn’t have quite the same problem, they don’t need to craft a message to fool people into believing they care about them. These people are the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party is them. If you basically have views about women that are a throw back to somewhere between Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake and the Salem witch trials, you need more than a new message, you need a trip to Oz for a new brain. When you’ve become the bearer of the new, less covert forms of racism, finding new ways to de-legitimize (birthers, muslim-baiters, etc.) and demonize, you need more than a new messenger, you need a consciousness-raising. It’s always been a puzzle to me, they could put a heart in the tin man, why can’t they put one in a Republican.

Mitt Romney’s callous and blatantly false comment about 47% of the population being freeloaders needing to take some responsibility for their lives has morphed into Rush Limbaugh’s “50% of the people want stuff”. These far right pundits just recirculate and bloat their own lies. You know who wants stuff — the billionaires who have bought and sold the Republican party. People like the Koch brothers and others who funnel millions of dollars through super-pacs like Carl Rove’s Crossroads GPS to buy elections from state governerships to the presidency. The Republican party claims they have the best plan for the economy. Why in the world would we trust them with the economy when the party is essentially being used as a front for this billionaires boys club.

The stuff they want is your unions, your healthcare, your education. They want no government because they want no rules that impede their accumulation of profit. No financial rules, no environmental rules. There’s a cost to the way they want to do business but they aren’t going to pay it, you are. They want the entire government and economy to run for their benefit and if there is anything to pay for, they want your taxes to do it. Face it, the 1% doesn’t just want stuff, they want all the stuff. They have the money, but there aren’t enough of them to have the votes, so they need to latch onto some social issues, create some catch phrases and mind manipulate the gullible Republican base.

At this point, I have no idea what the Republican party stands for. The word conservative is bantied around. What are they conserving? Conserve — the root of the word conservation. As far as I can see, this is the use-it-up party and conserve is a term ill-used as descriptive nomenclature for this group. The ideology is so extreme far right I can’t even come up with what would be the comparable far-left equivalent. A bunch of tree-huggers singing Kum Ba Yah? Hardly a comparison to the notion that raped women should receive lengthy jail time if they terminate a rape pregnancy.

The problem with the illusory world of the extreme right is that the center looks like a bunch of lefties. And that’s part of the disconnect for the Republican Party, they can’t really discern the true nature of the electorate. I don’t think there is a far-left at this particular moment in history, it’s more of a left center. The Republican Party has become the vessel for the new sexism, the new racism, the new anti-poor/anti-immigrant elitism. Frankly, it’s going to take more than a new message to purge this ugliness.

You probably heard a part of Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner’s post-election speech how he’s ready for the President to lead them. It did have a hopeful tone, but most news outlets did not play the first part of the speech where it’s still about protecting the tax cuts for the super-rich and balancing the budget on the backs of the middle class and the elderly with the same old proposals about gutting medicare. They’re willing to be led alright, as long as it’s in their direction. They still seem to be clinging to the idea that the mandate of this election is what they tried to sell during the campaign that the electorate decided they weren’t buying.

It’s Okay. Republican Party Has Died Before
To understand who the Republican party is versus who they say they are, it’s instructive to take a stroll back through the history of the 2-party system in this country.

In the beginning there were the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians (the views and followers of Alexander Hamilton on the one hand, and Thomas Jefferson on the other). The Hamiltonians were known as Federalists, they wanted more federal government control and were most concerned with the economy. These were the elite, wealthy aristocrats that wanted government protection of their affluence and wealth. During their tenure they passed the Naturalization Act to delay the voting privileges of new immigrants. In their time, they were seen as power-hungry bureaucrats with an anti-liberty agenda.

The Jeffersonians became known as the Democratic-Republicans. They were for states rights and advocated against excessive federal government interferance. More immigrants favored this party as it was considered the party of the common people, promoting class equality. The party, under Jefferson, favored a small army, and negotiating over military supremacy. Jefferson’s opponents, at the time, characterized him as a god-less extremist who wanted French-style social reforms.

After  the 1800 election, the Federalist Party began to die out and was dissolved by 1830. They ran their last candidate in the presidential election of 1824. At that time, the Democratic-Republican Party morphed into two parties, the Quincy Adam’s group became the National Republicans and later the Whig Party, which became entrenched in Federalist ideals.  Andrew Jackson’s group became the Democratic-Republican Party which was later shortened to just Democratic Party.

The next major party changes came in 1854 when Northerners, due to pre-Civil War tensions, formed new political parties. Northern Whigs (Federalists) and Northern Democrats formed the Republican Party. It grew quickly in the Northern States, initially being a Northern anti-slavery party. Abraham Lincoln, who only got 40% of the popular vote, was elected in 1860 by this newly formed Northern States party comprised of both Democrats and Republicans (Whigs).

During the election of 1864, the Republican Party was suspended again. Northern Democrats divided into 3 factions – War Democrats, Peace Democrats, and Copperheads. War Democrats supported Lincoln and joined with ex-Republicans (or Whigs) to form the Union Party. (Confused yet?) The Copperheads and Peace Democrats were what was left of the Democratic Party.

The “party of Lincoln”, 1st the newly formed Republican party, and then the Union Party that replaced it, was the party for all intents and purposes that purported the values of today’s Democratic Party and ostensibly its make-up through its various incarnations during this period was from factions of the original Democratic Party. Today’s Republican Party loves to call itself the “Party of Lincoln”, but in reality, the party of Lincoln was made up of both Democrats and Republicans (Whigs ne Federalists), with probably more Democratic factions as a whole.

With the number of incarnations of both parties, melding and separating, up to that point, and since, you now have a Republican Party that virtually bears no resemblance and pretty much no connection to the “party of Lincoln”. The most enduring party, the one that has been in existance since Jefferson’s day is the Democratic Party. The Republican party has come and gone, but it’s various reappearing incarnations have always been partly comprised of Democrats.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the basic values of today’s Republican Party have been in existence since the early days. Republicans are basically Federalists (later Whigs). But you can get confused by who the Republicans really are and by the fact that the Federalists supported big government while the original Democratic-Republicans supported State control over Federal. Both parties have the same overriding agenda and always have, to protect the economy of their members.

The early Federal government consisted of, for the most part, wealthy aristocrats. They could be depended upon to protect the wealth of their own kind. The common folk, on the other hand, got a better deal with less Federal interference. This has been turned on its ear. Today big business prospers under less Federal government, which means less regulation and less rules that impede profit-making. And it is much easier to consolidate power at the state level, to control state governerships and legislatures, than it is on a federal level.

The problem today for these modern Federalists is that most of the wealth has been concentrated in fewer people which makes getting a voting block to go their way pretty difficult. Up to now, they have been successful at hypnotizing a portion of the electorate to support their cause using fear, superstition, and the social agenda. Unfortunately, this tactic has brought the wackier elements out of the woodwork and the strategy is backfiring as the general population is increasingly alienated. Make no mistake, the Republican Party is still the Federalist Party, the wealthy elite who want to protect their wealth and position, and who need a compliant electorate to advance their agenda.

Considering how often the parties have switched allegiances and come together for their common goals it seems astonishing how wedded certain factions of the Republican Party are to other factions that are essentially burying them. The other mystery is how this notion of conservatism seems to predominate. This is not a term that was prominent in the days of Lincoln and it seems virtually empty and meaningless as some kind of dominant principle that a segment of the Republican party absolutely insists upon hanging their hat on.

Political parties, from their earliest days were based upon protecting the economics of their constituents and they still are. The rich want to conserve their wealth, the middle class wants to protect their economic situation. All the other stuff is simply a distraction to get you to take your eye off the ball.

I think George Washington had it right. He was extremely concerned about citizens being overly allegiant to a political party. He felt it was harmful to the Union. If more people would take a look at the actual history of this nation instead of the made-up stuff that gets bandied around the talk show parlors we’d all be a lot better off. But people are lazy, and therein lies the success of Fox News as a propaganda machine for the wealthy elite.

Hope Doesn’t Lie With Old White Guys
For the last word on the issue, hear the voices of two young boys singing a red state, blue state anthem based upon a Dr. Suess rhyme:

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