Gilbey on Film: Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

A genius for intimacy.

Until a few years ago, I had foolishly put the late writer-director Nora Ephron  in the same pile as various purveyors of apparently soft-hearted, soft-headed and - okay I’ll come clean - female-oriented romantic comedy such as Nancy Meyers, Penny Marshall and the screenwriter Ron Bass. Why? After all, I had loved Ephron’s screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and I have to come to see over the years that the buoyancy and the canny modifications of You’ve Got Mail, which she also directed, exempt that film from being tarred with the bad-remake brush (it’s based on Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner). But there is so much information out there that we are all guilty of such filing oversights. You put the bailiffs’ letters with the school reports and then where are you? As for the cupboard under the sink, let’s not go there. (Really, let’s not.) Personally, I have a blind spot for Tobys. With all respect to the excellent Toby Litt, I’ll sometimes see his name in the NS and wince slightly, when in fact the cause of my discomfort is (you’re ahead of me here, aren’t you?) Toby Young.

Fortunately, a friend put me right on Nora Ephron. There I was blabbing about her fantastically precise parody of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I’ve linked to “The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut” before on here, but it bears any amount of re-reading) and opining loudly and without the necessary evidence that her other work hadn’t shown such vim, when his face became fixed in a sorrowful expression which screamed “How little you know.” A copy of Heartburn was soon pressed into my hands, which forced me to let go of my preconceptions. This is a roman-à-clef based on Ephron dealing with her distressing divorce from her unfaithful second husband, the journalist Carl Bernstein. It’s acidic without losing its sweetness, light but necessarily angry, the words perfectly weighted - like all her best screenwriting and journalism. There was also a film of Heartburn, directed in 1986 by Mike Nichols, scripted by Ephron (who had written Silkwood for Nichols), starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and with songs by Carly Simon. My advice is stick with the book.

Her other films include Mixed Nuts (a listless remake of the popular French comedy Le père Noël est une ordure), Sleepless in Seattle, a big-screen version of Bewitched starring Nicole Kidman and the recent Julie and Julia, which plaited together the stories of the cookery guru Julia Childs (Streep again) and a fictional Manhattanite (Amy Adams) taking on Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For me, her best work remains When Harry Met Sally and the essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman. Here she is speaking to DGA magazine in 2009 about the challenges of the rom-com:

Romantic comedies are very hard. They look as if they should be easy, but they’re hard because there’s nothing you can depend on. I mean, you don’t have car chases or anything like that and, really, you don’t have plot in the way we understand that term—we all know pretty much from the start what the end of the movie is going to be. Romantic comedies are hard to do, but so are all movies. Movies are so hard, and they’re harder than ever because it’s so hard to get them made now, and so hard to do anything remotely unconventional, because that scares people to death.

Her preference, she said, “would be to do a movie with a small number of people sitting in rooms and talking. This is my dream.” I think she captured precisely that intimacy, strongly felt even among a packed and giggling cinema audience.

Making it look easy: Nora Ephron. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt