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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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