Sunday, September 6, 2009

Less Starbucks in Seattle

Alienation in a digital age, questions of morality and suicide, and in depth examinations of fate and compatibility; Sleepless in Seattle is a film vastly ahead of its time and quite possibly one of the greatest films of the 1990s.

Looking back ten years ago, it was easy to understand the literal message of You’ve Got Mail. Could fate pierce itself into the fabric of cyberspace? If you can’t remember the story, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet in a mysterious chatroom, begin emailing each other, his corporation kills her small business and then they fall in love. Although the structure is immensely contrived and uninspired, it's reliance on the internet is an interesting plot point.

Rewind five years to Sleepless in Seattle, a film far predating the days of AOL and spam filled mailboxes. Although not immediately apparent, it is clear that this movie also would have failed if not for its reliance upon the Internet. As will be discussed shortly, Annie (Meg Ryan) depends on the Internet in order to tread deeper into enacting her fantasy of Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks). Even further, the film takes two different ages of technology – radio and the Internet – to comment on our cultures growing reliance upon this technology. It is only through the na├»ve mind of a child, Jonah, who upon listening to the radio, understands the benefits of technology (via radio psychologist Dr. Martha Fieldstone) and pushes his father into portraying the benefits of our digital age.

However, it is when we discover Annie listening to the radio that we gain our first glimpse into the world Annie and Sam inhabit. Annie and Walter (Bill Pulmann) drive separately. Although one can assume that this is commenting on a post-feminist age, where a justifiable tension has been created between men and women; a refusal on Annie's part to be the expected passenger than driver. I will not elaborate on this possibility, but regardless of the interpretation, these two individuals are separated not just physically, but emotionally. We continually ask why this couple thinks their relationship should be solidified in marriage. Whatever the reason, Annie's estrangement from Walter forces her to drive and find comfort in the radio rather than her fiance.

Near immediately, Annie becomes absorbed into the story of Sam Baldwin. And, as indicated by Annie’s pit stop at the diner and the following day at the office, there was a ridiculously large audience for the radio program. This would mean that countless individuals were alone on Christmas, and rather than watching televison, they listened to the radio. How else, or why else would there be such a large audience?

This seems to be subtlety commenting on the alienation that people are feeling in this culture. Yet it gets stranger. Even if there were a host of lonely people on Christmas, why would they be listening to the radio and not watching television? I find this the most interesting point. My only conclusion is that like the Internet, the radio contains absolutely no face to go along with the voice or information being heard (or read in the Internet’s case). Returning to You’ve Got Mail; the reason the movie worked is precisely because they didn’t know what the other looked like. I refer to this plainly as an incomplete sense experience. That is, the radio only provides a voice, and the Internet only provides the written word. The radio has difficulty in formulating meticulous and carefully constructed words, but the Internet contains no voice to go along with those written words. And amidst a culture that has grown to value beauty and money over intellect and knowledge, it seems this is the most pure from constructing a significant relationship.

In fact, this motif of the incomplete sense experience is reflected throughout the film. Jonah calling Sam at the restaurant with minimal purpose, Annie talking to Becky about Sam who sounds disinterested, Annie seeing Sam without saying a word, Jonah’s friend using acronyms in order to express herself (strange how this absurd form of communication is common in this day of texting and instant messaging) and, specifically, Annie’s use of the internet.

As Annie becomes more obsessed with “the voice” to the point of fantasy, she visits her brother who is a professor at John Hopkins. He is of the rational mind, believing that there is no fate or metaphysical attraction between two individuals, to the point of complete ambivalence in regards to his wife. He got married because he had to get married, facing the alternative of his wife leaving him. How strong can love be if someone is willing to leave the other if marriage is not an option? Or, how strong can it be if that person doesn’t feel any connection to his wife as Annie’s brother seems to subtlety indicate? It is clear that whatever connection being sought after by Annie, and has been acquired by Sam, this man does not have it.

Likewise, Becky’s failed relationship with Rick paints another portrait of failed connections. Although we never get the entire story, we discover that she cheated on her husband with the tree man. Yet, she qualifies it by specifically stating she did not fall in love with the tree man. This then indicates not just escaping a failed marriage for a more passionate individual, but a complete disconnection with all forms of partners.

The most obvious example of this lies in the relationship between Annie and Walter. It’s not just that they do not have a connection, but I found myself wondering what they liked in the other person at all. It seems a relationship of necessity rather than desire. Necessity in that - like the statistics that a person is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than married after forty - Annie and Walter need each other to prevent such an occurrence.

Finally, considering that Sam and his wife were the only individuals with a true connection, it seems that her death was a metaphor for the times. The age of genuine connections, in a culture that values beauty and money, is dead. This can also be proved in the first scene when Annie's mother talks to her about the "magic" of relationships. Annie has no idea what it was. Thus, the "magic" once existed, but is now dead.

All of these factors add up to commenting on the fact that there is a fundamental problem in the way people - as alienated individuals - disingenuously connect with their partners. Returning to the incomplete sense experience, the radio is a metaphor for these relationships. People have an understanding of the ideal love, reflected through the radio via “the voice” as the way love ought to be. This is also explicated through the inclusion of the film An Affair to Remember. Both when Annie and Becky watch it, along with Jonah's friend, it is commented that the type of love expressed by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr is not possible anymore. In other words, people strive for the ideal of love, failing to connect with other individuals as a result; they want what is defined by others, not themselves. All in all, it seems that love has been commodified. Dr. Marsha Fieldstone, the host of the radio program that sets this film in motion, clearly wants ratings and therefore exploits Sam’s problems for her own personal benefit. Or put differently, she exploits the genuine love he experienced.

In the end, however, Sam and Annie develop a complete sense experience, avoiding any fragmentation. They do not live through movies, social expectations or the radio, they seek real compatibility. They can hear, see, touch, feel and taste the other unlike the radio, phone or Internet. This is most clearly indicated when Sam sees Annie at the airport, he has no basis or reason for developing his instantaneous love for her, but his reaction clearly expresses such. Conversely, though not wrongfully, Annie is in love with Sam for his embodiment and ability to possess genuine love. In other words, these two individuals reflect an escape from the commoditization of love.

So, how did Sam and Annie reach this point? The answer lies in the Internet. Only when her obsession reached unbearable dimensions did Annie finally look into Sam’s life via the Internet. She then faxed a Private Investigator to take photographs. Likewise, the only reason Sam and Annie met at the Empire State Building was because Jonah’s friend booked him a flight through the Internet. Thus, it was through cyberspace that a genuine connection was created.

Now, what is the one arena of our culture the has relatively minimal regulation and corporate control? The Internet. It is a destination where free minds can express their ideas and problems without the filtering process of what will derive the highest profit margins and maintain the status quo. Becky, Rick, Annie’s Brother, Walter, all of these characters rely on being told what love is, rather than trying to discover this for themselves.

Fair wages, unionization and paid overtime have allowed us to escape the chains of factory labor, but we still remain the cogs of a massive corporate machine. Endless mergers, buyouts and acquisitions have minimized the ability for the simple man to start an independent business. Want to start a record store? Good luck competing with Best Buy. Want to start a coffee shop? Have fun trying to overcome the Starbucks located on every street corner. Bookstore? Sorry, but Barnes and Noble and Borders has the best selection and lowest prices.

Although free-market thinkers like to preach about the benefits of capitalism and its ability to let individuals freely choose their occupations, I think its extremely clear that more and more entrepreneurial enterprises are becoming increasingly difficult to startup and rightfully compete with the massive enterprises. Recently, CVS merged with online pharmacy Caremark. They will begin controlling approximately 30% of the pharmaceutical market. This means that if you choose the honorable profession of pharmacy, you have a 1 in 3 chance of working for this chain. Considering that this company along with Walgreens will probably offer the best pay and benefits, it doesn’t seem too likely that individuals will come out of school with much choice. But hey, as free-market thinkers say, you can freely choose your job. Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with the corporate models.

Thus, the Internet still allows radical and revolutionary ideas to take place. It is the only means of escape from the totalitarian corporate models that have continued to wipe out independent competition and entrepreneurial wherewithal. Annie and Sam embody and encapsulate this massive change.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Now, the person who loves to read will be forced to take his knowledge and create a book for the shelves of Borders. The person who wants to open a record shop will be forced to make his own music and have it displayed in the aisles of Best Buy. While we may have to accept that the independent specialty store is dying, the responsibility and motivation to create is now upon us. I have no doubt that once these corporations reach a certain level they will censor the works of many who criticize this model. In such an instance, only the internet can provide the proper outlet. Cyberspace is not just for alternative information, but for an alternative reality.

So what is the point of Sleepless in Seattle using radio and internet without television? Well, once upon a time there was no regulations on radio. Anybody, with the right equipment, could fill the airwaves with what they wanted others to hear. Yet, it didn't take long to regulate this mode of communication and have those with the money drown out those with little. Some say the internet stands the same risk of corporate control, but I remain hopeful that those who use it will prevent such a thing from ever happening.

NOTE: While Annie is on the phone with Becky in her hotel, the background shows what looks to be a Starbucks cup on the table; predating the plethora of this chain and yet predicting its soon-to-be function.