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A Cyberspace Remake of "The Shop Around the Corner"

Film critic John Powers reviews "You've Got Mail," which is a modern spin on the 1940 Christmas tale.


Other segments from the episode on December 18, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 18, 1998: Interview with Burton Visotzky; Interview with Elmer Bernstein; Interview with Martin Scorsese; Interview with Charlton Heston; Review of the film "You…


Date: DECEMBER 18, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121801np.217
Head: Rabbi Burton Visotzky
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Beginning today, filmgoers have a chance to answer an important question, who is the more convincing Moses; Charlton Heston or Val Kilmer, the voice of Moses in the new animated film "The Prince of Egypt?" We'll hear from Heston later.

Here's Val Kilmer in the scene where Moses learns he is not an Egyptian prince afterall -- he is a Jew. Jeff Goldblum is the voice of Moses' brother Aaron. Sandra Bullock, the voice of their sister Miriam.




BULLOCK: Didn't I tell you Aaron? Didn't I tell you? I knew he would return to us when he was ready.

JEFF GOLDBLUM, ACTOR: Miriam, do you want us flogged?

BULLOCK: I knew you cared about our freedom.

KILMER: Freedom? Why would I care about that?

BULLOCK: Because you're our brother.


BULLOCK: They never told you?

KILMER: Who never told me what?

BULLOCK: But you're here. You must know.

KILMER: Be careful slave.

GOLDBLUM: Oh, my good prince she's exhausted from the days work. Not that it was too much, we quite enjoyed it. But she's confused, and knows not to whom she speaks.

BULLOCK: I know to whom I speak, Aaron. I know who you are, and you are not a prince of Egypt.


KILMER: What did you say?

GOLDBLUM: Your Highness, pay her no heed. Come Miriam, may I discuss something with you?

BULLOCK: No, Aaron, no. Please, Moses, you must believe.

GOLDBLUM: That's enough.

BULLOCK: You were born of my mother, Yoheved.

GOLDBLUM: Stop it.

BULLOCK: You are our brother.

KILMER: Now you go too far. You shall be punished.

GOLDBLUM: No. Please, your Highness, she is ill. She is very ill. We beg your forgiveness. Please, Miriam, let's go.

BULLOCK: No, Aaron. Our mother set you adrift in a basket to save your life.

KILMER: Save my life? From who?

BULLOCK: Ask the man that you call father.

GROSS: Rabbi Burton Visotzky was a consultant to the animated film. His latest book, "The Road to Redemption," is an analysis of the Bible's Exodus story; the story of how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt and slavery.

Rabbi Visotzky leads the Bible interpretation seminars that inspired Bill Moyers' PBS series on the Book of Genesis. Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He says he thinks Exodus speaks to our late 20th century condition.

RABBI BURTON VISOTZKY, SCHOLAR; AUTHOR "THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION": Well, I think one of the things we struggle for which is, in essence, the Israelites' struggle in the Book of Exodus, is a sense of community -- an enduring sense of where we're headed.

In America, our country seems like we're scattered; like we have no sense of purpose; like we don't exactly know where we're going. And the disparate parts of our community are often at one another's throats. You're black, you're white, you're Republican, you're Democrat, you're gay, you're straight, you're man, you're woman, etcetera, etcetera.

And I think that the Jews in Exodus coming out of Egypt, part of their enslavement is that they were enslaved to those kind of divisions. They were tribal rather than national. And Moses' struggle as leader is to find a common ground with all of them, and to find a way to unify them even as they maintain their individual identities and their tribal identities. They had to become one people, and they had to learn to have this covenant that bound them together and gave them a sense of purpose.

Ultimately, I think they found it when they got to Mount Sinai. So, we here, now in the 20th century, I guess are looking for our Mount Sinai.

GROSS: I'm sure this is one of the reasons why you chose Moses as the book sequel to your Genesis book. Are there other reasons why you chose the Exodus story?

VISOTZKY: Well, I had -- I had been struggling in Genesis for a long time. You may recall when you interviewed me two years ago that what I wrote in "Genesis of Ethics" is that, essentially, the Book of Genesis is a book about sex and violence. It's -- it was almost too easy for me to write that book about sex and violence and make it very racy.

And it became very clear to me that the writers of the Bible knew very well even as they were writing Genesis that there was also a sequel; that there would be Exodus. And what happens, I think, is that you have to confront Exodus because it's there that you put behind some of the immaturity of the growth stages, you put behind a lot of the family dysfunction, and you move outward towards community. Once you've resolved a lot of the family issues, you grow.

And as you grow you look towards your community, towards your nation, towards what commits you and your family to greater things. And that's exactly what happens in Exodus. What, in Genesis, was a family story, that family in Exodus becomes a nation. So, Exodus, for me, kind of was a necessary sequel and in some very profound way was a necessary sequel in my personal growth.

It was all too easy when I was younger to kind of wallow in the dysfunction of Genesis. And I just had my 47th birthday and I'm now married for the second time and very happily married. I have two kids and I just feel much more settled in my life and much more a member of the greater community.

I worry about what goes on in the Jewish community, I worry about New York City, where I live, and I worry about the nation. And I think that just comes with growing up. And the Genesis-Exodus flow seems to me, in some way, to mirror all of our lives.

GROSS: In the Exodus story, Moses is born right after the pharaoh has decreed that all newborn Jewish sons must be killed. So, to save the baby, he's put by his mother and her daughter in, you know, like a little basket and they float the basket in the bulrushes where it's discovered by one of the pharaoh's daughters who rescues Moses and brings him up as her own.

This raises a lot of confusing questions which you go into in your book. For instance, wouldn't Moses have been circumcised, and wouldn't that have been a giveaway that he's Jewish?

VISOTZKY: I think it's pretty clear that Exodus kind of revels, delights in this conspiracy of women. The mother and sister of Moses save him. They set him afloat and they set him afloat very much in the same way that Noah is set afloat. He's going to be the survivor; he's going to be the one that's going to raise a new nation and start a new world. So, the women do this -- the Jewish women do this with faith in God.

Because God is God of the universe there are also complicit actors on the Egyptian side. Pharaoh's daughter, of all things, she who grows up in Pharaoh's household, she serves God's purpose by raising Moses. I think you're right, it's absolutely clear, they must know this is a Jewish baby.

When Pharaoh's daughter pulls Moses out of the river and seeks a wet nurse to suckle the baby, Moses' sister Miriam steps forward at that propitious moment and says: "Gee, I could suggest somebody." And lo and behold, Moses goes back into, literally, into the bosom of his family so that he can be suckled by his own mother.

Ultimately, of course, mother and sister have to give the boy back to Pharaoh's household where he is raised by this wonderful woman who takes a risk. She, essentially, defies her father. And in defying her father, brings this Jewish baby into Pharaoh's court and now they're in Pharaoh's palace. All of a sudden, Pharaoh's a grandpa. And, you know, he has this sweet little Jewish boy.

It's bizarre irony because this is the same guy who, of course, is killing Jewish babies. But it shows us, I think, a moment that the miracle, maybe, of what a baby can do.

That someone who is so clearly played as the heavy, as even Pharaoh, has to reckon with the fact that you have a grandchild in the house: "Well, all right, that kid is going to be your boy." And so, Moses is able to grow, and God takes advantage of the fact that human beings are, in the end, human and can't resist small children.

GROSS: So, you think that the Pharaoh also realizes that this baby is Jewish?

VISOTZKY: Well, a great deal has been said about the circumcised baby Moses. Some people who are Bible scholars suggest that the Egyptians also were circumcised, so it may not be a giveaway. But frankly, circumcised or uncircumcised, even if you leave the baby's diaper on, you got a baby floating in the river in a little basket when all the other Jewish babies are being killed.

Well, odds are good that that's a Jewish baby who somebody is trying to save. Pharaoh has to grapple with it somehow. Maybe Pharaoh's daughter keeps it a secret, maybe not. I wonder in "The Road to Redemption" about much that's unsaid in Exodus.

When Pharaoh -- excuse me, when Moses grows up in Pharaoh's court, who knows that he's adopted? Who knows that he's Egyptian? Who knows the real secret that he is an Israelite? What do they do about it? How do they treat him? Is he treated differently?

In any case, we learn from the Bible story that Moses is a child who grows up with some kind of a speech impediment, so something is setting him apart from beginning to end. And when that fateful day comes, and we don't know what precipitates it, Moses comes out of the closet. He joins his Israelite slave brother and leaves behind forever his patrimony of growing up in Pharaoh's palace.

GROSS: When God calls Moses to deliver the Jews from their slavery in Egypt, Moses is reluctant to follow God's will. Moses says, please send someone else. And he explains, "I'm not a man of words for I am heavy mouthed and heavy tonged."

You've gone through a lot of the interpretations, modern and ancient interpretations, of the Exodus story. What are some of the most interesting interpretations you've found of Moses' reluctance to follow God's will?

VISOTZKY: Well, this is one of the places, I think, that Exodus departs radically from our modern culture. Exodus is very much at peace with the rest of the Bible. When God calls prophets, it's a standard motif in the Bible for them to refuse, for them to feel humble, for them to say, "I can't do it. I can't speak. I don't do this well, please send someone else."

So, Moses is the first in a long line of people who demure when the call comes, very unlike our national leaders who spend their lives from childhood aggressively pursuing what it is they want. And I think, perhaps, that may account for some of the differences in leadership between the biblical models we have and the very harsh reality models we sometimes face today.

GROSS: Is Moses already a believer when God speaks to him in the Exodus story?

VISOTZKY: I think Moses is as much a believer as any of us are. That is to say, it's a hard business, this believing in God. Our rational self, I think, struggles with the issue because we can't prove God's existence. And yet, something deep in our soul yearns for there to be purpose in the universe and yearns for there to be a God who is fair, who is good, who will redeem us.

So, Moses I think faces all of those issues. This is a guy who, again, grew up in Pharaoh's court. He grew up in the polytheistic world of Egyptian religion. He grew up believing that Pharaoh was an incarnate God.

And yet one day as a shepherd, a bush took flame. And as it took flame he was reminded that his ancestors believed something different. That they had a very different view of the universe. That he was a creature, not a creator.

So, I can't imagine that from beginning to end it wasn't always a struggle with Moses. That he, almost unique -- well, unique among human beings faced the reality of God, as the Bible says he saw God face to face and lived.

I think even so he struggled with what God is, what God demands of us, and how to confront your anger towards God. Whether God is fair, whether God makes us do things we don't want to do. These are all issues, I think, that all of us confront. And Moses is, as the rabbis say, our teacher on those issues.

GROSS: My guest is Rabbi Burton Visotzky. He was a consultant for the new film "The Prince of Egypt." His latest book interprets the Bible's Exodus story. More after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Rabbi Burton Visotzky. His latest book, "The Road to Redemption," interprets the Bible's Exodus story.

When God calls Moses to deliver the Jews and Moses expresses his reluctance; Moses says, "Well, the Egyptians aren't really going to believe me when I say that you've called me, and they're going to ask me for your name. So, what is your name?" And God says, "I will be what I will be."

What are some of the interpretations of what that means?

VISOTZKY: Well, we have to revel in God's coyness. There's a wonderful rabbinic midrush (ph) from, I don't know, the third, fourth century where the rabbis point out that Moses was actually quite presumptuous at this moment.

In the ancient world, knowing the name of almost anything gives you power. For instance, in the Genesis story Adam is given the right to name all the animals, and that is the way that the Bible expresses his hegemony over the animals. He is the crown of creation and he rules these animals because he has named them.

So, for Moses to ask God's name is to say, "Look, I need this power. I need to know that I am really your representative because I'm nervous." But when the rabbis critique Moses they say, you know, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had these lifetime relationships with God and never asked their personal name. And you, as it were, ask on the first date.

So, the rabbis actually chide Moses for his presumption, and I think they kind of revel in the fact that God's answer is so ambiguous. You know, I'll be what I'll be. You can almost hear the Yiddish accent when God says that to Moses. He's really coy.

God doesn't give a straight answer even though that may, in fact, be the only answer any of us can ever have. That when we need God, God will be there. And what we need God to be, so God will be. And that's how the Exodus story turns out.

So, it's a descriptive phrase. And yet, at the same time, that series of verbs is a play on the four letter Hebrew name, the tetragrammaton -- that unpronounceable name of the ineffable God. So, I think throughout the Torah teaches us that knowing God is an almost impossible task. I kind of, as a theologian, think of myself as holding a Groucho Marx theology.

I think it was Groucho Marx who once said he didn't want to be a member of any country club that would have the likes of him as a member. And my theology is kind of something like that. I don't want to believe in a God or worship a God who I can, as a human being, so easily and readily understand.

I want God to be ineffable, I want God to be with a "w" -- wholly other, as well as with an "h"-- holy. So, that difference, that unapproachability is an important aspect to my concept of God. And I think that Exodus plays that out very clearly.

GROSS: In Exodus, in a way, God plays a tit-for-tat game. You know, the Pharaoh had decreed that the newborn Jewish sons should be executed so God brings the plagues on the Egyptians, and one of those plagues is the death of first born Egyptian sons. Isn't God killing innocents here? I mean the sons are -- they're boys, they're still innocents.

VISOTZKY: There's a great deal of difficulty with that, and it's a problem that rabbis of old grappled with as well. They very much believe that the Bible works on a measure for measure principle. And so that when Pharaoh sins against God that sin will be returned upon him.

And to that extent, the rabbinic interpreters who, I guess, in this instance would be apologists; want to find all kind of reasons that the Egyptians really deserve this. But in the end, I think your reading is a keen one, that Egyptian innocents do suffer God's wrath.

And I think sometimes that's a real problem of how we grapple with the fairness of God because God doesn't seem to be, at least the God of the Hebrew Bible, doesn't always seem to be fair, at least in accordance with 20th century notions of what fairness is.

GROSS: Now, you've said that you think Exodus has a lot of messages for us now at the late 20th century. There is a part I want to ask you what you think it says to us now.

After God performs miracles, parts the Red Sea to free the Jews, and the Jews still don't get it, you know, they've kind of crossed over from Egypt. But while Moses is on Mount Sinai getting the Ten Commandments the Jews are impatient; they start behaving badly and sinning and worshipping a golden calf. God is so angry with them he considers destroying them. What does their behavior say to you, and what does it say to you, you know, now at the end of the 20th century?

VISOTZKY: Well, we human beings are a rough lot of people. We have our free will and we will exercise it even at great cost to ourselves. I think our national drama these days teaches us that lesson -- that however great your program may be, our personal peccadillos can often bring us down.

In Egypt, as they came out and they -- there they were at the foot of Mount Sinai. God is saying to them: "I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt." And they, in turn, are saying: "What happened to Moses? Where is he? How come he's not here with this? Why is he on that mountain? Why hasn't he come down?"

God says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." And the Israelites say, "This calf is our new God." At the moment that should be the most profound moments in our life, that's the moment I think that we lose faith most readily. Because they're frightening moments. And that's the moment that we fail, that we back off, that we, instead of stepping forward, step backward. And that is what the Israelites do, much to God's fury.

GROSS: If God doesn't allow Moses to enter the Promised Land himself, and I'm wondering what, you know, what you and what scholars of the past make of that?

VISOTZKY: Well, I've actually struggled with this for a long time, and in some ways the struggle came to me in a very profound sense. A couple of summers ago when I was in Jordan with my wife, we were on vacation. And we went to Mount Nebo, which is the mountain that Moses climbed from which he saw the Promised Land knowing that he would never enter.

And according to the Book of Deuteronomy (ph), it's on that mountain that Moses died. And I stood at the top of this mountain looking, and you really can see from Mount Nebo, if you look west you can see the Promised Land. You can see the Dead Sea; you can see the Jordan River; and you can see Canaan (ph), or modern Israel stretched out before you.

And at the time I thought, what could be a more sad place? What could be a more pathetic place in the universe than Mount Nebo, where Moses, who worked his whole life to get to the Promised Land, looked and realized that he would never get there?

In the two years that have passed, I've come back to that moment again and again and again because it's so caught me up in the nostalgia of the place. And I should have been suspicious already, because I think nostalgia is a dangerous phenomenon. It is a trick of memory that allows us to remember things as we wish they were and not as they had been.

And slowly, I've come to realize that for Moses, standing on Nebo, seeing the Promised Land was the culmination of his life. He wasn't so much looking forward as looking back and realizing what he had accomplished.

He was a baby boy who should have been killed, and in fact was saved. He should have been a slave, and in fact was raised in Pharaoh's court. He brought his people out, he was the savior of the people, he gave them law, he gave them community, and he saw God face to face.

For him then, after all that, to go and conquer the land and get down to the dirty work -- and it is dirty work of conquering and building and bickering. In some ways he was blessed to do without it. So, he had an idealized life, and maybe at Nebo, instead of the pathos of, "Oh, I'm not going to get to go," Moses, again, taught us a lesson that sometimes you have to see where you are on the road. Know that maybe you've come a long way, and that you should celebrate your accomplishment, rather than regret the fact that there's one more hurdle you haven't jumped.

GROSS: Rabbi Burton Visotzky's book about Moses and the Exodus is called, "The Road to Redemption." He was a consultant on the new animated film "The Prince of Egypt."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Rabbi Burton Visotzky
High: Biblical theologian Burton Visotzky gives us his interpretation of the story of Exodus, as SKG's new film "The Prince of Egypt" arrives in theaters today. Visotzky worked as a consultant on the new film. This year, his book "The Road to Redemption: Lessons from Exodus on Leadership and Community" was published. Visotzky's previous exploration of Genesis led to a PBS series. Visotzky is Chairman of Inter-religious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in America. He lives in New York City and Kent, Connecticut.
Spec: Religion; Entertainment; Media; Movie Industry; Rabbi Burton Visotzky

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Rabbi Burton Visotzky

Date: DECEMBER 18, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121802NP.217
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in the new film "You've Got Mail," a cyberspace remake of "The Shop Around the Corner." "You've Got Mail" is directed by Nora Ephron who directed the duo in "Sleepless in Seattle." John Powers has this review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Of all Christmas movies my favorite is Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 classic, "The Shop Around the Corner." Probably the most perfect romantic comedy ever made. It stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as bickering salespeople in a struggling Budapest shop. Both have a secret pen pal they've never met. An idealized lover, to whom they express the deep yearning they can't express in their ordinary lives.

Naturally, it turns out that Stewart and Sullivan have unwittingly been writing to one another. And what makes the story so sublime is its tender, melancholy awareness that its heroes are lonely people caught for life in small unglamorous jobs, who dream of finding the lover who will see them for what they really are inside.

Samson Rafaelson's (ph) original script is so exquisitely crafted that it was inevitable that Hollywood would want to remake it. But for decades that was impossible, because Americans no longer wrote letters to one another. With the coming of e-mail, however, people are again writing to one another, often anonymously.

So, now you've got "You've Got Mail." Of course, today's audiences don't want to see a film about two people in their 30s who work in a shop. That would be depressing. It would make them losers.

So, here Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox who owns and operates a chain of mega-bookstores, while Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly who owns and operates an Upper Westside children's bookstore, and lives in a nice sunlit condo.

Similarly, the audience might think there was something wrong with Joe and Kathleen if they were unattached. So, both are given strangely sexless relationships. Joe, with an annoying publisher, that's Parker Posey. And Kathleen with a pretentious columnist, played by Greg Kinnear.

Naturally, both Joe and Kathleen want something deeper, and secretly spend their time e-mailing one another blissfully unaware that they're not only acquaintances, but they're business enemies because Joe's new superstore threatens to drive Kathleen out of business.

Since they don't know the real truth about their e-mail partner, Joe and Kathleen's face-to-face encounters invariably lead to sniping.


TOM HANKS, ACTOR: You know what that hanky reminds me of?


HANKS: The first day I met you.

RYAN: The first day you lied to me.

HANKS: I didn't lie to you.

RYAN: You did too.

HANKS: No, I didn't.

RYAN: Yes, you did.

HANKS: I did not.

RYAN: You do too.

HANKS: I did not.

RYAN: You did too.

HANKS: I did not.

RYAN: You did too. I thought all of that Fox stuff was so charming. "F"-"O"-"X."

HANKS: Well, I didn't lie about it.

RYAN: Joe, just call me Joe.

HANKS: Sure.

RYAN: As if you were one of those stupid 22-year-old girls with no last name. "Hi, I'm Kimberly." "Hi, I'm Janice." Don't they know you're supposed to happen last name? It's like they're an entire generation of cocktail waitresses.

HANKS: Look, I'm not a 22-year-old cocktail waitress.

RYAN: Oh, you poor sad multimillionaire. I feel so sorry for you.

POWERS: The movie was cowritten and directed by Nora Ephron, who clearly has the taste for romantic comedy. But, alas, not the gift. Rather than preserve the tenderness and melancholy, that make "The Shop Around the Corner" magical, she turns everything glib and perky.

Not only are Joe and Kathleen surrounded by cheaply cartoonish characters, Posey's publisher is as crass and illiterate as a Hollywood agent. But Hanks and Ryan are pushed into schtick. While he, largely, comes off OK, Ephron's direction is disastrous for Ryan, who is as cute as a truckload of buttons.

She spends the whole movie mugging and flitting around the screen with adorable, exaggerated gestures like a mime impersonating a mime. There's so little emotion in these two, even their e-mail is cute, that the movie is padded out with trite montages to second-rate pop songs designed to give flat material a sense of mood.

We don't feel Joe or Kathleen's romantic longing, since Ephron seems more interested in where they're eating on the Upper Westside than what they're actually feeling. And though Kathleen is a supposedly independent bookseller being crushed by a chain, Ryan is so busy being cute we never sense any passion for books. Indeed, the movie spends more time showing her hanging out at Starbucks, evidently she doesn't mind coffee chains, than it does conveying her sadness at losing her store.

If "Shop Around the Corner" was steeped in the dreams and aspirations of the Depression era, when people sought love as consolation from material hardship, so "You've Got Mail" is a perfect expression of the ethos of our own time. Kathleen's small fuming bookstore may be history, but Joe Fox's book chain is sure to be a funny benevolent place.

And Joe himself is the most decent mogul alive. The kind of warm funny guy who'd never lay anyone off or pay less than a living wage. When he and Kathleen come together in their inevitable kiss, she becomes part of his world and the movie reveals its true theme.

"You've Got Mail" is less a story of romantic love than a cheerful myth about the heartwarming triumph of corporate culture.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Host
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "You've Got Mail."
Spec: Movie Industry; Entertainment; John Powers

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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