Everything is Copy: the perfect tribute to an imperfect woman.

everything is copy-nora

In making a documentary about a dead loved one, there is a huge risk that the subject may come out smelling like a rose, a perfect human specimen in every way. Thankfully, in Jacob Bernstein’s tribute to his mother Nora Ephron, Everything is Copy, the audience gets much more from the film than warm stories and fond memories. This is the story of a life filled with contradictions. Right up until her death, Ephron is revealed to have been to be as hard as often as she was soft, as mean as she was kind and in the end, she contradicted a career trademarked by honesty with the concealment of her Leukemia diagnosis, the blood disorder was ultimately responsible for taking her life in 2012.

“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”

This quote, from the subject herself, is the ethos Ephron forged her career by, passed down from her mother, the notion that “Everything is Copy” informed elements of most, if not all of Ephron’s work, from her early essays in Esquire, all the way through her work as a playwright, screenwriter, producer, director and blogger.

The piece is a combination of home movies, archival footage and readings of Ephron’s works, alongside a litany of anecdotes from friends, colleagues and family. These old high school friends, ex-husbands and family members combine with famous faces, the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, and the late Mike Nichols to weave together the story of a young, die-hard New Yorker who rose from the mail room at Newsweek to become a noted essayist, a genre-defining romantic comedy maven, and feminist pioneer.

In examining Ephron as a feminist icon, Everything is Copy shows the audience that Ephron’s relevance to the feminist movement is not necessarily the result of any particular cultural or political stand she took, but because she was willing to frankly discuss women’s issues in a public forum. In writing about her own life she unapologetically explored feelings of physical inadequacy, concerns about aging, fake orgasms, and even death. Nothing appeared to be off limits for Nora Ephron. This complete openness has in turn influenced a new generation of female writers and film-makers, Diablo Cody, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Weiner and Lena Dunham are only a few of the writers who credit Nora Ephron and her work as critical to their success.

Bernstein explores his mothers impact on her circle of friends. Almost every person interviewed tells him the same thing, ‘she was tough’ and the implication is that she had to be. Ephron’s trademark mix of hubris and candor, combined with her acute insight into male-female dynamics turned her into a national celebrity with the publication of Heartburn, a thinly veiled fictional account of the very difficult breakdown of her second marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. The novel was a smash hit, and went on to be adapted for the screen by Mike Nichols to moderate success in 1986. Thankfully though, Bernstein is able to keep the focus of his film on his mothers larger than life personality and the impact and influence she had on those around her.

In examining his mothers career-long use of her own ups and downs as writing material, Bernstein also questions his mothers reasoning for keeping her Leukemia diagnosis a secret from all but a few of her closest confidants. The documentary translates as a vehicle for Bernstein to make peace with her decision to shut the world out of her final chapter. It settles on the fact that her illness was the one story she wasn’t able to control in her usual way, and her new method of control became to make it not exist. It is in this moment of understanding Bernstein delivers the most powerful lines of the film, “I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” Bernstein concludes “that the things you want to keep are not copy, that the people you love are not copy, that what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you.”

How refreshing, to see a story about a woman on screen who wasn’t perfect but was dearly loved anyway, who knew what she wanted and went and got it, or as Mike Nichols notes in the film, “went and did it, which is far more important”. Bernstein’s tribute to his mother is both heartbreaking and stirring, and the treatment given to her story captures a larger-than-life force of nature who was unapologetic and often brutally honest in her pursuit of success.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation: a true crime tragedy that struggles to relate to a new audience.

Joe Cinque

In 1997 when university student Anu Singh was arrested and tried for the murder of her devoted partner Joe, the story was front page news. Singh was found to have drugged him with Rohypnol laced coffee and then injected him with a lethal dose of heroin after a dinner party. Finally sentenced to the reduced charge of manslaughter via diminished responsibility by reasons of mental health, Singh served only four years for her crime. The crime and its resulting trial were so sensational that they spawned a best-selling nonfiction novel, Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and now the story plays out for a new audience 19 years later on the big screen.

In his feature film debut, director and co-writer Sotiris Dounoukos adapts Helen Garner’s very successful novel and makes some interesting choices both in his writing and in his direction. Where Garner’s novel focused on the trial, witness accounts, and the fallout beyond conviction, Dounoukos takes his audience back to the beginning of a romance, his story then evolving chronologically, ultimately culminating in it’s tragic ending.

This approach to the content is an understandable one. Coverage of court proceedings surrounding the crime at the time had been significant and multiple news stories and “true-crime” dramatisations have abounded. And while it is fair and reasonable to attempt to tell this tale from the angle of love gone wrong, or even a community turning their backs on one of their own, as the director suggests, it appears that Dounoukos and his co-writer Matt Rubenstein have forgotten that almost two decades have passed the Australian public by, and that some more background information on characters would give any audience (not just those familiar with the story of Joe Cinque) the greatest opportunity of being able to appropriately empathise with either lead character.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation was one of the most sought after tickets at this years Melbourne International Film Festival, perhaps in part due to the sensational subject matter. In interviews and forums after all sessions of the film, Dounoukos went to great pains to explain to audiences that the focus of the film is intended to be less about Anu Singh’s crime and eventual conviction, but more about the fact that Cinque had a community of people surrounding him both socially and in his workplace, and no-one stepped in to prevent his death.

This intention does not completely translate on the screen. A significant amount of time in the film is dedicated to making sure the audience knows that Anu is to blame (and not just for her crime, every other negative thing that happens to either lead character is pinned on her), but does little to provide an explanation as to how she became so mentally fragile. Interestingly, a similar criticism was levelled at Garner’s book upon release, in that readers were unable to understand Singh’s motives. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to remediate this for the screen. The audience is unable to connect with Anu and as a result the story devolves into a tale of how sad and tragic the loss of Joe’s life was and still is. The lack of connection the audience is allowed to have with Anu becomes even more perplexing when factoring in that the director was a law student alongside Anu Singh at the time of the crime and was in the same graduating year as her.

It is important to note here that the performances by both lead actors, Maddie Naouri as Anu and Jerome Meyer as Joe are admirable, considering the content they have to work with. Maddie Naouri in particular does a good job of bringing a scarily quiet and pathological ‘broken-ness’ to Anu and Jerome Meyer manages to strike a balance between dead man walking and a loving partner desperate to help her. It’s just such a disappointment that the audience doesn’t ever get the chance to truly know these characters or to understand their motives.

The biggest problem with the choices Dounoukos has made with his content is this: Without context, background or character development the audience is unable to connect to these characterisations of real people. Even more so, being almost twenty years after the fact, it is likely that a portion of the audience for this film will not be privy to the history behind it. This is troubling, because what is left on the screen is a very sad story about a man, for whom it is difficult to feel true empathy because it’s impossible to understand why he’s there with Anu in the first place. Through no fault of his (or the actors) own, Joe becomes almost two dimensional in the shadow of the “big bad” Anu Singh and her wicked sidekick Madhavi Rao.

In closing, Joe Cinque’s Consolation somehow manages to do less for Joe Cinque than Helen Garner’s original treatment, and even that wasn’t considered to be definitive. Audience members who have a relationship with the content prior to viewing may take something home with them, but for new audiences and perhaps more essentially, international audiences, the film is unlikely to translate into anything meaningful.