Most short-haul travel these days consists of sitting in what is essentially a glorified office chair for 2 hours while you get flown from Gatwick to Verona by the Celtic bus-in-the-sky Ryanair. Which is about as glamorous as imagining the short-lived tv show Pan Am being filmed in Scunthorpe.
But most medium and long-haul flights do retain something from the golden era of air travel. You get a lunch that doesn’t look like it’s come from Tesco’s Bargain Bucket, where sandwiches go to fester while they wait for their expiry date. And you get in-flight entertainment.
On a flight from Beirut to Paris the other day, as I was pawing away ineffectually at the screen in front of me, and explaining to a geriatric gentleman sitting in the window seat next to me how to plug in his earphones, it struck me that an airplane is a really weird place to consume pop culture.
Even if you’re a frequent flyer, a plane is still a foreign setting. When you settle in for a couple of hours of entertainment, you usually do so in a relatively familiar place. Your living room, with the accommodating groove of your worn sofa. Or you head down to the local multiplex, to take in the smell of buttery popped maize. Sitting in a tube in the sky hurtling through space isn’t the first place that pops to mind when I think of watching Kick-Ass 2.
When you decide to watch something on a plane, you’re taking in the film, plus everything going on around it, and you. Gut-wrenching bouts of turbulence that make an episode of Modern Family feel like watching Saw 7, as your stomach turns with the same frequency as the kid kicking the back of your seat. The rarified cabin air, the crying babies, the sexual tension as the stewardesses’ thighs rub against your arm on the aisle seat. Just me? Ok, just me. But still.
Then there are the films you choose to watch on a plane. I doubt anyone has ever thought “Ha. Tree of Life, that seems like a great way to spend this 4 hour flight to Cyprus!”. You tend to watch the things you wouldn’t watch anywhere else, or at the very least things you wouldn’t be comfortable paying to watch anywhere else. For a very long time, this meant I thought Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson only existed on 4:3 screens encrusted into headrests.
Sometimes your viewing pattern is a direct response to your environment. I remember a very bumpy flight from Houston to Newark during hurricane season. The whole flight was packed with college students, who were on their way to a football game, wearing the traditional American teenager-on-a-trip uniform of school sweatshirt, short shorts and flip flops. Half-way through the flight, we hit a very rough patch of turbulence. I did what I always do, and clung desperately to my armrest and repeatedly muttered ‘fuck’ to myself, as a kind of obscene personal lullaby. The kids around me on the plane decided the right course of action was to shriek “Oh my god!” both nasally and at the top of their lungs, the way only American girls from the Midwest can. Obviously, this didn’t help calm me down, so I frantically went through my entertainment options, selected an episode of Friends, and tried to go to a happy place with Chandler. Turns out Chandler isn’t much help when you’re convinced you’re going to die.
But even on a normal flight, there something odd about the fact that hundreds of people are each watching something different. In a confined space. At the same time. Once you hear someone guffaw to your right, you can’t resist glancing at their screen. Watching films on airplanes encourages voyeurism.
And then there’s the crying. I cry at everything I watch in an aircraft. The same way tomato juice only exists on planes, people only cry at crappy movies at 30,000 feet. It’s something to do with cabin pressure, and definitely has nothing to do with me being a little girl.
Oh, and the best part of all is when you’re in the middle of a scene and you’re all excited because Liam Neeson is about to kill 28 Albanians with his new Nokia smartphone, and you get a big sign across your screen saying PA, followed by a nasal voice shouting “cabin crew prepare for landing.” And you just know that those words mean you’re going to miss the end of your film as they switch off the entertainment system. And there’s no way I’m paying to finish Taken 2 in a movie theater.