Travel and Enlightenment, Part Three

Flying business class is bad for the soul. I really believe that. It invariably turns a person like me — an avowed, all-power-to-some-of-the-people liberal — into someone who feels a little too good about herself since life has suddenly given her more legroom. It’s deplorable.

Deplorable and, again, bad for the soul — but good lord, but it’s great for the body. That’s why I try to upgrade every chance I can get on long, trans-ocean flights. I can always work on my unenlightened soul later, I figure, after the plane has landed. I am at an age when my soul is a lot more malleable than my body.

So, there I was, having wormed and certificated my way into business class, flying from Rome to Chicago. I read my book — The Man Who Saved the Union, H.W. Brands’ excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant, to be precise — till my eyes began to cross.

Looking around, I noticed everybody else in business class was watching movie videos. I guessed that this was why you no longer have fascinating conversations with seatmates, since everybody is running his own, personal movie universe, but whatever. After I finally figured out how to turn on the audio, I joined the rest of them.

Here’s what’s odd — and strangely communal — about it: If you’re willing to crane your neck and get really brazen and shameless, you can see most of the other passengers’ screens. You know what they’re watching, what they’ve picked out, how they’re choosing to spend their time. It doesn’t take the place of a good conversation, but it’s its own odd form of modern-day communication.

Catti-corner to me, a woman’s screen showed a scene very familiar to me: A ship is passing by the Statue of Liberty, as its passengers stare silently at the towering figure. Look, there’s a very young Vito Andolini, soon to be renamed Corleone! It’s The Godfather, Part 2, one of my favorite movies on earth or in the skies — along with its predecessor, of course — which I have watched often enough to be a little embarrassed by it and realize I take a little too seriously, but that’s the way it goes.

I hadn’t seen the movie in ages — i.e., for at least a year — so, I knew I had to watch it again. I cued it up and sank back into the seat. That’s where the semi-public aspect of this individual movie-viewing became stranger. The guy next to me had awakened from a deep slumber, torn off his sleep mask, and plunged into watching Django Unchained, which was a perfectly good movie, but no Godfather or anything. So, I mostly watched my own movie and mused about the fact that had Francis Ford Coppola and the Corleone family been Southern Baptists, much of movie’s intertwined splendor, ritual and gore would have suffered greatly. Face it: Catholics know how to put on a show.

I tried to concentrate, but it was hard, since I practically had the movie memorized already, and besides, the woman catti-corner to me was displaying what would be going on in 45 minutes. (“I know it was you, Fredo! You broke my heart! You broke my heart!“)

But I persisted. The Catti-Corner woman finished Part Two, the guy next to me enjoyed his Django bloodbath, and overhead, The Life of Pi started up. By the time Fredo was sleeping with the fishes on my screen, the Catti-Corner Woman had cranked up Godfather, Part One, the guy next to me was glued to some lightweight comedy — revealing he wasn’t a serious cineaste, which I found a little embarrassing — and I was plunged into a dilemma. What now? I was too tired to read, too tired to sleep, I’d just seen Godfather One a few months ago and, besides, who wants to be a total cultural copycat?

Forget it. I chose one of my other all-time favorite movies, Chinatown, and tried to ignore the fact Roman Polanski, the film’s director, was a child molestor. It’s still such a stunning movie, engrossing, beautifully written, wonderfully acted, and John Huston wins my vote for the creepiest film villain ever. “I don’t get tough, Mr. Gittes. My lawyer does,” Faye Dunaway tells Jack Nicholson in a world-weary line I am still hoping to use in my own life.

On Chinatown, the illicit waters flowed, the trumpet wailed softly, and the darkness gathered. John Huston revealed that, “See Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of … anything!” I wondered briefly whether a film without a felon as a director could have featured such a brilliantly chilling line.

Catti-corner, even though I couldn’t hear him, Brando was announcing that, “Tattaglia is a pimp!” after one of my favorite scenes in which the mafia chieftains embrace. On both screens, the guns blazed and the blood exploded, and the pilot announced we were making our initial descent into Chicago.

“You made it through both the Godfathers,” I mentioned to the Catti-Corner Woman as we exited. “I am so impressed. I only made it through the second one.”

An 11-hour flight in business class, and that was the only conversation I had with anyone. We left the plane, both of us humming the same song. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to think, since communication is good for the soul, even when you’re in business class.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read more revelations from a highly imperfect traveler


14 comments… add one
  • Well, you have made me feel completely justified in the fact that we decided to upgrade to business class for our next trans-Atlantic flight. I probably won’t watch the Godfather though. I might have nightmares.

  • So glad that Fifty Shades of Gray hasn’t been made into a movie yet:-)

  • I always wondered what it was like in business class. Thank you for the refreshing introduction.

  • I always use the excuse to upgrade on my long legs and need to stretch them out. But really, it’s nice…no matter what the reason. Love this line: I am at an age when my soul is a lot more malleable than my body.

  • I haven’t flown by air in a long while. The last time I did, I watched Super 8 and then, yes, the latest Transformers movie (so I could chat with my older son about it – the things you do as a mother). We landed before I finished it, though. I never did find out how it ended!

  • How did you get into business class? I’m sure there’s a story in that.

  • I’ve only flown first class once and it was an entirely different experience than the regular, cramped seats. Sadly, my daughter was young at the time and didn’t appreciate the cushy seats (this was pre-TV on every surface)–she screamed during the entire take off. Let me tell you, that doesn’t impress the other business class passengers.

  • We’ve only had one trans Atlantic flight and wished we could have upgraded. I had the guy in front of me in my lap, because he was leaned back, the entire flight including during the meal service. And there was a kid running up and down the aisle screaming for at least 3 hours of it. The movie couldn’t even distract me. 🙂

  • Whenever I’ve gotten an upgrade, it’s been one of those planes where first class is essentially exactly the same as coach. It’s maddening!

  • I remember a coach flight from Rio de Janeiro to Dallas. The woman in front of me immediate leaned her seat back and refused to move it up when the flight attendant delivered my meal. How could I eat? The tray wouldn’t fit. The flight attendant eventually prevailed and the seat recliner huffily raised her seat up – a tad. That’s why I will upgrade, maybe even sell my soul, to fly business class or at least economy plus on international flights.

  • I upgrade to business class every chance I get when flying trans-Atlantic. But since I’m such a movie buff and have seem most everything, it’s the food and the comfort that I crave.

  • Craig Link

    My poor poor Ruth…
    What’s to be said now of our days
    behind the barricades?
    The creaking you hear behind
    the curtained class divider –
    it’s only me; put your ear buds in

  • Interesting contradiction here–I’ve read that one of the reasons electronic books have become so popular is that when you’re reading on a subway or plane, nobody knows what you’re reading. However, on the plane–everyone knows. They’re not offering x-rated of course, but the other ratings go out the window if there are younger people on board. Interesting.

  • Who knew there was such a panoply of cinema in business class? Thanks for the fun report.

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