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)
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