What I Learn From Watching Others Watch Movies on the Plane

The 2018 Movie Club: Entry 14.

Rachel Weisz sand Rachel McAdams in Disobedience.
Rachel Weisz sand Rachel McAdams in Disobedience. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bleeker Street.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin CollinsAmy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Dear all,

I’m writing to you, finally, from back in New York, where I cannot confirm whether my cats missed me but sense that my bed definitely did, and it was mutual. It’s funny you mention re-watching, Dana, as that’s what any flight equipped with seatback screens and, especially on longer flights, plentiful movie options gives you a chance to do, whether you want to or not. I basically start every flight not wanting to watch a movie—I have a book, I “want to read”—but get sucked in anyway by watching other people.

I don’t know why other peoples’ plane viewing habits fascinate me so. I sense that it has something to do with how simultaneously public and private the act of watching a movie on a plane is. Sure, you’re sitting among strangers in movie theaters, but you’ve all landed in front of the same screen. Whereas on a plane, the entertainment is one on one. You’re sitting there, you’ve made a choice about the most painless way to spend the next two hours, and if I’m in the vicinity, I get to see you live with that choice, which means being aware of your boredom, fascination, sleepiness, or what have you, at least so far as you express these things outwardly.

It’s not data; it doesn’t really mean anything. But I cannot tell you how much fun I have, for example, watching people navigate the problem of sex scenes on planes (which I avoid, why add unnecessary stress to my life?). On my flight home from North Carolina, someone had chosen Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience, the Orthodox Jewish lesbian love story starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams that dropped earlier this year. I don’t know whether this person knew there’d be racy sex in the movie. All I know is that just after we landed, when the lights popped on in the plane, one Rachel began to go down on the other, and a guy sitting across the aisle from the screen was so distracted by this image that even as the rest of us started gathering our things and shuffling along, he sat unmoving. His flustered seatmate had to scold him to get going. So—I tip my hat to the Rachels.

I, meanwhile, re-watched Ocean’s 8 over the shoulder of someone in front of me—no sound, but a perfect view—and confirmed that the movie is still just OK, and that I don’t mind that, per some complaints, it makes the heist itself too easy. This isn’t really a heist movie in the respected genre sense; this is an excuse to get a whole lot of charisma in one room and give it a nice ball of plot to play with. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies were surprising for managing to surpass that with increasingly convoluted plots and wink upon wink about the star power the movie had amassed; they were strange for managing, still, to be thrilling, effective heist movies on top of that. But I don’t mind someone else stepping in to say meh to the heist in favor of just chilling with the stars.

The movie’s problem, if it has a “problem”—it’s perfectly fine!— is that it’s just not making the most use of its stars. And the casting doesn’t quite have the right energy. The film is really just a composite of the actresses’ faces, one by one, getting off their good lines and back-and-forths until another establishing shot tells us we’re in a different room, with different people, getting off more of those good lines. The heist, though not unfun, is a pretense to make that happen in as many variations as possible, to say nothing of coming up with a plot that has Cate Blanchett stride around the screen in black leather and Rihanna flippantly tossing her nest of dreadlocks over her shoulder every once in a while. I’m fine with that. But what about Mindy Kaling? Her persona was wickedly underserved here. So was Sarah Paulson’s. So was Awkwafina’s. Helena Bonham Carter’s luscious strangeness was tapped a little, I guess, but I’d have loved to see her get to play more of a Helen Mirren–style alpha in a movie like this. Why doesn’t Helena Bonham Carter get more of the queen-emoji stan treatment on the internet (and in criticism, to be honest) we see other actresses of her stature getting? It can’t be due to a lack of roles or relevance.

Speaking of queens: The queen of Ocean’s 8 is Anne Hathaway. I see no room for dispute, really. It’s the kind of role I love for Anne—an “I’ve read your thinkpieces, yawn” role, a “Surprise, bitch!” role. It’s a juicy, vain, flashy performance, the kind that benefits from all those medium shots where she’s the sole focus of what’s on-screen—because isn’t that exactly how her character would want it? She radiates outward, all long neck and self-interest. It’s wonderful. Compared to her, equally vivid actresses like Kaling and Awkwafina feel like they’ve been tasked with reining it in, tamping down the qualities that make them odd and interesting. It’s true that such a large cast has to have roles calibrated to get the chemistry right. But this movie’s various energies just aren’t getting a chance to flourish. You don’t need to watch the film with sound—or in a theater!—to notice that.

But enough about the biggest disappointment. Dana asked about the biggest pleasant surprise. Truthfully, besides being taken aback at how much I adored First Man (I’m OK with La La Land and eh on Whiplash) and how much I was swept away by the first 45 minutes of A Star Is Born, there almost were no surprises. Among the directors to release films this year, a handsome chunk were among the people whose work excites and interests me most right now: Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Josephine Decker, Spike Lee, Peyton Reed, Paul Schrader, Lynne Ramsay, the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Debra Granik, David Lowery, Orson Welles, Lee Chang Dong, Tamara Jenkins, Andrew Bujalski, Marielle Heller, Lucrecia Martel, Clint Eastwood, Claire Denis, Barry Jenkins, Hong Sang-Soo, Brian Taylor, Ava DuVernay, Bruno Dumont, Travis Wilkerson, Matthew Porterfield, Alice Rohrwacher, Frederick Wiseman, Patrick Wang, Errol Morris, Chloé Zhao.

I list them in full to point out how special it is that none of them (or at most one) completely struck out. Everyone did something of merit that I had to sit with for a while. That’s obviously pleasant; should it be a surprise?

As for what from 2018 will be carried with me far into the future—some things are safe bets. I love space movies, and I love big, smart entertainments, so I know I’m going to watch First Man a bunch in the future. I know I’m going to revisit Lynne Ramsay’s dark, astonishingly nimble, and dreamy You Were Never Really Here again and again, probably as a double feature with the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, my favorite film of 2017. I know I’m going to return to the magic of Happy as Lazzaro, as I already feel that pang, and Support the Girls, a movie that can be watched over and over (like all Bujalski movies—I am HANKERING for a Computer Chess re-watch soon.)

But it’s hard to see into the future. I started my 2019 movie year off with Gremlins, however, so all roads point to the future being bright.


Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.