[1970] Airport

Not Airplane!

Though released only a decade apart, Airplane! and Airport can’t have had themes and motives further from each other. The former, having been released at the onset of the goofy 1980s (think leg warmers and neon) is a comedy of the lightest proportions. The jokes are gimmes and the acting is over but all on purpose and the viewer is supposed to be in on the joke. It’s a smart comedy that way. Airplane is a comedy of comedies, still cited today as a tongue-in-cheek pièce de résistance of modern comedic film. The says it all.

Airport, 1970’s understated drama about fateful night at an airport where everything that can go wrong does, stars an ensemble cast whose stories intertwine in a series of random and intersecting events, all of which seem unconnected but together they both create and solve the main conflict. D.O. Guerrero, played by Van Heflin, is mentally ill, out of work and luck and wants to provide for his wife via insurance fraud. In a laughable amalgam of anachronism he both buys insurance (presumably approved on-site) and boards the plane with his homemade bomb, as the staff are entangled in office politics, the man blows up the plane. These themes are almost too relevant post-9/11. There’s humor here but nothing to the effect of Airplane! Airport is a drama about people and has flown under the radar of modern classics, largely because 1970 was Patton‘s year.

Air travel in film emphasizes missed connections, something that connects Airplane! and Airport, even though all evidence points against it. The setting is normalized either around an airport or on a plane and drama is built-in via strict scheduling. Unlike other forms of transportation, once an airplane embarks, thirty-thousand feet separates two major settings – the eponymous airplane and airport. Luckily, we have communication systems to iterate between the two, but for intents and purposes, 1960s and 1970s air travel provides a ripe setting for this concept of missed connections; the plane being just full or just departed. Lovers can literally be star-crossed, seeing as one of the milieu is closer to the heavens. Both movies excel in this regard, but Airport sets itself apart because drama is so much more compelling than comedy within this environment.

Not that Airplane! is any less successful, but Airport excels because a plane crash has no proxy. Its beginnings, complicated, its climax, usually avoided, and its dénouement, often resolved, either for better or worse. Within Airport‘s context, the intertwining stories feel natural, if not too realistic, allowing an “in” for the average viewer: lots of people have a wacky grandmother or aunt, lots of people have unresolved love issues, lots of people have uncertainty in their job and people questioning their motives. All the time. Airport showcases all of these themes through deft acting and tight scriptwriting through the highly dramatized medium of the aviation industry.

Not only do the themes and settings provide for compelling story, the legendary execution rounds out the quality of Airport. Both Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin had had storied careers up to this point, during and afterward.  One could argue that, like the year 1970 in film, Airport provided an apex for the actors as well. Airport also provided a continued launching point for actress Jacqueline Bisset and legendary Helen Hayes with her second Acting Oscar, almost 40 years after her first. These performances alone earn Airport fair standing as a classic, but agglomerated, Airport becomes legendary.

Which is unfortunate that Patton saw release in the same year. I have argued before that 1970 and Patton in particular provided a massive turning point for how movies are made and viewed. The other movies released in 1970 (MASHFive Easy Pieces and Love Story) along with Airport are unfortunate remnants of one of the greatest movies ever made. That said, Airport (and to an extent Airplane!) has earned a spot in the lore of the modern filmmaking, within or without the tombs of The Academy.

[1951] Quo Vadis

It is beyond the scope of this blog to determine the answer to the question: “Which films, on aggregate, earned nominations for at least one Academy Award and won zero?”

That being said, 1951’s mostly-fictional quasi-epic Quo Vadis is a member of this (maybe) exclusive club for good reason: the movie, good enough; the acting, fair-to-good; the plot, trite, but enjoyable; the overall quality of the film (objectively, of course), mildly entertaining to did-the-editors-go-on-strike? What I’m starting to see over a large enough sample size are patterns starting to emerge: nominations and wins seem to be largely epochal, longer films seem to take precedence, perhaps seen as of higher quality and, as technology becomes more refined, so does The Academy’s attention. Quo Vadis is no exception. On a subjective Likert scale, Quo Vadis rustles little feathers and might qualify somewhere in the average range in almost every category. Sometimes this formula steals an Oscar nomination and sometimes it pilfers a win (largely, in part, due to overall quality of the year) but most times the movie is forgotten quite quickly as “adquate.” Quo Vadis is no exception.

The offensiveness of calling a Christian allusion to title the devilry of moving pictures is somewhat diminished by the double entendre in context. “Quo Vadis?,” in Latin, literally means “Where are you going?” as in, “I feel like I need to know this for some reason.” In Christian tradition, “Quo Vadis?” is more moralistic than it is literal, as is the biblical way: Saint Peter is fleeing probable (definite) crucifixion in Rome and loses courage and conviction, as Jesus arrives, risen, headed in the opposite direction, towards Rome. Saint Peter asks, “Quo Vadis?” as if seeing zombie Jesus wasn’t enough to get him to continue fleeing, to which Jesus, risen, responds, “Romam vado iterum crucifigi,” which, as we know, in English means, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” thereby through some zombie-transitive property fortifying Peter’s ministerial convictions. He eventually returns to Rome to be crucified upside-down, feeling that he does not deserve Jesus’ pre-risen fate in the same manner. The symbolism is many, ephemeral and highly allusive and, again, beyond the scope of this blog, save for its relation to Quo Vadis, the upside-down cross of post-WWII epic films.

Because Quo Vadis is a soap opera drenched in religious and historical-epic motif: some Roman commander, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), meets and falls in love, star-crossed style, with Lygia (Deborah Kerr), in a picaresque and grossly obvious representation of “Rome” and “Christianity.” As a love story, Quo Vadis is fine: our main characters are roguish and illusory and therefore possess lots of qualities that we, as an audience, either possess or wish we possessed. The supporting cast is wildly one-dimensional, with Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) as a buffoonish caricature of the historical version of Nero, who was known for his mild schizophrenia and paranoia. Surprisingly, the performance is not cloying in a distracting way, and his place and position allow the character to take on a wider range of emotion and thought process. But Quo Vadis is still soapish at heart and the backdrop of Rome and Romanism is distracting because of its lack of specifics; Quo Vadis is framed by the whole of the Roman Empire, seen through a myopic lens of 4 years, with very little outside information about historical place or events. Who cares that this is Romanesque? It could have just as well been Babylonian or Greek or some version of Mesopotamia. The religious conflict is well noted, but again, who cares? This could very well have been a Jewish vs. Christian conflict or literally any other conflict. The point is that Quo Vadis just happens to exist and we’re supposed to honor it as an Oscar-worthy film? Continue reading

[1970] Patton

General George S. Patton, Jr. was a real sonofabitch. Ask his superiors; ask his infantrymen; ask the Germans and Italians; ask the Russians. Gen. Patton was the biggest sonofabitch of them all.

George C. Scott was also a real sonofabitch. Physically and intellectually gifted as an actor – with comically ironic roles in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove alongside the many iterations of comedic genius Peter Sellers and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler alongside man’s man Paul Newman – Scott’s most important and visceral role came with his adaptation of the celebrated US Army General in 1970’s Patton.

Here’s the most true assumption of Patton: George S. Patton and George C. Scott, the character and the actor, were not so far apart in reality that for Scott, playing Patton was no more a role than his left arm was an appendage. He carried the weight of one of the United States’ most controversial field generals so convincingly that he even refused the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1970 (for supposed political reasons), something, after having seen the film would not seem so out-of-place for the real-life Patton to have done. For one of the most underrated war dramas (even though it might be the best) the actor was not done acting when the camera stopped. It adds to the mystique of the film.

Patton is best known for its iconic opening scene where we first meet the curmudgeonly field general against an iconic backdrop of an oversized American flag. He is giving a pep talk to a most-likely beaten-down unit of the American army; time is unknown, place is undisclosed, but with his words, Scott is able to set up the viewer’s expectation and limits of his Patton. In the resulting 160+ minutes, no action or reaction is unexpected or . This is not a movie about plot twists and chaotic politicking. The internal narrative, that exclusive look into the character that only the viewer gets to see, is transformed, instead appearing as a history of battle sequences, from the early Peloponnesian triumphs of Ancient Rome to Napoleonic victories of the early 19th century. Because General George S. Patton, you see, was there, not in a figurative sense. It is the courage and immediacy of Scott that we the viewer can see that Patton truly believed he had a very real part in these wars of old. He reads the Bible, it seems, to infuse his very person from it a form of divine battle strategy. There is little doubt that, to him, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, read less as a philosophical treatise and more of a cut-and-dry guide. Perhaps War of War would have been a better title. Continue reading