Virgin America’s epic new in-flight film is intended to be six hours of unremitting tedium, in order to demonstrate how dull any plane journey that is not with Virgin can be. Instead, Have you been flying BLAH airlines? is strangely fascinating. I’ve been mesmerised by it today, which is perhaps taking procrastination to new depths.
It’s filmed in real time, on a plane, with a cast of dummies. Mannequins, that is. Long periods of silence are interrupted by a meet-cute in-flight film-within-the-film with interminably banal dialogue on a communal screen too small to be seen, or by the ruminations of terminally dull fellow passengers, or by a passive-aggressive steward enquiring with hostility barely concealed beneath a veneer of politeness why a passenger hasn’t drunk the coffee he brought.
Here are five things that make it great:
— The blankness of the mannequins. It’s said that when Richard Burton first worked with Elizabeth Taylor on Cleopatra, he complained to the director that while he was giving it his all, she was doing nothing, and the film would be a disaster. The director agreed – but not in the way Burton expected. He showed Burton the rushes, and Burton saw that Taylor was wonderful, luminous, carrying a scene with a single raised eyebrow – while the stage-trained Burton seemed on screen a terrible ham.
Similarly, Clint Eastwood has said that his drama coach used to shout at him, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Billy Wilder once made Jack Lemmon retake a scene 20 times, each time saying “That’s great, but just take it down a notch or two,” until Lemmon burst out, “If I take it down any more, I won’t be acting at all.” Wilder smiled, and said, “Finally, you’re getting the idea.” And a young actor working with Robert De Niro for the first time asked him for tips. The great man thought awhile, and said, “Try not to blink”.
The point is that, on film, less is more. Through the director’s use of lighting and music and framing, the audience will read onto a blank face an enormous depth of emotion. After a while, these mannequins start to seem like wonderful actors.
— The sinisterness of the implied. We are so used to periods of calm and banality in movies being juxtaposed with scenes of horror and violence, that I spent a lot of the film on the edge of my seat. It felt like something awful was always just round the corner.
— It’s totally out to Lynch. David Lynch is the master of the unsettlingly banal (click here to read my four-part interview with Lynch), but this tops him. I spent five minutes staring at a seat-back being rocked back and forth, back and forth, with squeaking noises. It later turned out to be a child – a rather grotesque grinning mannequin child – but had it turned out to be a backwards-talking dwarf I would not have been in the least surprised.
— It shows how powerful the score can be. At one point driving, energetic music begins, and it totally changes the mood of the film. It turns out to be from another passenger with leaky headphones, but you half-expect Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson to burst through with a gun.
— Boring dialogue can be really funny. Tarantino is the master of this: think conversations about foot-rubs, European burgers, or Madonna songs. My favourite bit in the Virgin film is the diatribe by the dullest passenger on how terrible it is there is too much choice in modern life – so many things on the Starbucks menu when you just want a coffee.
That’s one of my obsessions, too. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit in Alex Cox’s Repo Man when they go into a corner shop, and on the shelves are rows and rows of tins all labelled “FOOD”, and in the fridge, cans all labelled “BEER”. Sometimes, when I’m feeling overloaded, I’ll go into a pub, and just ask for beer. They say what kind, and I say “beer”. Even as to whether it’s lager or bitter, I say “beer”. They eventually give me something. It always tastes good.
And maybe that’s at the heart of the movie’s curious appeal. With dozens of TV channels, endless programmes on demand, millions of videos on YouTube, and faster and faster editing in Hollywood films, all piling sensation onto sensation in the race to grab our precious eyeballs if only for a short few minutes, to watch something deliberately slow and pointless feels strangely refreshing.