Thursday, February 21, 2019


by Erika Bromley and Patrick Bromley
A is for "Aw, shucks, there are so many movies to watch."

Erika and I are trying to fill in the gaps in our shared movie knowledge, and we fortunately have a substantial library of DVDs and Blu-rays to help us in this (fun) process. It’s with this in mind that Erika suggested a new column called “Shelf Life,” in which we each pick a title from our collection that’s new to one or both of us and work our way through the entire alphabet. We kicked things off last week with two numeric titles. This week, the letter “A.”
Erika: I expect that I’m going to have a tough time choosing my title every week! I have seen so much... yet we own even more than that between both of our collecting habits (and the fact that you’ve been reviewing discs since 2004 and have received truckloads as a result!). Airplane! caught my eye right away this week. It’s a beloved comedy that people are often *shocked!* I have not seen. In college especially, any time someone found out I had not seen it, he/she would say, “But you love movies!” as if being a dedicated movie lover means you have to see EVERYTHING by age 22.

I knew so many of the lines just by being alive for the past 30 plus years, but I’m glad I finally caught up with it for real. It was so fun to watch Leslie Nielsen in this famous role (I really knew his lines from being alive for the past 30 years), and Julie Hagerty and Robert Hayes won me over with their sweet and silly performances as former loves trying to save the day (flight). I laughed out loud quite a bit, but I also cringed twice as much! This movie is 1980 to the max in that its subtle and not-so-subtle racism and sexism are worn right on its sleeve and are the set-up for many a joke, but I’m guessing mainstream audiences in 1980 (and throughout the decade) barely noticed. In 2019, it’s impossible not to notice. But there are soooo many jokes and references and bits of parody that I still enjoyed the ones that didn’t offend. And the fun sight gags are still amusing, but wow -- they have been heavily borrowed and copied since 1980, right? Seeing this movie 29 years after audiences fell in love with it reminded me of how art builds and borrows and creates and crashes...and then it starts all over again. Everything is cyclical, but the era (era) in which art is created sometimes determines how it holds up over time, don't you think?

This was a re-watch for you, P. How did it hold up for you?

Patrick: I didn’t grow up an Airplane! guy. I saw the movie when I was young and have certainly heard it quoted my entire life, but it wasn’t one of those comedies that was formative to my sensibilities the way I know it was for so many people we meet who still cite it as the funniest movie they’ve ever seen. I’ve always liked what it did for big-screen comedy in terms of creating the whole Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker approach to staging nonstop gags and the idea that no joke -- seriously, like, no joke -- is too stupid or beneath them. But Airplane! has also never made me laugh that much. That’s probably just a matter of perspective, really. I’ll bet I laugh as much or more in Airplane! as I do in most comedies, but because there are so many jokes in the movie, the number of times I actually find one funny is disproportionate to the number of attempts.
You mention how much we both enjoyed Leslie Nielsen in the movie (his constant wishing Robert Hayes and Julie Hagerty luck -- even after they’ve landed -- is one of my favorite jokes), and we had to remind ourselves that this was his first real comedic performance. We grew up on him as Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun! Movies, so our frame of reference is of him as a comic actor. But (and I could be wrong here) his turn in Airplane! was more of a revelation at the time. He and Lloyd Bridges were my two favorite performances in the movie, because they seem the most at home in the genre that’s being parodied while still being totally straight faced. Except for when they’re sniffing glue.

Erika: This film parodies myriad 1970s films, such as 1970’s Airport. Have you seen many of the films lampooned in Airplane!?

Patrick: Not many. I’ve never been super into disaster movies, and have only seen a few in recent years because of how much JB enjoys them and talks them up. I know there are a handful of things in Airplane! that are funnier if you speak the language of ‘70s disaster movies, but it’s not really necessary to know them for the movie to work as a comedy first. Are you a disaster movie fan? And how have we not talked about this ever in 20 years together?
Erika: We have been very busy talking about other important things, like Ryan Gosling and Sigourney Weaver and Idris Elba and Jennifer Jason Leigh (remember when you chose her as your favorite?) and pizza and Ethan Hunt and Kristen Stewart and climate change and Barbara Bouchet and William Powell and Triple H and Rollergirl and schmoopiness and black leather gloves and… what were we talking about?

Patrick: Sorry to have brought up climate change in the middle of all those crushes. It was a real buzzkill. Back to the schmoops.

Erika: I can’t say I’m a huge disaster movie fan, but I think that’s because it’s a genre with a lot of gaps for me. But I love Armageddon (1998). (Side note: I don’t know if I love Armageddon. I have not seen it in 20 years, but P and I have a great story surrounding our special viewing of it on opening night, when we got the theater to ADD ANOTHER SHOWING because all times had sold out already! And other friendship schmoopy stuff we’ve probably already covered on a podcast!) I have a soft spot for Twister (1996) because I had my first car by then (readers, ask Patrick about that car sometime), and I was excited to be able to drive myself to the movies and see just about anything I wanted to see! And the marketing of that movie made it very ‘important,’ so this high schooler who loved movies felt very independent going to see it. I have never seen The Towering Inferno (1974) or Earthquake (also from 1974?) but would love to. I’ve never seen Airport 1975 (also from… ‘74? Is this a theme?), and I probably should just for Karen Black!

In 2000, I really enjoyed The Perfect Storm. But, again, I haven’t seen it in over a decade, so do I still love it? Vulture ran a piece about disaster movies, and they had Melancholia near the top. Does that count? That’s a film I didn’t LOVE -- but really liked -- when I saw it. I have thought about it many times since then, though, and I think a re-watch might make me love it. I think I've turned this piece in to my Letterboxd wish list.

Airplane! is definitely a movie of its time/generation. I don’t think my current high school students would find most of it funny, though some of the so-stupid-they’re-funny lines likely would elicit some laughs. (I do have a few students who love it; they all have a parent who loves it and introduced them to it.) Our kids – ages ten and six – caught interest as you and I were watching and laughed out loud at many sight gags and line deliveries, however. I don’t know if they understood the meanings of the jokes, and I know they didn’t get any of the references, but they laughed at the silliness, and I guess that never goes out of style. It made the overall viewing experience even better knowing our kids willingly joined in (though watching with you all schmoopy on the couch was already good enough).
Patrick: I feel bad for feeling proud when our kids laugh at some stupid pratfall, only because I’m usually laughing at the same thing. You’re so tolerant of my love for people getting hit or falling down.

Erika: Ohmygod it’s the best. You laughing so hard makes me laugh hard.

Patrick: Now that you’ve finally seen Airplane!, do you feel like you finally understand what all the fuss is about? At least you will no longer disappoint early ‘80s movie bros.

Erika: Sure! I get it, it’s fun (mostly), and I laughed a lot. ‘70s disaster movies are definitely a blind spot for me, and while I’d love to see every movie ever made, those films are not at the TOP of my list. Maybe a reader can recommend some to me to help me get started, though.

Patrick: Once again, our picks are at totally opposite ends of the spectrum but not at all by design (we each make our picks independently of each other). I went with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, because I’ve never seen a Fassbinder movie. Does The Snowman count? Just kidding! I’ve never seen The Snowman.
I also picked the movie because it appears in one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books, and one of several lists we are working our way through (in addition to the AFI top 100 and all of Walter Hill’s filmography) is that list of 300 Great Movies -- or, at least, the ones at least one or both of us haven’t seen. We got to pull double duty with Ali. For those of you who have never seen it, the movie is a loose remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows focusing on an older woman and a Moroccan immigrant who fall in love in early 1970s Germany, much to the anger and disgust of almost everyone around them. It’s a slow, sad movie about loneliness and bigotry, but it was never less than compelling and never difficult to watch the way some movies like this can be.

Erika: I could not agree more. I was completely engrossed in this movie from start to finish.

Brigitte Mira plays Emmi, an older German widow who one night enters a bar frequented by Moroccan immigrants living in Germany temporarily as guest workers. Emmi sits alone, and from the start, her presence evokes empathy: here is a woman, who to society in general is “past her prime,” but who confidently sits alone and is content to enjoy her drink and the music despite every other person in attendance glaring at her like she’s out of place. She’s been through enough of life that I’m guessing she can’t be bothered by reactions like this. Here is where a seemingly mean-spirited waitress ‘dares’ one of the workers, Ali (played by El Hedi Hedi ben Salem, who in real life had a fascinating and heartbreaking story including that he dated Fassbinder for a time; more on that later), to ask her for a dance. He accepts, and Emmi accepts. What happens next was not expected by anyone and sets the story in motion. But no spoilers! Or should we spoil?

I really didn’t know what to expect from this film, but I loved it. I loved the quietness in which it moves - the way it takes it’s time from scene to scene. Though I suppose their relationship seems rushed, the movie moves at an unhurried pace and lets the audience absorb its simplicity in character and story. Emmi and Ali connect so easily, and their love seems to come from a place of understanding and acceptance. Yet it is challenged -- by friends, family, society -- and at one point, I thought for sure they were not going to end up together. Again, I don’t want to spoil too much here, but they have a final scene that is so lovely in its honesty and forgiveness that the audience is left feeling both gutted and filled with love and hope. Isn’t that life?

Of course I’m fixated on the love, but I’d be remiss to not mention how modern and topical this film feels today in terms of racial issues, the working class, immigration, and housing. Did you think about any of that while watching, P?
Patrick: I like what the movie has to say about relationships, and that bad things can happen but that doesn’t mean love is no longer worth fighting for. There’s a pragmatism about the way the characters approach life that feels very real -- they’re in love not because it’s convenient, but because they choose to approach obstacles like grown ups and not the infantilized constructs of so many Hollywood romances.

Speaking of which, I found myself being so moved at the very idea that we were watching a romance about these two specific adults, because it’s the kind of thing we almost never seen on screen. Case in point: there’s a movie that exists about Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston falling in love called Love Happens. This is a movie that got made.

Erika: Is it nap time?

Patrick: I once thought I watched half of it until I realized I had just been staring at a bowl of vanilla ice cream for 45 minutes. Characters like the ones found in Ali are infinitely more interesting because they’ve lived lives and understand the reality that the world can be a terrible place. Happiness has to be seized wherever it can be found. I loved all the stuff about race and class that was painted in the margins of the movie, but above all else I was moved that it dared be a romance between two people who have found one another against near impossible odds. And they make it work.

Erika: Can we talk about the color palette and the cinematography? I loved so many of the shots and camera movements. I love the way characters are framed; sometimes it felt like I was watching a diorama (I mean that in the best way). The aesthetic of this film works for me, and I’m excited to seek out more of his work just because of how this one looks! I’m dying to see All That Heaven Allows now, too. Have you already seen it?

Side note: how did he film this in 15 days? Organization and good planning, I guess!

Patrick: The answer? German Engineering.

I have seen All That Heaven Allows (it’s maybe the only Douglas Sirk movie I’ve seen), but I will gladly watch it again with you. And we don’t even have to wait until we come back around to the A’s to do it!

The filmmaking was fascinating in that it’s beautiful and very stylized but never flashy or showy. The aesthetic is almost drab at times, but the framing is (as you point out) so deliberate and the choices so specific that it’s a gorgeous movie that doesn’t call attention to itself as such.
Erika: Ali tells Emmi that “Fear eats the soul” is a common phrase in his culture. (And isn’t it the truth?) After learning more about the making of the movie and Fassbinder’s relationship with Salem, I wonder if some of the themes Fassbinder’s working with here are a result of the regret he felt over his relationship with Salem. We read (where did we read this?) that Fassbinder and Salem had a tumultuous relationship and eventually broke up, and that when Salem found himself in some trouble, Fassbinder and some friends sort of came to Salem’s rescue. People who knew Fassbinder well said that he never really got over Salem, and that when Salem later committed suicide in a French prison, the friends kept the news from Fassbinder until much later, which coincidentally was not long before he died of a drug overdose at age 37. Am I remembering this all correctly? I recently read that Fassbinder was married to a woman -- and possibly another after that -- as well as in his relationships with men. He lived a lot in such a short time.

Patrick: I don’t know that I ever realized how many movies Fassbinder made in his abbreviated career, so we have a lot of catching up to do. We have a few more of his films in our collection, so we can both keep him in mind when we get to those letters of the alphabet in future columns.

Erika: Deal. See you next week for Letter B!

Patrick: Not if I see you first. I will! We're married. You are stuck with me.


  1. Fun fact (which you probably already knew): Airplane! is basically a remake of a 50's movie called Zero Hour!, just with added jokes. Even a lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from that. Here's a nifty little comparison of the two on YouTube.

  2. Despite my resolutions to do so, I have not delved into Fassbinder's filmography. (The number of films he made is greater than the years he lived.) ALI is one of the few I have watched. VERONIKA VOSS is another one I enjoyed, another film that shows Fassbinder's love of Hollywood melodramas.

    I have waited years for TCM to get around to a Fassbinder retrospective, but that has not happened yet.