Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)Why, with the sands of life rushing down the chute of the past with ever increasing volume, am I watching and writing about the likes of this? I watched it because it came up on one of my lists, and it came up on one of my because Roger Ebert really likes it. And I am writing about it because it suggested enough things to me to fill a short blog post, which some admitted sickness is causing me to desire to produce on a consistent basis, to what purpose I have lost all sense of. The force I have allowed the medium to exert on me has taken over my will for the time being anyway.
As I have written before, I use five or six standard movie reference books to make up the lists of classics that I then watch. While I like Roger Ebert as a writer, including his blog, he is by far the most generous film rater among the major critics, so his book is the last one I go to, and only when the movies my system generates for the other ones are all ones I have seen within the past five or so years. When this turned up I wasn't terribly excited, but, I hadn't seen it, it was set in a time that I have very clear memories of but don't revisit very often anymore, even in music, and I was somewhat curious to see why Roger Ebert, who is a more respected figure in the film criticism world than I would have thought, considers it a great movie, so all of that made me willing to watch it.
The main observation I have to make about this movie is that it is not only set largely in the deep Midwest, a neighborhood that Hollywood hasn't ventured into much during the last 20 years or so, but it has a thoroughly Midwestern sensibility, which sensibility by the way has so disappeared from mainstream entertainment that I had forgotten that it used to be one of the major strains of the culture, and once I saw it I immediately recognized it. Maybe it doesn't even exist anymore, wiped out by outmigration, brain drain, industrial collapse, etc. Comedy in this sensibility is slow, hokey, earnest and gentle, often dependent on outrageous variations on commonplace situations like crazy taxi drivers! two ordinary guys, one of whom is fat, having to share a single bed in a hotel room! somebody else driving off with your rental car! This kind of humor is largely lost on people from the east coast, but in much of flyover country this film is apparently still much loved, and has become a Thanksgiving classic. Of the principals in the film, John Hughes the director is from the Chicago area; Steve Martin was born in Waco, Texas, though apparently he grew up in California; he certainly seems like he could be a midwestern guy; and John Candy is from Canada, which is more or less the Midwest as a quasi-sovereign nation. Roger Ebert of course is from Champaign, Illinois, which is about as heartland as it gets, so perhaps the movie spoke to him in a way that I might have missed.
This isn't to say I hated it. It's kind of cheerful, escapist, silly. Seeing the clothes and hairstyles and cars and hotel rooms and so on of '87 was fun. John Candy was not a terrible comic talent. I have always had my problems with Steve Martin, but a lot of that is generational, as he is about the same age as my father and his friends and has a lot of the same annoying tics in his expressions and such. I am always glad when I see these kinds of movies that I was a teenager in the 80s and not a 40-year old, which looks like it was an even drearier affair than being a 40-year old in 2010. There are at least other 40 year-olds now I would like to hang out and be friends with in theory. I can't imagine hanging out with any 40 year olds in the 80s. By the same token I would not like, I don't think, to be a teenager now, though I guess I didn't really like it all that much then either.
I've put a few condensed versions of these reviews on Amazon.com. I don't know why. Maybe somebody'll read 'em, I guess.