Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Back when I was just a naïve youngster — I say “No comment” to the rumor that I turned 50 last week — I thought that using the world “airline” as an adnoun to create the phrase “airline movie” told you nothing about the movie itself.  It appeared to be strictly a geographic designation, a movie that happened to be shown in a particular locale.  We knew that erotic scenes were removed, but otherwise assumed it was the same flick.  I learned just how wrong I was back in the early Nineties when I saw Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman at the theater, then got to glance at it periodically during a transatlantic flight on now-defunct TWA.

The climactic scene of the film is a great oration by Pacino delivered uninvited to a school disciplinary board that was pondering the fate of his young assistant, who faced the possible loss of his diploma over a juvenile prank he and a rich friend had pulled on the principal.  The wealthy family of the other boy was going to bribe their child’s way out of trouble by giving a large donation.  When I saw Pacino striding to the podium on the airplane screen, I quickly picked up my headphones to catch his classic delivery.
In that speech he uses bathos effectively, making high-minded points with lofty rhetoric, and then suddenly deriding the discrimination against the poorer boy as “a crock of s***”.  When I listened again on the airplane, ready for this powerful moment, I was jolted to hear Pacino’s own voice saying it was “a crock of crap”.  Apparently moviemakers were sensitive to the distinction between theatergoers by choice and air travelers, giving the latter modified doses of vulgarity.
Over the years, airlines have done a fairly good job of policing themselves, in conjunction with Hollywood self-censorship like Pacino’s redoing that line, in the area of erotic images and crude language.  One friend of this column, Isaac Mitnick of New York, did have a run-in some years ago with flight attendants over beach scenes he did not deem appropriate for his children’s viewing.  He simply stood up and turned off the projector, daring anyone to challenge him physically.  At 6’2”, 260, he cast an imposing figure.  The staff stormed and passengers pouted, but he got his way.  Still, this case was the exception, not the rule.
Now, another friend of this column, Ms. Amy Bearmon of Seattle, has become the lightning rod in an important new angle of this issue.  As American cinema has become progressively more adept at showing violence with stark realism, the images have gone way beyond what any sane parent would prescribe for their child.  A movie does not have to be classified as Horror to include a quick glimpse of a severed hand, of intestines pushing out of a stomach wound or of an ear being bitten off.  I doubt that all adults would agree that such realism is necessary, but presumably there are enough who either enjoy it or tolerate it.
You would think that everyone could agree that such scenes are not appropriate fare for children.  It hardly constitutes pampering or squelching a child when parents protect them from the sight of gore.  There will be enough time to teach our impressionable youth that the world is a harsh place without subjecting them to ghoulish depictions.
Ms. Bearmon, who was a high-tech exec before taking some years off in her mid-thirties to do some hands-on mothering, was on a United flight earlier this month from Seattle to Cleveland via Chicago.  The in-flight movie was The Great Debaters, a feel-good movie about getting young minority students to maximize their intellectual potential.  Thematically, that seemed ideal.  But she was shocked when there was a scene showing a lynching victim dangling from the end of the rope with a raw, bloody body that looked to have been flayed by whipping.
She raised a ruckus and demanded that it be turned off immediately.  Her young son and daughter did not need to be exposed to such gruesomeness.  She was told that her children could look away.  Not hardly, she countered, when there are drop-down screens in front of every seat.  She did not get much satisfaction on the plane, but she was not prepared for what happened when the plane touched down on its first leg in Chicago.  Airline brass showed up to greet the plane and remove her.  She was not allowed to proceed to Cleveland or return home on any United flight.
While she makes the rounds on the conservative talk shows, we should take a moment to participate in righting this wrong.  Various family organizations are banding together to challenge the airlines on this and we should help.  Jesse Kalisher’s website can be a valuable resource in this fight.  This is what Americans do: we make war if necessary so our children can have peace.