In-Flight Movies and the Captive Audience

My in-flight movie screen on United Airlines flight from Frankfurt to Houston--
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (1939)
I have a confession to make-- I have never seen Gone with the Wind. Sure, I know the basic plot summary and context surrounding the production, and have seen important sections of the film and those many iconic clips that are routinely played at the Oscars almost every year, but much like my relative dislike for James Cameron movies (i.e. Titanic (1997) or more recently Avatar (2009)), I prefer to engage with these kinds of movies on a “need to know for the purposes of film history” kind of level.

In the case of Gone with the Wind (1939), I have held a particular aversion to the film for the combination of its length (3.5 hours) and its melodramatic take on the American civil war—watching Scarlet O’Hara played by Vivien Leigh makes me squirm and I much prefer the hilarious send up of the actress’s performance made famous by Carol Burnett in a skit many claim is the best ever in comic television (see YouTube clip below). Normally, I will only invest that kind of time and focused attention on epic films of the Kubrick Spartacus (1960) or Coppola Godfather (1972) variety. But it is amazing what a 10.5 hour flight and a drained battery on my Kindle will do to force a change in viewing habits.

Getting to my seat on a United Airlines flight from Frankfurt to Houston yesterday, I was thrilled to discover a new state-of-the-art personal entertainment system that was preloaded with hundreds of new release, foreign, independent and classic films like Citizen Cane (1941), Casablanca (1942), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to name but a few. Call it captive audience syndrome, but with serious time to kill and nowhere to reasonably escape, I quickly resolved to finally watch Gone With the Wind in its entirety--what the heck I thought, I am on my way to George Bush Airport in the deep South after all-- and assembled my list for an impromptu DIY film festival.

View from my seat
As I settled in and sat watching the films and the time ticked by, there was something a bit disturbing about seeing dozens of people watching individual movies on individual mini movie screens on the flight; the eerie glow on many jet-lagged faces in their own little worlds with complimentary drinks and pretzels in hand. I remember when in-flight movie screenings felt more like going to the traditional movie theatre, and the collective laughter and sense of communal viewing made watching the films feel like all of us were enduring the length and boredom of the long flight together. The films themselves were usually unimportant (and often quite bad) and it was more a tool to clock the flight’s duration. The new entertainment systems however are much more reflective of our current culture of TV and film viewing, which increasingly atomizes the experience based on personal taste and time preferences. In my case, I tempered the 3.5 hours of Gone With the Wind with 3 hours of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and a couple of episodes of some hilarious TV show from Japan that I will likely never see again. Somehow this balanced things out and made the whole experience OK. But with the eventual adoption of Internet access to international flights in the months and years to come (already available on many US continental flights today) and the increasing ability to bring one’s own entertainment on board via the iPad and netbook, I am left wondering if the in-flight movie will disappear altogether?

Carol Burnett Show and the classic TV skit Went With the Wind (1970's)-- this is part one of two parts, enjoy!