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Thursday, October 3 

20:30 (AEST), Melbourne Airport

My flight leaves in less than an hour. Boarding has begun, but my zone has not yet been called. A teary good bye to Sylvie and a heated phone call to Emirates about a flight change are just behind me.

For the next 24 hours, I will be airborne, as I cross the planet. A brief stopover in Dubai will be the only respite from this constant state of propulsion, before I am dropped off in Nice. From there, the railways beckon: to Verona first, and then Pordenone, a small town to the north of Venice which, for one week a year, is transformed into the kingdom of shadows.

But it is not about Pordenone’s Giornate del Cinema Muto that I will write about here. Instead, these diary entries will concern themselves with a sensory experience that is both the opposite of and unerringly similar to attendance at a film festival. For what do we do, when we embark on a long-haul flight (and I am about to embark on one of the longest-haul flights possible), but transform our cramped seat into a mini-film festival? Where else but on a plane do we so assiduously recreate the conditions of the festival: the binge-watching of an inordinate number of films back-to-back, the uncomfortable seating, the immersion in the crowd, the erratic alternation between wakeful viewing and dream-imbued slumber? People are astonished when festival reporters confess to watching five or six films in a 24-hour period, but who refrains from doing precisely this when encased in their airborne javelin?

So this is my project: to report on my flight as if it were a festival. In the long, unyielding night ahead of me, I will issue regular updates on the film program that Emirates has curated for me. And as I have hoped to do in the past with festival reports, my aim is not only to give an evaluation of the audiovisual objects that happen to cross my gaze, but also to give you, patient reader, an idea of the lived experience (the vecu) of watching the films in the conditions in which I will have done so. Truly, viewing films in a plane is a unique perceptual experience. Strangely, however, and in spite of the fact that it is such a common practice among the rootless middle classes of the Western world (I would even hazard to say that in countries such as Australia and the USA, more films are seen on the plane than in the cinema), it is a practice that has barely been discussed by those of us who see it as their vocation to write on the cinema – whether as critics, theorists or cultural historians. As I embark on these scribblings, then, I am aware that I am leaping into the void.

21:30, Melbourne Airport

I have now taken my seat (a window seat, close to the front of the plane). A middle-aged man has just occupied the aisle seat in my row. Dare I harbour the wish that the middle seat remains free? It is the only hope left to us, we who are condemned to the next 15 hours trapped in a jet-propelled pod. Inevitably, of course, our hopes will be dashed by a late-boarding passenger, who usually weighs in excess of 150kg. Inevitably, too a nearby child is bawling her head off (surely bringing an infant on a Melbourne-Dubai leg constitutes a form of child abuse?). Take-off is imminent, as most passengers have occupied their seats, and the pilot is speaking to us on the intercom. The middle seat is, miraculously, still free.

Some words on flying are in order. I fly a lot – an obscene amount, to tell the truth. No amount of carbon-free consumerism can possibly offset the horrendous damage my flying habits are single-handedly doing to the environment. I am not afraid of flying, although I am afraid of going to the airport: afraid of getting there late and missing my flight, afraid of going to the wrong airport (at least in New York, Paris or London – Melbourne is relatively risk-free in this respect), of carrying too much luggage for the airline’s draconian weight restrictions, of forgetting to bring my passport, of having booked my flight for the wrong day, of not having booked a flight at all. Of course, none of these potential disasters have actually befallen me, but this does not stop me from being consumed with nerves in the hours leading up to the flight. When I finally do board, these nerves dissipate, but I nonetheless find it somewhat miraculous that I have managed to avoid the myriad potential pitfalls that I was faced with, and that I have been able to take my seat on the plane as planned.

So I am not afraid of flying, but, like anyone who ever been on a flight more than once in their lifetime, I hate flying, viscerally. Everything about it seems specifically designed to be adverse to human wellbeing. The major airlines, it appears, have colluded to produce the generalised loathing that the vast majority of the population holds for commercial plane travel: in doing so they have transformed what was once a glamorous mode of transportation into a gruelling ordeal. not too much more pleasurable than the trains that carted people to the death camps during World War II. You might find this a hyperbolically flippant statement, but wait till the next time you are subjected to the manifold security checkpoints, the sardine-like levels of passenger comfort, the meagre portions of insipid food, the screaming children…

Wolfgang Schivelbusch has written about the transformation in human conceptions of space and time brought about by the spread of railway travel in the 19th century. Whereas Goethe would travel through Italy in a stagecoach, at a pace only slightly faster than a brisk walk, enabling him to stop and take in the scent of a flower on the side of the road whenever it took his fancy, his counterparts a few decades later hurtled past the same countryside in their steel monsters (although these very contraptions are now irresistibly imbued with an old world charm). In the space of less than a generation, towns that were previously almost totally cut off from one another became separated by a train journey of only a couple of hours. Humans were travelling faster than they ever had before, and a tremendous disorientation resulted. Horror stories of train trips gone awry abounded, while Flaubert would ironise about the cocky businessmen who would boast to their colleagues about being in Clermont-Ferrand at lunchtime and back in Paris in time for dinner – something that a little while earlier was utterly inconceivable. But their grandiloquent braggadoccio was surely a sign that, in some way, they knew that what they were doing was bizarre, inhuman even. We are a long way from that era, and travel by train has long been normalised, but who today is not a little astonished that they can wake up in Berlin and attend a morning meeting in London – no matter how many times they do it? When flying, who among us is not assailed by the sentiment of having cheated a little, like Freud turning on an electric light and sensing that his body has the feeling of cheating its way out of laboriously tending to a hearth fire? At the very least, when we travel by train, bus or car, we gain a sense of the speed at which we are travelling: the landscape cascades past us, we zoom past trees, hurtle over hilltops, punch our way into tunnels. When flying – apart from the brief thrill of take-off, which I have just undergone – we are privy to none of these experiences. In fact, in spite of reaching velocities unimaginable on land, we do not feel any sense of speed at all. Distance, when flying, is totally abstracted: we simply enter into a capsule in one city and then, a pre-determined number of hours later, we are disgorged into another city. And in between, we watch movies. There is, therefore (and this is the governing hypothesis of the notes that will follow), an uncanny synergy between Hollywood and the airline industry: firstly, because the products Hollywood pumps out are the only things that enable commercial air travel to be even remotely palatable. But secondly – and this is where my hypothesis enters more idiosyncratic territory – because air travel turns us into the ideal Hollywood spectator. It is impossible to watch a film that has even the slightest modicum of cinematic ambition when in an aeroplane. Trapped in our seats, mentally numbed by the monotony of our surrounds, fatigued by the stale, recycled oxygen, the abrupt change in air pressure, our rapidly atrophying muscles and the constant dull hum of the jet engines, none of us can resist succumbing to watching the worst forms of dross. If this diary is to have any relationship to a festival report, then it will be as its evil twin: it is not the rarefied aesthetic sublimity of the best of auteurist cinema that I will be reviewing here – of that I can be sure, regardless of whether any films of that ilk will be available on my in-flight entertainment system (stranger things have happened) – but the lowest of low-brow movies. For, after several hours of being cocooned in my flying capsule, this will be all that my enfeebled mind will be able to handle.

22:00, in-flight (leaving Melbourne)

We are now into the flight itself: although 12h40 still remain before Dubai beckons. The seat next to me has – rejoice! – remained unoccupied. In the row directly in front of me, two female passengers laugh sadistically at a Sandra Bullock comedy. I will now take my plunge into the in-flight entertainment system. This being an Emirates flight, the plane (an A380), is brand-spanking new. The legroom is marginally more spacious than on other planes, but the most noticeable difference – and the only significant advance made in airline “comfort” in the last few years (at least in cattle class, where the laws of economics and physics vie in the attempt to squeeze as many penny-pinching passengers as possible into a confined space) – is the size of my personal display screen, which is enormous. In aeroplane design, the opposite trend obtains to what is happening in cinemas – where screens are becoming smaller but seats are taking on gargantuan proportions. Moreover, as is now almost universally the norm on long-haul international flights (although a recent LA-Sydney trip on United was an exception here), I have total control over what I see (at least from among the programming made available to passengers), and when I see it.

22:30, in-flight

For instance, having just been served my (vegetarian) meal, I opted to start proceedings with a short teaser to watch while eating: a 20-minute episode of the US version of The Office. Now that this is over (both the meal and the TV show, both of which were equally insubstantial), I delve into the movie selection.

The main goal, it must be said, of watching films on a plane – apart from pure distraction from the endless tedium of the flight – is to catch up on movies that you had no intention of watching when they were in the cinema, but that you at least heard about when they were released, and of which you had the vague sense that they could form a useful element of cultural knowledge. For me personally, I rarely rent DVDs, almost never watch films on television and do not subscribe to a streaming service, so in general a plane trip is the only chance I will get to see a contemporary film once its cinema run is over.

I scan the new releases, and the fruits on offer are not exactly bountiful. Apart from those films I have already seen and those I have never heard of (some with hilariously improbable titles the likes of which are normally only seen on posters at the Cannes Marché: for instance, Cockneys vs Zombies, or Horrid Henry: the Movie), the films I am intrigued to see (even with the low bar I set myself when in the air) are few and far between. I eventually settle on Soderbergh’s Side Effects – which I was disappointed to miss during its release. My choice is at least partly determined by the presentiment that if I don’t watch it now, in a few hours time my brain will be in no fit state to take in the subtleties of a Soderbergh film.

Friday, October 4

7:00, in-flight

The welcome news is that, right after the Soderbergh finished, I yielded to a prolonged bout of sleep, which was quite in accord with my Melbourne-based body clock. Of course, while this gave me the opportunity to follow the popular critical mandate of sleeping on a film before writing about it, it has also severely curtailed the scope of my planned flight diary. From the five or six films I thought I would be able to peruse, I am now likely to take in no more than four: there are only three hours left on this leg, and around six-seven on the next.

Side Effects

Side Effects

Side Effects, which as you know I have just seen on the small screen, gained some repute for being Soderbergh’s last film for the big screen. But as for Behind the Candelabra (2013), his following outing and his first for the small screen, I have already seen it – on the big screen (it premiered at Cannes). Given that many people’s home screens are getting close to the size of cinema screens anyway, the difference seems rather moot at this stage, especially for a filmmaker like Soderbergh, whose best work has always been marked more by intriguing characters and storylines than visual pyrotechnics. In this sense, Side Effects is eminently Soderberghian: its mise en scène is distinguished but never calls attention to itself – in fact, a certain French critical tradition would no doubt label it “transparent” (an exception, here, is the sound, which with Soderbergh’s predilection for a drum-based score does depart markedly from standard conventions). The plot, moreover, follows in the line of The Girlfriend Experience (2009) or Magic Mike (2012) in its focus on the intersections between sex, money and ethics, but here the level of intrigue veers closer to the conspiracies of the likes of Polanski’s The Ghost Writer or De Palma’s Passion than Soderbergh’s own prior work.

Rooney Mara is married to Channing Tatum, who has just been released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. They resume their customary Manhattan lifestyle, but the elfin Mara is depressed, and attempts suicide by crashing her car into a wall. In the hospital, she is administered to by the charming doctor Jude Law (the characters do have names, but the all-star cast means we never really bother to figure out what these names are: Catherine Zeta-Jones even pops up as Mara’s old doctor – ironic, given her own highly publicised bouts of bipolar disorder). Law prescribes Mara an experimental pill treatment, but this leads her to stabbing Tatum to death while somnambulating. With Law’s help, she successfully pleads insanity, but his name is now mud in the profession, and his obsession with the case ends up alienating his wife (played by the only actor in the film I didn’t recognise).

Ah, but it turns out that Rooney Mara is not insane after all, she’s just a really good actress (it’s true, she is…), in cahoots with Zeta-Jones (who isn’t, really). There follows a denouement with no shortage of crossing and double-crossing, which ends up with Zeta-Jones arrested, Mara interned in an asylum, Tatum still dead, and Law living just fine and dandy (his wife having decided somewhere along the line to come back to him). So I have ruined the ending for you, and didn’t even give you a spoiler alert as a warning signal: but if you haven’t seen the film by now, do you really care that much? In any case, most of the plot was a blur for me – here I must confess my critical Achilles heel, which is that I never really follow storylines that well, invariably mixing up characters, becoming distracted at crucial revelatory moments and losing the narrative thread once the plot complications ascend past a certain threshold. This happens even in the best conditions, but is immeasurably exacerbated in the semi-conscious state I am in when flying. So, despite breaking a cardinal rule of film reviewing, I should be commended for even being able to come up with this sketchy plot summary.

7:30, in-flight

As we hit a patch of turbulence above the Indian Ocean, most of the planeload of passengers are either fast asleep or trying their hardest to attain this state. The cabin is darkened, the sky outside is pitch black, but a dappled luminosity nonetheless gushes forth from the multitude of personal seat-back screens. With the spectator-passengers physically and spiritually debilitated by the ten hours spent in the air, their humanity has been reduced to that of a mere prosthesis of the screen, in an unerringly similar fashion to the human blobs depicted in that masterpiece of contemporary dystopianism: Wall-E. I am no different, and will opt for the least challenging film I can find – but one that I at least hope will have some kind of redeeming quality to it. I settle on the Tina Fey-Raul Rudd rom-com Admission.

Admission

Admission

9:30, in-flight (approaching Dubai)

There is no more unbending, cast-iron law in the universe than that, for all the obstacles they may face, Paul Rudd and Tina Fey will end up together at the end of this film. Fey is an admissions officer at Princeton, with a long-term but non-committal English professor boyfriend. Unfortunately for Fey (but fortunately for the impetus of the film’s plot), he abandons her early in the piece for a domineering Virginia Woolf scholar, leaving Fey free to tootle around with the down-to-earth Rudd, a rootless teacher in an independent school in rural New Hampshire. But this storyline jostles for screen time with another plot thread: a student of Rudd’s is a wayward genius, who, for some strange reason, desperately wants to go to Princeton. He is also – wait for it – Fey’s biological son. Oh, the minefield of morality! What ethical boundaries will Fey cross to ensure her offspring obtains a coveted place in the Ivy League institution? Will she get away with her ruse? Do such machinations ever happen in Hollywood movies without some form of redemptive come-uppance? Fey does her self-deprecating schtick, as honed to perfection in 30 Rock. Rudd does his cutesy, chummy schtick, as honed to perfection in just about all his films. Wallace Shawn, as Fey’s boss, and Lily Tomlin, as her aging feminist mother, throw in their own schtick – what more could I ask for? To see the film to the end, as it happens: with landing approaching, Emirates cut the broadcast to show the entire plane a propaganda film about the Dubai 2020 Expo (featuring Ali, a cute 10 year-old child speaking English with a movie-foreign accent, and regaling us about the emirate’s rich pearl-diving heritage and peerless shopping malls), at the end of which the flight attendants took our headphones from us, forcing me to watch the last three minutes of Admission without sound. In any case – truncated ending aside – the film’s underwhelming whole amounts to less than the schticky sum of its parts.

5:00 (GST), Dubai Airport

We have now landed in Dubai: probably the most surreal place on earth, which the propaganda film I was just shown accurately labelled a permanent world expo. I have three hours – only in the airport, but if there is anywhere in the world where the airport is entirely representative of its surrounding region, then it is Dubai. It is now 11am Melbourne time, but 5am Gulf time. Though still dawn, the temperature outside is 30º celsius.

6:00, Dubai Airport

What does Dubai inspire in the traveller but a mixture of awe and bemusement? This extends even to the airport: its monumental architecture, however, is bereft of the Medina-style mosaic fittings of its Abu Dhabi counterpart. Here everything is sleek, clean, smooth, functioning without a hiccough – much the qualities extolled by my 10 year-old dragoman Ali, whose scriptwriters perfectly encapsulated the ideological prism through which Dubai yearns to be seen. How not to feel like Montesquieu’s Persian prince when confronted with the splendours of Paris? Of course, the historical irony is that now the roles are reversed: it is the Westerner, coming from a venerable civilisation in irreversible decline, who has his eyes opened to the ascendancy of a new empire, this one in the Persian Gulf (and whose rise, in a further irony, has been triggered by the West’s insatiable thirst for its oil).

Perhaps the overriding sensation felt by the newcomer to Dubai, however, is how utterly unreal the whole thing seems. To erect a global alpha-city in one of the most climatically inhospitable places on Earth: nothing could possibly be a more insane proposition. To sprinkle it with 800-metre tall towers and artificial islands only adds to the madness. Dubai is a mirage, an oasis of luxury in the midst of the harshest of desert climes, produced by a mere delusion – but this time it is the “reified” delusion of turbo-charged petro-capitalism. It is a metropolitan-scale simulacrum, a city constructed out of pure spectacle, and is thus an ideal candidate for capital of the 21st century, as Paris was to the 19th century and New York was to the 20th. It is the prefect crossroads for global flows of capital and labour – and this is the most striking thing about the place. As I sit here on a reclining seat at my terminal gate, I am surrounded on all sides by individuals from every imaginable cultural background – although they all, uncannily, have the same zombified mien in their eyes. As Ali told me, the city is only 8 hours away from one-third of the world’s population, and it has seemingly set out to lure all of these 2.5 billion people to regularly pass through this aeronautical nodal point. In doing so, the aim is evidently to make Dubai as a whole the world’s largest airport lounge: an unlikely blend of consumer paradise and draconian police-state, air-conditioned to perfection and kept immaculately clean by an army of modern-day slaves. Indeed, if I were to break with the Debordo-Baudrillardian logic of these musings and ask the impertinent question “where is the real in Dubai?”, then this would be my answer: the platoons of South Asian labourers eking out a wage to send back to their impoverished families, their passports confiscated until their contracts expire, living in concentration camp-style barracks on the outskirts of the city (tastefully kept out of view from the blithely awestruck tourists), their crushed bodies used as the foundation stones for the latest ego-driven skyscraper project. If Marx were alive today he would not write Capital under the dome of the British library, but from the sky deck of the Burj al-Khalifa. It’s enough to make one yearn for the cocooned safety of the aeroplane cabin, with a Jennifer Aniston rom-com playing on the seatback screen.

6:45, Dubai Airport

The strange thing about this airport is the disjunction between the inconceivable array of destinations offered – in only the last few minutes, the PA system has announced boardings for flights to Riyadh, Warsaw, Casablanca, Hanoi, Basra, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Buenos Aires and Amman – and the fact that the airport is only served by a single airline. Much as Dubai is the fiefdom of a single, all-powerful sheik, its airport is the protected stomping ground of Emirates Airways. Terminal and airline are one, just as, in the country’s economic order, capitalist and political ruler are one. Capitalism’s new (old) face. I am tempted to have breakfast to while away the couple more hours I have here, but the prices are listed in dirhams, and, anachronistically enough, I have absolutely no idea what the currency’s exchange rate is.

8:30, Dubai Airport

Yes, I ate breakfast (my second, after the on-board meal), and am now at the boarding gate. It occurs to me that plane travel is an improbable combination of moving at the fastest speeds conceivable (flying at up to 900km/h) and the slowest speeds possible (that languid shuffling forward in a queue that marks any attempt to go through security, pass through customs, and even board and disembark from the plane). When we fly, we cross continents in a matter of hours, but we may spend a similar amount of time moving from one end of a small room to another, and our abiding experience is one of excruciating, interminable boredom, which is only enlivened (if that is the right word) by, precisely, the movies we get to see. Boarding here has just begun – although, astonishingly for such a modern airport, vaunted as the new crossroads of the world, this involves cramming into a standing-room only bus to take us to the plane.

10:00, in-flight (leaving Dubai)

Taking off over Dubai; the theme park rapidly recedes in the distance. After browsing my complementary copies of The Times and the International Herald Tribune, I scan my entertainment options. It does not make for pleasant reading. The new plane is more cramped than the A380, its screens markedly smaller, and its offering of cinema (not to mention TV) is far more restricted. There is nothing left for me to watch but the gross-out comedy-cum-Google advertisement The Internship. Somehow, though, given the inclination towards ideological critique that these jottings have taken, it seems an appropriate choice.

A note, before I dive in, on the touch screens that are now a ubiquitous part of the flying experience. I must admit that I still feel a certain sentiment of taboo about touching the screen – as if doing so breaks the spell of the images it shows. In the cinema, of course, one doesn’t touch the screen. The prohibition might not be a formal one, explicitly addressed to the viewer during the trailers (as with the injunctions not to use mobile phones during the film – another eerie parallel between flying and going to the movies), but all the same it is strictly observed: in all my trips to the cinema I have never seen anyone go up to the screen and touch it, whether before, during or after a screening. The screen exists in a different dimension, intangible, elusive, ever-receding, like the horizon, or the end of a rainbow. With the television set this quality is eroded: there’s nothing stopping us, if we so wish, from tapping the screen (once made out of glass, now some kind of polymer material), and yet we invariably refrain from doing so, restricting our manipulation of the image to the pressing of remote control buttons. When laptop computers became widespread, the loss was exacerbated: we would now regularly touch the screen, or at least its outer framework – if only to enable us to see the thing properly. And now with smartphones and tablets, the barrier has been shattered. The screen is now expressly there to be touched, we routinely jab at it, rub it, stroke it up and down – in fact touching the screen is our main mode of interaction with it. The taboo is no more – concomitantly, however, we have lost any sense of belief in the images it holds, in its specular power. This is equally valid for the aeroplane touch-screens – hence why we fail to be taken in by movies in the plane in the same way we are at the cinema, and instead watch them with a sense of ironic detachment. Hence, also, why we invariably opt for the least challenging films available to us. But there is one key difference: on the plane, the touch screens so very often do not work. Instead of gracefully gliding our digits over the screen, iPad style, we almost always end up forcefully prodding the monitor with our index fingers, thus infuriating the person sitting in front of us.

But enough for now, my third breakfast of the day has arrived, and The Internship awaits.

The Internship

The Internship

12:30, in-flight

Every formula, every convention, every template is strictly adhered to. But what else did we expect from Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson? The twosome almost constitute a genre unto themselves, but we are no longer in the halcyon days of 2005 and The Wedding Crashers. 2013 has less room for their antics, it would seem. Our duo is aging, struggling in the economic downturn, and left behind by the stampede of technology. So what else can they do but join the enemy, and become interns at Google? Improbably (but this is the least significant of the leaps of faith the spectator is expected to make in this film), Google embraces them into its welcoming bosom.

Without any equivocation, The Internship accepts Google’s desired image of its Silicon Valley employment campus as a post-adolescent theme park where supergeeks can write code to solve all the world’s problems (most of which are distinctly “first world problems”). And of course it does; if it offered even a modicum of critique the film could never have been made. There is nonetheless no small irony that this paean to techno-solutionism, reading Google’s motto “Don’t be evil” at face value, was released at precisely the point in time when the search engine was implicated in the NSA surveillance scandal, effectively colluding in a repressive state apparatus’s mass breach of basic privacy rights. And how, from the present standpoint, can we conceive of Google as anything other than a gigantic data-mining operation, using the paltry lure of being able to find directions to the nearest Taco Bell with ease in order to appropriate our entire personal histories, thoughts and desires for its own corporate interests?

Happily blithe to this dimension of Google’s corporate empire, Vaughn and Wilson are put into a team with an ethnically representative crew of one-dimensional stereotypes, as they compete against a wide field of candidates for a coveted paying job with the company. Throw in an arsehole boss played by Asif Mandvi, a love interest for Wilson played by Rose Byrne, and a half-hour long, utterly gratuitous scene in a strip club, and the rest of the film writes itself (in fact it would be no surprise if it actually was written by a Google algorithm). Anything else I could say about it at this point seems rather superfluous.

13:30, in-flight

There are now only little more than a couple of hours left in my ordeal. My leg muscles are seizing up. I have been whiling away my time watching the best goals of the 2012/13 Premier League season. There is (maybe just enough) time for one more film. What shall I pick?

15:30, in-flight

My choice: Now You See Me. In the end, subjecting myself to this film led me to retrospectively respect Vaughn/Wilson’s outing. Yes, The Internship was a silly farce, but it had no pretensions to be anything more. It was a modest affair, a simple pretext for the combined high jinks of its leads. In comparison, Now You See Me is a pompous, bloated exercise in cinematic bluster that only the most degenerative tendencies within Hollywood can discharge. The film features a star-studded cast, with turns from Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson. Even Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman demean themselves by appearing in this indescribably abject vehicle, in which four illusionists are recruited by a secretive Svengali-figure to carry out Robin Hood acts of large-scale theft as part of their magic shows, before being chased in a cat-and-mouse game by the FBI. Huge sums, the equal of the entire economies of Third World nations, are expended in single, bombastic, digital effects-laden set-pieces which have nothing but contempt for the aesthetic sensibilities of anyone unfortunate enough to be ocularly exposed to them. The final “twist” in the plot makes use of the most hackneyed of narrative devices, which had already been ridiculed as hopelessly clichéd ten years ago in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. From my present standpoint, the glory days of the Melbourne-Dubai leg, with such cinematic delights as Side Effects and Admission, seem firmly ensconced in a happier past, an irrecuperable golden age of the cinema. I have truly bottomed out.

Now You See Me

Now You See Me

A sharp critical mind may have been able to at least marshal Now You See Me for allegorical purposes – the themes of magic and illusion lends itself easily to parables about the cinema, while any blockbuster film can be used as an allegory for late capitalism – but in my present mental state I am incapable of it, and can hardly see the value in critically rescuing an unredeemable cinematic catastrophe. The combination of prolonged air travel and exposure to big-budget Hollywood cinema is a potent one for inducing what Adorno called Verdummung, and the only form of resistance left to me in my debilitated state is to vituperate against rampant idiocy, rather than display any acute intelligence of my own. It is the last stand before I truly succumb and make the switch to loving my own alienation. If my goal in this diary of a long-haul flight was to chart the experience of watching movies on planes, then, perversely, I may have achieved it by this evident mental bottleneck. A bitter victory, however, as it has come at the expense of any nuanced analysis of the films I have viewed during my time in the air.

14:00 (ECT), in-flight (approaching Nice)

But I am close to the end of my personal saison en enfer. Nice airport beckons, and then Verona, as my mechanical Pegasus makes its descent back to land. How glad I will be to finally exit from my airborne cocoon. I left Melbourne on a cold spring night, and will arrive in the south of France on an autumn afternoon, after a few hours in the seasonless heat of the Persian Gulf, and roughly a day in the no-man’s-land of an aeroplane, with the only things to distract me being the airline’s entertainment system and these ruminative diary entries. The ordeal is at an end.

Postscript: 17:00, Ventimiglia

I am now on the train to Verona, having just departed the Italian border town of Ventimiglia. The train is a musty Intercity, with an Eastern European whiff to it. I have a six-seater compartment to myself. The Mediterranean’s blue waters stretch out to my right; the hilly landscape of northern Italy to my left. The train ambles along at a sedate place, calling at every minor town and settlement along the coastline, before it will make its way inland and reach Verona in five hours time. Best of all, there is not a single screen in view, only the expansive windows on both sides of the carriage. I shall hence spend my time gazing contentedly at my surroundings, or, if I have regained a measure of intellectual fortitude, I may take to leafing through Péguy’s Clio (my holiday reading material). Compared to my audiovisual-saturated flight, the unmediated sensory reality of this railway journey is paradise itself.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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