Why I Love… #58: Airplane!

Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) gets ready to surprise the audience
Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) gets ready to surprise the audience

Year: 1980

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker

Stars: Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Julie Hagerty (Elaine), Leslie Nielsen (Dr Rumack), Robert Stack (Rex Kramer), Peter Graves (Captain Oveur), Lloyd Bridges (McCroskey)

Genre: Comedy

There are many reasons to celebrate Airplane! but there’s one in particular that I want to talk about that stands out for me. I was trying to decide which film to talk about next in this series, and honestly Airplane! hadn’t even crossed my mind. That changed when I picked up the most recent copy of the film magazine Little White Lies. The fiftieth issue, it breaks from their usual content by challenging fifty different writers and filmmakers to pick a single frame from one of their favourite movies from the last fifty years, and to explain why it means something personal to them. It got me wondering what I might choose for each given year.

Some of my favourite movies are from 1980 (The ShiningThe Elephant Man etc), but I was surprised to find that the most indelible image from that year that I could think of was from the hit spoof comedy Airplane! A moment of revelatory surprise for me on first viewing. A simple, disorienting trick that I still think of when people use the phrase “the magic of cinema”.

After 45 or so minutes of tireless mirth aboard the seemingly-doomed plane, the film breaks away to a more grounded scene (pun intended? why not) as personnel man Paul Carey (Craig Berenson) goes to pick up Captain Rex Kramer from his home to help solve the perilous situation. It feels like a natural breather in the film. A moment to catch your breath as some necessary plot elements are dealt with before we go back to the more indulgent, zany fun taking place thousands of feet above. Kramer’s wife (Barbara Stuart) answers the door and lets young Carey in. Carey is immediately beset by the Kramers’ dog Shep while Kramer finishes dressing, standing in front of a large mirror, his wife looking on dutifully. She hands him his hat and the film cuts back to Carey tussling on the floor with the dog. Then we cut back to Kramer.

We think we’ve cut back to the same shot. There’s Kramer straightening his hat, wife looking on, just as before. “All right, let’s get out of here” he says, and then, as the time code hits 00:46:33 (according to my cantankerous DVD) he suddenly steps through the mirror.

What the actual fuck.

Of course the trick is in the cut. Look again and you’ll see that the Kramer in the foreground of the first shot is by necessity missing in the foreground of the return shot. Actor Robert Stack is now standing on a different set completely. There is no glass. He can step forward out of his own ‘reflection’ as easily as crossing the street. Little things help sell the cheat. Carey and the dog rolling around on the floor in the background add a sense of continuity, likewise Mrs Kramer’s line of sight, and the placing of Kramer’s lapel badge on his suit jacket switches in order to sustain the trick. But the effect, for me, is still astonishing every time. It’s almost like vertigo or the sensation of G-force against the sternum. I’m watching the laws of physics being broken. I know how it’s done. It’s obvious how it’s done. But it’s happening anyway. Wanton disbelief in this moment makes the impossible possible. That’s part of what I love about cinema. It creates worlds and possibilities, conjured out of ideas.

The whole sequence works toward this moment, the whole film really. As previously mentioned, it feels like a breather, a break from the comedy. As such when watching you let your guard down a little. Time to regroup. If anything you’re waiting to return to the plane in jeopardy so that the fun can continue. The last thing you’re expecting is this kind of discombobulating surprise.

I remember the first time I saw it every time I see it. That moment relived like post traumatic stress disorder in full flight. The there and the now combine. Airplane!, for a split second, makes me feel like I’m time travelling, my reaction caught and available for replay just like the film on the disc. When I think of film and the experience of watching a film, that transcendence that the best of them can evoke, this moment is up with the best of them. Against all good sense I’m transported and it feels physical.

I never thought I’d be spilling out such highfalutin praise because of Airplane! Of course, the movie deserves praise across the board, not for just this one scene. Arguably the hardest thing to pull off is a consistently funny comedy feature. It’s as rare as the consistently scary horror film. The sheer tonnage of gags, winks, references and puns in Airplane! is, frankly, a little staggering. Leslie Nielsen became a star off of the back of it, and the spoof-comedy sub-genre was given a full tank of petrol (though judging by the continuing Scary Movie installments, it’s presently running on fumes).

There’s another little essay out there somewhere on all the other sight gags perfectly placed in this movie. If you were expecting that one here, I’m sorry. Blame Little White Lies. It’s been a blast revisiting this one scene, this one moment, recalling not just the trick but, as I return to the movie, my own participation in the trick. I want that moment over and over and so I allow myself it. Self-deception is key to all great moments in cinema and so, for me personally, Airplane! qualifies as a landmark success.

4 Replies to “Why I Love… #58: Airplane!”

  1. I have been in a debate about how the mirror scene was shot, please please let me know how they accomplished it?

    1. I don’t have a definitive answer for you. The version I heard was that it’s the same set rearranged and shot from another angle, and the uniform is what’s inverted. I imagine this is easier, cheaper than building a mirror set.

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