Masochistic Choices in In-flight Entertainment

In the throes of childish cruelty kids often use magnifying glasses to concentrate the rays of the sun into a beam that leaves a poor ant squirming and eventually burning. Babel – my top choice for in-flight entertainment – left me with that image in my mind. I was the ant in the audience, left squirming and increasingly anxious in the concentrated beam through the director’s magnifying glass.

On the news, the day before, I had heard about a seven-year old boy whose parents had let him walk into the mens’ room of a department store, unaccompanied. A few short minutes were enough for a sexual predator to molest the little boy.

On other days one hears about razor blades embedded in meat and left in a park where people walk their dogs. Several dogs have taken the lethal bait.

Every now and then there is a school, university or office building shooting, even in peace loving Amish neighborhoods.

In London a 21 year old woman named Zara Care was tried for goading her toddlers into something like a dogfight, encouraging them to pummel each other to the point of serious injuries while her sisters cheered.

These incidences are scattered and cause deep momentary anguish and wonder at the sudden rise in their frequency followed by immediate disbelief and denial as we move on feeling superior, thankful and sane.

As sane as the poor, overworked Japanese father of a deaf and disturbed teenager was portrayed in the movie. He had lost his wife and was steadily losing his daughter when he learnt that the radius of his problems wasn’t a narrow and concentrated one but one that was diffused well beyond the range of his existence.

Sane because our own little lives are routine and placidly spent in some bedroom town, that sprawls further away from the city each day, to places where deer used to run wild. Our sanity clearly reflected in the hours we spend transporting ourselves over trains, buses and automobiles while reading articles on “extreme commuting” in the latest issue of The New Yorker. No Babel in our lives, just a steadily growing isolation and jadedness; an isolation that we draw around ourselves – one that is a direct result of our very own actions and yet feels alien and oppressive.

So much for in flight “entertainment”! There were other movies I could have selected from the menu, something light, a comedy perhaps? My daughter and my husband were wildly entertained by the antics of Spongebob Squarepants and his jaded buddy Squidward who suffers from a chronic case of weltschmerz but, seated between them, I scrolled over several light hearted options only to find yet another disturbing one – Notes on a Scandal.

For this movie Dame Judi Dench received a well-deserved Oscar nod for her role of an intensely lonely schoolteacher who commands the respect of wayward students simply because she is a self-described “battleaxe”. But she is also someone who invites confidences. She invites an unburdening of the soul but the burdens people shed are the invaluable, darkly treasured and well-documented scraps of information that she believes will serve as the key to the eventual dissolution of her own loneliness and isolation.

It is a disturbing story but it bothered me even more than the director – Richard Eyre – would have anticipated. What scared me was my own propensity to attract confidences, to get people to open up to me and tell me their deepest secrets while I listen – sympathetic and non-judgmental. I wondered why I invited confidences and if it was some of the same loneliness that Judi Dench’s character Barbara Covett displayed in her interactions with Cate Blanchett’s character – Sheba Hart? There was a scene in the movie where she is contemplating her isolation and she states how no one knows what it’s like to be “chronically untouched”. Is extreme loneliness a condition then that could make a vicariously satisfied vampire out of one? That was a terrifying thought.

And as if I wasn’t rattled enough on this very long flight with multiple doses of caffeine coursing through my veins and the tiredness of several days of travel taking their toll, something made me opt for yet another movie to finish the downward spiraling of thoughts that Babel had started – Running with Scissors – a movie based on Augusten Burroughs memoirs.

These are his memoirs; they must be grounded in reality, but what an unbelievably monstrous childhood! Just when we think things couldn’t get any worse they do! And it was just my luck that the character of Deirdre Burroughs (Augusten’s Mom), depicted by Annette Bening, had to be that of a writer/poet who dreamed of being published one day, who attended and organized poetry readings and subjected her young son to recitations of her work as he reassured her that The New Yorker would publish her one day! Talk about subliminal messages! Some mile-high supernatural power in the Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Newark had it in for me!

Needless to say, I was shaken to the core. Never again will I watch anything but episodes of The Office and Spongebob on transatlantic flights.

Back on solid ground again I feel thoroughly chastised and resistant to any and all forms of confidences or poetry writing urges as I contemplate the prevention of Babel in my life.

1 Comment

  1. The "chronically untouched" bit struck a chord of memory…I remember this female colleague who was working in Bangkok for three years telling me this rather pathetic tale:: "I had been there for several months and I was living alone. I am used to that but I was also used to the push and jostle and the sheer "peopled" cities of India. I was standing in the supermarket queue and there was this old lady in front of me. I had a sudden urge just to touch someone – feel a human being – and before I knew it, I had 'bumped' into her. I apologised to her of course, but I went back remembering what touching another human being felt like."I might add that the ex-colleague is heterosexual and married.

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