Planes, Trains and Automobiles

So this is the part where I show I’m a hypocrite. After dunking on some recent Thanksgiving movies for being superficial and problematic, I’m gonna tell you about how I cry every year when I watch this 1980s comedy about two shitty middle-aged white dudes who bond over gay panic and casual racism.

When I was younger, I wanted to be (hopefully the good version of) Martin’s Neal Page, sharp and witty and together, maybe a little uptight and sarcastic but basically a well-meaning, decent guy. God knows I could parrot his infamous F-bomb monologue to Edie McClurg just as readily as “Alice’s Restaurant.” For some time now, though, I’ve been struggling to accept that I’m (hopefully the good version of) Candy’s Del Griffith, a shambles of a man, raw nerve endings covered by a mask that slips the second anyone actually bothers to look, but basically a well-meaning, decent guy. And god knows I could give you Candy’s two speeches from this film verbatim, if I could just keep from choking up halfway through.

The truth is, though, I don’t want to be either one of those guys, really. I want to be the whole person the two men add up to (minus the retrograde tendencies of the period, and of Hughes’ work in particular). Like all great buddy comedies, this is a love story of sorts; hence the gay panic. (The film is well aware of this; “I Can Take Anything,” the “Rockit”-esque jam on the soundtrack which samples Martin and Candy’s dialogue, is subtitled ironically in the credits as “Love Theme from PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES.”)

Lately, when I watch this movie, I’ve succumbed to a similarly “ironic” deliberate misreading of the film, partially as a defense mechanism. I like to pretend that Neal and Del’s second night together culminates in an off-screen Brokeback Mountain-style affair, and that the hazy normative heterosexual / We Somehow Solved A Major Social Problem Through Individual Action ending is actually a paean to a sort of polyamory. It isn’t, I know it isn’t; but there’s so much in this movie that I can no longer tolerate, and so much that I can’t bear to throw away, that I’m okay with this compromise. Movies aren’t just what they are, or what they meant to the people who made them. They are also what they mean to the people who watch them. The old traditions have failed; burn them down—and carve the turkey.

(gobble gobble)

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