Saturday, 11 December 2010

One to Avoid: Airport

One to Avoid

In these self explanatory, occasional interludes between charting my favourite films of all time, I'll look at some of the films I absolutely hate.

Airport (1970)
Dir: George Seaton


The disaster film genre of the 1970s is one of the weirdest sub-genres in all of cinema. Although the films it produced proved enormously popular, they are singularly glib and boring affairs in overlength and under-development. One might expect these huge spectacles to have a lot in common with the action genre but, in fact, they tend to set their major disaster going and then focus on people sat in rooms discussing how best to deal with it. The story always grinds to a predictable and wholly unsatisfactory conclusion.

The disaster movie had aspirations of being a character-driven genre. They are invariably teeming with characters who are introduced in a painfully long first hour. Rarely will the viewer encounter anyone worth caring about. They will all be cardboard, stock types involved in various soapy situations which either reach a pat conclusion or simply peter out in light of the catastrophe putting them into perspective.

The major distinguishing feature of the disaster genre is starry casts. Big names such as Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Jean Seberg, Gene Hackman, etc. are trotted out and wasted completely in roles that could be adequately tackled by anyone. They always seem bored and give lacklustre performances. In fact, Burt Lancaster himself called 'Airport' "the biggest piece of junk ever made". It's easy to see why. Lancaster barely stifles his yawns as he trots his way through the most undemanding, uninteresting role in the film, that of the airport manager.

In the course of its 2+ hours, 'Airport' follows various non-stories. Dean Martin is a philandering pilot who, despite being set up as a sort of hero figure, is completely unlikable. Jean Seberg is a public relations agent who flaps about getting stressed before falling into a completely tacked-on romance with Lancaster. George Kennedy is a mechanic trying to move an airliner stuck in the snow (he does, with zero tension). There are only two characters with any potential. One, a down-on-his-luck ex-army demolition expert with a history of mental illness played by Van Heflin, provides the movie's main plot point when he cracks and boards a flight to Rome with a bomb in his case. Despite the multiple character facets that could be explored in such a potentially complex figure, all Heflin does is look uptight a lot. No suspense is built up whatsoever. Meanwhile, back at the airport, his wife Maureen Stapleton cries a lot and somehow gets nominated for an Oscar.

Undoubtedly 'Airport's most memorable character is Ada Quonsett, an elderly serial-stowaway played by Helen Hayes. In an overreaction to a vaguely charming portrayal, Hayes was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (the only win out of ten nominations... Yes, TEN!). Her early scenes are the highlight of 'Airport'. She gets the best line of the film when talking about her ex-husband; "He always said "See Rome and Die", but he died while we were just packing". But, as is often the case, her roguish stowaway storyline dwindles as the central disaster takes hold.

There's also a worrying preponderance of storylines about men leaving their wives for younger women yet still being held up as admirable. Dean Martin ignores his wife completely when he escapes the disaster but it's ok, because he's going to stick by the stewardess he accidentally impregnated! Burt Lancaster and his wife come to the dullest decision to divorce ever and, in a matter of moments, Lancaster shrugs it off and invites himself back to Jean Seberg's apartment to "see her famous scrambled eggs"!

Yet another distracting element of 'Airport' is director George Seaton's ridiculous over-reliance on split-screen sequences and wipes. There's so many telephone coversations presented in split-screen followed by a wipe into the next scene that it's clear Seaton had a boner for the technology that made this crude effect possible. But he doesn't stop there. Whenever a character communicates with someone in a different location, Seaton has that person pop up in the middle of the screen in a big, floating egg shape. Was this effect ever admired? All it provokes in modern audiences is laughter.

The disaster genre of the 70s now looks like bad 70s television and there isn't an ounce of charm to counter this impression. If you want to watch someof these films out of curiosity, 'Airport' is not the one to choose. It may have kicked off the genre's major 70s popularity but its one of the most excruciatingly insipid films imaginable. Burt Lancaster was right. Though it's also a feeble watch, 'The Towering Inferno' (1974) is a better way to experience this barrel-scraping sub-genre in all its mind-numbing glory.

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