DIRECTED BY JOHN HUGHES
STARRING: STEVE MARTIN, JOHN CANDY, LAILA ROBINS, DYLAN BAKER, OLIVIA BURNETTE, LARRY HANKIN, RICHARD HERD with BILL ERWIN and KEVIN BACON
I used to travel a lot when I was younger, to the extent that I got used to trains and surviving in one; getting by. Actually, I remember the experience to be quite uncanny. I’m talking about the time I was 13 or 14 years old and I had a trip to make almost every week, rain or shine. And I remember how it always used to be uncomfortable and messy at first and how, after the hours spent or days in some cases, the journey would have coaxed me to get into it. It had become an integral part of my life cycle. And the best that I remember of it is how there would always be a sinking feeling in my stomach as we neared this station called ‘Basin Bridge’ which was just a stop away from Chennai Central where I get down and make my way home, my Father with me. The train slows down, you see buildings for the first time – concrete, rundown and pale – as opposed to fields or factories that always served to remind you there was a little more to go. I’ve liked them only for that reason.
Neal Page (Steve Martin) sees the big city for the first time in two days that turned his world upside down. Or right side up. He’s sitting in a train that’s moving past buildings for the first time and he looks forward to seeing his family – his wife, his three children, their warmth and the sumptuous thanksgiving dinner, all waiting for him. It had only been scenic routes before, a scenery that he never got to appreciate, for it was against intention; it busted his action plan. There are moments when you catch sight of the buildings along with him: tall buildings in brick and stone. I’m not talking about the ‘Chicago along the horizon’ moment. I’m talking about watching buildings go by.
How much would Neal have given to just watch buildings go by sitting in the metro a couple of days before! The best of his project pitches. $75 on a cab he didn’t get into. $700 on a wallet that needn’t have been stolen. A whole lot more on credit cards that needn’t have burned. A rental car service that enraged him than give him a car. The woman behind the counter who only added to his fury, telling him he’s ‘screwed’ when he knows he is. A kiss on the ear from an oversized shower-ring salesman named Del Griffith (John Candy) that he won’t feel squirmy about anymore.
He has a moment just then. The same sinking feeling that I told you about. Neal Page, how much ever glad he was at having come back home, has had a journey. A journey – not a trip or a skip or a skittle. A journey. Something you’d never have these days, thanks to planes and A/C compartments and floating buses where you breathe the same air that you let out, but modified. You might as well be on a space shuttle or Michael Jackson’s gas chamber, you would never know. It still is oxygen, but it’s just not right and you know it. But then, you can’t step away from the grind now, can you? Not in 1987. Not now.
I’m sorry to refer to films from ‘the future’ to interpret ‘the past’, but ‘Crash’ (2004) written and directed by Paul Haggis begins with this line that’s also its underlying theme that goes like: “You’ve got to crash into each other just to make contact these days.” The statement is both literal and metaphorical. ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ is that sort of ‘crash.’ It’s about two people who are unlikely to have met otherwise – not unless they were forced into each other, there being no other go. It’s not a class difference, it’s not a question of conflicting moralities. It’s just basic human nature. It’s like having food favourites knowing what they become once you’re completely done with them. Del calls Neal hostile and intolerant which is ‘borderline criminal.’ Neal calls Del a blabbermouth amongst a whole lot of other things that make him live up to his name. Or Del’s description of him, at least.
John Hughes’ film is patchy with such moments and lack thereof. It’s an 80s film, a kind of exploitation era in itself. You had to be funny, you had to be bittersweet and you had to find a way of being heroic about it. Just like how you had to have a soundtrack that’s unclassifiable and thus characteristic. People liked those things. The idea beats the shit out of rendition, its conception – half the deed done. ‘My Cousin Vinny’ was an 80s film that stretched into the 90s. You see what I’m saying?
‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ is not the best version of itself, but that’s the way you’d like it. There have been more romanticized versions, from Kamal Hassan’s ‘Anbe Sivam’ to the more recent ‘Due Date’ with Robert Downey Jr. playing Neal to Zach Galifianakis’ Del. They’ve all had the same idea of a simple trip gone wrong. There’s John Lasseter’s ‘Cars’, if you want another example. But this film is like a ‘Sideways’ or a ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ for me. This is where it all began. And this, I find, is exactly what I wanted, in all its imperfections and its bursts of joy. It’s the original – and like how all ‘originals’ go, it’s not beyond duplication. But the experience, you’d find, is.