In my family, the holiday season begins with Thanksgiving (or, some years, the day before). Growing up, it meant going to grandma and grandpa’s house in Idaho and cutting down a Christmas tree. The perpetual wafting of sage, thyme, garlic, and rosemary would accompany the two Als (Roker and Michaels), as parades, football, and good family conversation would culminate in the feast of feasts. No one could outcook my grandma when she had her assistants, usually my mom and aunt, in the kitchen. This was the necessary gate to pass before we could decorate for the holidays, the passage through which we had to progress before we were allowed to switch on Christmas music. Thanksgiving was as much a part of Christmas as Christmas was.
Now that I’m a little older, the trips to grandma’s house are few and far between. Thanksgiving is still a part of Christmas, but for different reasons. It begins the season through a culminating focus on what makes December so great: family, gratitude, service, and, of course, food. It’s all about commensality, an important anthropological principle that I discussed in my analysis of the oeuvre of Yimou Zhang. Without commensality—that good feeling we get when we eat together—we know that something is awry. With it, there is togetherness, wellness, and an ability to look at the profound with a gratitude that may elude us otherwise. Without it, there tends to be loneliness, but not one that cannot be overcome with a little empathy and little more service to our fellow men. Mankind should be our business, said Jacob Marley, but we seldom attend to it…except, maybe, for Christmastime. I believe that the commensality of the Thanksgiving holiday endues in us that necessary element of family and unity that gives life to the season.
Few movies have shown this idea of empathy and commensality with such profound simplicity as John Hughes’ best film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Many movies approach this sort of spirituality through complexity, through drama paired with images. They begin from the outset by attempting to be something immortal, something great by default. But, as Roger Ebert said when talking about this very film, some movies thrust their greatness upon us. At first glance, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not a great film. But it is. And it shouldn’t take us very long to realize this.
It stars Steve Martin and John Candy playing, respectively, Neal Cage and Dale Griffith. Neal is a well-kept family man, whose corporate existence takes away, a little bit, from the “family” part of “family man”. Griffith, on the other hand, is a freer soul, a shower-curtain ring salesman who allows his personability (rather than his wallet) to get him from point A to point B. When Cage finds himself sharing a flight to Chicago before Thanksgiving with Griffith, he immediately recognized the large and affable character as the man who stole his cab in New York on the way to the airport. Thus starts the bitterness that divides them, a bitterness that will continue to hurt them until overcome.
And, as a result, we have one of the finest, if not the finest of the modern road comedies/buddy flicks. In the vein of It Happened One Night, Plane’s Trains and Automobiles shows the development of a relationship. But what is so important about that relationship’s development is what separates it from other, more clichéd, buddy flicks. Rather than dwelling on the characters’ changes, showing how the two become compatible through melding themselves into a team of sorts, this film shows two characters who work despite their differences, not unlike Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. It’s through empathy that they become a good pair, not compatibility. This is a movie about two men who come to understand where the other one is coming from.
Hence, the theme of empathy that runs throughout the movie. A blizzard delays all their connecting flights into Chicago, and soon the two men are travailing through the American Midwest in a desperate attempt to get Cage home to his family for Thanksgiving. The hijinks that ensue are fabulously scripted and choreographed, and the two stars of the film do brilliant jobs of making even the most absurd sequences just believable enough to carry the film’s more sentimental moments: those moments when empathy takes hold and leads to true commensality in the nature of the holidays.
This believability of the absurd is what gave life to Hughes’ comedies in the 1980s and 1990s, from his work in The Breakfast Club to his work in Home Alone. This was important to Hughes, who dealt in subgenres almost without fail; Home Alone is the only one that really transcends the tight confines of a specific comedic subcategory. For Hughes, keeping in the niches on a film-by-film basis created an opportunity to dabble in the morality that pervaded them. His teen movies were not so shallow as the puberty-and-prom teen movies that have dominated most others in the subgenre; he focused far more on identity and solidarity in the temporary angst-ridden period of life that is high school. His comedy arose from these concepts of identity and solidarity, not unlike the thematic bases for many of the humorous moments in 1930s screwball comedies. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Hughes showed that the lifeblood of a buddy flick is not the absurd moments in and of themselves, but the moments (absurd or otherwise) that fostered empathy between the parties.
That is why there had to some believability in the reactions. It’s difficult to show a point on an emotional level without either an appeal to art or an appeal to logic. This is why, I feel, the movie is so perfectly cast: Steve Martin has always been a believable, every-man sort of comic, who hung his hat on impeccable timing and well-planned goofiness; while John Candy was always among the most sympathetic of performers. Both were able to play characters who stand on opposite extremes in their approaches to life while never pushing themselves into caricatures.
Consider, for example, their famous reactions in the movie’s most well-known scene. After sharing a bed for the night Neal asks Del where his hand is. “Between two pillows,” Del replies. Then, comes the famous line from Neal, “Those aren’t pillows!” The reaction the two men share is of the sort you wouldn’t see in 21st century comedies, exactly of that “believably absurd” variety that permeates the entire picture.
Or, there is the moment on the freeway, where the two men watch their rental vehicle burst into flames and explode, with the wallet and luggage inside. The two men stand on the freeway with eyes wide open. Then, they laugh. Their three-day odyssey is almost over, and there’s not much else they can do at this point.
The search for empathy really starts the night before that eventful morning with the “two pillows”, after Neal loses his cool and finally lets Del have it. There is no comedy at this point, no absurdity, and no chuckling it off. Del is faced with a reaction that you can tell he has always feared, but has been able, for the most part, to avoid for his life. His response is invaluable as a demonstration of how to care for others, during the holidays or any other time of year.
“You think what you want about me,” he says, choking back tears. “I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me.” Here, we and Neal come to a soft realization, one that doesn’t fully actualize until that last morning when we finally reach Chicago: someone loves Del very much. Del puts a lot of stock in the love he and his wife share for one another, and it gives him meaning and motivation as he pursues a career that could, at times, be very discouraging. Now, in this moment of true criticism, when he can really come to feel bad about himself, he defends himself (from Neal and from himself) by clinging to the love he knows is coming his way. And Neal sees something in Del’s resilience. If someone, somewhere in this universe loves Del, they must see something in him worth loving. And if they do, why can’t we?
It is in this moment when the point of the season starts to come to life. It’s a season of empathy as much as it is a season of gratitude, because often in empathy do we find ourselves most grateful for what we have. Watch Neal’s face when he’s finally reunited with his wife at movie’s end. The movie focuses very little on that relationship, and yet, we completely understand why Hughes decides to linger on them in that scene. Neal is truly thankful that Thanksgiving.
Christmas is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the man who exhibited perfect empathy because he experienced all the pains of life and sin to save the world and redeem humanity from death. As a religious person myself, I see Del’s wife as sort of a Christ figure. Throughout the movie she is never seen, but in all things we know of her love for Del, and Del’s love for her in return. The holiday season works to remind all of us that everyone is loved by someone, even if that someone is a divine being, not on this earth. Finding the reason for that love is at the root of the season’s altruistic feel, and binds humanity together in what is, without doubt, the most sympathetic of all the seasons.
It is through the exercise that men and women are both brought low and raised up, meeting somewhere in the middle, around a dinner table. There should be no difficulty in understanding why the camera lingers a little on the Thanksgiving dinner awaiting Neal and Del as they arrive at his house that morning before the credits roll: at the heart of commensality, the anthropology of food, is empathy for one another. Once they find it, they can celebrate the holidays in new, better, ways.
What is so fresh and beloved about Planes, Trains and Automobiles is that it never presumes to preach, it doesn’t try to be an art-house film, and it doesn’t seek to elevate itself by making itself unapproachable to the masses. Some of the great films require an educated eye to appreciate. Not so here. This movie is simple and to-the-point; comedy is more important than drama; never once do the moviemakers pretend to be making something more than they are. And that lack of complexity is not a negative to the film itself. This is a masterwork of simplicity, and genius comedy with heart and soul that makes it worthy of tradition.
Considering it in conjuction with Hughes’ other holiday classic, Home Alone, it is interesting to see how full of heart this movie is. Home Alone is far more violent, risque, and (at times) mean-spirited than this movie. Were it not for a single tirade around movie’s middle—Steve Martin’s Copelandian ode, his “Fanfare to the F-bomb”—Planes, Trains and Automobiles would be a far more family-appropriate film than its holiday counterpart. Its heartfelt approach to comedy doesn’t aspire to loftiness, but to a sort of universality of humor that is all-inclusive, just as it should be, you would think. Commensality isn’t elitist. It’s about unity and understanding, the kind that, somehow, seems far more significant while sitting around a Thanksgiving turkey.