Saturday, June 30, 2012

Film List - why I don't watch in-flight movies (any more)

Whatever happened to Air India? They gave up their transatlantic routes for some reason?

Back in the '90s, when I first started flying to the States a lot, I would almost always use Air India, since they almost invariably offered the cheapest London-New York fare. And their planes - back then - used to recreate the cheesily fun atmosphere of a Friday night down at the neighbourhood Indian restaurant: pretty, dark-eyed stewardesses making coy the new flirtatious, a tasty curry for the inflight meal, and a Bollywood film to watch. (I am convinced they used to have a flock-wallpaper finish on the cabin interior too; but I worry that my memory may be playing tricks on me about that detail.)

This was my first exposure to Bollywood films, and this was how I came to love them. They make ideal inflight entertainment, because one film lasts most of the flight, it swaps genres so frequently that you have little chance to get bored, and narrative coherence is such a low priority that you can doze off for an hour or two without missing anything too important (so it was in the old days, anyway; I fear the Indian film industry is becoming increasingly 'Westernized' in its approach to narrative form).

These days, though, I never watch a film when I fly.

I was reflecting on this for a while a week or so back, in anticipation of my most recent flight to the States, and it occurred to me that these are some of the reasons for my abandoning film-watching on planes:

Seat-back screens
They're just too damn small. Well, even when we had just a handful of screens to watch in the cabin, they weren't all that big; but the fact that there was only one programme being screened tended to draw you in more, gave it the added appeal of being a communal experience. Moreover, I find everyone else's screens around me extremely distracting. (I'll sometimes find myself half-heartedly watching snatches of a film on a neighbour's screen, without being moved to tune into it on my own.)

Too much noise
Is my hearing starting to lose acuity? Or gaining too much acuity in certain frequencies?? Are airline earphones getting worse? Surely planes can't be getting noisier (more lightweight materials in cabin construction??) - but it seems so. I find now that I can barely hear the inflight entertainment soundtracks even with the volume set to maximum, and the background roar of the airflow outside is still too bothersome for me to maintain my concentration.

Middle-aged weariness
I think I always used to sleep quite easily on planes; but now I can hardly keep awake. This is great for feeling reasonably sprightly when I land, but tends to rule out trying to enjoy a full two-hour film during the flight.

Limited choice
Although at first there appears to be a bewilderingly wide choice, in fact few or none of the titles on offer these days have much appeal for me. I'm not a complete snob about action blockbusters, but if I am going to watch one, it will be in a theatre to get the full experience out of the big special effects and so on (or, at the very least, I'll watch on a big TV screen at home, with the volume turned up high). As a rule, though, I am much more drawn to small independent or foreign films; and how many of those do you get on the inflight programmes? (And the sub-titles would be too small to read on those tiny seat-back screens, anyway.) Every once in a while, a quiet drama or an intelligent rom-com will catch my eye in the listing, but... in the more intimate scenes, I find I'm always struggling to hear the dialogue over the background noise in the cabin.

No more 'exclusivity'
Back in the Air India days, I didn't like to spurn the chance to see one of those Bollywood epics because I had no idea how I'd ever be able to see them again. Even with English-language films, back in the '80s and '90s, I'd sometimes find an inflight film that I knew I wouldn't get around to catching in the cinema and which might never appear on TV, and so I'd give it a try. These days, with multi-channel TV and ubiquitous cheap DVDs, you never have that one-and-only-chance-to-see sensation any more. Now, if I do notice an interesting film advertised on an inflight programme, I think to myself, "I'll get that on DVD when I get back to China."

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