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  • Hannah Soebbing

What do Airports Represent? A Totally Non-Comprehensive Survey of Cinematic Airports

Whenever I have occasion to fly, I look for routes involving layovers. The ostensible rationale is that these are often cheaper than direct flights. But really, I want to maximize my airport time. I enjoy drawing comparisons between different airports and noting airport trends, like the advent of pet relief areas, or the existence of chains like iStore (a Canada-based retailer selling “trendy and practical digital lifestyle solutions”) whose outlets are exclusively in airport terminals. Most of all though, I like airports because I find kind of paradoxical sense of liberation in being suspended in between places, with not much to do but wait for the next departure.

In the 99.9% of my life that I spend not in a terminal, I have lately been watching movies that feature airports. This is, on one hand, an excuse to luxuriate in certain aesthetic spaces, but, on the other hand, I am also interested in thinking about what airports represent in the cultural imagination. As nexuses of globalization and modern human mobility—and of political checks on mobility, as with the recent days-long detainment of hundreds of travelers to U.S. airports under Executive Order 13769—airports have broad-ranging, polysemic social and cultural significance. The following is a/n (entirely non-comprehensive, and regrettably very Hollywood-centric) list of films that have presented airport settings in distinctive ways.

12 Monkeys (1995) and La Jetee (1963)

The Terry Gilliam-directed time-traveling dystopian sci-fi film 12 Monkeys was conceived as an adaptation of Chris Marker’s experimental short, or “photo novel,” La Jetee. Both films contain repeated, dream-like airport sequences that represent memories with which the respective protagonists are obsessed. In either film, the airport sequence is tied to an irreparable point of rupture between the pre-dystopian society and the present, and thus we can read the airport as representing the apex of modernity before its fall. [SPOILER] In 12 Monkeys, the sequence is revealed to be the scene of a catalyst for a global pandemic, highlighting the airport’s function as a globalizing hub in a mode similar to some disaster films like the recent Contagion (2011).

Playtime (1967)

I only just discovered this film while researching cinematic airports (its opening scene takes place in one), so maybe I am late to the party. Let me just say, if you have any affinity (or hatred) for modern design, or movies about Paris, or non-Americans’ takes on American tourists, or loose, episodic narratives and absurdist humor, see Jaques Tati’s Playtime immediately. (It is currently streaming on the subscription site FilmStruck.)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opus features not an airport but a space station, by way of hyperbolically modernist 1960s design concepts. In Kubrick’s imagining, extraterrestrial human travelers of the future will inhabit spaces resembling those commercial passengers would have encountered in the ‘60s, but with many more glowing white panels and minus all the heavy concrete used in actual airports. Space travel in this future also appears to be the province of the elite; the place seems deserted but for space station personnel, scientists, and other professionals.

Airport (1970)

Airport is a seminal disaster film. It sparked a franchise (Airport 1975 [1974], Airport ’77 [1977] and The Concord… Airport ’79 [1979]) that in turn sparked the satiric Airplane series. As Vincent Canby’s contemporaneous review attests, Airport was schlocky and retrograde even in its day. (Contemporary viewers may be particularly bowled over by its gender politics.) The film shares something with The Terminal in that the airport becomes a setting for workplace drama and for different “types” to converge.

If you enjoy “bad” or cult-y movies, I fully recommend Airport. It makes such ample use of the split-screen technique that sections of the film feel like the title sequence of The Brady Bunch (1969-1974).

The Terminal (2004)

This Steven Spielberg-directed comedy-drama is probably the first thing you think of when I say “airport movie.” It stars Tom Hanks as a traveler who, because of political unrest in his home country, becomes legally stateless while en route to the U.S. and winds up living in limbo in the JFK Airport for a year. This film does many things, some of which I’m not very happy about (check out my previous review or Sukhdev Sandhu’s review, which rightly critiques the tonal issues that arise with Spielberg’s lighthearted take on serious subject matter).

But on a “thinking about cinematic representations of airports” level, The Terminal presents an apt case study because it takes place, but for a brief denouement, entirely within an airport. With an ensemble of characters including customs and security officials, a food service worker, a cargo handler, a stewardess, a janitor, and scores of other bit players, the film does succeed at suggesting the scale and scope of human labor necessary for day-to-day airport operations.

Up in the Air (2009)

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a “career transition consultant” whose job is to fly around the U.S. and fire people on behalf of companies. As underscored by the utter lack of décor in his apartment, Bingham travels more often than he is home. He has constructed his identity around this state of constant transit and his main relationship is with American Airlines, which in turn constructs his identity through a set of data points. Bingham tells us in voiceover that “systemized friendly touches” (e.g., he runs his card through a scanner, prompting an airline desk clerk to greet him with a personalized message) “keep [his] world in orbit.” But the film also suggests that interpersonal intimacy, however occasional or messy, is a vital complement to automated perks in the life of a business-managerial class transient.

In re-watching Up in the Air, I was at first disappointed; it is very conventional-feeling in a way that I think muddies its darker themes. But the more I think about the film, the more I find it compelling. For one, one could certainly argue that it is “in conversation” with the concept of the “non-place.” Anthropologist Marc Augé proposed this term in 1992 to describe airports, planes and trains, chain hotels, tourist destinations, supermarkets, etc.—places which are designed to be passed through by relatively anonymized masses of people whose identities and right to inhabit that place (their “right to anonymity”) must nonetheless be repeatedly verified through identity papers, boarding passes, demonstrations of compliance, etc. (102).

Romantic Airports: Casablanca (1943), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Just Married (2003), Love Actually (2003), Garden State (2004)

While Casablanca probably takes the cake for the iconic (i.e., classic) couple-parting-at-an-airport scene, Love Actually’s bookending montages may have the highest volume of people (couples, families, friends) uniting emotionally in a cinematic airport. More than any other film on this list, and maybe more than any other film, Love Actually directly (through heavy-handed montage and a Hugh Grant voiceover soliloquy about London's Heathrow Airport) and resoundingly (through scoring) foregrounds the airport as a site of positive human connection.

Airports present felicitous dramatic backdrops for the parting of ways between cinematic couples, as with the iconic final scene of Casablanca, or [SPOILER] the final minutes of Garden State which tease us into thinking the couple has parted ways (at least temporarily), but close on a striking backwards dolly shot of Andrew (Zach Braff) and Sam (Natalie Portman) embracing in a baggage claim terminal after he decides to skip the trip to be with her. The “quintessential… feel-good relationship movie” When Harry Met Sally… meanwhile stages one of the couple’s fateful run-ins at an airport (Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, “When Harry Met Sally: For Some, It’s Become a Film Icon”). My personal favorite feel-good relationship movie, Just Married, opens with an extended comedic set piece in which embroiled newlyweds Sarah (Brittany Murphy) and Tom (Ashton Kutcher) attempt to sabotage each other while marching through a bustling LAX.

For anyone interested in reading further about things airport, I might point you to a 2016 paper by sociologist John Urry et al. entitled “Globalization’s Utopia? On Airport Atmospherics.” It was a big help to me in prepping this piece. I might also point you to philosopher Michel Serres’s Angels: A Modern Myth, which has some great passages about airports. This dialogic work explores modern space, mobility and communication through the concept of angels, a word whose etymology stems from the Greek for “messenger” (aggelos).

Airports are not, to my knowledge, much of a concerted area of interest in film and media circles. But I hope this survey will have highlighted some of airports’ cultural polysemy, or that it might, as a viewing list, offer someone some expanded fodder on which to stake a hatred or love of airports.

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