' ' Cinema Romantico: Watching Notting Hill on a Plane

Monday, January 06, 2020

Watching Notting Hill on a Plane

For the holidays, my father-in-law received “The Movie Musical!”, the new book by Jeanine Basinger. Naturally I mentioned that Basinger had authored one of my favorite movie books, twelve years ago, “The Star Machine”, an equally pragmatic and philosophical account of and reckoning with the Movie Star, which naturally caused My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife to inhale deeply because I’m always – always – prattling on about that book. I can’t help it! Nothing vexes me more than the ongoing tragic plight of the Movie Star. Not even Disney! I’d cut Disney a little slack if I had confidence they could churn out Movie Stars like the old Star Machine. But Disney ain’t a Star Machine; they’re a Content Machine and the people in their Content are a dime a dozen. [Cries.] Anyway.

The previous afternoon, on Christmas Eve, flying out east to spend the holidays with my in-laws, I noticed the gentleman sitting a row in front of me, catty-corner, had tuned the screen on his American Airlines seatback to the twenty-year old rom com classic “Notting Hill.” The critic K. Austin Collins has written of the immense value in watching other people’s airplane movies. This is partially, as Collins notes, about an airplane being a shared space where, rather than everyone’s attention being strictly focused on a single movie, like in a regular theater, a person’s individual taste is broadcast to everyone around her/him. That’s why on a transatlantic flight this past May I watched “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “Casablanca”, to let these whippersnappers know just how I rolled, dammit. But Collins also notes how watching a movie on an airplane over someone’s shoulder is a window into filmmaking 101: with dialogue gone, you’re left to make sense of things from acting and cutting and framing, that’s it.

Retroactive 1999 Scarlett O’Hara Curtain Dress Random Award goes to...
I had seen “Notting Hill” and had seen televised bits and pieces of it over the years, meaning I knew what was going on. But as I watched it in silence over a stranger’s shoulder, ignoring the book in my lap, scenes like the dinner party where all of Grant’s friends react to the presence of Roberts’s movie star character Anna Scott would let you know, in and of themselves, that her character is someone important. And the way Roberts plays these moments, with a coy yet intrigued smile, compared to other moments, when she suddenly swoops in to encounter the jackanapeses saying things about her or fields questions at a press junket, demonstrate how she flips a switch, moving from, respectively, elegant confrontation and quiet comedy to cool command. Truly, Jules owned that screen even on mute.

And as I watched with nothing but the noise of an American Airlines Airbus for a soundtrack, the meta qualities of “Notting Hill’s” narrative fell away and I just saw her, Julia, the movie star. I felt like Hugh Grant in the scene where his character just sits back (sits forward, actually) and watches Julia’s character in a movie within the movie. The scene took me back to my friend’s holiday party a few weeks earlier, where another friend, over our seventh or eleventh cup of festive punch, elucidated his belief that movies were about, more than anything, the human face. I nodded along. That’s a belief my main man David Thomson has elucidated too, writing “In an age of special effects, the most special effect of all is the human face.” As it turned out, of all the movies I saw on the big screen in 2019, none looked any bigger than Julia Roberts in “Notting Hill” on a screen the size of an iPad on an airplane seatback.

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