Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia: Planes Trains and Automobiles


 A road trip is only as good as the company you're traveling with. Whether it's a few hours or over the course of a few days, the amount you can get any enjoyment from the trip itself is reliant on who is in the seat with you, even if you don't know them. You're on a plane and you're next to a loud eater or on a bus next to a couple constantly making out. Maybe you're with a friend and he won't shut up or a relative who you constantly argue with. The fact is, the journey is often the bad part. You just want to get to your destination.

But sometimes the journey can be really, really, really bad to the point where you might ask yourself "how can this possibly get worse?" Well, Planes, Trains and Automobiles answers that question. It's a question, I think, we all have had at some point. Sometimes when I have that question, I just sit and think back to this movie and say to myself "At least I'm not Neal Page."

Neal Page is the name of Steve Martin's character in the film. He's got one goal in mind: get home in time for Thanksgiving. With him, whether he likes it or not, is Del Griffith played by the late John Candy. Both are travelers, but keep crossing paths and both eventually form a bond of friendship that only days sleeping in shitty hotels, hitchhiking and burning up rental cars can create. It's funny throughout, touching at the right moments and charmingly sappy in just the right doses. It's still one of the best, I would say the best, "travel" or "road trip" movie ever made and one of the few great movies that's centered around Thanksgiving - Christmas seems to always dominate the holiday movie genre but, here, Thanksgiving is able to come out from its shadow. 

In John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles, you have two comedy greats really at the top of their game. Martin plays the uptight family man, Candy the "live free" a joyous traveler with a painful past. They're the ying and yang of travel companions caught up in bad scenario after bad scenario. It's so simple that you can't help but love it for such simplicity. Its strength is in these two men in every scene, their chemistry and their journey. In the "road trip" genre, the "road" is often symbolic to the person traveling it. It's meant to represent life: the obstacles, the left turns and the eventual goal and final destination is there to correspond with the character or characters overcoming their personal, internal conflicts as well. Not many road trip movies do this, but those that do are able to touch you on a more emotional level that the comedy can't undermine. It has to be balanced. It has to be smart in how it does it. It has to be perfect.

I have no problem in calling Planes, Trains and Automobiles perfect.  It's occasionally heavy handed on the nose, but I think it comes with the territory. It's a movie that stays with you and, in my case especially, can stay with you for years. For many, it's a holiday tradition on Thanksgiving to watch it, but it's not simply because it's a great comedy or that it involves that particular holiday, I think it's because it's such a seminal piece of filmmaking that has yet to be matched. It set the standard of what these types of movies should be.

So while you're eating up a nice fat turkey this Thanksgiving, make watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles a part of your holiday tradition if it isn't already. It's funny, sweet and reminds us what's truly important during the holidays beyond just stuffing your face or opening presents.


A Brief History of Planes, Trains and Automobiles


-Inspired by his own experience traveling from New York to Chicago, writer and director John Hughes wrote the script for Planes, Trains and Automobiles in three days, though some twenty or so rewrites were still to come. For Hughes, known primarily for movies about teenagers and children, the adult-driven script was a departure.

 -John Candy, who had just come off of the John Hughes written comedy, Uncle Buck, was cast as Del Griffith. Steve Martin was cast as Neal Page, the father and husband desperate to get home in time for Thanksgiving.

-Nearly twice the amount of footage of a normal film was shot for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, leading to rumors that director John Hughes might have a directors cut at some point. Unfortunately, Hughes is quoted in saying that many of the scenes were never cut into the film and were too unorganized to figure out how, but a three hour version was still possible and to this day still rumored to be in existence.

-Some scenes, however, did make it into the TV version of the movie, such as this one about airplane food. Other scenes that didn't make it can be spotted in various trailers, such as Neal eating some bad pizza and Del in front of a bathroom mirror.

 -The film was released in time for the Thanksgiving holiday on November 25 1987. Despite it's R-Rating thanks to one scene where the word "fucking" is said 18 times in about one minute, the film was a massive hit with audiences, eventually breaking 150 Million at the Box Office on a modest 15 Million dollar budget. Though it was critically acclaimed as well, it wasn't nominated for any awards though many have looked back on it as John Hughes' best film and Steve Martin and John Candy in two of their finest roles.

Top Ten Travel Lessons of Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Everything in Planes, Trains and Automobiles goes from bad to worse, but a lot probably could have been prevented with careful travel planning and consideration of bad possibilities to avoid.

Honorable Mention: Know Your (Timely) Showtunes

 Del and Neal find themselves without a car or train, and planes are out of the question, so their next-best and only choice of travel is by bus. On a bus, you're close to everyone and can't help it, and the only way to pass the time is to sing. You need trivia and songs to make the long journey go by quicker and be more fun, but it seems only Del can charm the other passengers with TV themes and showtunes. 

Neal makes the mistake of trying to get everyone to sing Three Coins in a Fountain - a song from a film from 1956 and later sang by Sinatra and Dean Martin. The thing is, it's not catchy, it's not timely and soon Neal realizes nobody knows it. So when traveling, brush up on your Flintstones themes and not decades-old musicals.

10: Dress For the Weather

If where you're going is cold, when packing, try to imagine it even colder. Know there will be snow? Take a few extra layers. Maybe an extra coat and some nice mittens. It's best to be prepared no matter what because you never know when it might take a turn for the worse, or you might get stuck in the back of a truck with a vicious dog nipping at your frost-bitten hand.

9: Four Wheels + Steering Wheel =/= Road Safe

 It turns out that there are standards when it comes to the quality of a vehicle. I learned it from this movie, actually. It's called "road safe" and after being crushed between two semis, spinning out of control, losing hubcaps, being set on fire to where the speedometer is melted and crashing into a motel just for good measure, Del and Neal's car isn't what's called "road safe." 


8: Don't Smoke and Drive

While Neal sleeps one off in the passenger seat, Del decides to light up a cigarette, bust out some Ray Charles and swerve manically all over the road. Now bad driving aside, the big lesson here is what happens after. After nearly crashing, the two take a seat on the side of the road and suddenly a rice roar of a fire starts in the car.

The car was perfectly fine until it lit on fire. They could have just picked up their things and continued on. But it all goes back to five minutes earlier when Del was smoking which led to the unfortunate event (the entire film being a series of unfortunate events). Del's cigarette wasn't completely out when he threw it out the window and it boomeranged back into the back seat. Whoops.

Your car us full of things that can catch fire - including yourself - so keep the smoking to pit stops. 

7: Pack Your Own Towels

 There's nothing worse than stepping out of a shower that you could never get quite hot or cold to where you like it to find out there are no more towels to dry yourself off with. All you get is a little washcloth. At this point, Neal could have gone out and buy his own towels, he still had his money (we'll get to that in a minute) but the thing is you shouldn't rely on your hotel to have enough towels for you and your travel it's just much more sanitary to have your own towel in the first place.

6: Lock Up Your Valuables

When you're staying at some dive motel off the interstate, here's an idea: hide your stuff. At one point, Del and Neal are sound asleep and a thief quietly breaks in and steals their money. Much of the duo's problems can be traced back to this moment. Sure, you can't predict when someone will break into your room, but you can make it damn hard for them to steal anything if they do by putting your stuff in un-obvious places.

5: Keep to Yourself

Do you know what not to do when you're on a bus or plane? Stare at the couple making out. In fact, it's best to not stare at anything unless it's out a window. Pop on your headphones, turn up that Hall and Oates and just mind your own business.

Or, rather, take a peek, then look away. As Seinfeld taught us, look to get an impression, then look away. Neal here got caught...badly.


4: Pay Attention When Driving

Nothing like waking up and seeing John Candy dressed as the devil next to you, is there?

Well, that's not entirely accurate. While on the highway, Neal sees Del for who he is: the devil and he's out to kill him. Of course Del doesn't mean to be trying to kill him, he just kind of  forgot which side of the highway he was on. No biggie, right?




After nearly dying, we can take a lot of lesson from watching Del driving on the highway. Everything seemed to be a distraction for him and Neal wasn't awake enough to realize Del screwed up royally. He was pretty awake when people were yelling "you're going the wrong way" to him. Driving late at night on a highway can be scary enough, so check and double check your road signs and exit ramps before a couple of semis are head on in front of you.

3: Just Take the Floor

If ever you find yourself in a situation where there's two or more of you and only one bed at the hotel because there's just one room left, guess what - there's a nice cozy floor with your name on it.

Be the bigger man and say "You take the bed, I'll take a pillow and blanket and sleep on the floor. Let's just say...things can happen. Things you may not expect and/or want. 

2: Have Things You Can Sell or Trade

Hey, remember #6 on this list? Well, let's say you forget to do that. You're just too busy cuddling with some 250 pound man and using his asscheeks for pillows to remember to hide your money and possessions. Well, you should always have a contingency plan: travel with valuable objects. Why the thief didn't take these as well is unclear, maybe he was in a rush, but either way it's nice to have a good watch or piece of jewelry you can barter because it does help out in a dire moment when Neal and Del have no money and only Neal has a Rolex to trade for a room for the night. Del only has a Casio...

...but Del does have shower ring curtains. He's able to sell those for a nice wad of cash by pretending they're the hottest New Wave 1980s ear rings. Some even have helium, a good selling point.

1: Sometimes,You're Just Fucked

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is an odd film. 99% is PG-13 great comedy, but one scene is all it takes to push it to a nice R rating. I think this was intentional because by this point, Steve Martin's character has reached a brick wall. It's his breaking point and when it comes right down to it, he's just fucked...and he knows it. A simple photograph does not do this scene justice.



So what do we learn on this one? Sometimes, there's just nothing you can do. You're going to have a nervous breakdown.

That and sometimes, you just have to let it all out. In fact, that's something that's a continuing theme in the movie: just let those pent up emotions and thoughts loose. Neal goes off on Del, Del goes off on Neal, Del goes off on a cabbie, Neal goes off on this lady and so forth. Sometimes, when you're fucked, blowing up is the easiest way to feel better.



There really aren't a ton of films about the holiday of Thanksgiving. While it's more a backdrop in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it still manages to capture elements of the holiday season: family and friends and being together. It's a comedy that, though a bit sappy on occasion, still holds up incredibly well 24 years later. The dialogue is sharp, gags classic and the pace is ever-going-forward.

But it's the characters of Del and Neal that are the film's strengths. You understand and sympathize with both sides. Del may be a bit dumb and silly, but in that "big kid" kind of way. Neal may be uptight and anal but he's that way due to constant frustration and you route for him to finally make it home to see his family. Steve Martin is at the top of his game, Martin himself saying this is the favorite of all his movies, and this is the first movie I think of when I think of the late John Candy who is incredibly difficult to not love as Del.


 Are we done yet?

No, we're not.  Planes, Trains and Automobiles had a bad side as well, though it's completely unintentional. It pretty much is the standard for every road trip movie in existence, and I can't think of a single one that is up to its standards. It's a road-trip farce with the best of them, but it's a level above because it manages to really hit the emotional beats at just the right moments and it's that aspect that sets it apart from the rest. Many "road trip" movies are just about the journey, but none really step back to take a breath and maybe get you a little teary-eyed in the process.

You really feel for Neal and especially Del, it tugs at those heartstrings and even if it can be a bit sappy, it's the right kind of sappy. It's that Holiday-movie sappy that makes people watch It's a Wonderful Life every year. For Thanksgiving, it's Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It has been for 24 years and even though there's plenty of fun road trip movies and holiday films, there's none that blend them as well as this one and probably never will be again. Movies like this are gone, then again with a movie this timeless and still great decades later and will be great for decades to come, they at least won't be missed. Planes, Trains and Automobiles set the standard far too high, and I'm fine with that.





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