Saturday, December 06, 2003

American Flight

So when I was growing up, train travel in America was in decline. Call them the Amtrack Years. There were still a few great lines, but the days of the Pullmans were gone, replaced by Interstates and the “Discover America” program that loaded small children into station wagons and sent them out to view the world’s largest ball of twine. And while the romance of the railroad hung on for many years, the reality was that passenger travel had passed, and the golden age of passenger trains was over.

Similarly, American Passenger Aviation.

In the past two years, it has become no fun to fly. Part of it is the grim reality of the After Eleven world, but even the unsmiling lines of shoe-sniffers at the TSA are no more than a recurring echo of the sixties, when “Take Thees Plane to Coo-bah” was a punchline on prime time sketch TV and those little detector gates first appeared. More importantly, the airlines have taken this historic opportunity to re-evaluate their positions and holdings, and in the name of security and the bottom line, have cut anything that resembles a perk or benefit for the passengers.

Flying Delta into Atlanta earlier in the year, I was confronted by brown-bag lunches , dispensed from bins at the boarding gates in a manner similar to the old Ford Trimotors. Flying into Pittsburgh on US Air (their motto - "we don’t have to like you anymore") I encountered for the first time that meals were only available in the main cabin for those willing to pay premium rates for the priviledge.

Was this news in any of the papers? Or was this reported alongside the latest news from Afghanistan, in the middle of the night, in the back pages of the Home and Garden section, in the eariest hours when no one is listening? Let’s get an incredible barrage of news on Michael Jackson, but something affects people (and makes advertisers look bad) gets quietly shuffled off stage left.

Kate and I got meals,thank you, because we had used frequent flier miles to upgrade to first class. Or rather, upgraded to the back of first class. They ran out of some of those few meal choices as they made there way down the cabin. The headsets were free, but the online music had been cut (replaced with the audio track for “Freaky Friday” in english and spanish), and some of the earphones did not work. The cabin staff on the trip out was surley to say the least, and since there was limited interaction with the passengers, hung out up at their forward station, griping. On the trip back, the crew was kinder, but had this weird vision problem that prevented them from seeing (or serving) the left half of the plane.

Add to that the fact that even finding a direct flight to the hub airport was a chore - We left later than desired, and returned later than intended. And this was for flights booked a month and a half out. The airlines are running fewer flights now, and filling them to capacity. Most of the people onboad have that beaten, herded look of people who have to travel as opposed to want to travel. The thrill, definately, is gone

The first class seats were still wide, but they were avatars of an earlier, more gentile age. Everything else has been peeled away in the name of corporate profitability. The SST is grounded, residing at the Museum of Flight next to an early Air Force One. The airlines have moved from the grand adventure of flight to the commonplace to how much flesh they can cargo at the least cost possible. They have in effect become bus lines with wings. And not horribly nice bus lines at that.

Welcome to the Amtrack Years of Flight

More Later,

Movie: Life O’Brian

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: starring Russel Crowe, Directed by Peter Weir, Screenplay by Peter Weir and John Collee, based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian.

Margaret Weis got me clued into Patrick O’Brian about seven years back - a voracious reader in addition to being a dedicated writer, she had the novels at her place. Up to that time, I was aware of C S Forester’s work (Hornblower), but not O’Brian and his heroes - Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin. Since then I’ve read about four of the books and listened to another pair on tape on the long trips to and from Bellevue. The story arc of the books involves the career of Captain Aubrey, who in turn is based upon life of Lord Cochrane, and many of Aubrey’s career highlights mirror those of the British captain. The time is the Napoleanic Wars, a period of various conflicts and military doldrums. The basic plot is: They sail around. Stuff happens.

Now Patrick O’Brian does not weave a sea tale as much as he extrudes it. His books, as historical adventure, lack the tight plot and rising action of modern books. The basic plot is: They sail around. Stuff happens. The high point of action can take place in the first or second third of the book, with the rest of the book “filling in the bits” around it. The books almost feel like the publisher would show up at O’Brian’s door once a year and cut off another slab of Aubrey’s life.

From this standpoint, the movie is excellent, in that it deals with but one section of an Aburey novel, shorn of all the accoutrements that usually hang about O’Brian’s work. The action within the movie, the pursuit of an superior French vessel with a captain the equal to Lucky Jack, fits neatly within the berth of an O’Brian novel, with additional barnacles of British society, letters to his fiancee (and later wife), the prize courts, the wildness of sailors on leave and the pigheadedness of the British Naval System (Indeed, one of the continual themes of O’Brian’s books is that the Britsh Navy survives because of captains like Aubrey as opposed to the bureaucracy that they support). The opposing vessel that is the movie has much faster lines and bigger guns - it the the unbeatable foe. In this way, the movie evokes nothing so much as Jaws.

The ritual and repetition of shipboard life comes across nicely in the film, as well as the stratified nature of ship’s society. The turning of the glass, the sending of mail home, the grinding of the holy stones on the deck. It captures the feeling of the era. Bits from other books in the series drift in, like being becalmed, the nature of the ship’s Jonah, and the impromptu brain surgery of Dr. Maturin. But the film never makes true landfall - even taking on supplies off the cost of Brazil happens at sea. When they do land, it on the deserted Galapagos, so the integrity of the crew as a single social unit, a single entity within the film.

And the crew is the star. Yes, Russel Crow and Paul Bettany take the lead as Aubrey and Maturin, but the rest of the characters, gleaned from O’Brian’s pages, take their turns as well. The ship’s master, Allan, acid-tounged grumbler Killich, the child midshipman Darby, young leader Tom Pullings all make appearances and lend their coloring to characters that are often a bit bland on the page. Aubrey from the books is tall, massive, bluff, and red-haired - Crowe is shorter, blonder, and more driven. Stephen from the books is shorter, stouter, and much more Irish than presented here - here he seems to belong to Buffy's secret organization of Watchers.

Indeed, Stephen Mauratin’s presence here seems an oddity in the way the movie is presented. Since the movie picks up in mid-adventure, there is no way to tell the movie audience that most ships of the Suprise’s size would not have a ship’s surgeon, or that Maturin serves as a British spy. Espionage has no purpose at sea, so Maturin seems to be an odd accessory aboard ship (though of course once he finds the walking stick insect, the rules of the movie indicate how the film will resolve).

This film remains true to the text, improving it dramatically through the strength of film (Peter Jackson’s version of LotR does the same). I see a lot of the mechanics of screenwriting operating here (characters are resolved, lessons are learned), but also some brave cinematic moves in stressing O’Brian’s world of random death, and the primaries remain blooded but unbowed by their travails.

Its a good film, thought one not aimed at the mass market (Indeed, it was outscored by “Elf”, a forgettable Christmas Comedy, on its initial weeked). Wier has done O’Brian well by taking his work into a new media, expanding it while remaining true to the core.

More later,