Getting Weepy Watching Movies on Planes

Alix Lambert has cried (profusely) at a lot of movies while 30,000 feet in the air, and she isn't afraid to talk about it.

“The combination of gravity and acceleration encountered during flight in the atmosphere produces a variety of physiological effects experienced by aircrew and passengers. At the surface of the earth, the forces of gravity affect virtually all forms of human physical activity. The weight of a person corresponds to the force exerted upon the mass of the human body by the earth’s gravitational field.”

“The physiological effects of sustained acceleration result from the sustained distortion of tissues and organs of the body and changes in the flow of blood and distribution of body fluids.”

Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, 4th Edition. Edited by Jeanne Mager Stellman.

“[C]hanges in … distribution of body fluids” = I cry A LOT when I watch movies on airplanes. My body “distributes” tears. I would like to blame this on science – but actually there is no evidence that any of the above explains why I cry while watching movies on planes. There are many theories. Maybe it’s just being nowhere, 30,000 feet in the air, strapped into a seat next to a stranger you would rather not talk to.

The whole commercial airplane situation makes me sad. The uninspired meal tray that moves forward and back, not smoothly, but pathetically. The stale air, and polyester seat covers. The bathroom with the door that spontaneously flies open while the seatbelt sign is illuminated. The hostage situation I have not only volunteered for but paid money for. I am stuck. I am not in control. The person next to me. Always. The person next to me. The screaming child in front of me. The person across the aisle from me who has brought food from home that smells terrible. And then the nowhereness. I am not in a city. I am not out in nature. I am wrapped up with the other passengers like the beans in a metal burrito. A bunch of strangers that I don’t ever want to know or talk to or listen to or look at, all moving through air too thin to breathe and putting my life in the hands of a pilot who might be drunk, or tired or bored or stupid or all of those things at once. Maybe the pilot is brilliant, and charming, and smart, and alert – but that’s never where my mind goes.

Whatever it is. It happens to me. Always. Watching movies on airplanes makes me weep. The kind of crying that involves wiping snot away with my shirtsleeve. The kind of crying that involves loud gulping sounds.

I’m a pretty easy target for sentimentality anyway. If you’re with me while I’m watching a laundry commercial, you’ll see me nodding in agreement, “Mama does make colors bright like the sunshine!”

I will cry watching any film on any plane. Temple Grandin destroyed me.

I’m not afraid to fly, so I cannot blame fear. I don’t drink on planes, so I cannot blame alcohol.

I remember flying with a friend to Russia. His wife was pregnant at the time. The movie on the flight was Junior, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a pregnant man. You won’t find it in the Criterion Collection. At the end, my friend leaned over to me, tears in his eyes, and said something to the effect of, “Arnold Schwarzenegger is a much better actor than I thought. He is acting exactly like my wife!”

I saw Titanic on a plane, the immense ship rendered tiny on the back of the seat in front of me, reminding me more of a game of Battleship than one of the worst historical manmade disasters. It was ludicrous, the great ship reduced to the size of a postage stamp, as if it were a Shrinky Dink just out of the oven, barely even enough room for it to angle downward to the bottom of the ocean. All attempts to manipulate my emotions stripped from the film by virtue of the small size, bad sound, cramped viewing position, and missed scenes when the drink cart rolls over my foot which is just a little too much in the aisle because no reasonably sized human can fit into an airplane seat comfortably. And yet … tears. Maybe it’s just the tyranny of discomfort and the desire to distract myself.

It doesn’t matter if the screen is on the seat in front of me, or attached to the ceiling of the plane – whether I am watching alone, or with all the horrible (possibly lovely) people who surround me.

While I was writing this, I received a text from a friend: “I have been watching romcoms all night and tearing up. It’s like I am on an airplane.”

He didn’t know I was writing this. He said he watched:

The World’s End
Man Up
Hector and the Search for Happiness

These days, things have changed. You are likely to get a selection of in-flight films, so you can choose which film you want, to mitigate your embarrassment – but in the days when there was one film on offer, there was no pretending. You couldn’t make a choice to match what you knew would happen – you were stuck crying at Beverly Hills Chihuahua on your transcontinental flight. My advice: if you are on a plane and there is a movie playing, watch it. A good cry cleanses the soul.

So there it is: your playlist – recommended only at 30,000 feet.

Temple Grandin
The World’s End
Man Up
Hector and the Search for Happiness
Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Shrinky Dinks

Alix Lambert is a filmmaker, photographer and writer living in NYC. Her films include the Independent Spirit Award-nominated The Mark of Cain, Bayou Blue and Mentor, and she has also directed shorts and web series. She is currently in production on Goodbye, Fat Larry. Lambert is the author of four books: Mastering The Melon, The Silencing, Russian Prison Tattoos and Crime. Learn more about her work here.