A recent Op-Ed piece in the L.A. Times made reference to our current experience of “binary confinement” (as opposed to solitary confinement in prisons). That certainly fits for my wife and me—two people isolated (sort of) from the rest of the world. It’s good that we get along together. (My wife is very forgiving.) But as social isolation drags on, we may all look at the people we are with 24/7 and wish for a break—and those are people we love. What if you were stuck with someone awful? Let’s consider the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
On a business trip to New York, Neal Page (Steve Martin) is rushing to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving with his family. It is a doomed trip. Even waiting to get out of a meeting takes forever. Trying to get a cab is impossible and when he things he has one, someone else steals it from him before he can get in. That someone, we discover, is Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman. They meet in the airport and things continue to go wrong for Neal. He and Del are oil and water, but they end up together in some very difficult situations as various problems send them to Wichita, Jefferson City, St. Louis, and other places. (You might note than none of those places are between New York and Chicago.)
Del is gregarious to the point of being annoying. Try as he might, Neal can’t get Del to be quiet. And due to the various problems they face, that aggravation keeps growing withing Neal. As their trip keeps spiraling into the road trip from Hell, Neal at times reaches his breaking point, exploding in anger.
When I thought of this film for inclusion in our Self-Isolated Film Festival, my memory of the film was that poor Neal had to put up with this jerk. But when I watched the film, I discovered that as annoying as Del may be, he really is a nice guy. He is generous. He has a positive outlook. He is loyal. Neal, on the other hand, is rude, self-centered, and constantly acts superior. Why Del would try to help this jerk get home is a testament to Del’s kindness.
As we face our “binary confinement” (which could include more than just two people), we are bound to hit those times when nerves are on edge, when priorities clash, when habits annoy, when we are provoked to anger. First, we need to remember that these are people we love and who love us. But we might also want to reflect on the relationship between Neal and Del. And remember, when you look at that other person and think they are as annoying as Del, that is also the way they think of you. Then perhaps you’ll be able to channel the kindness and generosity that are the real definition of Del’s character.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is streaming on Amazon Prime.