Even though I’m terrified of flying and only do so equipped with an Ipod, yogic breathing exercises and Xanax, I can’t wait to see Snakes on a Plane this weekend. For those of you in a total culture vacuum, this highly-anticipated action/horror flick stars Samuel L. Jackson and 500+ would-be terrorist snakes on board, yup, a plane. Violence, swearing, hissing, writhing, tongue-flicking and CGI effects ensue — at least according to previews and media buzz. At one point, Samuel L. Jackson reportedly exclaims, “That’s it! I have had it with these motherf—ing snakes on this motherf—ing plane!”
Forget the internet hype and anticipatory spoofs (Snakes in Ukraine, Snakes who Missed the Plane, Sharks on a Rollercoaster, Snakes on John McCain), I’m pegging Snakes on a Plane as the political satire of the year. Seriously.
As Bill Greider points out in his last post, the suspiciously timed announcement of a thwarted plot (“suggestive of al-Qaeda”) to blow-up “multiple commercial aircraft” plays into Bush’s “fear and smear” campaign. “So, once again in the run-up to a national election, we are visited with alarming news. A monstrous plot, red alert, high drama playing on all channels and extreme measures taken to tighten security,” he writes. Beyond the coordinated spin of US and British officials and the now-discredited suggestion that the attack was imminent (in fact, scheduled for today, August 16), this latest “victory” in the “war on terror” has all the markings of a mass-mediated panic.
As in all great horror plots, the mundane has been transformed into the terrifying; the line between the two blurred. Is it lipstick or liquid explosive? Is your High Wycombe neighbor a 2nd-generation Pakistani-Brit or an “al-Qaeda inspired” Jihadist? The list of banned items grows longer, so do lines at security checkpoints. Mothers taste-test bottled breastmilk in front of airport screeners. Women ditch full bottles of Chanel No. 5 into garbage bins (talk about horrifying!). Diabetics abandon their insulin. And those damned colored alerts — Yellow! Red! Orange! Red! — continue to flash meaninglessly across our TV screens.
All of this commotion sows confusion. And since we can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a balm, we might as well trust our government to do so for us. (Though apparently, airport screeners equipped with X-ray machines can’t distinguish between an ordinary Nike sneaker and plastic explosives either.) So high-pitched is this hysteria that, just this morning, a passenger’s claustrophobic incident on board a Boeing 767 instigated a military fighter jet escort and emergency diversion to Logan International Airport in Boston. And the “matches, screwdriver, Vaseline and two notes referring to al-Qaeda” that CNN excitedly reported were in this poor woman’s possession? They don’t exist, never did. According to a Transportation Security Administration spokesman, “there is no nexus to terrorism with this event” — a surreal quote quite on its own.
When reality gets this crazy, an absurd movie like Snakes on a Plane might just be a welcome antidote. I can already imagine the reality-informed sequels: Shampoo on a Plane (radical gay hair-stylists, armed with gossip, curl relaxer and Tresemmé, hijack a flight to Miami but are foiled by Samuel L. Jackson and his extremely kinky afro) and Baby Formula on a Plane (fanatic breastmilk advocates force-feed Enfamil to terrified passengers, causing Samuel L. Jackson to shout, “I have had it with this motherf—ing infant formula on this motherf—ing plane!”)
Alright, clowning aside, let me just suggest that comic horror films like Snakes on a Plane and the mass-mediated, transatlantic spectacle of this past week are two sides of the same coin. The former inspires laughs and thrills; the latter instills fear and acquiescence. But both appeal to the shop-worn conventions of the mass disaster, and both, in their way, are pleasurable. In his brilliant essay “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” social theorist Michael Warner argues that airplane crashes — rather than more frequent and more deadly car crashes — fascinate because they cause injury to a mass body to which we identify and aspire. “Disaster is popular, as it were, because it is a way of making mass subjectivity available,” he writes. It’s this tendency, to become a mass public through scenes of real and imagined disaster, that the Bush administration and the docile press corps exploit, for political gain (as Greider suggests) or merely for the sake of audience share. But we don’t have to look, or if we do, we can laugh. So turn off the tube and go see Snakes on a Plane.