Peninsula Flight 2549 is in trouble, forced to whirl above the clouds as it awaits a control-tower cue to crash land. So the flight attendants aboard it in Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, “I’m So Excited,” go to the cockpit with a question: How can they keep the passengers’ minds off possible doom?
“Just entertain them the way you know,” the captain tells them.
Perfecto! Cue dancing in the aisles. Actually, it takes a little while — and a lot of tequila — for the crew members to launch their cramped cabaret number, but you sense that it’s just waiting in the wings. If you know what I mean.
Of course you do. If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’ve seen the bit of in-flight entertainment that’s an airline steward specialty, the one that Almodóvar’s excellent cast plays with and turns into an Airbus burlesque. It’s that synchronized dance of gestures known as the safety demonstration, which flight attendants invariably perform with cool, mesmerizing understatement. You’re about to climb 30,000 feet into thin air, but the emotional pitch of this routine is as smooth and flat as the tarmac.
Nowadays video screens often replace the live performers, which is a pity. Back in the day (oh, a year or three ago), you’d see a marked physical transformation come over the crew, as eye contact vanished. The attendants stepped out of the role of cheerful server/nurse to join a tightly choreographed, compressed chorus line, like something Jerome Robbins could have made for New York City Ballet as a distillation of neo-urban folkways. As they slipped into their maneuvers, the flight attendants gazed straight ahead, expressionless, distant. (So downtown, so postmodern.)
But whether in the flesh or on-screen, real flight crews don’t want you thinking too hard about the what-ifs any more than those in Almodóvar’s film do, so their moves in safety demos are stylized and abstract. Hands flick crisply fore and aft, etching a movement phrase into space in the guise of pointing out the emergency exits. The life-vest pantomime is a smooth upper-body ballet, each move linked to the next. You’re lulled by the legato; your focus is on the confident visual swirl — inflation tubes, lipstick, finger placement — not on the threat of drowning that underlies it.
The safety routine is serious business, but it’s also a bit of folk art from our global village. In the tension between the two lies fodder for choreographers. The flight attendants’ dance in “I’m So Excited” is merely the latest example. Dance followers may remember Keigwin and Company’s 2009 performance at the Kennedy Center of Larry Keigwin’s “Fly,” with its perky cast in navy suits turning the seat belt-buckling and oxygen-mask-fastening into hilariously naughty gestures.
The (relatively) big production number at the heart of “I’m So Excited” is the work of Spanish choreographer Blanca Li. Her Web site features a tutorial of the dance suitable for flash mobs, and you can find a few of those on YouTube, overseen by Almodóvar himself.
But the flash mobs can’t touch the version in Almodóvar’s film. Inasmuch as “I’m So Excited” is a farcical romp, and most everyone in it is hyper-sexualized— there’s the hot-to-trot virgin, the predatory dominatrix, the insatiable newlywed— the portrayal of the three male flight attendants as matter-of-factly gay, with varying shades of deadpan flamboyance, is a note of relative restraint. Their dance, however, is not — a neat trick, considering the tight quarters. It’s a juicy, vampy three-minute show of camp-fab outrageousness, lip-synched to the pounding Pointer Sisters recording of the title song.
It unfurls with stripper moves (though the uniforms stay on), and hefty doses of voguing and hard-hitting disco. The gentlemen scoot along the aisle floor; duck between one another’s legs, pump their hips. At times they hug together in the bulkhead like a Motown girl group, with a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” edge.
This dance is the film’s creative climax, though not its emotional one (that is left to the breathtaking experience of the landing, heard but not seen). Almodóvar, a fan of the expressionistic dance-theater of the late German choreographer Pina Bausch (he featured her work in “Talk to Her”), has an astute dance sensibility. One of the characters in “I’m So Excited,” a suicidal ex-girlfriend, struck me as a nod to Bausch: tall and thin like her dancers, with red lipstick accentuating a gaunt, haunted face.
Many of the scenes have their own musical atmosphere, and the director’s eye for lyrical movement is everywhere in evidence. I especially admired the craftsmanship in the plane’s tiny food-prep area; here, whether they’re praying at a cardboard altar or mixing mescaline cocktails, all three flight attendants seamlessly adjust to one another’s movements.
“I’m So Excited” got me thinking: What is it about air travel that inspires choreography? Is it the dual experience of physical confinement and geographical escape? Surely our squashed subconscious dreams of dancing all the claustrophobia away.
The artful eye can even make a dance of the slog through the airport, with its stressful staccato of hurry-up-and-wait. Remember the ingenious opening of the great George Clooney film “ Up in the Air ,” directed by Jason Reitman. “To know me is to fly with me,” Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, tells us. He aims to collect a historic cache of frequent-flier miles as a 21st-century traveling salesman — though what he’s selling is your last day on the job. He fires people for a living.
So he’s the quintessential smooth operator, an abstraction of a human being, really, and we see this in the film’s first minutes as Clooney glides through a solo tour de force of traveling grace: wheeling his roller bag through the terminal with Gene Kelly-style deftness, twirling his laptop in his hands at the security check, slipping his jacket off and on with silky ease, zipping and unzipping, packing and unpacking, and always that smooth, ticktock, unimpeded stride. It’s unreal, but just real enough to tickle. We see this sequence twice more in the movie; it’s a metaphor for his life, and it loses its tightknit smoothness as the Clooney character’s world is upset.
“Make no mistake,” he tells us, “moving is living.” Yes, moving — even though our seat belts are buckled and our periphery is squeezed, even though the security line is long and static, we’re moving. We must be. As you travel this summer, or even if you don’t, keep thinking of forward motion. Even the fantasy of flight is liberating.