R.I.P. Leslie Nielson.
The seminal film "Airplane" starring Leslie Nielson was treated as slapstick humor in its time, with Nielson's Dr. Rumack serving up deadpan jokes while the plane was "in danger". But this was where Nielson was having the last laugh because his seemingly funny lines were actually infused with important existentialist thinking, with the stricken crew and airplane serving as a multifaceted flying platform for many metaphysical concepts and unsolvable paradoxes. Let's explore.
In the dramatic "Airplane" scene in which Dr. Rumack tells brainy stewardess Elaine that:
"You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital."
Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?
Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.
In this passage Nielson's character is signaling that all life is an illusion and that the airplane could just as well be a hospital, but in this case it "appears" to be an aluminum tube flying through the air at 500 miles per hour. If suddenly, all of the passengers were sick and plugged into medical devices….it would then be a hospital.
Significantly, no one in this scene attempted to roll down the windows and check if they were actually flying or simply parked….or maybe just in a movie set…perhaps in the back of a large hospital. Neitzsche would have a lot to say about this.
In another scene, Nielson adroitly combines existentialism, metaphysics and politics in an interesting paradox….one of his favorite tricks.
Dr. Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.
Brilliant! This one has Nietzsche rolling over in his grave searching for a more comfortable position. The paradox is obvious…..how can you both fly a plane and land it and the same time? Landing the plane means that it is on the ground…flying it is in the air. How can you fly the plane both on the ground and in the air?
This is reminiscent of the "unstoppable object and impenetrable force paradox" that is discussed so frequently in freshman philosophy, unusually in smoke filled dorm rooms. Striker's response signifies the complexity and absurdity of the question simultaneously, but is still polite.
Nielson deflects the emerging philosophical conflict by immediately bringing politics into play when he alludes to Shirley Chisholm, the famous African American women who ran for president. He says…."don't call me Shirley". By making it clear he is NOT Shirley Chisholm, while obvious, he is saying that on this airplane, we are in the moment…we have an issue, i.e. that plane is in trouble and that Shirley Chisholm, while important, certainly can't fly and land the plane at the same time. Even SHE cannot fix the paradox.
Ah, but as with any great paradox and in the case of the tireless philosopher Nielson, you can never give up the discourse. Later in the film this scene is telling:
Rumack: I won't deceive you, Mr. Striker. We're running out of time.
Ted Striker: Surely there must be something you can do.
Rumack: I'm doing everything I can... and stop calling me Shirley!
Again…its a film…they are not in an airplane, so only in theory are they running out of time. This is a classic philosophical debate strategy when is comes to discussing paradoxes….you force a decision which will necessarily be absurd…then you ridicule your adversary. When Striker successfully deflects the debate back to Rumack he bails on the debate yet again by bringing up Chisholm.
I argue Nietzsche would have loved this style of debate, saying that since it is totally meaningless it necessarily should be both unstructured and illogical…but that is where it gets its meaning. I think Leslie Nielson totally agreed, and this is what he was going for in this deeply considered metaphysical masterpiece.
It is regretful that "Airplane" is not more respected in academic philosophical circles…although it is talked about with reverence outside the lecture halls by forward thinkers who are not so constrained by the formalistic thinking of the 17th and 18th century icons.
I am convinced that Leslie Nielson and his "Airplane" ilk will emerge sometime in the coming decades as representative of 20th century Nilhilsm…sort of a demonstration of the practical application of that type of thinking. Nietzsche would have argued passionately that his thinking was not designed to save an airplane in distress…but even he had not considered the possibility that such a man as Nielson could grab hold of such difficult material and ride it like a cowboy.