It is the dilemma the innovator must face when starting out, whether that person is a musician, painter, sculptor or (Heaven forbid) a writer:
The chorus of disapproval from the paternalistic and patronizing Pod People that call themselves your parents, coach or guidance counselor is a tsunami: “What you’re doing is crazy. Sit back, relax and do what we tell you, what we have willfully accepted. You’re better off. Why waste your money applying to a good school? An actor? Do you want to starve? What are you, afraid to get your hands dirty?” And so on.
But to you that route is death.
Meanwhile, there are things you desperately need to say, but no one wants to listen.
In fact, they actively try and shut you up: “What are you doing?!? It’s so weird! Stop it!”
But because it is your “family,” you want their love and respect, and it’s tearing you up inside.
And that’s the same dilemma William Shatner faces in the 1964 episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, “A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
This episode is head and shoulders above the usual simplistic moral that ends the average episode of TZ for the two parallel truths it presents metaphorically:
A) There’s ALWAYS a gremlin on the wing of the plane; and
B) The rest of the passengers do not want to hear about it.
But unlike most of us, Shatner fought against the pressures squeezing him…
Let’s see if we can learn from his example!
Written by horror icon and American existentialist Richard Matheson and directed by a young Richard Donner (decades before his mega-fame with Superman and the Lethal Weapon series), “A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” stars
Shatner as Steve, a traveling salesman who’s just gotten out of the mental hospital after six months. He’d had a nervous breakdown on a business trip, specifically a very violent outburst while on an airplane, and now his wife has collected him—and they are flying home.
Obviously the wife doesn’t care about her husband’s feelings. We have no idea what Steve was like before his breakdown, and the pressure he may have placed on her, so maybe he deserves this treatment, but it still seems odd. She knows planes might freak him out, so why not take the bus or train? After six months, now you’re in a hurry?
She’s the star of her own movie, and she doesn’t have much of an audience at the airport to play long-suffering wife to. She insists on getting back “home” where she can bask in the reflected glory of Steve’s recovery. He’ll be lucky if he gets a weekend to himself before being forced back to the office grind, while she can continue with several more months of being the center of attention at the coffee klatch with “poor me” stories about being the spouse of a nutjob.
And why was he at an institution so far from home that it needs to be flown to? Was the family trying to hide him? Did the poor guy even get visitors?
Maybe his breakdown wasn’t due to job stresses like everyone claims, but from the constraints of middle-class propriety and a suffocating, narrow-minded home life?
Perhaps it is not necessarily planes that drive Shatner insane…
Be that as it may, the aircraft lifts off, and is soon flying through a midnight thunderstorm. (It wouldn’t be a dark night of the soul without one…)
The rest of the passengers sleep, but Shatner is twitchy and nervous (being in the emergency exit row doesn’t help, either—was his wife even thinking when she was making travel plans?).
Then he notices something on the wing…
Meanwhile, his wife sleeps, seemingly unconcerned—and why should she be? She’s a good hausfrau and believes that the “trained professionals” at the looney-bin have “cured” her husband.
Now if he’d just sit still and shut up…
Of course no one believes that Shatner has seen a “gremlin” (Steve remembers the legendary airborne goblins that vexed pilots in WWII), or that it is tampering with the plane, pulling up a metal plate over the engine.
Everyone just wants Shatner to pipe down, with the flight engineer and stewardess being particularly patronizing.
Meanwhile, the gremlin seems to taunt Shatner, sneaking up on him when the blinds are closed; or else slithering away when someone “sane” wanders by the window.
A cumbersome costume, the gremlin is scary because it is so fluffy and awkward, almost goofy. It doesn’t care what you think of it and its unique beauty: “Laffa while you can, tasty pink thing,” the beastie could be chortling, as it tears out gears and tubes connected to the engine, calm in the knowledge that it could glide effortlessly away at any moment.
Shatner’s reality is now his alone and no one else’s—complete existential solitude: He is the only one that can do anything. And he can trust no one.
It’s at these moments when the actor’s “theatricality” makes his role as everyman perfect: he is expressing all our emotions. This is not the time for subtlety! This is a nightmare!
He steals a pistol from a sleeping air marshal (try and do that now—Ha!), makes sure his undeserving wife is safely away from their seats, checks his seatbelt—fastens it tight—pops the emergency exit, and struggling against hurricane-force winds, Shatner manages to shoot the gremlin as it advances on him, but before it can totally ruin the plane’s turbines.
The dead creature falls away, and the man stops his screaming and is dragged back on the now-stable plane: calm, satiated, satisfied…
You cannot make them listen! And if you complain too much, they’ll give you psychotropic drugs to “calm” you, just like the stewardess tries with Shatner. (Thankfully, he pulls an R.P. McMurphy, and “cheeks” the pill.)
Yes, try and make the passengers listen to you, so that way you can at least say you tried—but since that never works, instead you have to do something, which may or may not be misinterpreted and fought against.
It’s the time when you have to believe your own eyes and judgment.
Everybody might think you are crazy, but you know you’re right.
Not only is there always a gremlin on the wing of the plane, but it is the artist’s duty to confront it.
But once you have pushed this snowball down the hill, you cannot stop it—there’s no backing out; once the spell has been cast, it cannot be called back—and if you recant, you will feel even worse. You wouldn’t be able to look yourself in the eye.
This isn’t just another way of saying “Expect the Unexpected” (although you should),
The Gremlin is the kissing cousin to Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” (that insidious desire to derail or ruin your own chances; working in your own worst interest; snatching defeat from the jaws of victory—and usually, you wanted it there in the worst sort of subconscious counter-productivity!), but in a sort of larval form: you can still stop it, but only if you recognize it.
(Which is maybe why only Steve can see the critter…)
The Gremlin is Shatner’s uncanny desire to crash the plane to prevent his returning to the stifling life that drove him mad in the first place—but built in to that hallucination/telepathic projection is also the desire to kill it. You see yourself in that thing, and you hate it: it must be destroyed!
A creative impulse will become destructive if not given an outlet. Then, the only way to get rid of this perverted urge is to “break the rules.” In “A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” it is the penultimate form of self-applied aversion therapy (only matched by Edward Norton’s shooting himself in the head to “kill” his imaginary friend at the climax of Fight Club).
The idea to stop the gremlin may be initially prejudiced by a desire to not upset the status quo (“I’ll go home quietly…”) which is why the stewardess is called: authority is appealed to, with predictable results.
But once again, appealing to authority must be done, if anything to cross off your list of things you tried to do before the shit hit the fan.
There’s no point to it, but the you of then doesn’t realize it yet. You are still in that Cover-Your-Ass mode that the rest of the passengers comfortably live their lives in. Soon things will change, soon…
When the danger is imminent but ignored by The Powers That Be, animalistic survival instincts kick in—and intuitively (perhaps even on a cellular level) Shatner recognizes the necessary break with convention (and thus, society and “home”); a point of no return that has to be crossed in a last-ditch effort to be born as a self-confident individual.
Blowing the hatch and firing pistols into a storm certainly get Shatner “special treatment,” but at least he and his wife are still (spiritually or psychically) alive and might be able to work things out. Being the dutiful missus of a beatnik might actually be fun, she thinks…
So how far are you willing to go to stop the gremlin?
Are you willing to pop the emergency exit door—not being certain of your aim, but giving it a try anyway—and send the plane into freefall?
Why not? Shouldn’t the pilot know how to handle a freefall? Hasn’t he been trained by the best? You did try and tell them; they only have themselves to blame…
Our mayors, commissioners and other appointed guardians of the public trust don’t like it when you mess with the emergency exit door, but they can handle it.
Even though in a straightjacket, Shatner at the end is much more self-assured than before. Besides, he knows he will be vindicated by the physical evidence of the gremlin’s attempted sabotage—and boy, will his wife be singing a different tune then!
What is wonderful is that, when it is “over” (because nothing really ever ends), Shatner doesn’t care: He knows he did well. Just like a painter examining his completed canvas or a poet appreciating their own words, satisfied with the hard work, and even contemplating further artistic explorations.
The action is drastic, but if true sanity, that is, self-confidence, is to return, then the emergency hatch will have to be blown to restore true balance.
And to all the boringly literal-minded Pod People who would wag their tongues at me, clucking that “You shouldn’t encourage potentially dangerous behavior; that someone might take you seriously about blowing open the emergency exit door,” Thank You for helping making my point.
Some Additional Notes—
Another good Twilight Zone episode in this vein of personal individuation: “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” from 1962, written and directed by Montgomery Pittman.
Young man Jeff Myrtlebank may or may not be demonic—it’s nice to find out at the end that he is—but it is his reasoning which, heh-heh, makes him impressive: Jeff outthinks all the dumb yokels, who are willfully superstitious and narrow-minded, using their own “logic” against them.
No one is certain what the real Jeff “died” from, but I’m sure it was boredom. Only a demon looking for kicks would sneak in to this backwater pit of dullards via a reanimated corpse. In other words, you don’t have to run away from home to thrive, you can force your will upon the situation even if “only” through your intelligence. Being smart is only demonic to those who aren’t.
On the other hand, George Miller’s remake of this episode for the execrable Spielberg-backed Twilight Zone movie (1983) misses the point on several fronts. It is technical perfect, and quite exciting, but ruins any philosophical goodwill by playing much for laughs and “twists,” than take any sort of stand.
Miller made it to better his placement in the US market (he was in-between The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), and as such it’s pretty decent, with a cool monster and some nifty effects.
Speaking of flying, having been lucky enough to be a business flyer for many years, criss-crossing the globe,
I have sadly noticed that travelers would rather watch a rerun of a mediocre sitcom than gaze on the wonders of nature. Glorious sunsets and soul-stirring lightning storms from above are nothing compared to last week’s episode of X Factor or Jersey Shore, so nobody noticing gremlins wouldn’t surprise me. Thankfully, for the most part airlines send their jets over stormy clouds these days, not through them: whew!