The Virgin America Safety Video, Reviewed
There’s a quasi-surreal delight in the singing of nonsense, from Ginger Rogers’s pig-latin bit in “We’re in the Money” to “The Name Game” to “What Does the Fox Say?” But this musical loopiness often enfolds a second, hidden delight, a sort of musical hyperrealism arising from lyrics that involve the opposite of nonsense: extraordinarily non-lyrical practical language set to music. This happens in all three of these songs (the phonological rules of “The Name Game,” the board-book zoology of “Fox”), and happens with authentic political urgency in the Depression-era Busby Berkeley number (“and when we see the landlord, we can look that guy right in the eye”—is there a less poetic word in the English language than “landlord”?). It’s the kind of furtive pleasure in incongruity that often makes the refitting of popular songs for TV commercials more memorable or, at least, less forgettable than the originals.
The latest example of these extremes touching is Jon M. Chu’s effervescent airplane-safety video for Virgin America, which fits into the category of noteworthy commercials made by feature-film directors. (Chu made “Step Up 2” and “Step Up 3D”; he also made “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” which I’m very curious to see.) What’s fascinating, at first, is the mere idea; then, the whimsical tone (the electronic nun-sense, the snark about “the .001 percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before—really?!?”). But as the video progresses, it offers remarkable signs of the cinematic unconscious—or a subtly brazen audacity—at work.
Doubtless more people have paid attention to the Virgin video than to decades of flight-safety demonstrations—but where the standard in-person, analog performances of flight attendants have the tendency to downplay, with a neutralizing tone, the underlying dangers that the safety procedures evoke, Chu’s video reaches an emotional peak (I get a viewerly frisson every time I see it) at the moment of real peril—“Just in case we must evacuate… In the unlikely event we need to get you outside.” The abstraction of the yellow carpet unfurling, the crab walk, and the backward dash to an exit set to a choral crescendo suggests that Chu and the choreographers, Jamal Sims and Christopher Scott, are as creeped out by the idea of evacuating the plane as we all are—and, unlike flight attendants, who do a good job of calming us down, they let us feel it.
P.S. There’s another noteworthy category into which the video fits: auteur safety films. The terrifyingly Olympian model is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s traffic-safety film “They Caught the Ferry,” from 1948. The protagonists cover seventy kilometers on a motorcycle in just under forty-five minutes; the two-lane road is no expressway, but, Dreyer being Dreyer, the real story is the devil in the flesh—in other words, the real danger isn’t the roads, but the assholes on them.