Movies are a lot of things. They can be a way to improve our mood or to connect with strangers. They can be a way for us to face a problem within our own lives, or see how another group of people vastly different from ourselves isn’t so different. They can simply be a way for us to watch robots fight, or to see pretty people do pretty things in pretty places. They are also a great teaching tool, whether we are intending to learn from them or not.
I am from England. When I was 21, I left England and moved to Thailand, then Korea, then Turkey, and then settled in Australia. I have never lived in America, though I did visit when I was 18, so I’ve never had Thanksgiving dinner in an American household. I didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving parades or pageants, and yet, even though nothing is taught about it in English schools, I know quite a bit about the holiday and its traditions from a life mis-spent watching movies.
From my research and movie watching, I came to a very simple conclusion about what Thanksgiving is all about: Family. Thanksgiving is a time to gather the family together, gorge yourself on food, and talk about what you are thankful for that year.
If movies like Home for the Holidays, The House of Yes, and What’s Cooking? are anything to go off of, though, it seems as though family would be the last people you would want to spend your time with. There is a running trend with Thanksgiving movies that, if you put a family around a table, all manner of secrets and long-held family tensions are going to bubble to the surface. Having family together is also an opportunity for a crazed, blind man to threaten to torch your house with a flamethrower, as in Scent of a Woman, or where your arch-enemy may discover your secret identity, see Spider-Man, or even witness your friend Paulie verbally abuse his sister, who you secretly have a crush on, before he tosses the turkey into the street, as in Rocky.
Of course the best Thanksgiving movie is, without a doubt, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The John Hughes classic is a masterclass in comedy road trips, and films that have tried to homage and or rip it off, as was the unfortunate case with Due Date, have never quite managed to get the right amount of comedy and pathos to make it work.
The story of a man trying to get back to his family for Thanksgiving while being stuck with an annoying fool seems slight, but Hughes, Steve Martin, and John Candy manage to make it more than just a slapstick, tour-de-force by injecting it with real feeling. While watching it, you wait for the cliché of Martin’s wife to complain that he works too hard, like some latter day Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler crap, but it never comes. Instead, you simply have the plot based around that most Thanksgiving of things: Family. And it’s odd that the best Thanksgiving movie ends before dinner is served, while many others about the holiday are solely about what happens when you put people together to eat a meal. Martin’s character just wants to get home to see his wife and kids. He’s not trying to close a deal or meet a client. He is just a husband and father who wants to spend Thanksgiving with the people he loves most.
That is what is important at Thanksgiving, and for a guy who lives thousands of miles away from his family, this is definitely something that rings true with me.
So what did cinema teach me about Thanksgiving? Don’t fly in a snowstorm; don’t invite Al Pacino to lunch; keep your deranged, Jackie-O obsessed sister away from your new girlfriend; talk to your family rather than arguing; and Willem Dafoe is always going to be the most likely person to turn out to be your nemesis. And when you’re with your family, let them know you love them. At least then they’ll know already, and well before you find yourself in Kansas with a shower curtain ring salesman who snores and washes his socks in the sink, which will then not seem so bad.