Jan 1 2011

Up In The Air

Unusually for me, commonly gaming or poking at the internet, 2010 was a year in which I watched a large number of films. The last of these was 2009′s Jason Reitman-directed Up In The Air, starring George Clooney.

The movie is about Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham, who makes a living by being hired out to fire people on behalf of various companies. As such he travels constantly around North America by air, living out of a suitcase. He has perfected this lifestyle to such a degree that he even does motivational speaking on the topic – using the metaphor of a backpack containing all your worldly goods and relationships to suggest how traditional lifestyle trappings weigh you down. When we do see his one-bedroom apartment, it first appears to be another hotel room. His life is in his carry-on wheelie suitcase. He spends most of his time in airport lounges, and in flight. And that’s okay. He loves the system. He is knowledgeable about air travel. He relishes it.

What is interesting about the portrayal of this character is that it is – at least to begin with – almost entirely positive. His life is made easy because of loyalty cards and hotel conveniences, and the collection of points for services has become a game for him. Bingham has a tough, thankless job, but it is one that he handles gently. While the platitudes about the business made to his co-worker seem trite, the truth is that he is skillful at handling people’s feelings and he faultlessly humane in a brutal situation.

Bingham is one of those postmodern characters – people who have rejected traditional norms and “family values” in favour of the professional exile of network society – that are traditionally portrayed as cruel robots, alienated servants, or pretentious jerks. Bingham is none of these: he is personable, reasonable, and kind. And he is enjoying himself.

As the film unfolds the intention is to examine his philosophy by placing it against the context of his co-worker’s struggle to deal with the realities of the job, and the break up of her relationship; to stress it with Bingham’s own migratory relationship with a fellow traveler; and to make it seem alien against the backdrop of the provincial wedding of Bingham’s sister, from whom he is largely estranged, but for whom he does display considerable concern.

What disappointed me about this was that despite the special efforts the film made to show that Bingham had not been dehumanised by his lifestyle – his capacity for solidarity with other people was unhindered, despite his lack of family ties or traditional home, as is demonstrated in the way he handles both the firing and the people he chooses to interact with – the plot still essentially appealed to “family values” as the ultimate arbiter of meaning. All the female characters, in different ways, ultimately sought relationships and families as the fundamental truth of “real life”, and for them meaning was to be derived from those relationships. The implication is that Bingham’s own meaning – that of his points collection, philosophy of weightlessness, and care for his duty of work – could never really be enough.

Now, I am not trying to devalue or deride family life, because I enjoy and value it myself. I do, however, think that film was mistaken in not allowing Bingham the strength of his convictions, or some kind of ultimate vindication. Although the plot eventually okays his lifestyle, it is done almost grudgingly. He is allowed to return to his unlimited travels, but only after his lifestyle has been argued to be somehow less than those of his colleagues and relatives. The story attempts to draw what is missing from his life, and can’t really manage it, since Bingham is actually so well adapted. “I am lonely,” he says, joking but not joking, in the least convincing moment of the movie.

In the particular case of the woman with whom Bingham has a sexual liason, I found myself expecting something less obvious. When Bingham defaults to romantic feelings of wanting something more complicated from the relationship, it was revealed that she had a family, and he was simply an affair, a “parenthesis” as the character described it. This seemed like the point at which the story failed. It would have been bolder, and probably more useful, if she had turned out to be more committed to the weightless philosophy than Bingham, and had then criticised and withdrawn from him for faltering. If that had happened then the film would have not only been a little less predictable in its characterisation of what women need from life, but would also have said something positive about modernity, and about the capacity of smart, humane people to make these kinds of philosophies work on the weird frontiers of modern living. It could have still been about testing Bingham’s philosophy, but without feeling the need to pander to the accepted wisdom of what most of us regard as normal life.

Up In The Air could have been a film about how people who ascribe to philosophies such as Bingham’s can be fine human beings and get on in life as well as anyone else. Instead it chose to make Bingham into a kind of charming abberation. The film rolls to an uneven conclusion, unable to deal with the character it has created: He’s okay, I suppose, but you wouldn’t want to live like that.

The film closes with the “fired” employees talking about how things had actually been fine because they’d had their families. I wasn’t sure what this was intended to do, or what that said about Bingham. Perhaps that he couldn’t afford to be fired, because then he’d have nothing? Or was it meant to show that they were just too earthbound and weak to follow in his footsteps? Maybe it was just a vague stab at dispersing the more bleak elements of the film, which were about people’s total dependency on their work. Either way, it was an awkward end to an otherwise elegant and intelligent movie.