Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Quiet Desperation

The new film Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman of Juno and Thank You For Smoking fame, has gotten a lot of buzz lately, most of it surrounding George Clooney's performance as a "corporate downsizer" (he fires people for a living) and for-all-intents-and-purposes homeless, constantly "up in the air" business traveler (his greatest aim is to reach the 10-million-airline-miles mark). I just saw the film, and this is one instance in which I can say without reservation that all the hoopla is warranted. This is an excellent film, reminiscent of Lost in Translation, only deeper and, in the end, sadder.

[I'm going to toss out my usual rule about avoiding spoilers because, with this film, there's just too much to talk about and, with this director, I don't think that anyone who has seen his other films will be terribly surprised by anything that may be revealed in this post.]

There's a well-worn stereotype of our modern life that paints it as ultimately vacuous, disconnected, lonely and quietly desperate. For all of the social networking and up-to-the-minute information gathering and easy globetrotting at our disposal, we don't really connect in meaningful ways with other human beings around us. Clooney's character in Up in the Air (Ryan Bingham) is the very living, breathing confirmation of this suspicion. At the beginning of the film, we see the preternatural ability with which Bingham has mastered the art of travel. He packs his carry-on suitcase with the precision of a scientist, he navigates the minefield of airport security checks with ease and aplomb, he carries in his wallet every possible "perks" card, which he has dutifully earned by being a loyal customer of airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies, restaurants. He is efficient, professional, almost affectless in the execution of his routines. The airports, the hotels, the skies are his "home." In the voiceover narration, Bingham tells us: "Anyone who has flown with me has known me." And he appears to mean it.

But, think of that. What is the longest one is ever on a domestic flight? Six hours, tops? What does it mean to say that the people who really "know" you have had that little time with you? Bingham's self-description is further confirmed when the film lets us peek in on his sideline occupation as a "motivational" speaker. In his lectures, entitled "What's In Your Backpack?", Bingham asks his audience to imagine all of the things that matter to them, and to imagine putting all of those things into a backpack. First, we pack in the "stuff" of our lives: knick-knacks, furtniture, cars and homes, all the possessions that we value. Then, we pack in people: co-workers, friends, children and spouses. The backpack gets heavier. Bingham asks his audience if they can feel the straps of their backpacks cutting into their shoulders, burdening them in ways that make it almsot impossible to move forward. Something has to give... but what? Bingham advises:

Your relationships are the heaviest components in your life... We weigh ourselves down until we can't move... The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake. Moving is living.

Because George Clooney plays Bingham and because, well, he's Goerge Clooney, there's something undeniably seductive about his no-attachments and no-baggage advice. (An aside: I highly recomment AnPan's recent post on the merits and demerits of "advice." Read it.) But it wouldn't really be a Reitman film if it didn't call into question our simultaneous attraction-to and revulsion-towards the "up in the air" life. Of course, we all think, life would be so much easier-- perhaps even happier-- if we weren't weighed down by all of the responsibilities and obligations that our connections with other people demand. If only our connections with other people were like connecting flights... just momentary stop-overs on our way to somewhere else. But for Bingham, the perpetual traveller, there is no ultimate "somewhere else," no telos, no final destination. They're all connecting flights.

Of course, these endless connections-without-connection eventually wear on Bingham. Forced to travel with a young, naively romantic co-worker (Anna Kendrick) who is placed under his cynical tutelage for a few weeks, and after hooking-up with a fellow-business-traveller (Vera Farmiga) who somehow manages to touch something needy in him, and after traveling home to his sister's (Melanie Lynsky) wedding to discover that he knows his own family only as well as the airport check-in agents, Bingham is finally forced to realize that his heretofore "quiet" desperation is beginning to roar. And so he resolves to do it differently, to make a real connection.

Here's what I absolutely loved about this film. (And here comes the spoiler, so stop reading if you don't want to know.) Unlike the connection that we are shown at the end of Lost in Translation, elusive and ambiguous as it may have been, Up in the Air doesn't resolve the existential crisis for us. What we see in Bingham's too-late realization that he wants more, and his devastating realization that the person he thought he could get that "more" with already has it, is the sad but simple truth of all self-realizations:

Wishing doesn't make it so. In fact, wishing can't make it so.

There are years and years, miles and miles, of habits and beliefs and practices and connections and missed-connections that cannot be simply undone the moment one realizes they have been done badly. If we invest in the solitary life, the life unencumbered, we reap its risks just as surely as we reap its rewards. There are rewards, to be sure, but in the end, Bingham seems to realize that, perhaps, the risks have outweighed the rewards, despite his motivational message that eliminating "weight" is its own reward. And so we find him at the end of the film still alone, staring at an enormous airport screen that dwarfs him and his existential crisis, utterly indifferent to both. He doesn't win, but he doesn't die, in the film, because that's not how real life happens. Real life happens in those moments of quiet desperation, often left unresolved, that are never really "desperate" in the tragic or epic sense. They're just lonely, idiosyncratic, lost in translation... and ever en route to somewhere else.


Brunson said...

I read the novel when it first came out, which is fairly different in letter although not spirit - the first chapter is available online here. I greatly enjoyed the end of the movie for the atypical resolution you note. However, that final bit with Bingham standing before the departure board struck me as even a bit positive - he almost smiles ruefully as he returns to Airworld, the place he was always most at home.

steventhomas said...

Your review is so beautifully written, and I really liked the film for all the reasons you say, especially that the film maintains that ambivalence and "anomie" (I'm stealing the concept perhaps incorrectly from Agamben here), and maintains it throughout, right up to the final scene that you mention of him looking at the flight board. I also am really impressed that director Jason Reitman included footage of real people (not actors) loosing their jobs.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS PARAGRAPH. I'd be curious what you make of Alex's character, since in the movie she's able to maintain a double life. You gloss this a bit too easily in your review, I think. (And I'm going to interrupt my train of thought and remark on just how totally sexy Vera Farmiga plays Alex's character in the movie. Wowee zowee, and hubba hubba. I will definitely go see anything she's in in the future.) I'd also be curious what you make of the fact that the suicide is an African-American woman.

What interests me is that Ryan's life is an anomaly, but he presents it as a model for what he believes should be the norm. In contrast, Alex has a double life, both the norm and the exception, that make her ultimately seem more like a whole person than Ryan, though whole in a way one would never advocate for. As you can tell by my comment, I'm planning to write something about this myself, and am still struggling with what.

And because I am considering writing something, I just finished reading the novel, and as Brunson says in his comment, it's really different from the movie. I won't give away all the differences, but both Ryan's and Alex's character are different. In the book Ryan is clearly having a psychological breakdown. On the one hand, the book might seem darker since the job has produced this something almost resembling multi-personality disorder and amnesia, but on the other hand, the movie is darker because Clooney remains so cheerful, upbeat, and confidently himself despite how fucked up his job is.

Anyway, I don't know if Brunson will agree with me, but I can't recommend the novel. Actually, I thought it kind of sucked, and I had to force myself to finish it. The author Walter Kirn's tone is monotonously bitter and sarcastic -- amusing for about 30 pages, and then just exhausting with little payoff. I thought the movie was more balanced in giving us a character who could be convincingly likeable but also troubled and wrong. In Kirn's novel, it's hard to tell why anyone would like the guy at all.

Also, the plot of the novel, much more than the movie, resembles Ryan's flight itinerary -- jumping from this to that to the next. The movie does a better job with a coherent plot line by making the telos of the wedding more central and adding the junior colleage (who is not in the novel at all) and the idea that his own job might be downsized because of new technology (also not in the novel.)

On the one hand, I appreciate the structure of the novel, because conceptually the plot should be as formless and "airy" as Ryan's life, and it is, but the result seemed to me to be a series of random episodes that serve primarily to give Kirn opportunities to make random sarcastic and often thoughtless comments about the state of American culture. In other words, since Kirn is an editor for GQ, the novel often feels like a series of all the snarky editorials that GQ wouldn't dare publish strung together for 300 pages.

DOCTOR J said...

@Brunson: I agree that there's something satisfyingly ambiguous about the final scene... perhaps I painted more negatively than it really is in this post.

@steven: First, I hope you DO write a post on this film, because I'd love to hear more from you on it. As for the character "Alex"-- and, agreed, hubbahubba-- I was really impressed with the way that part of the story was portrayed. Part of me thinks that the film needed to show that the life Bingham thought he was happily living could really be lived... but it also needed to complicate that possibility by only presenting its actualization as a "second" life. My guess is that a lot of viewers will "judge" Alex (negatively), and maybe that was Reitman's intent... but I hope not.

As for the suicide, you're right to note that the fact that the person was both African-American and a woman seems significant. I thought it was interesting how it complicated the stereotype of the "strong black woman." She is impressively stoic and resolute about her decision to jump off the bridge... but, alas, it still is a decision to jump off a bridge.

Thanks also for the warning about the book. I was just thinking of reading it, but given your description I'm confident I would hate it.

Brunson said...

Regarding the novel, Steve pretty much has it right. However, I found it a breeze to read through, and worth it for a good number of gems, like "Nomadism requires vigilance". Also, I first read it a long time ago, and so my appreciation of its bitter disdain for the 'spirit of gravity' is colored by youth.