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Monday, July 5, 2010

Laid Off From Real Life: “Up in the Air”

Airports are fascinating to me. Dually terrestrial and yet imaginary, they represent an electronic oasis cloned and supplanted ad infinitum across the world, working in conjunction with humankind to master the compression of both space and time, as we are able to travel thousands of miles and marking various distant territories within a single day. The airport itself is a dreamscape, no place and nowhere, though nevertheless occupying vast stretches of land in an individual city. And as a dreamscape, it is a collective dream, a digital replication of a certain place that is itself distinct from the surrounding geography. One may be at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport at one time, land in Newark a couple of hours later, fly overnight to London Gatwick, and then at last reach a final destination in Istanbul – but the world itself remains strangely unchanged. In the airport, individuals are safely guarded from the idiosyncrasies of surrounding historical geography, and in the warm, if somewhat robotic, arms of a post-human sanctuary, there is something oddly similar to how Catholics may have felt during the Latin mass throughout the centuries. In its features and colors, the airport is cousin to the hotel: a home that is nowhere but spread out everywhere. It is a simulation of reality, while simultaneously being a symbol for the earth-encapsulated web of global cybernetics, where beings are governed by a plethora of signage encouraging massive movement towards another EveryNoWhere while also stressing the importance of buying a few things along the way. Meanwhile, ubiquitous screens feed us the news.

I mentioned that for me there is something post-human about airports, and this is not a throwaway point as to why I find them so fascinating. Within that fascination there is both aesthetic pleasure and a strange kind of dread, as the visual design of the airport is, essentially, science fiction in the present: it is breathing Futurism. The world outside the terminal is filled with machinery and lights that blink in hypnotic rhythms, but the technology out there does not seem to be working in the service of human beings, but rather it is guiding other machines. This world is warm and comfortable, while strangely alien and unnerving. It is significant to me that Brian Eno's first release of ambient recordings, where the synthesizers seem to create a kind of requiem for humanity that is both gorgeous and mournful, is entitled Music for Airports. The humans are dead, let us pray.

Up in the Air, Jason Reitman's new film about a working man whose whole sense of reality is found within the simulated world of airports and hotels, is a punster's title. The "air" not only refers to the literal sky where planes traverse across the country or the clichéd phrase referring to indecision, but also finds reference in a term used for electronic signals (e.g. "on the air" mass communications). The separation of an individual from a real "Home" is then representative of an individual's separation from actual humanness. As the world has become flat and more democratic in a Thomas L. Friedman sense of "the world being flat," it's then not surprising to hear Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" during the opening credits covered as a blues song.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) loves his job, the irony being that his job is to fire people. Ryan works for a firm based in Omaha that companies hire to take care of lay-offs, so that the actual bosses of the unfortunate employees can avoid uncomfortable confrontation. Like other occupations involving public interface, most of Ryan's skills are related to presentation. He is adept at reading people and dealing with the awkward grieving with which he incessantly comes face to face. By glancing at a resume, he can turn a heartless layoff into a brief inspirational moment for the poor guy getting canned, encouraging them to follow their dreams. "Every great leader or emperor was in a similar place," he tells them, and sometimes they take his advice to heart, grappling onto anything that they can.

But the actual work is not really what he enjoys about his job. Rather, it has much more to do with how his work enables him to exist as an anonymous entity, nevertheless able to enjoy wonderful travel perks and dining experiences covered by his employer. He is able to meet interesting people, but never be tied down. His life is a constant flux of stable movement and economical comfort. In between scheduled layoffs, he is honored to make motivational speeches, Tony Robbins-style, encouraging other traveling businessmen to drop their "baggage," the literal (photos, souvenirs, possessions) translating into the metaphorical (family, friends). This will aid one in successfully being self reliant while getting your work done stress-free. The simulated life is the perfect life, and though he recognizes the artifice in this hyperreal world, Ryan nevertheless finds it a comfortable alternative to being stuck with baggage. Indeed, the worst part of being on the road for 320 days a year is coming home and spending 45 days in his sparse apartment.

Up in the Air presents Ryan with a conflict however: though he is comfortable in his warm flux of ever-present living in no-where land, he is growing deeper into middle age and the facts of human mortality – which stand contrary to the illusionary permanence of any occupation – are becoming more opaque. Reitman throws in a moment that at first feels like a frivolous and nasty joke, as a stewardess asks Ryan, "Would you like the cancer?" He asks her to repeat herself, and again we hear, "Would you like the cancer?" She then takes out a can of soda and Ryan is able to process the question, and smile with us at the moment's confusion. But what at first feels like a moment that any comic film writer would have stashed away to insert in an opportune screenplay actually gets to the heart of the picture's question. Human beings are made of flesh and bone and follow a biological clock, and the clock of biology is ignorant to the blind will of the individual's mind. Up in the Air is the first film in which George Clooney's late middle age becomes visible, with the specter of an old actor rising on a charismatic iron-man movie star's face, descending into afterglow.

Time is catching up with Ryan, and not only biologically. Technologically, the world is getting more compressed, and his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that the company may be adopting strategies developed by a new employee, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), fresh out of college and ambitious to apply innovative methods of efficiency that will save her employer on overheads. Instead of flying people like Ryan all over the country, which is a burden because of rising fuel costs (again suggesting the connection between economics and technology), Natalie has developed a system where the company will communicate over the world wide web, and thus be able to get work done from the home office in Omaha.

This outrages Ryan, not only because it's a system developed by a (female) company novice, and not only because it will take away his freedom of being forever transparent, but also because he recognizes a certain inhumane quality to the method. Though Ryan may not actually feel sentimental connections with the victims of his work, he certainly understands the person-to-person human element of communication that occurs in a physical space. But the problems of humanism are of no interest to a company, even when business is already booming (in a recession, Ryan's company is doing splendidly). Of course, Ryan may be right as we may note how Natalie at first seems disarmingly robotic, reminiscent of any number of corporate supervisors we may have dealt with in our own fluctuating occupational lives. As a compromise, the boss suggests that Ryan take Natalie on the road with him and "show her the ropes."

The plot of Up in the Air is a cracker-jack tried-and-true sure thing of a buddy comedy as a veteran teaches rookie employee on the road (or in the air) the value of their work. But it's Reitman's observant directorial eye for atmosphere that gives Up in the Air its gravity as a good film. Up in the Air fits neatly into the category of Information Age Cinema where our gadgetry, complex cybernetic systems, and governing structures dependent on those gadgets stamp out our organic multi-dimensional human identity. In other words, structures of late capitalism may increase our GNP, but they also undermine our value systems. To accomplish this feeling, Reitman relishes the process of systematic work and interaction, vividly capturing the flurry of quick steps one undertakes in the TSA Security lines, beginning with stereotyping (read: data processing) the travelers in line so that the most efficient line can be chosen; handily setting up the grey bins on the rolling luggage rack; laying down the coat and bag; removal of laptop for the second bin; and finally the removal of shoes before one walks through the magical security portal and is cleared to freely roam the terminal. The digital boards and screens are omnipresent, the most prominent board being the light coming from a cell phone. The laptop computer is the home away from home, where one's vital belongings are backed up in their ether hyperreal non-space of existence. The focus on gadgetry and the basic mechanics of work in accordance to living is there to provoke the viewer to analyze the great modern quandary: our inevitable technologically deterministic demise as a species. And to first meet Natalie, our new college grad fresh from the business school harvest, is to be afraid for the future – unless you are a corporate bank account (meaning: this character is probably your boss's wet dream, and it has nothing to do with Anna Kendrick's attractive physical appearance).

Indeed, seeing the layoff victims as Ryan's company contemplates a new system that is an additional step in the direction of being completely post-human, we understand how capital controls the world. Our own good welfare is contingent on the constant profit flow, which organizes itself in a system based on the emerging technology. But just as noble business relations – between original boss to hired employee – have been antiquated for the sake of keeping an even keel (Ryan’s humorously narrated introduction indicates that some of the fired employees might become homicidal were his counseling skills unneeded), so too are basic human relations reduced to technologically guided acronyms: ROFL and LOLing, for example, where bursts of physicality that express emotion have been imbeciled by the grouping of letters, while the writers, or texters, of such things are hardly more than passively chuckling while they stare blandly at their hand-held screens. Up in the Air features a niftily humorous moment of "sexting" (perhaps the most successful attempt in any film to have all of the dialogue of a scene relayed on a computer/phone screen) as Ryan's female counterpart Alex (Vera Farmiga), another lifelong corporate traveler with whom Ryan has casual trysts, suggests that he should masturbate. He replies that she should join him, and Alex admits that she's already begun. We laugh, not because she is, but because she isn't. Sexuality in this world has little to do with the carnal human aspect, but is itself usurped by the Blackberry's calendar and pixels. This comic insight raises to more tragicomic heights when Natalie's iron business-woman veneer is broken after her boyfriend breaks up with her, via text: "We should c other people," he has written, to which Ryan can only point out, "Kind of like firing someone over the computer, isn't it?" What Up in the Air here demonstrates is how the weight of what we would consider actual experience and communication is no longer taking place in real space, whether it’s a break-up or an "ROFL": one is not, while writing such a thing, really rolling on the floor laughing. But had the other person in fact been there talking to us, face to face, we might indeed be. Now, the reality of the action is set within the air and ether of the No Place strewn of wires and screens. The real is made a hypertext, and nothing else.

This is not encouraging for any kind of moral universe to exist. In a late capitalist culture where real incident is contained within official paperwork, spreadsheets, and computer files, and corporate bodies are more "real" than the human bodies working within them, one may easily pass the buck, so to speak, and rid oneself of any personal responsibility. To become a part of work’s digital aspect and online living is to step away from the weight of responsibility as a conscience self. The three principal characters – Ryan, Alex, and Natalie – are able to crash a corporate party to which they are not invited, by anonymously sneaking through a hotel lobby and nonchalantly stealing name-tags, giving them license for a good time with no ramifications. The following morning, as Ryan and Alex wake up together, and Natalie (who had mistakenly chosen a name-tag with the ethnic identity "Jennifer Chu") has snuck away from the hotel room with an anonymous hook-up, there is a question of meaning. Are these relationships important, or are they truly, as Ryan tells Natalie regarding his relationship with Alex, merely "casual"? Though Natalie may seem like the embryo for a corporate body and little else, her disruptive break-up, along with Ryan’s glib and unrooted casual relationships, provokes the question of her future expectations. In spite of this, Ryan has taken a step forward, asking Alex if she will accompany him as a guest to his sister's wedding.

A binary is being set up: the corporate life of constant communication doubled with solitude, versus the conventional portrait of family warmth and ideals. But Reitman is not answering this as an either/or conflict with Ryan and Natalie. Ryan recognizes the falsity implicit within the "happy" domestic life, reflecting on his grandparents, "Everybody dies alone," he believes, so the consolation one takes in other people is futile. We get fragments – without anything being wholly disclosed – that the relationships saw in his parents and others while growing up were not at all beatific, nor are the marriages of his grown siblings. Not trusting the stability of traditional family structures, Ryan has found comfort in solitary and self-reliant movement and work, with nothing more than the goal of acquiring 10,000,000 frequent flyer miles (an exquisitely elite club with only six other members). He mocks the silliness of his sister's request that take jokey snapshots of a placard with her and her groom (Danny McBride) all over the country, “like the gnome.” Ryan notes during one of his motivational presentations, "Photos are for people who don't have a good memory." Ryan still takes the photos, dragging the oversized placard with him on his rolling baggage, even going so far as to save it when Natalie irately throws it into the ocean.

The motifs of photography and memory are not insignificant (it has a prominent place in other Information Age works such as The Departed and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, entropic stories that also chronicle the decay of memory coupled with morality as we fall into the 21st century). On a practical level, Ryan is correct in his statement regarding photography and memory, as well as his distaste for the photos of the silly placard. But it is, nevertheless, a ritual, a rite, which is what photographs may also represent. There is a symbolic element in photography which heralds the spiritual dimension of earthly life. It is an artistic expression for the longing to hold onto a moment and make that moment permanent. Rituals, whether during a hayseed wedding or the Last Supper, are bent on attempting, however futilely, to hold onto the holy hour and its wisdom. Words that the philosopher Epicurus used during meals with his students were stolen by the writers of the New Testament, and to great effect: "Do this in memory of me." In his state of constant movement, Ryan is free of history’s weight (his baggage), but his soul is hollow and life running thin. Our links to the past are perhaps representative of how we link to other people. Here, the digital landscape has eradicated analog associations, leaving isolated zeroes and ones. And what are symptomatic of any filial or sexual plague of the times are the same symptoms we see between employers and employees.

In the Wisconsin town where he grew up, Ryan and Alex investigate the markers of his past, sneaking into his old school. Walking through the gym and various classrooms, he points to where he had his first kiss and his first fight. It would seem that the film is taking a rather sentimental turn, as the prodigal son returns home to discover his roots and find a kind of value in them, along with his female counterpart, who has also discovered a sense of true love and connection in another person. Ryan even goes to his future brother-in-law, who has cold feet hours before the wedding, and begrudgingly negates his own philosophy, convincing the anxious groom that "It's sometimes good to have a co-pilot." The prophet of isolation emerges as the hero, surprising himself even.

But it's not that easy. Distraught and ready to return to Omaha as his days of constant travel will come to an end, Ryan turns around to grab a Chicago flight that will take him to Alex's house. Reitman subverts our own expectations, showing that these two laptop-mates are not each other's counterparts. Through a glimpse of the doorway, we see that Alex is actually a married mother, the inside of her house conventionally decorated and warm when compared to Ryan's bare one-bedroom blankness. Alex too is part of that Rockwellian portrait of nuclear stability and comfort – at home – while her digital existence on the road, buffered with phones, computers, and hotel rooms, enables her to live not only anonymously but duplicitously. Ryan realizes that the way he has lived his sexual existence is not different from a modern on-demand service for individuals looking for a distraction from reflection. Instead of reinvigorated, as would be the trope for a conventional comic film about this subject matter, he is utterly crestfallen.

Natalie, too, has been broken. While in Detroit, the boss informs Ryan and Natalie that they are to conduct an online firing with a group of local employees, and he wants Natalie to go through with it. The victim sits down and looks through the screen at Natalie, whom he doesn't know is in the next room. She goes through the process of firing the man, who is grossly overweight and pushing 60 years of age. He sobs and wonders where he is supposed to go. The fact of his flesh is important. Where, indeed, are such people to go? He is already a senior citizen, probably only a couple years away from a stable pension, with Medicare just around the corner. Of course, this is no different than if Natalie had fired him in person. The method by computer screen, here, is what makes the moment more pathetic and tragic. Whereas Ryan, as a "career transition counselor" was able to seem like a consoling force, regardless of how little empathy he may have had (his first victim even asks, "When will I see you again?"), this poor fat man has no one there with him. He is completely isolated in his company-sanctioned demise, and Natalie has to harshly shout his name in order to make him stop crying and leave the building.

This is a test for Natalie, and it's one that many people in the world of corporate culture must endure. Fortunately, she doesn't pass. Fortunate, because to pass the test and to be able to go through with such a method contrary to her better instincts as a human being would be to embrace her own alienation, or the Marxist recognition of the worker's own self-estrangement for capital acquisition, where beings are asked to identify with their jobs instead of their better judgment. Natalie quits.

Contrary to the mechanics of corporate work is the human body, which is, in spite of the ubiquitous technology encouraging us to become increasingly cyborg-like, very real. It is in this reality of human flesh that our real identities are contained within neural circuitry and raw physicality, the evidence of our origins and circumstances of our lives unrevised nor proofread, just the eternal undulation of flesh driven by hunger, libido, and stamina, a Self always evading the truth of bodily entropy and demise while simultaneously pursuing its indefinable fulfillment. Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air may be too late to find happiness in others, and has been disillusioned of finding happiness only in himself. He has triumphed, as the boss wants to scrap (temporarily) the computer method of career transition counseling, and so will be sending Ryan back into his EveryNoWhere paradise of hotel rooms and airports. But Ryan's compulsion to become reflective has robbed him of his innocence in apathy. He is nothing but a simulation, nowhere and everywhere, falling into the vulnerabilities of middle age. His longing to be real has been eclipsed by the hopeless determinism of the system he has embraced. He is fortunate enough to work, yes, but is permanently furloughed from real life.

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