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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Art's Revolt: "I Am Love"

At the conclusion of I Am Love, just as the end credits were beginning to shine on the screen, the old women sitting behind me were beginning to complain about the the story, as the linear narrative trajectories of the plot seemed to lead…well… where did it lead? What exactly happened? The son dies, Tilda Swinton tells her husband that she's been unfaithful and in love with the handsome cook, the women all start to cry, and then she runs out of the luscious Milan house…and… well, you have a musical crescendo, and then…hmmm. "Jeez…what was that?" one of the women asked her moviegoing friend. "I don't know. Strange movie. Is that an ending?" "I wish they'd show us what happened."

This is not necessarily a rare occurrence in Edina theatres, where old women flock to…well…"Old Women Pictures." I recall a similar thing at the end of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette in 2006, where Coppola cuts from Marie's face looking out beyond Versailles as her coach strode along towards a bleak future, to the empty bedroom of the opulent palace, shattered by the revolution at hand, but silent save for the new wave beats of The Cure’s “All Cats Are Gray” on the soundtrack while the credits began. "I wanted to see some heads get cut off," one of the women said. Her companions all agreed. Heads should have rolled. So it was with I Am Love. The director should have told us exactly what happens, or at least had the courtesy to kill everyone so that we can forget about the mystery. There's even a little teaser in the middle of the end credits, which excited my elder companions behind me. "Oh, here we go…" But the image, of two lovers in a cave, remained unresolved, vague, beautiful – non-explanatory. It just was. "Hmmm," they said together, and left the theater, shaking their beauty-shop heads.

I can't blame any general moviegoer, young or old, sophisticated or simple, for having such a reaction to a film like I Am Love. This kind of film is a rarity nowadays, not only in mainstream multiplexes, but also in specialty theaters, where the Miramax tropes of the 1990s only made mainstream film elements prettier and more ornate for the "arts and croissants with a cocktail" crowd. Audiences like to be told things and have everything explained, with mystery reduced to language and the concrete presence of words. But I Am Love's title is the answer to its befuddling riddle of resolution. Story is, we must remember, not necessarily plot, but may also be character, or in this film's case, as the title explains, emotion. The film itself is like a conscious being, addressing itself as Love, and its aspirations are to go beyond the bounds of narrative development – where we see a rich family undergo changes of business and sexual relationships – and into the realm of examining art's possibilities and what exactly art (movies, painting, photography, music, cooking) does for us. I Am Love is asking us to acknowledge its title, and with that acknowledgement, we ask why it is that we go to see films in the first place.

The film opens at a family patriarch's birthday party. This patriarch, the owner of a great firm, is going to retire and pass his legacy onto his son, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), and grandson Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), knowing that the business will be safe in the hands of bloodline heirs who will keep the things family-owned and controlled as economics rapidly change at the turn of the new century. The delicateness with how the birthday ritual is handled by director Luca Guadagnino with a unique selection of camera angles and carefully calibrated camera movements injects the film with a kind of self-awareness, where we notice its expressiveness of Form as it moves, accompanied by the music of John Adams. The film is singing to us as its frames wheel along.

The opening ritual gives us a general introduction to the various family members, but it also serves a purpose of allusion that connects the film to other artistic touchstones. Many people will naturally think of The Godfather trilogy, which open with similar rituals, but the very name "Tancredi" will tip the viewer off that Guadignino is probably thinking of Luchino Visconti's 1963 masterpiece, The Leopard, about changing socioeconomics in the mid-19th century, the character of Tancredi (played by Alain Delon in Visconti's film) being something of a two-faced charlatan, fighting for the revolution at one instant, while socially performing so he can simply stay at the top of the ladder the next. Visconti, while making the picture, was thinking about rituals and the processes of social change over time, perhaps influenced just as much by the world portrayed by Thomas Mann's 1900 novel Buddenbrooks as he was by the original novel The Leopard (Visconti loved Mann, coming to adapt Death in Venice in 1971, and planning a never-realized adaptation of The Magic Mountain). Buddenbrooks opens with a ritual very much like the one we see in I Am Love, where multiple generations come together one night, private dramas slowly play out underneath the theatricality of social presentation, and the family's business, which must be maintained, is threatened by an environment that is growing more global. In the 1830s-1840s of Buddenbrooks, the family firm of a mercantile business in Lubeck is compromised by the emerging European Union, while in I Am Love, a similar kind of business is possibly crumbling under the pressure of late-capitalist globalization.

At the heart of Mann, Visconti, and I Am Love (and Coppola for that matter) are the conflicts of the larger and more impersonal mechanics of society versus the individual yearnings within the living components making up that grand machine of family, politics, and business. The individual expresses himself or herself through passion, whether in sport – such as Eduardo, who has lost in a competition earlier on this day, which will lead him to focus more fully on being a good businessman – or more especially in the creative act of art. We note the daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), whom the grandfather believes wants to be a painter, but she finds herself better suited for photography, which kind of irks him. Perhaps she wants her art to get closer to reality than a painting can. This family, the Recchis, has a long history of what looks like art collection, as the grand Milan house is ornately decorated with many pieces that must have cost a lot of money to acquire. But that's another issue the film is addressing: the mere acquisition of Art, where it is a passive affair, a frivolity enjoyed by a couple of elderly moviegoers on a Saturday afternoon, versus something with a particular aura, an expression of self, a communicative act. Artists and Art Collectors are different, it appears, though that is not to say those of us who consume art are restricted from entering and partaking in its passion, suffering and sympathizing in its ecstasy.

This idea is shown in the film's affair storyline, where Tancredi's wife, Emma (Tilda Swinton) begins to understand that the poor cook, Eduardo's friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), is in love with her. His love is expressed in the care he takes in preparing, sculpting, his food – something not merely to be consumed the same way those old ladies wish to consume the movie, but something with which one is in dialogue, connecting. The love affair is illicit, and it is a plot conceit we have seen in a thousand other stories, surely, but the way Guadagnino handles it over the course of his picture, every moment, every caress, every hallucination of longing and guilt, photographed and edited with immaculate care and preternatural sensibility, makes not the incident the important element, but the emotion, the physical element underneath the skin and providing the gooseflesh. Antonio is a Creator, a Communicator; Tancredi is a Collector, a mere Consumer.

Emma finds this love entrancing because she too was one of Tancredi's collections. He was collecting art in Russia when he met her and decided to take her home and marry her. This is not to say that Tancredi can be simplified into a hollow rich man who takes his wife – and the art he collects – for granted. He is what his class has made him, and the larger generational forces compel him to act differently from his own father. After the patriarch has died, Tancredi is all too willing to sell the family business off to ensure lasting wealth and to enable the company to grow with the changing world. The business will expand beyond the local and into the global market, much to the chagrin of Eduardo, who appears to be something of an idealist. Each of these characters is trapped by circumstance, the larger surrounding forces making them react the way they do to change. Tancredi simply does not speak the language that Emma is finding in her relationship to Antonio and his food, or that Elisabetta is realizing in her photography (where she is expressing her secret lesbianism). We notice on the television, as Tancredi and Emma lie together watching in their bedroom, that she is entranced by what is on screen, while he is rather impersonal. The film on the television is Jonathan Demme's 1993 picture Philadelphia, and the scene being showcased is the moment when Tom Hanks' AIDS-afflicted character is ecstatically rhapsodizing about how opera affects him, connecting to every emotional facet of his life. Emma instantly understands this, as does the viewer caught in the spell of I Am Love (regardless of whether or not one is a fan of Demme's film). Tancredi, meanwhile, changes the channel.

As practicalities doom the family business to an impersonal global superstructure (where "capital is democracy," we are informed), the secrets of Emma are revealed through the unspoken art of Antonio's cooking – Eduardo learns her secret, feels betrayed, and in his angry passion has an accident that leads to a detrimental injury. The realities of death, looming over the dreamlike entrancement of escape, quash discussion and I Am Love recedes away from plot in the desperation of pure emotion: the what is not important, the why is not important, just the how, what we see and what we feel. This is the beatitude communicated in its ending where the film's content is relayed within its form, and the film seeks to become more than a plot, as all great films should, and ascends the heights of pure emotion.

This film is a testament to the great talent of Tilda Swinton, a candidate for one of our greatest living actresses. Androgynous and never a sex symbol (some disagree with me), she hurls herself into the nakedness of Emma without a second thought, never speaking a word of her native English in this Italian film (though she still plays an immigrant; she's from Russia, however, not the UK). Beginning in the avant garde films of Derek Jarman, and the sex-changing title role in Sally Potter's bizarre Orlando (1993), Swinton maneuvered herself into the mainstream as the dangerously determined women in films like The Deep End and Julia, the "cold bitch" in Burn After Reading, the icy yet vulnerable woman who has a love affair with Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the fleshy corporate pawn in Michael Clayton, for which she deservedly won an Academy Award. Swinton is the kind of actress that I don't believe will age, because of her ability to grapple any kind of role, whether young or aged, villainous or noble, cold or passionate. I Am Love is a film that she helped Guadagnino develop (she is credited as a producer), and it may be her most unique triumph to date.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Needy Men: “Cyrus”

This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of teenage girls clamored together in hopes of seeing the newest installment of the Twilight saga, Eclipse, one more piece of that worn-hearted document detailing the torturous love triangle of beautiful Bella, werewolf Jacob, and vampire Edward. I confess that I have no plans to see it, not really out of straight-boy smugness so much as plain disinterest. I did see the first film adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's 4-book series, and was impressed with director Catherine Hardwicke's handling of the smaller domestic moments of poor outsider Bella getting closer to her father, shot delicately with hand-held cameras in a lo-fi aesthetic. Unfortunately, the film gradually becomes another videogame/CGI spectacle filled with Zack Snyder-style slow-motion dedicated more to fashion than to character, losing me and debilitating any possible interest to re-enter this teen vampire world. But from what I gather, having seen that first film and reading so much about the sequels, this saga is basically a woman's fantasy of being trapped between two handsome, but ultimately needy, young men. These guys seem as tremendously well-intentioned as they are whiny, in a steady competition of emotion as they duke it out, vampire versus werewolf, for the grand prize of the loving consoling warmth of the feminine passage from whence they came. This is the rather off-putting secret behind every needy-guy romance story, usually not realized by the author creating them. When you strip it down, it's the narrative of a man seeking approval from Mommy. Such a reductionist perspective turns a lot of people off, which is why the repression of civilization is so important. But for as much negativity generated by Freud in our post-feminist academic circles, I can't help but perceive blatant – if unsavory – truth in it.

It's welcoming then that Mark and Jay Duplass should also be releasing, in a far more limited manner, their own love story of needy men, as the mother's affections are the top prize in a duel of infantile male wills. Cyrus is the Needy Man saga audiences should probably check out this week, as it deconstructs our romances for what they are, its handheld zoom-in visual style setting an ironic counterpoint that distances it from most other Man Boy comedies. It's an incredibly funny film, even cynical, but it retains moving warmth throughout, without once ever becoming kitsch or breaking its spell of biting humor. It also has two of the most affecting male performances of the year, both graduates of the Man Boy R-rated comedy world that's come to overbearing popularity in the last ten years thanks to Judd Apatow: John C. Reilly (who was in one of the better Apatow-produced comedies, Step Brothers) as the grown ne'er-do-well freelance loser looking for love, and Jonah Hill (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Get Him to the Greek in the Apatow universe) as the full-grown spawn of Reilly's love interest, played with sexy verve by Marisa Tomei. What struck me about Cyrus was how it seemed to be moving beyond the bare frat-boy sensibilities of Apatow's loser-male world, and directing our attention to how the Apatow-styled protagonist may sweetly amount to an obsessed stalker – which is not so much a critique of the movies and how they may be taking for granted the aberrant behavior in males that the films portray, but rather a critique of a prudish culture that is so emasculated that it requires movies such as Apatow's for a much needed catharsis.

I bring up Twilight and Apatow because I think that they may be a part of the same beast, at least as products of popular consumption. In spite of their differences, both products emulate the nice-guy man-child who becomes needy. In Stephanie Meyers' world, they're just a bit more handsome, and the neediness is not played for that neediness. The empathy that we feel for the characters, whether the romantically Gothic dashing men of Twilight or the jestering doofuses of Apatow, poises a strange disconnect in the man-child world of Fiction and the happenstance of relationships in Real Life. Of course, whether dashing or dorky, the assertive males in romances both Gothic and comic amount to something a little creepy when the prism of fiction is removed. Since the 1990s, perhaps no film has been as damaging to young men than Cameron Crowe's otherwise perfect Say Anything, which communicated the transcendent romantic truth to millions of budding teenagers in love that the woman who just dumped you would be receptive to having you play Peter Gabriel outside her window, waking her up at dawn. Or for that matter, throwing away "logic" while following your genius prodigy girlfriend to London, simultaneously placating her by censoring your sense of humor the instant she is offended ("That's ageism," Diane Court tells Lloyd Dobler as he makes an observation about the elderly; Dobler immediately agrees to change his ways. The courtship resumes). Doblerism is good for the manufacturing of well-educated and handsome needy dudes who would probably benefit, in terms of romantic success, if only they would avert their eyes from Cameron Crowe and instead become acquainted with Cary Grant and Clark Gable, both of whom have personas that are unfortunately far less ecumenical in the post-feminist world.

I'm not complaining about the problems of representation in Film, or the question as to whether men are emasculated in contemporary Culture. That's not my concern. What does interest me is this question as to whether the films, like the people watching them, are kind of fooling themselves. Like a good friend blinded by infatuation, I would sort of like to see them reflecting on their scenarios with a bit more dark honesty, and maybe have the courage to laugh a little more at themselves. Of course, Apatow's films do laugh at themselves, up to a point. Their beginnings and endings however still are a little candy-coated, a lovely delusion to make the pill a pleasant catharsis for the manboys ingesting them.

Cyrus makes its Freudian thoughts on the Manboy Generation overt, the morbid element of two manboys fighting over Mommy not at all veiled by rib-nudges or zesty in-jokes. John (Reilly) is simply lonely guy whose best friend is his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), from whom he's been divorced seven years. A failure with women, prone to drinking too much in order to approach anyone, he's caught off-guard by a beautiful and eccentric female he recognizes as being much too attractive for him, Molly (Marisa Tomei). "I'm Shrek," he says to her. "What are you doing in the forest with Shrek?" His stupid impulses lure him away from this unexpected flirtation so that he can sing and dance to "the best song ever," The Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" This becomes a scene of pronounced embarrassment, seen in so many other like-minded comedies. But the moment changes on a dime as the crowd, at first so embarrassed for John, is suddenly responsive the moment when Molly "saves" him by taking up the female vocals for the song, dancing with him. The two of them end up sleeping together and making plans for the next night.

We instantly recognize that John is too desperate, too happy, and I was a little afraid for him at this point (few actors can play pathetic as well as John C. Reilly). The film crosses a very dark line when it makes no bones about the apparent creepiness of John as he stalks Molly back to her house, to find out why she keeps on leaving him early. Why won't she spend the night? The answer, John finds out the next morning, is embodied in the plump figure of Cyrus (Hill), her 22-year-old son whom she lives with and dotes on.

At this point the film could become a few things. It could be a generic Freudian war between incoming Stepfather and Needy Son, or a cuddly male bonding film. But I appreciated how, though the Duplasses show how all of these characters in this bizarre love triangle are flawed, Hill's Cyrus is given the kind of freakiness of almost Norman Bates-caliber awkwardness that Jonah Hill's appearance deserves (not to be harsh on Hill's looks, but even in Superbad he looks like he would be perfect as a serial killer). Just as John is an omega male of Generation X, emasculated and needing feminine warmth to stave off loneliness and his pathetic disposition, Cyrus is something of a monster created by too much mommy-love, adored and adoring to a fault, manipulating and pulling strings to maneuver control of Molly to the point that she still keeps her bedroom door open at night.

The kind of passive-aggressive combat between Cyrus and John is not the chuckle-yuk-chuckle nudge-nudge comedy of Apatow's work (which I should point out that I often enjoy very much), but is distanced by the Duplass' aesthetic approach of documentary-style cinematography, which creates a distance between the characters and the audience, and thereby prevents the safe comedy of rib-nudging. But it also gives Cyrus a more genuinely funny demeanor as its often-improvised story undulates, and we notice that the plague of masculine neediness is not only restricted to the two principal leads, but also to the fiancé of John's ex (who grows needy for Mommy attention when John hovers around). The anger generated by these men who want their mommies puts the Manboy comedy in the Freudian territory where it belongs, a place where an audience can observe itself acting stupid and foolish, and can be motivated to do more than passively laugh along.

The transparency of Freudian dynamics in Cyrus is the kind of thing that a lot of women might find nightmarish; after all, Freud is despised in academia currently as a hogwash misogynist who did more harm than good. Nevertheless, whatever refutations we can make about him, I still have a hard time denying that a lot of the time when it comes down to love and sex for men, it strangely comes all back to Mommy (Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks short from New York Stories is another interesting example of this uncomfortable realization). The endings of most Manboy comedies are jovial and goofy escapes, where the characters conquer their fears or passions or insecurities. The blink of whimsy at the conclusion of Cyrus, where the warmth of the welcoming mother draws the pouting son/lover back inside, is funnier and more fulfilling perhaps because it is so much more unnerving and frank, something needed in a pop culture over-saturated with Needy Men that is only creating more Needy Men.

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.