Analyzing Up In the Air

Since Up in the Air is up for six Oscars this Sunday, it can’t hurt to delve into this unassuming film, which most of us have probably caught by now. (If you haven’t, this is your call to make that happen – and a warning: serious spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk).

Upon leaving the theater, I was discouraged. It’s a great film, with some very entertaining dialogue and sensitive performances, but the overarching portrait of American culture is disheartening. Up In The Air gets so many of our modern conundrums right that it’s hard not to classify it as a tragedy, even with some great laughs. The film explores themes of corporate greed, alienation, infidelity, and much more, but the dilemmas that really triggered further reflection were the film’s portrayal of certain dichotomies: family versus career, love versus romance, and freedom versus commitment.

Family vs. Career
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has found his true vocation as a career transition counselor, carrying out face-to-face firings for companies that would prefer to hire out this dirty work. Ryan seems perfectly suited for the role; a perceptive and observant man, he’s good at shattering people’s lives with a balance of detachment and sensitivity that most people couldn’t muster. He enjoys the constant traveling and comes to see himself as a master of his domain: airport terminals and hotels across America. When a romance with fellow business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga) blossoms, Bingham begins to question the primacy of career in his life.

I was never carried away with the thrills Bingham seemed to find in his jet setting lifestyle; airport hotel bars just don’t have much charm for me. But, I could relate to the idea of placing career pursuits above family. We have all faced this choice. After years of education and plenty of student loan debt, most of us would like to reap the benefits of the efforts we’ve extended towards our areas of expertise.

However, just when you’re climbing the career ladder in your early thirties, you are also faced with the importance of family. Whether it’s your biological clock or aging parents in need of your help, being the person you’ve always wanted to be usually means more than excelling at your job. But how can we balance it all? Many of us fail in some way or another. If you don’t put in the extra hours at the office, you may get looked over for a promotion, and if you don’t actually spend waking hours with your children, you may miss out on one of life’s greatest intimacies.

Love vs. Romance (spoiler!)
When Ryan finally takes a chance on building intimacy with Alex, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. He’s been avoiding relationships for so long – and then his perfect match appears out of thin air. She’s beautiful, independent, and witty. They have immediate conversational and sexual chemistry. Her “take it or leave it” attitude is exactly what draws him in. It’s that cliché that so many single women hear over and over about how men love the chase, how playing hard to get is the ultimate draw. Alex was everything that a man like Ryan would be drawn to. Indeed, she is playing that part so well – because she is playing.

Like Ryan, Alex is a perceptive person who can read people with ease. She’s sized up this cocky business traveler and knows just what to say to draw him in. Never betraying a desire for commitment, always hinting at sex, and keeping the intellectual stimulation high, she is Ryan’s perfect match. But I couldn’t believe her as a middle-aged woman with so much charm and talent who would settle for occasional rendevous and never require true intimacy.

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

Of course, she didn’t. It’s all icing on the cake for a woman that already has it all. For Alex, marriage, family, and career isn’t enough; she wants the extra thrill of romance that, we can assume, she no longer finds with her husband. The affair does seem fun. It has all the thrills of falling in love: the flirting and flattery, the adventures and risks. And we all know that domestic life can run short on these delights.

That Alex is the first woman to challenge Ryan’s desire for independence is highly ironic. In the end, he doesn’t so much learn about love as about his own vulnerability. Having played God on the job for so many years, he’s come to think of himself as impenetrable to the lures of intimacy. But being played by Alex reveals a weakness he’s long suppressed: his own desire for companionship.

While we’d like to think only true love could break Ryan’s steely exterior, Alex wasn’t a real woman after all – just the embodiment of his fantasy. The portrait of love that unfolds is disheartening, one in which our virtual selves, the parts of us that perform and project based upon vanity and insecurity, come to dominate the genuine and sensitive parts of us that would otherwise unlock to love in the most meaningful ways.

Freedom vs. Commitment
From the beginning of the film, Ryan extols the virtues of his independent lifestyle. He’s free from relationships and weightlessly untethered in a world that seeks to hold him down. Meanwhile, after an impersonal text message break-up, his young co-worker Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is seeking love and commitment in her personal life. Ryan and Natalie are opposites when it comes to their approach to relationships; however, they are both aggressive go-getters in the business world who end up learning from one another. Ryan shows the Natalie that there is a place for heart and emotion on the job, and Natalie’s contributions to the career transition industry reveal how feeble Ryan’s job security is as well. In the end, we see that Ryan only saw himself as free. In fact, his relentless avoidance of personal connections only masked the larger devotion in his life, his disproportionate emphasis on his job.

There is always something that takes hold of us and controls us, something we feel we cannot live without. For Ryan, it was his concept of freedom; for Natalie, it is the mental image of the powerful businesswoman who has it all; and for Alex, it may simply have been the vain thrill of male attention. All of it seems like an illusion in the end.

The film leaves us wondering how much these individuals have really changed. What stayed with me were the quick interviews of newly unemployed characters, and what they claimed mattered in their lives. Their emphasis on family and companionship as the most important validation, even at their most rejected moment, reminds us what a tenuous state our culture is in.

The success of Up in the Air lies in the timeliness of its underlying subtext: As the economy falters, while our livelihoods and homes can slip through our fingers in a moment, we are forced to confront what is really important to us. And we often find it wasn’t what we thought.

Wait wait, I’ve got an idea

These two articles are oddly appropriate next to each other.

From the LA Times: Artists are Losing Jobs Fast and Furiously.

According to new research announced today by the National Endowment for the Arts, working artists are unemployed at a higher rate than other workers, and at a rate that is rising more rapidly than other professions. Presumably as a result, more artists are leaving their profession.

Couple that with this. From the Community Arts Network, A Proposed Job Swap To Save American Capitalism:

Do Wall Street executives deserve big bonuses during hard times? Does increased arts funding have a place in an economic stimulus package? I’ll leave it to others to debate these controversies. Meanwhile I’d like to make a modest proposal to solve some of our economic problems: Let’s do a job swap. We’ll put the corporate executives to work as artists while the artists run Wall Street.

Financial Frenzy:
Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis

Don Delillo, Cosmopolis,
Scribner: New York, 2004.

Eric Parker is a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager who wakes up with one mission: to go across town for a haircut as he wagers his fortune in a daring financial bet. Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis describes Eric winding his way through Manhattan in a limo glittering with the latest technology – meeting with his advisers and encountering his young wife, exiting the limo for sexual encounters and food. He pops into a rave, stops for a funeral procession, and has his limo defaced in an anarchist protest. He feels the thrill of possible death as he sees assassinated titans on his limo’s TV screens, and rumors of his own assassin follow him.

The whole time, he is pouring millions away in his bet against the yen. As he sinks his fortune in the belief that the yen cannot go higher, the yen continues to climb and his millions dissipate. Finance tumbles along with his fortune.

The novel is about a suicidal, mad pursuit of knowledge – about the desire for immortality through information – and the crash that follows. It is one of those prescient books that resonates more today, with our own financial titans falling, than when it was written in 2003. The story is set in 2000 – pre 9/11 when New York seemed invincible – “all this optimism, all this booming and soaring,” as one character put it. When you add the shadow of 2008 to the shadow of 2001, Parker’s fall is even more spectacular.

Eric bets against the yen because he believes that he – with his financial omniscience that hasn’t failed him yet – can see a pattern that no one else can see. Deep beneath, beyond detection through analysis, there must be a pattern in the chaos – “a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard models of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field.”

“There’s an order at some deep level,” he tells his chief of finance. “A pattern that wants to be seen.” Eric seems to have a hyper-consciousness that sees the future in his security cameras seconds before it occurs. But even with this heightened sensitivity, the yen defies him. The yen can’t go higher, he tells his chief of finance. That’s right, she says: “Except it just did.”

Eric worships information. He and his chief of theory emerge from his limo to watch data roll by on the electronic tickers – too fast to read, too fast to absorb – and to genuflect in information’s glow: “We are not witnessing the flow of information as much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable.” It’s this hidden knowledge that Eric seeks. He wants to read the unreadable. Analyze what defies analysis. He believes that he knows – and if he really knows, he has to act.

So he acts, but financial forces act beyond his control. Knowledge is out of his reach and when he grasps for it he falls. His chief of theory tells him he may seek a pattern but he cannot control frenzied forces that act on their own:

You apply mathematics and other disciplines, yes. But in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control. Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.

This is where the novel resonates so deeply with our situation today. Suddenly this frenzy – these mass convulsions – are no longer barely noticeable. We finally feel the hysteria that drives the market forces and our helplessness to control it. The individual decisions of people – whether they happen to feel panic or confidence on a day – create mass convulsions. Stocks rise and fall. Hysteria swells and bubbles burst, and it all acts outside our authority.

Eric is exhilarated by his own destruction. Pouring money away lends a kind of euphoria – a way to feel his power to create his own convulsions. As his assassin tells him when they meet, “Even when you self-destruct, you want to fail more, lose more, die more than others.”

It’s the classic Faustian story: A man trades his humanity in a desperate thirst for knowledge because he believes that through information, he can somehow live forever. Eric’s chief of theory tells him, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information.” At the story’s end, as Eric faces his killer, he wishes he could “live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void.”

But then he realizes his prosaic humanity – the pain he feels in his wounded hand, the ache in his knee, the wart on his thigh – can’t transfer to a chip of data. His own bloody crash nears, and Eric realizes the impossibility of immortality through information.