I have arrived at a conflict of format, and as a result I am bringing home inferior films. Though my local library has a selection of DVDs that is voluminous and fascinating, the vastly superior picture of Blu-Ray discs almost always trumps this consideration. Aaaand so in a moment of weakness I selected Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air and removed it from the shelf. “This is a good movie,” said the librarian at checkout, ominously reminding me of my questionable choice. In addition, when I was handed the Blu-Ray case, it contained not just the disc, but also the sentence “From the Director of Juno.” The die was cast, and there was no turning back.
I thought the movie wasn’t very good. Too much quirkiness shoehorned in. Too much “whipsmart” dialogue. Too many distracting pseudo-cameos from popular comedians. Too much fancy editing. Too much facile sympathizing with the newly-unemployed. Up in the Air felt like a Wes Anderson feature, but a poor man’s version, lacking the masterful moments needed to mitigate all the directorial indulgences.
But that wasn’t what truly bothered me; there was another level to my rejection of the film. Upon reflection, I realized that Up in the Air is a cultural statement, reinforcing one life ideal as superior, while fooling audiences into believing that the dissenting ideal has made a full counter-argument. I felt that the film unfairly – and in my opinion, insidiously – denigrated the solitary lifestyle. Two things in particular stood out to me, the first being that
I: George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is simply a straw man, upon which the film and its characters foist their “correct” philosophy of living.
This isn’t clear at the beginning of the film, where Bingham is shown as an expert traveler, via lots of snappy jump cuts and rhythmic montages. Yea, here is a man on the move, completely comfortable in constant motion (almost like… a shark). Bingham is handsome, good at what he does, and he always travels light. Amazing, considering that his job is to travel from business to business and fire people as a hired proxy.
It is a deliberate process, but the entire mission of the film is to slowly grind Bingham down, expose weaknesses in his lifestyle and force him to realize that when all is said and done THE SETTLED FAMILY LIFE IS INHERENTLY AND INCONTROVERTABLY SUPERIOR TO A LIFE OF TRANSIENT SOLITUDE.
The film is insistent in how it goes about this. First it puts Bingham’s way of life in peril by means of obsolescence. The bringer of doom in this case is Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener – a technocrat fresh out of college who plans to use SINISTER MILLENNIAL TECHNOLOGY TO END THE OLD AND PROPER WAYS OF DOING THINGS. However, when Keener becomes Bingham’s sidekick, she is quickly re-purposed as a naïve cartoon character, a fawn stumbling through the woods, full of raw intelligence and theory, but completely bereft of adult wisdom. This doesn’t mean however that she can’t attempt to become Bingham’s personal judge, jury and conscience. She belittles his genuine interest in aviation, makes him out to be the villain in his exhilarating, city-to-city relationship with Vera Farmiga’s Alex (Bingham’s mirror image – “just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina,” she says), and ultimately pronounces that his entire life is an avoidance mechanism, and an infantile one at that. This despite the fact that Keener’s own monogamous relationship has just abruptly ended, exposing her obsession with finding the ideal (for millennials, “ideal” means a sufficient number of checked boxes – duh) mate at a young age.
Bingham’s sister Hara is the other tool used to chip away at his existence. Despite her own marriage falling apart during the film, she tells Bingham that he barely exists (she would know, right?), and that his absence from the family is corrosive and harmful. She guilts him into performing a number of irksome tasks for the sake of their younger sister Julie’s wedding, including a big one that will be mentioned later on.
Well maybe these people are right! Maybe Bingham is just an asshole who is avoiding the things he should be confronting, and he needs to be pulled back down to earth! After all, the supporting characters are real, and relatable. They have personal and interpersonal struggles, hopes, dreams, joys and disappointments. Not like that Bingham, who just jets from place to place in business class, driving fancy rental cars and staying at nice hotels, between sessions of callously firing hardworking people!
I could have accepted this if director/co-writer Jason Reitman and Co. could have made a convincing case. However, they dropped the ball, perhaps intentionally, in one essential place, and that place is Ryan Bingham’s character. Specifically that
II: Conceived with a woefully underdeveloped philosophy, and set adrift without any deep conviction in his way of living, Bingham is left defenseless against the film’s onslaught of cultural hegemony.
Bingham’s philosophy only goes skin deep. This despite the fact that he actively offers motivational seminars, using the symbol of a backpack to illustrate the heaviness of possessions and emotional commitments – and the lightness that comes with removing them… And that is the extent of the teachings we are privy to.
I’m glad Jason Reitman spent a lot of time on this!
So I recently read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which is a sort of loose, alternate imagining of Buddhist ideals. The book follows the life of a man, Siddhartha, who initially rejects everything on his quest for enlightenment, believing that no one can teach it to him – that he must find it on his own. Our hero Siddhartha does eventually find something resembling enlightenment. He accomplishes this through living his life and reflecting on it, but the final stages of understanding call for a very simple life of semi-solitude. Many of the lessons within the novel contain a certain beauty, relating to the larger volume of wisdom contained within Buddhism, which stress meditation, simplicity, inner peace, acceptance, living in the moment, and so on.
Why wasn’t Ryan Bingham familiar with any of these ideas? What man can live in self-imposed aloneness for many years and not at least borrow one concept from Buddhism? If not Buddhism, than another school of thought? Bingham’s seminars revolved around emptiness, yet he seemed to have no deep thoughts on the matter. Where is the scene in which he gives young Keener his dog-eared copy of Letters to a Young Poet, or The Dharma Bums, or any significant work lauding the solitary, unconstrained lifestyle, and the appreciation of the present moment?
…An Anthony Bourdain DVD!? Anything!?!
Ryan Bingham should have been a happy shramana, passing from place to place, carrying and leaving nothing, severing others from their conditions of serfdom without judgment, buoyed by the freedom of movement and the comfort of solitude and self-love.
Instead, as the other characters assert time and again, Ryan Bingham is not a responsible man making an informed life choice, but a scared boy, running away from responsibility!
HBO’s True Detective also presents a determined loner as a central character. However, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is an iconoclast, and as such, has a very robust philosophy. The years-long war of ideas between Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart – a man who theoretically values family above all – generates unique motive force, lending vitality to a hackneyed detective-story format. Cohle’s ideals are hardly bulletproof, but he values his (somewhat esoteric) code, and takes the defeats right alongside the victories – without complaint. In one scene, Cohle is chided because guys like him don’t “give things chances” (meaning romantic love). In response, he delivers a statement of purpose for the ages, declaring “That’s because we know what we want, and we don’t mind being alone.”
Bingham never speaks this assertively about his choices. In fact, he’s kind of a punching bag. Where is the scene where he paints togetherness as desperate clinging, motivated by social conformity and the fear of confrontation with the unrealized self? Instead he idealizes a silly travel mile benchmark that rings hollow when he finally achieves it (…in a dreamlike scene with Sam Elliott’s mustache – happily reminiscent of the Orson Welles scene from Ed Wood).
In what passes for an emotional turning point late in the film, Bingham must save his sister’s wedding day by pep-talking Danny McBride’s Jim back into the marriage. Sure, it’s a nifty device to have Bingham play devil’s advocate to his own views, but to watch him unravel the motivation behind the past several years of his life with the weak line “Life’s better with company,” is bad. Watching him seem to take this banal, Hallmark-card advice to heart afterward… is truly painful.
If Bingham was just coasting along before, is his return to personal relationships even worth making a movie about? Why doesn’t he offer any real resistance? Everyone just wears him down until he submits, and the result is like watching a boxing match where one fighter refuses to hit back.
By the end of the film Ryan Bingham has suffered a crisis of confidence and lifestyle. The incessant, insecure nagging of the people around him has convinced him that the conceptual framework behind his way of life was nothing but a house of cards. However, a severe disappointment and the vicissitudes of business conspire to send him back UP IN THE AIR!
This could have been a powerful story if Reitman and Co. hadn’t so blatantly rigged the contest. If Bingham had gone down swinging we might have had a meditation on the fascinating, eternal push and pull between solitude and society, between the sufficient self and the loving family. Instead we have a propaganda piece exalting modern corporate employment (none of the fired react with relief, a desire for independence, or a sense of optimism – they all want to keep their jobs) and monogamous nuclear family love. THESE ARE THE SOCIAL MORES THAT MAKE UP OUR CULTURAL HEGEMONY.
The lessons are clear. People who are alone don’t know what they want. What they really want is romantic love and an eventual family – they just don’t know it yet. Our duty as responsible friends, family and acquaintances is to project our own insecurities and inadequacies onto them, questioning their life decisions and making them feel bad, until they fall into compliance with our cultural norm. ALONENESS BAD. FAMILY GOOD. THE END.