Tuesday, December 29, 2009

29/12: "Up in the Air" inspires a fresh blast of commentary from this neglectful blogger.

With apologies (to myself, probably the only regular reader, it must be noted) for the near- three fortnight lack of content, an absolute eternity in the blogosphere, I've decided to peck away about my recent experience of viewing the movie Up in the Air. As it's a much-awaited movie about frequent-flying, how could the movie possibly escape my comment?

And with luck, this shall be a new dawn for more frequent content generation on these pages.


While certainly not among the most profound productions in the medium, Up in the Air did leave me with some positive insights (into the human condition, as insights from the arts generally go) and, likewise, did inspire a fairly intense feel-good state of mind that stuck for the night’s remainder. The movie begins with stunning eye-candy that presents the most literal interpretation of the film’s title: scenes from up in the heavens, including angles on wispy cloud, from-altitude shots of the serpentine highways and downtown business districts of Midwestern mini-metropolises, mosaics of bucolic countryside as from 20,000 feet, meanders of the camera onto the criss-crossing patterns of runways at undefined airports.

And the visual pleasures for those with romanticized views of travel and aviation would continue, brilliantly so. One of the first scenes shows the protagonist, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) at his home: the airport terminal. “To know me is to fly with me,” he says in a voice-over, as the camera tracks him at an American Airlines First Class check-in counter, then discombobulating himself in uber-efficient, almost lyrical fashion at the security screening checkpoint, and finally boarding across the red carpet lane (how else?) to take his seat at the pointy end of a Maddog American Airlines MD80-series jet.

Is this deliberate, extended view of the indulgent premium travel experience, this protracted, discerning contemplation in the manner of a grand genre scene of Velazquez or Michelangelo’s time, meant to be a labor of love, an exaltation of the seamless fluidity, the Swiss-like simplicity, the unexpected joy, that the travel experience at its apogee can be? Or is the message cryptically sinister?, the first brush strokes into the checkered colour of the protagonist, who viewers shortly learn to engage in a most-despicable profession, the ruthless and uncaring firing of people, many of whom have very bleak prospects of ever again turning their lives onto a positive trajectory, burdened by under-developed skills, advanced age, financial travails, etc.

Whatever the meaning of Jason Reitman, the film’s avant-garde, himself serial-flying director, the film proceeds to rapidly present ever-more insight into the life of the enigmatic Ryan Bingham, part admirable high-flying success story, the rest despicable and soulless automaton of inhumane “workforce rationalization,” and without sufficient love for fellow man to desire so much as a network of substantial friendships and perhaps a stable and intimate romantic relationship. Yes, viewers soon learn that Up in the Air refers not just to Ryan’s Sisyphean flying, nor even to the travels combined with the other-worldly feeling of the recently-unemployed, those who, in the midst of despair, uncertainty and grief, all of the sudden feel curiously groundless and adrift. The film title is actually a triple-entendre (at least!), for Ryan Bingham is also up in the air with regards to his relationships or, put another way, with that most fundamental aspect of humanity, inter-relations with one’s fellow women and men.

“Don’t you feel isolated?”, asks an irked family member of Ryan Bingham, frustrated that he remains reticent towards deeper involvement with the family, despite his sister’s approaching wedding. “Isolated?, I’m surrounded!”, Ryan quips into his Blackberry’s mouthpiece, gesticulating at the bustling, anonymous crowds all around, within the airport terminal. Yes, Ryan Bingham was again travelling. (“To know me…”). And yes, he was missing the point by a mile. While technically in ever-ongoing transit from public airport to populated aircraft cabin to bustling hotel lobby, where were Ryan’s real relationships? Who knew his dreams, for whom did he yearn while falling asleep, with whom did he catch up over beers or dinner?

And so, in a steady meander through seemingly never-ending product placements (American Airlines, Hilton and Hertz, you dogs!), airport / airline / travel porn (loved that suave, ‘wingletted’ Boeing 757-200, gingerly kissing the runway on landing before thundering down in gradual deceleration), and unfolding insight into the life and business of one Ryan Bingham, Jason Reitman serves up the meat of the film, the main-course inquiry: how do people relate to one another, and what might be appropriate?

One the one hand, there’s Ryan, up in the air, haughty and self-centered, untethered and mobile. The man, dismissive of human connections, replaces them with manufactured and corporate ones, for instance by seeing false community in the ubiquitous American Airlines adverts that thank customers for their loyalty. These stilted posters -- imagine, a corporation making friends with a human! -- are at once also genuine, as the airline does understand that frequent fliers tend to contribute inordinately towards the firm’s profitability, which is its ultimate end; yet, Ryan Bingham does nonetheless inappropriately allocate the few warm embers within his heart to such inanimate marketing.

Conversely, the supporting cast, though not as impressively accomplished as Ryan, is notably more receptive to forming and nurturing human relationships. Ryan’s sister and her fiancĂ©, both distinct underachievers, manifest the human longing to find love and settle down. Ryan’s newly-hired work colleague, the clever and confident-to-a-fault Natalie (played by Anna Kendrick), turns down superior job offers to follow a boyfriend to underwhelming Omaha. Even the seductress of Ryan Bingham, Alex (with Vera Farmiga acting), a character initially appearing as Ryan’s female mirror-image, owing to her own exhaustive travels and irreverence of more prudent social norms, is actually a married woman and mother. Granted, her failure to reveal these crucial details to her lover are a serious (but separate, I’d argue) matter.

In summary, Up in the Air abounds in giddiness-inspiring scenes for the travel junkie while also provoking serious thought on the very consequential issue of human relationships. It’s a film to which I’ll certainly wish to return in subsequent writing!

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