The Velveteen Man
Up in the Air starts just there—above the clouds. Nearly the same view, one imagines, that David Caspar Friedrich’s Übermensch-wanderer beheld as he perched, literally and figuratively, above the mundane toils of mankind. We cut to Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the antiheroic iconoclast who hires himself out to corporations who haven’t the rocks to fire their own progeny face to face. The antithesis of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, Bingham is a man at once aware of and enchanted by single-serve cordiality—addicted to the hollowness of simulated hospitality. Canned airline staff smiles, short-lived sexcapades in lavatories, credit cards, the protocol greetings. The sexy “elite status” at hotels, airports, and car rental kiosks—these things compel him to sail from airport to airport without a real destination, instructing white-collar cogs in business seminars along the way to “empty their backpacks” of the people and things that slow them down. His mantra: the slower we move, the faster we die.
What’s staggering about the film is its sense of present day, recession-plagued America—a rare feat for a non-political story about a man who terminates careers for a living. But for Bingham, the daily job is about more than the rote procedure of firing employees. It’s about ferrying fragile souls across the dreaded limbo that follows being “let go.” It’s about pushing them into the cold water with a flimsy severance packet and a flimsier hope. The film suggests that firing is a rebirth. It’s an ex-employee’s chance not to drown and thus a chance to save his or her own life. It’s almost poetic the way Bingham puts it. It’s charming. And it’s a language that Natalie, the hotshot Cornell magna cum laude newcomer (Anna Kendrick), doesn’t speak. Her desire to shake-up the company by migrating the firing workflow to an electronic system (essentially axing people by iChat) serves as a disturbing polemic about the repercussions of the progressive digital age in which we live.
In Up in the Air, text messaging is a medium used to flirt, break-up, set appointments, joke, fire employees; people connect and disconnect with others through the medium of cellular devices—of cheap pieces of plastic. What does this do to us? In Understanding Media, Marshall McCluhan talks about how (unlike a newspaper, film, or book) a light bulb has no content, but it still “creates an environment by its mere presence.” It illuminates the darkness and creates a social space. It is a medium without content. In the same way, the digital devices we use (e.g. Blackberrys) affect our behavior as much as the what we do with them, even if they’re not explicitly saying anything to us. As avatars, they place a real barrier between people, even as they facilitate contact. For instance, Natalie receives a hurtful text message in a hotel lobby and subsequently breaks down in front of everyone. The person who sends the text would never, we imagine, have told her what he texts her in a hotel lobby, but that’s just the point—the digital world expands the space where public and private spheres overlap, diminishing (or, more precisely, flattening) the substance of what we say. More importantly, it diminishes us as well and makes our digital existence more important than our physical one.
“I googled you; that’s what us modern girls do when we have a crush,” Alex (Vera Farmiga) tells Bingham. Alex is a figure of the modern Jezebel—feminist, corporate, successful, perhaps lonely. It’s not surprising that she likens the number of his frequent flier miles to his libido. Based on the premise that this bourgeois life can be destroyed in an instant by a flimsy pink slip, the film offers an entryway into a discussion about the American dream.
The opening titles, for example, are coupled with a Motown version of Woodie Gutherie’s famous folk song “This Land is Your Land.” Ironically, American citizens tend to feel as if America promises them happiness; it is their birthright by virtue of, well…geography. It’s taught and sung in elementary schools—from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land and all its promises were “made for you and me.” But is it really? Bingham seems to be the only character attuned to the fact that the American government promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not the achievement of happiness. As a manifestation of this belief, Bingham religiously collects frequent flier miles. The miles are the goal. The pursuit is the goal.
Unlike Fight Club, which takes a decidedly reactionary position against the corporate Machine, Up in the Air offers a more mature, detached perspective. The Hertz, Hilton, and American Airlines brands obviously paid to place their products heavily in the film, and the ubiquitous banderoles line the airport walls, reading: “we value your loyalty.” But as we hear from Bingham, there’s nothing cheap about loyalty. Even brand loyalty. The rewards rarely match what the consumer pays to get them, but Up in the Air’s interest isn’t in the corporations themselves so much as the consumers who misplace their loyalty there. This misplaced loyalty happens at the expense of, say, family.
It’s no secret that Bingham doesn’t have a relationship with rest of his family. The rare glances we get of his one bedroom apartment show that he has no belongings. His refrigerator is filled with condiments and liquor in tiny travel bottles. In a moment of righteous anger, his sister tells him, “You haven’t been around much; fuck, basically you don’t exist to us.” And that’s perhaps the quintessential moment of the film. To be “real” demands another person’s recognition. That’s what makes things “real”—community. Family. The witness of another. Live together, die alone.
At the most pivotal moment of Up In The Air, the fiancé is caught in a schoolroom reading The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. This marvelous book is, I believe, the key to the film. The Velveteen Rabbit is a story about a boy who begins to love a stuffed rabbit, and as a result, the rabbit becomes Real. The rabbit asked the wise Skin Horse if becoming Real happens all at once, “like being wound up, or bit by bit?”
It doesn't happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.
In the same way that the rabbit is loved to pieces, Bingham becomes unsewn. He allows himself to be touched—to take on the weight of another human being. The cinematography reflects this fundamental change in the wedding scene of the film; the camera is handheld for the first and only time. Its movement is jolty, imprecise, excited. It teems with energy. It is only by this genuine connection to others that we are made “real,” but love is in turns unfair, damaging, and even fatal. Modern people deceive themselves into thinking that a job makes one real, but corporations are poor substitutes for people. In an increasingly digital world, being real to others (actually existing, not imagined or supposed, not artificial, not virtual) is not easy. One can understand, even admire Bingham’s lofty disdain for the burden that relationships bring. But in a world where everyone must die alone, it is better, first, to live together.
J.M. Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.