Up in the Air 2009 movie – some thoughts
Central to this film (spoilers warning) is a scene with Jim Miller (Danny McBride) in a Sunday school classroom reading the classic The Velveteen Rabbit. The story of The Velveteen Rabbit is a story of a toy rabbit who becomes real by being loved – loved so much that his fur is rubbed off in the process.
In the scene I mention, Jim explains his thoughts about what his life is going to be like: house, children, jobs, losing his hair, and then dying. He wonders what the point of life is. IMO it is a key moment in the movie.
The film focuses on Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who lives out of a suitcase, employed to travel around the country firing people. We see the reaction of people being “let go”. With a few exceptions of well-known actors, the scenes of people’s reactions are not with actors, but the reaction of actual people recently laid off. (And here’s an important movie-going rule: always stay through the credits. In one case a thriller’s conclusion changed completely after the credits. Often there is a humorous bit, or the hint of a sequel. This time there is a significant song).
Ryan Bingham is a commitment-phobe:
Ryan: How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. … I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office… and then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.
Ryan’s one-night stands give way to a developing relationship with what he perceives to be a female version of himself, Alex (Vera Farmiga). There is an interesting reflection here on sex as sacrament. Some people may think that sex does not connect us as people – but here there is an argument that we can let that wall slip. Sex with Alex is where Ryan’s walls begin to crumble.
Ryan: I thought I was a part of your life.
Alex: I thought we signed up for the same thing… I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.
Ryan: I’m a parenthesis?
There is a memorable scene where Ryan is looking at the myriad of flight options on an airport screen. It is a metaphor of the commitment-phobe. In our culture in the past we used to tell lots of people we loved them, but only had sex with someone significant. Now our contemporary culture has reversed this totally to having sex with lots of people – and telling someone we love them is regarded as very significant (and saying “I love you” during the climax of sex doesn’t count!) Our culture has shifted, without much reflection, from focusing on the positive of marriage, allowing one to now “have and to hold”, to its negative – the realisation that in marriage one ends up “forsaking all others.” It is little wonder that divorce is so prevalent. With compassion towards those who have genuinely found their commitment impossible to maintain, one wonders at Christians, even clergy, moving through their third or more marriages. Anyway, when it comes to sex, Christianity has a pretty bad track record currently – riddled with scandals, obsessing about sex as a primary issue, and generally giving a negative impression about sex (why is the term “living in sin” associated with sex, and not, say, anger, or video piracy,…). It is understandable Christians cannot be heard about a positive attitude to sex. Maybe Christians need to be silent about sex for a generation. And after that slowly begin talking about sex again, but solely in a positive, encouraging way,… starting with the Song of Solomon. Visually illustrated…
At the start of the film Natalie (Anna Kendrick) looked like a younger version of Ryan. Turns out she is not:
Natalie: Don’t you think it’s worth giving it a chance?
Ryan: A chance to what?
Natalie: A chance to something real.
Ryan: You’re definition of real evolves as you get older.
Natalie: Can you stop being so condescending for one second or is that one of your principles of your bullshit philosophy? The isolation? Is that supposed to be charming?
Ryan: No, it’s simply a life choice.
Natalie: It’s a cocoon of self banishment.
There is a bit of a transformation for Ryan as he allows himself to make some real connections – but…
Relationships are messy. Love in real life isn’t neat, tidy, well-organised, in the way that Ryan’s flying life appears. Love is much more like the story of The Velveteen Rabbit. It wears our fur off. It also makes us real.