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Jan. 13 2010 - 3:08 pm | 204 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

Three Things I Learned About Life from Up in the Air

Though the movie’s been out for about a month now, I’m just getting around to writing this post about Up in the Air (I’ve been enjoying an extended period of funemployment that’s about to come to an abrupt end). If you haven’t seen it yet, this post has tons of spoilers, so you may want to avoid. To those who have seen it, let me know what you think in the comments.

This started out as a post about resolutions for 2010, but I suck at keeping resolutions. For that reason, I decided to make it more about some lessons I learned while watching the movie that I want to try to keep in mind as I move through an exciting/terrifying time in my life.

Today Might Be the Day to Do What Makes You Happy (Or: Just Do Stuff):
When Ryan’s first in the field in St. Louis with uppity, whiz-kid employee Natalie (Anna Kendrick), he tells her to let him do the talking as they carry out the terminations. All is proceeding to plan until they meet a man named Bob (played by J.K. Simmons). Here, via The Movie Spolier, is the basic exchange:

Bob reacts by showing Ryan and Natalie a wallet photo of his two young kids, about 8-10 yrs old. “What do you suggest I tell them?” he asks. For the first time, Natalie jumps in. She says this may actually have a “positive effect” on his kids. Ryan stares at her in disbelief as Bob does not react well. “Go f’ yourself,” he says. Ryan quickly tries to recover. “Look, I’m a wakeup call.” He explains to Bob that the reason kids love athletes is that, unlike Bob, they followed their dreams. Bob doesn’t understand. Ryan looks through Bob’s resume. He minored in culinary arts in college and worked busing tables at an Italian restaurant before working here. “When were you going to do what makes you happy?” Ryan asks. “This is a rebirth,” he says, “If not for you, do it for your children.” Bob takes the packet from Natalie, feeling consoled.

When I first saw the movie several weeks ago, I found the message that this scene asks the audience to take away wildly implausible. We always hear about opportunity and success being born out of chaos and failure, but I believe that it’s rare to actually have that experience in our own, individual lives. Maybe it’s because I was extremely cynical at that moment in time, seeing as I’d just graduated, had no job and took out thousands of dollars in loans to earn a degree that could – rightly or wrongly – be seen a superfluous in a field that’s slashing jobs quicker than Lane Kiffin can switch zip codes.

Be that as it may, I’ve come ’round to accepting that this is one of those proverbial moments that might only come once (or twice) in a lifetime. I have a couple of ideas that aren’t quite ready for public consumption that I’m working on that would probably have to be shelved indefinitely if I had a full-time job. I can now devote myself to them (at least until the creditors find me).

Don’t get me wrong. Having no income and no health insurance is fucking scary. Yet, I still feel like it’s going to be ok. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’m allowing myself to do things just for the sake of doing them.

Look Before You Leap (Or: If It Seems Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is):
One of the great things about Up in the Air is its accurate depiction of the various ways we delude ourselves (or allow ourselves to be deluded). The prime examples of which are the reactions of the various office drones Ryan lays off over the course of the movie. Several of them express incredulous reactions to the news that they’d been fired; they’d somehow convinced themselves that putting in twenty years as a supervisor made them indispensable.

We’ve all felt this. None of us wants to believe that we’re instantly replaceable cogs in a nameless machine, though we all know this to be more or less true. We live in a culture that constantly tells us that each and every one of us possesses unique skills, talents and temperaments and that by best deploying those characteristics, we’ll achieve something akin to success (however defined) if you just believe or put your trust in the right things. This viewpoint, formerly rooted in the more materialistic and secular precincts of our of society and disseminated to the masses by tanned men in ill-fitting suits, is now espoused in a slightly modified (but more insidious form) from pulpits across the country as the so-called “prosperity gospel”.

But isn’t it time to grow up and admit the obvious? If we’ve learned anything since this recession started – and I’m not sure that we have – it ought to be that things aren’t always fair, that playing by the rules doesn’t always guarantee success and that life’s winners are often winners because they get to design (and enforce) the rules of the game.

That might sound defeatist,fatalist or possibly even misanthropic. That doesn’t make it any less true and avoiding that truth through willful blindness is a terribly self-destructive way to live.

This capacity to believe anything forms the basis of the relationship between Ryan and Alex. From Ryan’s perspective (and probably for of a lot of men who saw the movie), Alex is the perfect girlfriend; she’s sexy (witness her wearing a tie and nothing else around the room during the couple’s first romp), a little raunchy (she sends text messages about rubbing one out), funny, smart, and comfortable in her own skin. “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about,” she tells Ryan. “Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.” But perhaps most importantly, Alex isn’t asking Ryan for anything more than he’s prepared to give.

At the time it seems like a throwaway line (and in retrospect, it’s rather ominous) but after one of their early trysts, Alex remarks to Ryan that “we both know what this is.” For him, it appears to be the human connection he’s always lacked, given the life he’d chosen to live. It’s apparent early on in the movie that this is a man with no real attachment to virtually anything. He gives motivational speeches about unpacking the metaphorical backpack of our lives and making it as light to carry as possible. His apartment in Omaha is barren; the only connection he seems to have outside of work is a casual (and probably sexual) relationship of convenience with his next-door neighbor. Likewise, he is connected to his sisters by name only. He doesn’t seem to have burned those familial bridges as much as let them atrophy due to years of neglect. Of course, as he gets closer to Alex and is drawn into his youngest sister’s wedding, Ryan begins to realize the importance of having tangible relationships. He never questions the bond with his family – why should he? – but he’s almost blissfully ignorant of any sort of salient facts about the woman he’s fallen for (except that she’ll rearrange her travel schedule to sleep with him in a Travelodge in Jacksonville).

Because this is not a thriller or a mystery, the conclusion of the relationship is telegraphed; Ryan dramatically flies to Chicago, Alex’s hometown, to profess his love to her, only to discover upon arriving at her door that she’s married with children. The next morning, in one of the more brutal phone calls in recent movie history, she tells Ryan that he’s, “an escape,”, “a break from our normal lives. A parenthesis.”

Calling somebody a parenthesis is some harsh shit. The reason this cuts so deep is because it’s only a break from her normal life, not his. He thought that he’d gotten what he wanted with the added benefit of not having to change or compromise to get it. Instead, he ends up alone.

Ryan allowed himself to believe everything he wanted to about Alex without questioning a single aspect of who she was. Part of the danger of starting anything new is that it can easily become intoxicating; we become so taken with the experience and excitement of it all that we don’t stop to figure out whether or not the feelings we have are justified or even real. We don’t ask questions. We shut down our critical facilities. We do what feels good, even if it’s not what feels right and we often suffer greatly for our lack of awareness. Some would say this is part of being alive. And so it is. But so is being smart about what it is you’re getting yourself into. This isn’t meant to be an attack on spontaneity (you do have to let yourself live in the moment sometimes), but rather a gentle warning that no moment last forever and that you have to slow down and take stock when it ends.

Sometimes A Song Can Change Your Outlook (Or: No Shit, Sherlock):

At the risk of contradicting some of my comments above, I found some solace in this song from the movie’s soundtrack and perhaps you will, too:


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    About Me

    I'm a native Virginian who adopted California (San Francisco, specifically) before moving to NYC last fall to become a master's candidate at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism.

    I write, without much authority, about politics, media issues, culture, sports and anything else that comes to mind...

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