Up In The Air: Enjoy Your Symptom!
Up In The Air is an ambivalent film to say the least. Praised as the first great film to address the financial crisis, it in fact merely skirts the limits of late capitalist society. It touches upon conflicts of labour and capital, issues of class and economic insecurity - only to shrink back into a series of false dichotomies. Corporate alienation becomes a question of loneliness and personal connection; the trauma of job loss becomes a challenge to fulfill your dreams; marriage is an alternative to atomization, yet framed in purely functional terms. Far from suggesting some deep complexity, these contradictions are entirely symptomatic - the affective result of the film’s displacement of the rupturing effects of capital into the categories of neoliberal ideology.
The film follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate operative who jetsets around the country firing workers for companies too cowardly to do the deed themselves. Displaying few qualms about his job, Ryan revels in the perks and freedoms of the transient, corporate lifestyle. Hotel suites, pillow mints, personalised greetings – all act as complementary bonuses to keep his world “in orbit”. But as he closes in on his goal of 10 million frequent-flyer points, we begin to learn he lacks any real connection with people. When Ryan meets fellow corporate flier Alex (Vera Farmiga) and starts training young newstart Natalie (Anna Kendrick), he begins to look towards family as a way to find connection and fulfillment in life. The economic context of Ryan’s job, despite being a central component of the film, gradually becomes subsumed into his banal insecurity about relationships. Family is pitched as an alternative to Ryan’s corporate lifestyle, but in a way that reveals its own disingenuousness. The opposition of family and corporate atomisation disavows how much the film has actually framed family as both a fantasmatic and functional supplement to contemporary neoliberal ideology.
Director Jason Reitman’s comments about the film exemplify this ambivalence between the economic and the personal. During pre-release publicity, the director was explicit in arguing the economic downturn was not the point of the film:
"[T]his is not a movie about job loss. It never has been. The reason why this was just as an appropriate movie in 2002 when I started writing it as it is now is that it’s a movie about human connections... I would say that less than 10 percent of the film takes place in the world of corporate terminations."
In an interview closer to Oscar season, Reitman had this to say:
“What I do feel is that Up in the Air is the most indicative film of 2009. It is the portrait of 2009. And when you look at this State of the Union that happened a couple of days ago, that was all about unemployment being at its highest since 1983, and all about job creation, and you realize how this film is kind of a portrait of America right now…"
The film’s use of real laid-off workers (something Reitman has said he is most proud of) betrays a significant investment in the economic context. But the film’s familiar and generic sentiment deflects the traumatic alienation of job-loss into one man’s journey to “make a connection”. There’s an industry term for this. It’s called ‘faumey’.
Early on in the film, Ryan explains ‘faumey’ as a mixture of ‘faux’ and ‘homey’. The term describes the ‘simulated hospitality’ or little touches of homeliness used by hotels to ease any sense of transience or displacement. But it’s precisely this strange mix of pragmatism and sentimentality – as Nina Power says, “ideology, if ever there was a definition” – that epitomises the ambivalence of Up In The Air. Indeed, Ryan’s method of delivering lay-offs is explaining to the worker that the company’s cost cutting is both a pragmatic necessity as well as an opportunity for them to pursue their dreams and spend more time with their kids. This is initially regarded insultingly by the workers but by the end of the film is viewed as a sincere gesture. In a montage preceding the closing credits, real laid-off workers propound the virtues of family life once you get fired.
Ryan’s mix of pragmatism and sentiment in pitching lay-offs is paralleled in the film’s speeches about marriage and property. In one of the central scenes of the film, Ryan tries to persuade Jim (Danny McBride) of the value of marriage in a last-minute case of cold feet. Set up as a moving and heartfelt moment (it marks a turning point for the character), Ryan’s speech actually portrays marriage in purely pragmatic terms - marriage as a compensation for pure individualism, a salve for the fear of our “eventual demise”. Marry so you don't have to die alone. The speech even ends with a generic slogan: “Life? It’s better with company.” The functional nature of this speech is something Reitman must have been aware of, at least unconsciously. In an August, 2008 draft of the script, the “life is better with company” line is preceded by “I don't want to sound like a Hallmark card but...” - a reference that perfectly evinces the atomized and assimilated nature of Ryan’s marital affirmation. Yet the line was strangely elided in the final cut. Was it because it got too close to the contradiction at the heart of the film? The continuity between its corporate platitudes and familial sentiment? For Ryan, marriage is merely a longer lasting version of his so-called 'fast friends': the airplane passengers with whom he makes sympathetic, entertaining and, for all appearances, genuine conversation to pass the time. Marriage for him is a relationship built less on personal connection than professionalized function - "everyone needs a co-pilot" (Jim later repeats this term to his fiancé).
The contradictions of Ryan’s marriage speech become clearer when we compare it with Jim’s speech about real estate. The night before the marriage, Jim waxes lyrical to Ryan about how his property venture is “a community, not a development”; where everything is “turn-key” (furniture and garden maintenance included in the sale price). This is Jim’s version of ‘faumey’. When you buy a house on Jim’s development, you’re getting “seamless traditionalism yet all the perks”. Instant homeliness. At the end of his speech, Jim even begins connecting his real estate development to a greater American sentiment and ideology about owning your own house: “We all need a place to call our own. This is America. This is what we were promised.” To which Ryan adds, “that’s a nice touch” (a line Jim repeats after Ryan’s ‘life is better with company’ line). The “nice touch” both Jim and Ryan refer to is the point of disavowal. It’s the moment when pragmatism mixes with sentimentality, when function is disguised through empty emotion. Ryan doesn’t just like these moments – they form his identity. As he says in his voiceover introduction about the perks of frequent flying (the “warm reminders that he is home”): “It’s these kind of systematized touches that keep my world in orbit”. Ryan’s placement within the hub of transient capital necessarily posits these homely ‘touches’ at a distance. They are displaced, absorbed within the frame of fantasy. With this fantasmatic distance, they form the coherent supplement to his disjointed life. Rather than opposing corporate atomisation, these ‘touches’ actually allow it to continue, subsumed it into an equally (though less obviously) alienating sentimentality. But it’s not enough to say these moments are hidden from Ryan. As a corporate flier, he's particularly conscious of the function of these 'touches' and his introductory voiceover makes their subsumption transparent. For Ryan, it's not the friendly smiles or pillow mints themselves that create enjoyment, but the tacit and collective disavowal of capital they invoke. His modus operandi is to enjoy his symptom.*
These moments are reflective of a larger neoliberal belief system that has permeated and assimilated capitalist society since the late 70s. As Foucault says in his definitive exploration of the ideology, neoliberalism effects “an inversion of the relationships of the social to the economic”. Under neoliberalism, all social phenomena and relations are seen as economic calculations and investments - a professionalisation of life that extends even towards the family. As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, despite neoliberal capitalism holding obsolete the values family life depends upon (obligation, trustworthiness, commitment), it has set up the family as “an increasingly important place of respite from the pressures of a world in which instability is a constant”:
"The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labour power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions) even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other)."
Neoliberalism reduces family to a functional supplement for the atomised working life and wild fluctuations of capital. Yet it retains its fantasmatic sheen because of its simultaneous placement as a utopian horizon. This encourages a sense of family’s opposition to individualism, but the reality is neoliberalism embraces both. As pioneering neoliberal Margaret Thatcher famously put it: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and their families”. The false dichotomy between family and individualism merely circulates what society can't grasp or confront – the role of capital and its formative role in social relations. To some extent, every Hollywood film is guilty of this. But it’s Up In The Air’s explicit backdrop of downsizing and the global financial crisis that makes its ideological bent particularly unsettling.
To make the film's ideological shift clear, compare it to the similar ‘humanist’ and sentimental film Jerry Maguire. Both films confront economic limits (corporate atomization and job loss) but turn to questions of loneliness, family and connection. Both Jerry and Ryan enjoy the fast flying corporate life and each stands by their own version of ‘loyalty’ in place of genuine connection. Both encounter an increasing dehumanization and corporatisation of their professions and both turn to family in somewhat desperate romantic gestures. The difference between the two films is that Jerry Maguire actually confronts the fantasy of family to reveal its own functionality. In contrast to most other romantic dramas, the wedding between Jerry and Dorothy occurs half way through the film. The second half of the film exposes the way that family can act as just a compensation for loneliness. Despite expectations, Jerry finds the same kind of atomization and alienation in marriage as he felt in his corporate life. That’s not to say the film is anti-family. Far from it. But it divorces family from any ideological and functional role so as to reaffirm it as a question of love - not about the virtues of ‘company’ or professional partnership. Up In The Air, on the other hand, not only leaves family at a distance but celebrates it for its functionality.
It’s Up In The Air’s third-act twist that both exposes and obscures its dependence on family's fantasmatic distance. When Ryan makes his sudden romantic gesture to visit Alex at her home, he finds to his horror she already has a family. At this moment, he realizes the fantasy of their relationship, flirted with through multiple transient flings, was just that – a fantasy. Once Ryan got too close, the fantasy instantly revealed itself. Interestingly, the moment could also be seen as a rupture of Ryan's fantasy of the independent and free single lifestyle without connections. But rather than using the twist to reevaluate either of these notions, the film uses it to keep fantasy at a distance. The twist is both an excuse for cynicism and false sentiment.
The film’s final moments show Ryan returning to work and continuing with his high-flying lifestyle. The final shot is a view above the clouds, with Clooney's voice imaging him looking down longingly upon the banality of family life. It’s as if Ryan has realized what attracted to him about the fantasy of family was not family as such but family’s status as a symptom – a symptom of capital. Capital under the constant instability of neoliberalism is an ever shifting and affective form, both transparent and unrecognisable. Its amorphous nature means in some sense it can only ever be a symptom. Hence the final shot represents an apotheosis, but with Ryan identifying with the locus of transient capital rather than capital itself. The bathos of the scene comes from the film's ostensible critique of capital and the simultaneous injunction to enjoy it despite the critique. From this vantage point, family, as ‘touched’ by the sublimity of capital, is both fantasy and banality:
"Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places, and one of those lights slightly brighter than the rest will be my wing tip passing over."
*This enjoyment of his symptom also explains Ryan's resistance to Natalie's online redundancy proposal. For Ryan, the enjoyment of his job is acting as the 'human' face of capital. Natalie's clinical approach to laying people off strips back any pretence and steals his enjoyment, precisely because it prevents him from disavowing the true nature of his job.
Labels: up in the air; jason reitman