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Critical Blow: “Up In The Air”, A Futurism Opus January 4, 2010

Posted by arcanyx in Uncategorized.
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(Note: Spoilers ahead.)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, a George Clooney-centric film about the harrowing life of a man who travels around the United States to fire people for large companies. There is little to be said about the surface quality of the film; it boasts pristine cinematography, poignant performances and brilliant, witty writing. What interests me most about this film is not related to its cinematic qualities, but its substantive themes regarding reproductive futurism, human connection, and the rigors of aging.

No Job, No Future

With regards to these themes, it is absolutely uncanny how on-point Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (a work that I happened to read just a few months ago) is in formulating a critical reading of Up In The Air. In No Future, Edelman espouses the idea that reproductive futurism, or the societal imperative for its members to enter reproductive relationships and continue the species, is constructed around a self-propagating narrative that holds no essential truth or veracity. While this is but one of many arguments Edelman makes in No Future — and a vast simplification of this argument, at that — the concept is absolutely essential to understanding the immensely powerful statement Up In The Airmakes about the futurist narrative.

In the film, Ryan Bingham (Clooney) at first appears to a paragon of anti-futurist thought. He travels constantly without significant human connection of any kind, leaning on corporate symbols of loyalty (frequent flyer miles, preferred flier benefits, and the like) for comfort. In addition to his regular job, he occasionally delivers a distinctly anti-futurist motivational talk (“What’s In Your Backpack?”) where he advocates discarding all non-essential objects and relationships in an effort to move faster; as he says, “when we move slow, we die faster”. The film presents this speech as Bingham’s validity-argument for his own lifestyle, implying a sense of arrogance and disdain for those burdened by families, material belongings, and the like — all of which are the most basic tropes of the futurist narrative.

Of course, not all is well for the anti-futurist. A new employee at his company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) introduces a method of terminating employees via video conference, effectively eliminating the need for him to travel. This distresses Bingham, ostensibly because he enjoys his routine — however, keeping his anti-futurist convictions in mind, it is clear that “grounding” him will make him unable to lead a lifestyle through which he can avoid being grasped by the tendrils of the futurist narrative. When he attacks the Keener’s ability to truly understand the process she is updating, his superiors attach her to his last voyage around the country to teach her the ropes.

Unsurprisingly, Keener represents a person that, while as competent and intelligent as Bingham, has bought entirely into the futurist narrative — she has a boyfriend that she followed to Nebraska after college, a fantasy of being married by 25, and an incredulous reaction to Bingham’s assertions that he desires neither marriage nor children. In this, Bingham and Keener lock into the classic futurist struggle — Keener the reproductive futurist, deifying the idea of the metaphorical Child, and Bingham the sinthome, an identity that can be roughly described as those opposing futurism.

Bingham is no stranger to opposition to his anti-futurism; his two sisters often attempt to bring him into the futurist fold with techniques of guilt. He has resisted before; this time, however, a new factor comes into the fold: a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who describes herself as “[Bingham] with a vagina”.  They connect immediately, but it takes great persuasion on Keener’s part to convince Bingham to pursue his involvement with Alex any further than airport hookups.

This decision on Bingham’s part takes place at a particularly interesting moment for a futurist reading of the film; at an extraordinarily important conference where he is giving his “Backpack” speech to a huge crowd, he suddenly flees the stage in order to pursue Alex. There is no more obvious rejection of his anti-futurist ways; in that moment, he has become a full believer in the futurist narrative. Of course, when he goes to Alex’s home in Chicago, he finds that she is, of course, married with kids. Bingham’s devastation comes not so much through his loss of Alex as a reproductive partner — he does not linger over her for long, if at all — but moreso in the destruction of the futurist foundation that always supported his anti-futurism. In other words, Bingham, like many hyper-modern anti-futurists, allows himself to be so vehemently anti-futurist chiefly because he assumes the futurist narrative will be there to absorb him if he ever becomes unsatisfied with anti-futurism. In this moment, in the revelation of the instability, self-propagating, self-interested and fabricated nature of the reproductive narrative, Bingham has his whole support system destroyed.

In many ways, there is nothing novel about this storyline, having been done hundreds (if not thousands) of times before. However, the utter depth of Bingham’s anti-futurism at the beginning of the film, combined with the insidious manner in which he is convinced of the truth and supremacy of the futurist narrative and his immediate disillusionment the moment he converts to it brings a different message out than mere disappointment. It is an attack aimed directly at the insidious nature of the futurist narrative, if not the assumed supremacy of the narrative itself.

A Future for the Anti-Futurist?

This is not the end for Bingham; set adrift in limbo between complying futurist and vehement anti-futurist, he struggles with what to do with his life. Ultimately, he decides that his corporate loyalty is insufficient to satisfy him, and attempts to share some of the contents of his “backpack” with others rather than hoard them. The film ends with a feel-good moment for Keener, but the last montage of the film — a series of people the viewer previously saw distressed over being fired, but now asserting the comfort that their families gave them after being let go — brings the message back to futurism.

What are we to take away from the film? In this, it is relevant to mention that perhaps the greatest criticism levied at Edelman by critics of No Future is the inapplicability of his theories. His points are difficult to dispute, even his eventual statement that all people eventually become subjects of the sinthome — however, he struggles to find an application, as he casts the sinthome as inherently opposed to all politics and (obviously) reproduction, which essentially makes them self-ostracized exiles of conventional society.

The beauty of Up In The Air, however, is that I feel it provides a possible compromise between the futurist and the anti-futurist. Bingham, at the end of the film, has not sworn off his anti-futurist ways — however, he has been clearly disenfranchised towards becoming a participant in the narrative as well. He ends the film as existing on the fringe between the two disciplines, fueling the reproductive futurists with his own resources while not himself becoming involved. While this may be perceived as a “lonely” or “depressing” lifestyle, in the context of the film (as well as Bingham’s own lack of depression) it is something of a triumph; Bingham has experienced being an acolyte of both sides of the coin and, in his own rebellion, has decided to inhabit a relatively unexplored — and oft-disdained — gray area between them.

I wonder what Edelman would say to this usage of his work; he comes across as extraordinarily adamant about rejecting futurism, despite the lack of a “how” or “why”, so perhaps he would see Bingham as a weak figure, a failure. On the other hand, perhaps seeing his own theories so deeply suffused in a gorgeous work of cinema would give him some pleasure.

Recommendation: Must-see. Far from being overly depressing or frivolous,Up In The Air inhabits that rare space in film where an enjoyable experience is married (no pun intended) to a surprisingly deep, artistic message. And, of course, if Bingham’s plights resonates with you, I would also recommend giving Lee Edelman’s No Future a read.