Monday, December 28, 2009

Western Air

Or why George Clooney is really John Wayne -- and why Up in the Air suggests a collective lack of political imagination

The locus of its settings may be American Airline terminals and Hilton hotels, but make no mistake: Up in the Air is a Western, and George Clooney is John Wayne (or, given his looks, maybe Alan Ladd in Shane). Like the quintessential Western hero, Clooney's Ryan Bingham is a loner who -- at the outset at least -- is content
that way. Paradoxically, the very sense of mastery he exhibits as he enters a new environment marks him as an outsider. He's a hired gun for a private company that terminates employees on behalf of clients too timid to pull the trigger themselves: Bingham comes to town and fires at close range. And yet he's got an undeniable, if perverse, sense of charm. Indeed, like many a Western hero, we find ourselves rooting for him, even as we recognize that he is operating outside any conventional sense of law or even justice.

Naturally, there are complications. Some of those complications are female, and take the
form of challenges to the hero's sense of moral order, an order which we may initially think he lacks but which becomes clear to us as the story proceeds. (Part of what makes this movie a modern western in the way in which the females act against, and are not simply subject to, that moral order -- and as such are potential villains as well as victims.) Bingham learns that his boss has hired a hot young maverick who wants the company to cut its travel budget and instead conduct firings by video from the company's home office in Omaha. Bingham makes compelling objections to this approach, which results in him reluctantly taking on the role as mentor for an upstart he regards with distaste. Which makes sense, since surrogate fathers are staples of Westerns.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot here except to say that in the broadest sense this is a movie that begins with a protagonist who chooses a life because it represents the fullest sense of freedom as he understands it (here connoted by the metaphor of the empty backpack) yet finds unexpectedly finds himself in that life out of a sense of necessity, and even duty. Bingham returns to his childhood home in northern Wisconsin -- one of the striking aspects of Up in the Air is that for all the screen time occupied by national franchises, it has a remarkably rooted sense of place in the Midwest -- and as it turns out, he has a redemptive role to play there. But as happy as he is go home, it's utterly evident that while he may be in that world, he's long since ceased to be of it. And can't be.

It's often the case that the movies that make the deepest impact on us are those that have an unexpected inevitability -- endings that we didn't see coming but which make perfect sense as we see them in retrospect. Up in the Air had that quality for me. But I found myself coming out of the movie disturbed by the surprising potency of the film's conservatism, something I didn't quite, but perhaps should have, expected from writer/director Jason Reitman, who preserved so much of the cheekiness of his source material in his film versions of Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Diablo Cody's screenplay for Juno (2007). Like those movies, Up in the Air, based on Walter Kirn's 2002 novel, has a light comic touch, and a satiric stance toward those who who take abstractions of any kind too seriously. All of Reitman's movies show us protagonists whose libertarian instincts get reined in. But they all also betray a strong sense of skepticism about liberal solutions, whether government regulation (Thank You for Smoking) or abortion (Juno). Reitman's vision, while undeniably appealing in its earthy realism, also implicitly accepts, if not endorses, the status quo. Which is what most Westerns do. To put it more plainly: this is not a movie in which political solutions, collective action, or even seeing seeing the chief beneficiaries of others' misery get their comeuppance ever gets discussed, much less depicted.

It's not hard to see why: such an approach would strike most audiences as stilted, preachy, unrealistic. But if we really want to understand why it is that banks get bailed out and corporate executives get obscene bonuses while ordinary people lose their jobs and their homes, this movie points toward an answer. We seem to have a difficult time imagining a plausible alternative. As long as that's true, the only balm we're likely to get for our wounds is the illusion of George Clooney jetting into our lives to spend a few hours with us over the weekend before he takes off into the sunset.

Note: This blog post owes much to the durable influence of film scholar Robert Ray's "Thematic Paradigm," and his argument that many American films are in effect "disguised Westerns." See A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1985).