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While Avatar continues to rake it in both from both the box office and the movie pundits, I feel like one of the few who haven’t seen it yet. So I want to draw your attention to a different film – Up in the Air.

The movie has the elements of a classic story of personal victory, sprinkled with just the right amount of romance to make everyone happy. The main character, successful businessman Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels the continent firing people for companies in transition (or bosses too afraid to do it themselves). His motto is that life should fit in a carry-on backpack – with the conscious refusal to embrace commitment and a settled life (I mean, how can you fit relationships in a backpack anyway?). On a quest for one million air miles, Bingham represents achievement and independence – a vision we all should strive for, right? He even finds a high achieving woman of comparable status to compare frequent flyer cards with (among other things). In a sense, the viewer is led to believe Bingham has it all.

I think we like these stories because it allows us to live vicariously through the adventures of someone else, knowing full well that those experiences will never be ours. We want to imagine an alternative life – a quick escape that the anonymity of a movie theatre offers. And so we are drawn to a story of success and freedom because in the monotony of everyday existence, we share in the adrenaline rush of success and adventure Ryan Bingham represents. But wait, Up in the Air doesn’t let the viewer’s experience end in escape.

As the story progresses, the narrative jolts the viewer from escaping reality – living vicariously through the escapades of Ryan Bingham – to confronting reality. Up in the Air forces the viewer back to real life. In the story, Bingham loses his job security and his romance forces him to question the value of unattached independence. Quite simply, the idealism of complete independence, success and adventure crumbles in a series of events that force Bingham to question his philosophy that life must always be a fast-paced quest for accomplishment. He encounters what the rest of us have known all along – life is normal.

And so it’s Bingham’s encounter with the normal parts of modern life that lead to his identity crisis. He connects with his siblings – regular folks caught up in the rat race of jobs, relationships, depression, families, etc… He falls in love and realizes the idea of “settling” isn’t as crazy as he once thought. By encountering normality, Bingham actually finds meaning. And so in the end, we – the normal majority – become the hero. In a way, then, the movie watching experience is flipped around – Bingham lives vicariously through us.

Unlike most movies Up in the Air teaches us that we don’t need to escape our normal lives to find meaning. Normal may in fact be the place true meaning resides.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the comments, David........I haven't seen either movie yet, and now I want to see 'Up in the Air'.
Thanks for the cookbook, by the way.......are you liking the calendar in your office?

Darren said...

Dave - I, like you, also have not seen Avatar (and I am disinclined partly because of all the hype and partly because it looks stupid), and loved "Up in the Air" - for some of the same reasons as you've mentioned but also because it's message was not a typical ... uber-cool guy lives awesome life, is envied by everyone, thinks he has it all until he finds love (which, by the way, he has always shunned as silly) and discovers that he's been living an empty life and NOW has it all and is truly happy and perfect. I liked the way that, in this film, when he thought that was where truth lay, he followed it and then found some uncomfortable other truths that he hadn't considered - his family didn't really embrace or accept him, romantic love brought him more pain and less fulfillment than he'd ever known in his mindless flings.

The problem was, when he thought he'd had an epiphany that "normal life" was where happiness lay, he pursed it and it left him emptier than ever and chased him back to wander the halls of his former life but without the joie de vivre he'd once seemed to enjoy. I think at least some of the point of this movie was that we can't live each other's lives. People love to label and judge others choices because they are inferior to our own, but ours just don't work for everyone and we have to leave room for them in our little worlds and not try to make everyone fit into our neatly laid out boxes. There's a lot of complicated issues at play in this film and I'm not sure that I'm nailing here either, but I did enjoy it and intend to give it another watch.

David Warkentin said...

Hey Darren, good thoughts...

Interesting you mention Bingham's return to his old life because that's the one part of the movie I've been thinking through and not sure how to reconcile. So your take on trying not to judge other people's happiness helps make sense of his return to his old life. If anything, while "normal" may not be where he ended up, his world had been expanded to at least include the possibility of value in other experiences.

If anything, it was in his pursuit of normal life experiences that he finally found a depth of meaning - albeit quite painful - that he'd never experienced before. And in our own lives, I think this desire for meaning amidst our pain is a deeper human characteristic than simply our desire to escape our problems.

Darren said...

Exactly right Dave, well put.

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