Up In The Air: A film for modern times


‘L’enfer c’est les autres’, ‘Hell is other people’ was Jean Paul Sartre’s take on the nature of human relations in a modern world where our

headaches and existential woes commence only after we start dealing with other people. The adjustments that we are expected to make as a result of a gregarious existence thus makes life unpleasant and difficult to endure.

Now the French philosopher whose philosophy generally painted a dark view of life anyway, would have probably been more content in our new age of computers, laptops, ipods and blackberries. These technological amenities that are designed to simplify life also facilitate societal disconnection. I mean one of the conveniences of modern technology is that it enables us to insulate our lives from the prying eyes of an inquisitive world(the ipod keeps passengers from bothering you on the train, text messages are more private and sometimes more intimate and so on…)

Sartre’s philosophical axiom may have its merits but watching Clooney’s latest film “UP IN THE AIR” gives us reasons not only to dread its implications but also to endeavour to eliminate the many things in our daily lives that add to existential isolation and quotidian solitude. The deceptive thing about technology is that, it gives us a false sense of security, shrouding us in fake warmth that comes from the many friends we may have on the facebook or that loved one we keep on the speed-dial of a cell phone. We may spend hours on the yahoo messenger corresponding with friends and family scattered all over the world, but are we really connected to them? The local British Telecom ad or cell phone commercial will ironically have the word ‘connect’ buried somewhere in the tagline but are these devices really connecting us? Do these gadgets allow us to engage in meaningful human interaction?

Can a protracted cell phone conversation with a girlfriend or a lover replace the warmth of her kiss or the comfort accrued from her physical presence? What excites us more, a text message from a lover or an actual visit from a lover? These modern day equipments are threatening to take the place of actual human beings in our lives and Clooney’s latest outing takes things further by making a good point about how the trappings of modern life are really affecting the shape of human existence. The sad fact is that, we delude or rather fool ourselves into believing that these trappings represent an improvement or some kind of way forward. But analyzing Clooney’s character in the film as some kind of mirror image of the contemporary man, we realize that the quality of human existence is either declining or has rather already declined as a result of an unwarranted allegiance to the demands of a modern world.

For most people the exigencies of a promising career take precedence over important family matters. Economics must make sense even if it comes at the expense of human beings. The individual like Sartre said has become a burden. The fewer people we encounter along the way, the merrier it will be for all of us.

“UP IN THE AIR” makes us see that, the human factor that is becoming less of a factor in our new age is an indictment on our modern times. Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham makes a living firing people or to put it diplomatically laying people off. “Relationships are the heaviest components in your life” he says. Relationships are a drag and they slow us down. A world that inspires a person to make such a statement is one that should be dreaded. As he flies across America, he makes his life in the skies and conveniently hides behind his work to avoid meaningful and deep human interaction. Things however, begin to change when he starts an affair with a like-minded frequent flyer “think of me as you with a vagina” she tells him. In the film that part is very well played by Vera Farminga whose efforts are well complimented by the relative new comer Anna Kendrick who plays the part of a young Cornell graduate recruited to assist Clooney’s Ryan Bingham on his errands. Well, the young enthusiast having grown in an age of computers and keyboards and screens and monitors even begins to question the merits of having workers like Ryan Bingham who crisscross the country at great cost to the parent company firing people. Why not digitize what they do as well? Needless to say that, this incurs the wrath of Ryan but it’s via his dealings with these two new women that his connectivity to people is somewhat restored.

The film which was expertly or rather ingenuously well directed by Jason Reitman who also directed ‘JUNO’ and ‘THANK YOU FOR SMOKING’ does not preach but rather instructs. “UP IN THE AIR” is a fable about where modernity is taking us. In a way there is a bit of the Clooney’s character in all of us. He is married to his work and as ruthless as he tends to be in his rather professional habit of announcing the dreaded corporate verdict on the sum of an employee’s lifelong service to a company, he remains in essence the very symbol of administrative ambition. You see, if he does not fire people he runs the risk of being fired himself. So really, he deserves our sympathy or rather empathy because any functionary in the modern corporate environment will agree that part of corporate ambition is ruthlessness. It also demands sacrifice, meaning spending more time away from friends and family and settling for text messages or facebook correspondence as the sound bites of contemporary human interaction. “UP IN THE AIR” instructs us to be wary of the legacy of modern ambition, career aggression or social progression. They might give us a drive but they also come at a price.

A recent survey concluded that Denmark was the happiest country in the world. I do not quite know what that means, but if my limited understanding of the survey’s findings proves to be correct then I beg to differ with the conclusions of the pollsters. Effective social policy resulting in the construction of an efficient welfare state does not guarantee the happiness of its inhabitants. If that were the case, Sweden, Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbour would not have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

There is a spiritual component that guarantees hope and happiness amongst the impoverished lot enduring life’s hardships in the slums of third world countries that these pollsters fail to include in their criteria for national bliss. The happiness of a nation is fostered not only by useful social policy but can also be engineered by proper communal living. The kind that is seldom found on the streets of London, Paris, Milan, New York or Copenhagen but is very much alive in the shantytowns or ghettoes of lesser renowned cities in emerging countries found in Africa or possibly Asia and Latin America; the element or issue of human connectivity is yet to lose its significance in those areas. What these communities need to do is to preserve the warmth and comfort that is derived from human connection.

Concluding on Sartre’s axiom, I believe it is fair to say that, the West may have the general habit of viewing people as cumbersome, but if Clooney’s film shows us anything it is that, that type of social belief is not helpful. Rather if the quality of human life is going to stay above existential reductionism then there is a need to make friends, relatives, parents and siblings, hell even neighbours the focal point of our daily activities. Any modern day calling, whether it’s a good job or a fancy gadget or any material offering that distracts our focus from the human beings who matter most in our lives must be classified as evil and needs to be exorcised before it’s too late. This, we do not only for ourselves, but also for the restoration of the value of the human being to make the world our province and everything in it subject to our desires and interests. God, mind you will not have it any other way!!!!!!