Friday, February 19, 2010

Up in the Air - Wanting to belong

Every year in February, several companies feature in my university’s career fair. Various students throng the diverse colored corporate booths with a resume in hand, and lots on their mind. If you happened to be standing close to one of my friend, you would hear his perfect pitched voice talking to a recruiter. “Hello Sir! My name is xyz and I am working towards my Electrical Engineering degree. My specialty lies in….” and then he rattles on, and on and on. He is tensed, but also hopeful. How do you talk to someone when you think the person you are talking to has the power of making or breaking your life? (truth be told, there is nothing as such as making or break one’s life, and ideally our correct evaluations can come from only within ourselves. But then we hardly believe what we were once taught in our Moral Science class.) Would you be nervous? A nod here, a nod there. A touch too polite, a firm handshake, that amount of correct smile that is not servile but neither overtly confident.


But, when his monologue of achievement ends and he basks in a momentarily smugness of self achievement with some obvious nervousness, his heart breaks when he listens the recruiter speak – “I am sorry, but our company does not hire international students.” Or,” I am sorry but we are not hiring any electrical engineering interns this year. But, we encourage you to submit our resume to our database and we will contact you once your talent meets our requirement.” He just realizes that his monologue echoed back to gibe him. And on top of it, the recruiter says it with just an appropriate amount of correct smile on her lips. Beatific but not comforting. Or, when he opens that e-mail which has the subject of a company’s name, his heart leaps, dilates with hope he had only heard about only to be surprised by being crushed under it. And then so it begins “We regret to inform you that…” And that’s where it began, and that’s where it ends. A whole breath between congratulations and regret, success and failure, crossing the line and missing it.
The disillusionment of my batch mates is still not that bad. Where does it stand with the disappointment of a 57 year old guy who just got laid off? Where does the disillusionment of a 22 year old compare to that of a single mother who finds it difficult to face her daughter. And she sits opposite to a glib talker of a balanced disposition. He sits with an aura of unsettling serenity and discusses her ‘future options’. Just like that recruiter my friend met at the career fair, that familiar smile embellishing his lips. While that recruiter wishes my friend “best of luck in your future endeavors”. Ryan simply says “not to take it personally”. That false comforting smile comes naturally to him. One of the major things Up in the Air fleetingly touches in its opening frames and also in the midst of it. Disappointment. And its escalation by lies. Smooth lies.
The movie is not as much about people losing jobs in the crunch economic situation today per se. But, it has more to do with wiping that invisible barrier, which relegates us to bottom and deprives us from getting what we want. And it could be anything. It has more to do with the ‘you are not welcome’ board one encounters in life so very often. Be it at that company you want to work for, or were working but have now been let gone. Or, be it about that emotional stability that you want. The movie is about deprivation in any form. Tangible or intangible.
Retiman weaves poignant ironic scenes that echoes the sentiments of ‘You seldom get something you really want’. They come back to you when you bask indifferently in their presence. Like that 10 million miles moment. The moment for Ryan. The moment he had rehearsed and played it over in his head. But, he couldn’t care less for it when it actually dawned on him. Because, may be for the first time he can judge it by what it really is – just a number. Why have the lives of most imperfect beings structured like that? This movie is about that. About the deconstruction, in fact a retro-gradation of a seemingly perfect man who fires people with disquieting ease to his own gradual emotional bankruptcy.
It’s not as if the movie is not ridden with its share of cliches. The most notable being, underscoring the supreme importance of love, where an Ivy-League passed out go getter’s life is first dictated and then almost shaken by love. Thus, in a way not showcasing its importance, but making it a wont and hence exaggerating it. Arguably it may be true, but is nothing new. And Alex’s character has inconsistencies galore. Someone who treats Ryan just as parentheses would not (or want to) hold hands with him at his school’s stairs and moreover definitely not attend his sister’s wedding at the least.
It’s also about that specific something in our mind, but without contesting its merit. Without even thinking about it, and worse without even questioning it. Just like that 10 million air miles Ryan has in mind. By doing that he is enslaving himself to that vicious cycle he can never live independently of. It always comes back to haunt and question him – keep me in mind just for the heck of it. Natalie gives a rather uncluttered answer – “If I had that much miles, I would just pick a place and go”. Or, even that Bag-pack theory he carries himself all along with him. In fact, carrying it, just like a bag-pack without even questioning its merit. How may times have we said something which is nothing but a progeny of our own thin clouded thoughts, saying something just because it needs to be said. Not entirely weighing what it means, because just like Ryan’s bag-pack, it is just something we have merely thought of and spoken. It is not something we have implemented or experienced it yet. We haven’t worn that bag-pack once. And in scenes before movie’s finale, Ryan for the first time is face to face with his own ideology, so as to speak. Before him is his sister’s to be husband who has suddenly developed ‘cold feet’. And Ryan is supposed to dissuade him. Does his bag-pack theory holds ground in real life? What is he supposed to tell him? The purpose of this scene is clear. To make Ryan discover the futility of what he thinks by placing him in a contradictory situation. And like a sold audience we expect him to talk himself out of this situation and convince himself and more so ourselves that how futile his thoughts been all this while. But, he doesn’t directly. It’s a scene that exhibits remarkable restraint by Reitman, where he withholds and downplays a scene for a moment so that he can amplify its effect later. It is when Ryan is in familiar terrain that he actually cogitates what to do with it. His thoughts. His lies. His bag-pack theory. His pseudo comforting line of ” Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s *because* they sat there that they were able to do it. ” In front of an audience. The speech should come easily to him. The ones he has practiced and delivered with flawless élan. But, it doesn’t. The 34 year old metamorphoses into a teenager that very instant.
There is nothing wrong in wanting to be alone and although the characters in the movie are judgmental of this fact, the movie itself is not. And the movie even take those many checking-in, checking-out, fooling around scenes lightly with swift cuts and a breezy background score. Where Reitman is doing nothing but yet again using irony as a potent weapon to juxtapose loneliness and being surrounded by people. Also notable are the scenes where Ryan is veering towards some kind of a family life, some kind of a stability, both in terms of having a family and having someone to cling on. And then it strikes him, the feeling of not belonging . The same feeling the people he let go had.The feeling that snakes onto him when his sister does not even look at the photographs he got for her, and instead just tells him to put it on a soft board. The personal touch and the sense of belonging being dissolved with hundred other similar looking photographs on the soft board. And unlike the people Ryan fires, when he is himself emotionally jolted, he doesn’t even get a chance to breakdown before anyone. In that sense, he has equaled the people he fires in terms of being desperate, but he still can’t vent it. The closest interaction he has is a door being shut on him rather acrimoniously which is symbolic of ‘You are not welcome’.
Reitman does all that and more, but without overtly scrutinizing the pathos of the central character. Also, it is at the movie’s final moments that the director projects the two conflicting conflicting emotions the protagonist has to battle with. Resignation and rebellion. Should he resign to his fate of being a vagabond, or should he rebel against it? He goes to the airport and takes a look at the myriad destination panels at the airport. What is on his mind? He is not a teenager anymore. He can’t break free just like that. He is 34, with little friends and a hazy idea about his future. Can he hear Natalie now?
If I had so many miles, I would just pick a destination and go
He lets go of his luggage in an almost theatrical manner for a moment. We don’t know whether he got onto that flight or not. Neither is his final monologue indicative enough. What tone does he employ? Is it wallowing in self pity, or, a derivative of an anger resulting from betrayed expectations. It is none of these. It is more of an observation. Albeit true but a sad observation, and not in an introspective manner that has promises of rebuilding. He was always an outsider, and he is still an outsider. To the people he fired and ‘consoled’. To his sister. To his sister’s husband. To the bag-pack audience. To Natalie. To Alex.
Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids, their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they will sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over
End credits.

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