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Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) - A Backpack Full of Post-Viewing Prompts

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  • Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) - A Backpack Full of Post-Viewing Prompts

    1. Ryan Bingham’s self-described “philosophy” of eliminating “weight” is described by others throughout the film as “bullsh-t”, “f-cked-up”, and “stupid”. Yet he is also shown to be increasingly successful in presenting it as the content of “motivational” speeches. What, then, does the film on the whole think of that philosophy? What do you think? Does the film suggest any ultimately compelling alternatives?

    2. Though Ryan asserts that “living is moving” and thus casts weight as nothing but a hindrance, he subsequently protests that “there is nothing cheap about loyalty” (in this instance, to an airline) and impresses Alex, with whom he carries on an affair through much of the film, with the “weight” of his graphite American Airlines “Concierge Card” (upon which is imprinted the slogan “Always connected”). Do these gestures affirm in some way Milan Kundera’s view that the lightness of being is “unbearable”—that weight is somehow either necessary or unavoidable?

    3. Ryan acknowledges the artificial or inauthentic quality of the world he occupies (airports, corporate hotels)—exemplified by cheap sushi, recycled air, etc. He also acknowledges the efforts made to obscure that artificiality—the simulated hospitality or phony-homey (“phomey”) quality of ploys like scripted greetings and warm cookies at check-in. Nevertheless, and although he notes that it is what we (the viewers) probably hate about flying, he both affirms and embraces it. Wouldn’t such an embrace of the increasing inauthenticity of the world in general just serve to render a person inauthentic as well? Would acknowledging, and perhaps even celebrating, that we are affirming inauthenticity—maintaining a kind of ironic distance—spare us from becoming inauthentic, as though by acknowledging it we somehow rise above it? Does doing so spare Ryan? Or is becoming knowingly inauthentic somehow his goal?

    4. Ryan’s stated goal is to achieve 10 million airline “miles”. Only six other people in the world of the film (fewer people than have walked on the moon, as Ryan notes) have previously accumulated so many. What kind of goal is this? Is it a worthy goal, or is it “cheap,” as even Alex (who also regards Ryan’s considerable progress toward it to be “pretty f-ing sexy”) thinks? Is anything revealed in all of this concerning the goals that actual people in the actual world maintain for themselves?

    5. One of Ryan’s chief critics is Natalie Keener, the recent Ivy-League graduate whom he regards as naïve and immature. Though she regards his philosophy as “stupid,” is she revealed through the course of the film to be any more authentic than he is? That is to say, is her embrace of and seeking for weight really that, or just another, though perhaps less honest, variety of cynicism? Is she really so keen to add weight to her life, or just some artificial (contrived and prefigured) semblance of it?

    6. The alternative to a life free of weight, according to the film, is one of commitment, marriage, and family. Arguably, however, the film seems inclined to cast suspicion upon the viability of that alternative as well. How does the film challenge that alternative (and presumably much more common) approach to life? Does it do so successfully? If lightness is somehow unbearable in human life, are our efforts at adding weight doomed to failure? If so, are these failures connected? Is lightness not only unbearable, but inevitable as well?

    7. Up in the Air was received at the time of its release (in 2009), using as it did actual people who had recently lost their jobs, as an insightful portrayal of American life in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. What, however, does the title of the film mean? What is “up in the air”? What, if anything, did the 2008 “downturn” do to create that? Did it perhaps only serve to reveal what had long been the case? Is it still the case? What might we do to change it?

    8. What effect does Ryan’s job have on those whom he is tasked with firing? How does he attempt to mitigate that effect? Though he admits to lying to those people—revealing to us that he will never see those whom he fires again just after having told one of them that “this is just the beginning”—is the advice he gives them always entirely wrong? Are the jobs that the people he fires are thus losing really worth having? Are the lives they were leading, according to Ryan and the film, all that worth living? Is Ryan’s? If not, why doesn’t he follow his own advice?

    9. The company for which Ryan works (Career Transition Counseling) is portrayed as somehow unethical in that it prospers by the failure of others (“It is one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment.”). As a consequence, Natalie quits to seek other work and even Ryan’s boss admits to struggling to digest and pass food normally. Is that kind of immorality really so uncommon, however, or is it increasingly characteristic of business in this age? How many people who now work for Walmart and other global enterprises (with lower pay and less job security, basis for loyalty, etc.), for example, used to work for local enterprises that were forced to close by the arrival of such companies in their communities? Much of what now goes on in Wall Street firms under the general heading of “investment” is actually just gambling (and thus often profiting) on failure. Does business any longer concern itself with what it does to individuals, that is with ethics?
    Last edited by Steven Brence; 04-24-2016, 10:51 PM.