Sunday, December 20, 2009

Serious Men

I have been thinking a good deal about the two films we saw last week. The first, "A Serious Man," I wrote about in The Buddha Diaries on Tuesday. You might remember that I did not like it much. Then Saturday night we went with friends to see Up in the Air--a film about an unserious man. At the beginning, at least, he's unserious. Arrogant, self-involved, superficial, slick, casually promiscuous... and very good at his job. He works for a corporation that specializes in firing people for other corporations, too cowardly to do their own. As his CEO gloats, in an early scene, this is their moment.

It's a good film, and it has been widely touted as an Oscar front-runner. George Clooney does an excellent job as Ryan Bingham, and he is more than ably supported by Vera Farmiga as his on-the-run luxury hotel sexual interest and Anna Kendrick as a feisty young corporate wannebe whose goal is to cut costs for the company by converting the live encounters with its victims--the job at which Ryan excels--with remote video technology. The story is a sad and disturbingly accurate reflection of our current social and cultural environment, from its cutthroat, bottom-line corporate practices to its self-congratulatory promotion of the phony values of positive thinking. Ryan does both, as a company hit-man who profits on the side from his motivational "What's in your Backpack?" conferences. His theme in life, which he readily promulgates, is travel light, keep moving, and avoid attachments--whether to possessions or to other people.

Okay, so far so good--and on this level the film would have to count as a major success. For me, though, there was a major flaw in the mythical pattern of the story that left me, at the end, feeling dissatisfied, almost cheated. The missing ingredient is redemption. Here's an empty, heartless, soulless guy who is set unexpectedly--and unwantedly--on the path to discovering a heart and soul that he never thought he actually possessed. From the high point of a hugely successful career and a life that's happy, at least by his own estimation and intentions, he's led on an increasingly precipitous descent, to a point where he's brought face-to-face with the emptiness of his life and discovers in himself a capacity to love and a need for deeper connection.

What the mythic pattern requires, at this point, after all the protagonist has gone through, is at least the possibility of redemption. And there seems to be a glimmering of recognition of that need. Ryan achieves his life-time dream of amassing the ten million airline miles that have been his lifelong goal, and gets the precious little platinum (?) card--his is only the seventh in history--along with a personal visit from the airline Captain (a benevolent Sam Elliot, we presume a stand-in for God) who blesses him with vacuous platitudes. But then the film ends with Ryan's dispirited return to the empty arc of his life, "up in the air" again, in constant flight to his next dispiriting assignment, with no visible hope of any real change or redemption.

It's interesting that to me the protagonists of both these films were in desperate need of some form of salvation, and neither got it. The hapless Job of "A Serious Man" ends up holding hands in the synagogue with his feckless wife while their slacker son cheats his way through his bar mitzvah; and the film ends with the arrival of God's wrath in the form of an approaching tornado, likely to sweep the whole lot of them into oblivion. Ryan Bingham ends up succumbing to emptiness and disconnection as the inalterable fact of his life, and drifts off into the clouds aboard an endless flight.

It should be noted that my friends who saw "Up in the Air" with me, and Ellie too, praised what they saw to be the realism of its ending. I was alone, it seemed, in my discontent. Perhaps it says more about me than the movie!

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