February 23, 2010

“Up in the Air” and privilege

By: Sonny Bunch

Over at his revamped digs,* Freddie DeBoer critiques Up in the Air:

The problem is, on a broader level, that Ryan Bingham is a privileged person with privileged problems. An argument that this would somehow disqualify the movie, somehow, is of course ridiculous. Movies should be constrained, in what content we consider appropriate, only by the limits of the human imagination. Ran is about the most privileged people imaginable; it is also the best movie ever made, in my opinion. It isn’t as if I want to dismiss Up In the Air as a bourgeois artifact and thus ineligible for my praise. The failing is that it is a movie that doesn’t seem aware of that privilege, which is odd, since it takes such pains to present the hardship of the people that Bingham and his protege are firing. Put it this way: the movie doesn’t mistake Bingham’s unhappiness as identical or commensurate with that of the people he is laying off, but there is something unsatisfying about how it positions his (deep, understandable and moving) unhappiness.

I have to say that I agree with one of Freddie’s commenters who thinks that he is trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He’s not saying the movie isn’t good because the main character is a privileged, upper class white guy who doesn’t appreciate how good he’s got it, but, you know, it’s a movie about a privileged upper class white guy who has unrelatable problems.

I guess this is how I would critique Freddie’s critique: How would you solve the problem you point out? I don’t mean this as a cute rhetorical trick — there’s nothing worse than a filmmaker who argues that critics have no standing to criticize their work because they’ve never made a film — but as a serious question. How would Freddie alter the script or the plot to make the “unsatisfying” way the movie “positions his … unhappiness” more satisfying? Is it as simple as inserting a line in which Bingham grapples with the fact that he’s a bottom feeder on the seabed of capitalism, consuming the misery of others?

As far as I’m concerned, I think Reitman did a fine job comparing the unmoored nature of Bingham’s personal life with the unmooring he visits upon the people he relieves of their jobs. Up in the Air probably struck a special chord with me, having viewed it shortly after receiving news that my office would be eliminating half of its work force, and shortly before being informed that I was part of the unlucky half. In theory, I should be as upset about the movie’s treatment of privilege as anyone: I should be identifying with J.K. Simmons, angry at Clooney’s smug assertion that being laid off opens a door to greater achievement. But the movie isn’t about J.K. Simmons. It’s about living a life of disconnected solitude and the impact that brings to bear on the soul. It’s about George Clooney.

*Which you should, needless to say, be reading; there are few people who I almost always strenuously disagree with yet still enjoy reading.