Monday, December 28, 2009

"Up in the Air": Contemporary American Culture and the First Circles of Hell

My niece and nephews took Steve and me to see the movie “Up in the Air” on Christmas day, and I’m still mulling it over. (We didn’t get to make our trip to Houston to visit my uncle and cousin there, due to the horrible weather that arrived in our area on Christmas eve.)

I’ll try to talk about “Up in the Air” without including too many spoilers for those who haven’t yet seen the movie. I highly recommend it, if you haven’t.

As you watch, it’s easy, of course, to focus your antipathy on the soulless protagonists of the plot, the rootless corporate ghouls whose days and nights consist of flying hither and yon to help companies “right-size”: to fire people, to end their careers and cut off their livelihood and health care coverage. For anyone who has experienced one of those lie-fests called vocational counseling that companies love to offer as they “right-size” (and destroy lives), it’s impossible to sit comfortably through the movie’s depiction of one termination after another without feeling something akin to hatred in one’s soul.

The emptiness. The lies. The waste of human lives, and of words used to depict the unthinkable as thinkable. And the contrasting power and privilege of the corporate ghouls who revel in globe-trotting and life-destroying, while they violate every connection that makes life human and worthwhile as they serve their corporate masters.

It’s easy, as I say, to focus your antipathy and even your “something akin to hatred” on those doing the corporate world’s dirty work, as you watch this movie. The use of real people, people who have been “right-sized” out of a job, for the firing sessions is very effective. The sympathy that most folks feel for these people, coupled with the distaste one feels for their tormentors, is, I daresay, electric. It’s instant and powerful.

Even so, I think you’d miss the point if you concluded that “Up in the Air” is about a few bad apples in a system that is wobbling around and can be set back on its moral foundations with a bit of spiffing up and a bit of work. For me, the message of the movie is that we’re all complicit in building the morally rotten, spiritually vacuous economic system with which we now live, and whose decay has eaten away the soul of our nation, our own souls.

The landscape inhabited by both the corporate ghouls and those whose jobs they end is spiritually bleak, in this movie. It’s soulless. It’s an indicator of what has gone frightfully wrong with our own souls at this point in history. The fly-over country the ghouls traverse as they go from firing destination to firing destination is the same country over and over. It’s a version of hell.

Landscape features may vary. The scenery may be different in each city. But once they’re on the ground, no longer up in the air and looking down, it’s the same city, over and over. The same burnished glass palaces of greed. The same plastic food in the same pretend restaurants, whether the restaurant is in Des Moines, Miami, or Milwaukee. The same preposterous slide-show presentations in the same phony-luxurious airport hotels, no matter the name of the city.

It’s all the same. It’s our land, the land we’ve made out of our mindless pursuit of easy dollars, and our abdication of moral and spiritual insight. Those whose sole purpose in life is to end the employment of others in this movie certainly occupy the lower circles of hell.

But those lower circles connect to upper circles in which all the rest of us live. It’s we who’ve made the world in which these creatures now lord it over us, with their perks and privileges, their gold cards and go-to-the-head-of-the-line symbols of superiority. They shine, they are permitted to live up in the air, because we permit them to do so. We’ve created a cultural world in which the right of corporate ghouls to claim a human status superseding our own human status goes unchallenged, because the corruption at the heart of this cultural world—its rotten moral soul—goes unexposed, unanalyzed. We don’t want to analyze it.

Life’s all about getting and having, after all. Who blames anyone for making another buck? Why not cut a few ethical corners if it means getting to the top a little more quickly? What’s wrong with a lie here or there when we’re serving the greater good? When we’re building our career? Or helping our corporation?

Morality? What does any of this have to do with morality? This is just how things are, in the real world. Morality is about cheating on one’s spouse. It’s about making sure that the sacred right to marriage is reserved to one man and one woman for life. It’s not about deal-making and deal-breaking. It’s not about firing people who have to be fired to make a company lean and mean.

In my view, “Up in the Air” is about a very particular kind of hell that Western societies—and notably the United States, where there is not a social-safety network for the walking wounded of our economic system, as there is in most other developed nations—began to build in the latter decades of the 20th century. This movie is about why we are where we are now, and how impossible it will be to move beyond where we are culturally, politically, and economically without facing the system we’ve built as we prescind from moral questions while we pursue wealth.

Or without recognizing that those who have brought us to this point, who have led us into the first circles of hell while claiming to be servants of morality, of “pro-life” values and traditional family values, are not about morality or the healing of souls at all. They are, precisely and in fact, gatekeepers of the passages to hell. Even when some of them sport episcopal miters.

For a thought-provoking analysis of this movie on another blog, I recommend Fran Rossi Szpylczyn’s review at There Will Be Bread.