JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Ryan Bingham, appears to be the defining antithesis to the Capraesque hero.

In Up in the air, social dehumanization is both a context and cause of the economic crisis. Bingham is depicted as a victorious avatar of selfish individualism. As the film bitterly records, a worker may be fired nowadays by videoconference, and a relationship ended by text-message.

 

“Detachment and family are what matter in this drama, as in so much of the mass-culture response to the crisis” (Kinkle and Toscano)

Jason Reitman: “I never thought I was really making a movie about firing. I always thought I was making a movie about a guy who has decided to disconnect from the world and the sacrifices that come with that, and then the consequences of when he inevitably starts to connect with somebody.”

Bingham suffers the fate of Capra’s villains, who fail not so much because they are bad, but because they do not know how best to serve themselves as creatures who share needs and characteristics with others.

McCarthy uses the archetype of home to show the connection between the strengthening of family as a means to firm up the nation. In The Visitor, the filmmaker depicts social empathy and real contact between people from different cultures.

The Visitor. Through Tarek, Walter discovers djembe, a kind of African drumming, enabling him to release the emotion pent-up since the death of his wife.

"[At] this time in our country and in our world, politics and world events interfere directly in personal relations..."

In Win Win, McCarthy tells about families in crisis within the United States. His films deal with solidarity as a remedy for economic, social and ethnical rupture.

“I didn’t feel like it was a movie about wrestling and winning. It felt like it was more about doing the right thing and being responsible for one’s own actions.”

McCarthy concludes: “It felt like the real victory maybe speaks to more of what the real American dream is – three kids on a lawn, playing croquet and that’s it."

 

Up in the Air: “What’s in your backpack?”

In 2009, with the economic crisis in full spate, Jason Reitman released Up in the Air, whose main character, Ryan Bingham, appears to be an antithesis to the Capraesque hero. While George Bailey provides ordinary people of limited means with houses, Bingham is a “termination specialist,” who travels throughout the country firing people and menacing their homes. Bailey is profoundly committed to social justice, whereas Bingham gives corporate speeches on how to disclaim responsibility, speeches entitled, “What’s in your Backpack?” Bailey sympathizes with the terrible plight of his neighbors; Bingham causes such hardship without a second thought.

George Bailey provided ordinary people of limited means with houses. Bingham is a “termination specialist”, who travels throughout the country firing people and menacing their homes. Despite having bought a large suitcase in his youth, George Bailey has never seen his dream to travel around the world come true because of his commitment to social justice. Bingham gives corporate speeches on how to disclaim responsibility entitled, “What’s in your Backpack?”

Bailey sympathizes with the terrible plight of his neighbors. Bingham causes such hardship without a second thought. George Bailey wakes into the limbo of his non-existence, the noir hell of Pottersville where there are no social bonds or ties to home, nor any true personal relationships. Ryan Bingham has been living in such a void, but his love to Alex wakes him up. Both male characters have a shock in winter at the women’s thresholds. Mary fails to recognize George; and Alex, married with children, disappoints Ryan terribly.

As regards the threefold binaries of adventure/domesticity, worldly success/ordinary life and individual/community, Bingham represents the most attractive or seductive pole in each pair. In this regard, Ray notes:

“The traditional ideology officially celebrated both halves of each dichotomy. But despite American culture’s apparent impartiality, the successful, individual adventurer had clearly won the competition for the American imagination—at the expense of the man who did the quiet work at home” (Ray, 1985: 186).

Reitman’s script offers a more in-depth take on this pragmatic aspect of the U.S. imagination. The protagonist of Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham, is a travelling executive who feels at home in airports and whose greatest goal is to build up ten million air-miles on his American Airlines VIP card. In marked contrast, despite having bought a large suitcase in his youth, George Bailey has never seen his dream to travel around the world come true; he never went to university; he never even went on honeymoon—all because of his lasting commitment to the Building & Loan Company.

As an antihero—that is, as the opposite of the Capraesque hero—Bingham has no plans to settle down and have a family. His voluntary solitariness has prevented him from forming stable relationships and his love life is nothing more than a string of casual affairs. Within this framework, Reitman makes his character undergo a process of radical transformation towards the opposite pole in each binary pair. The first shift is marked by Bingham’s falling in true love with Alex, his alter ego. Bingham becomes aware of the emptiness within himself, which is shown outwardly in the airport used as a setting. Speaking about that setting, Reitman says that the airport is an

“interesting metaphor for the central theme, which is searching for purpose in your life. That’s what Ryan is [doing] and that’s what people are doing when they lose their jobs. Being in an airport gives you a false notion that you are everywhere, when you are in fact connected to nothing” (James, 2009: 31).

The importance of a sense of family rootedness, a dramatic need assigned to characters, is also evinced by a state of social and financial turmoil. In this regard, Kinkle and Toscano have noted the difficulties Hollywood has faced in trying to frame the current financial crisis in narrative terms, especially in looking at it solely from an economic perspective. In their study of the few films that have attempted to address the issue from 2008 onwards, they emphasize the effort made by directors such as Reitman to dramatize the financial debacle by humanizing the drastic situation:

“Detachment and family are what matter in this drama, as in so much of the mass-culture response to the crisis” (Kinkle and Toscano, 2011: 44).

The script of Up in the Air foregrounds the idea that social dehumanization is both a context and cause of the economic crisis and depicts Bingham as a victorious avatar of selfish individualism. As the film bitterly records, a worker may be fired nowadays by videoconference and a relationship ended by text-message.

Like George Bailey, Ryan Bingham’s eyes are opened. He wakes into the limbo of his non-existence, the noir hell of Pottersville where there are no social bonds or ties to home, nor any true personal relationships. Having decided to embark on a new life at Alex’s side, he flies to her home-city of Chicago only to discover that she is a married woman with a family of her own. At the threshold to her home, Bingham’s shock in the winter cold recalls the terrible scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when Mary fails to recognize George Bailey. As a result of this failed encounter, Bailey returns to his own true home; however, Ryan Bingham is obliged to remain in the dark limbo he has always inhabited as the successful, individual adventurer. At the same time, Alex mirrors the role played by Mary in Bingham’s voyage of self-discovery, thus displaying a certain likeness to the type of female characters depicted in Capra’s films,

“whose task, like Capra’s, is exactly a matter of making the invisible newly visible, expressing the socially repressed” (Poague, 1994: 188).

Unlike George Bailey, Ryan Bingham’s return journey home is thwarted: Alex’s rejection and his inability to (re)build a home he has never had literally leave his life up in the air. Bingham suffers the fate of Capra’s villains, who fail “not so much because they are bad, but because they do not know how best to serve themselves as creatures who share needs and characteristics with others” (Mistichelli, 1997: 122-123). This observation is congruent with Reitman’s own view:

“I never thought I was really making a movie about firing. I always thought I was making a movie about a guy who has decided to disconnect from the world and the sacrifices that come with that, and then the consequences of when he inevitably starts to connect with somebody” (Goldsmith, 2009: 22).

In terms of the traditional archetype of home, the focus in Up in the Air shifts from an allegorical description of the United States as a shared home to the actual domestic space. The downbeat note is that neither image of home has any real bearing on the life or experience of the movie’s main character. However, a note of hope is struck in the film’s epilogue. In a series of interviews, individuals recently made redundant, the true losers in the economic crisis, describe their families as refuge and stronghold.

The Visitor and Win Win:
“The Strength of America”

In 2007, just in the beginning of the financial collapse, Tom McCarthy returned to a setup he had already explored in The Station Agent (2003): the film presents a gathering of disparate characters from different backgrounds, each engaged in the attempt to rebuild their homes. The Visitor and Win Win use a similar set-up against the broader backdrop of social crisis. The former is set in a United States for which the trauma of the 9/11 attacks is still an open wound, with an economic meltdown looming in the near future; the latter takes place at the height of the fallout from the financial crisis.

In both cases, McCarthy uses the archetype of home to show the deep connection between strengthening of family and firming up the nation. He also depicts social empathy and real contact between people from the same country (Win Win) and from different cultures (The Visitor) as true remedies for economic, social and ethnical rupture.

Released during the xenophobic aftermath of the Patriot Act, The Visitor tells the story of a tentative relationship that arises between Walter, a recently widowed professor at Connecticut College, and Tarek, a Syrian musician living illegally in New York. Although they come from wholly different cultures, professions and generations, each character strives to provide the other with the type of home he needs. Through Tarek, Walter discovers djembe, a kind of African drumming, enabling him to release the emotion pent-up since the death of his wife. According to McCarthy, Walter needs to

“stop thinking about his past. Stop thinking about what he hasn’t achieved. Stop thinking about where he is in life—and just live life.” (Clines, 2008: 58).

In turn, Walter gives Tarek and his girlfriend a roof over their heads in his own apartment. Later when Tarek is taken to a detention center, Walter takes legal action, which grants the university professor the status of an epic character.

This plot twist expands the domestic home out into the shared national home, both of which are presented as offering refuge to foreigners or strangers. Thus, in The Visitor, McCarthy critiques the immigration policy then in force, enacted in accordance with the special security measures put into effect after 9/11. When he was writing the script, McCarthy debated the issue with lawyers and visited a number of detention centers like the one shown in the movie, which is decorated with a mural that articulates a paradoxical message: The slogan, “The Strength of America… America’s Immigrants,” is emblazoned across iconic scenes of the American Dream.

The Visitor. McCarthy depicts fear of the other and suggests that openness to other people and peoples may enable a country mired in terror to overcome its social trauma. In The Visitor, McCarthy reflects in critical terms on the immigration policy then in force, enacted in accordance with the special security measures put into effect after 9/11.
Walter visits a detention center where this poster ironically hangs. Sometimes Tarek would point at the statue and jump up and down like we were arriving to New York for the first time. It was very funny.

To McCarthy’s mind, empathy for immigrants is not a political decision; rather, it is above all a social and human commitment:

“I felt strongly that this movie was representative of this time in our country and in our world, where politics and world events interfere directly in personal relations, be it family, lovers or new acquaintances” (Clines 58).

Whereas Ford decried the internal barriers in U.S. society in The Grapes of Wrath, The Visitor draws attention to the obstructions created by external boundaries. McCarthy depicts fear of the other and suggests that if a young Syrian may help resolve the personal ordeal suffered by a New England professor, then openness to other people and peoples may enable a country mired in terror to overcome its social trauma. In this regard, especially allegorical is a scene in which Walter visits Tarek in the detention center and the two improvise a moment of music together, despite the pane of thick glass that separates them from each other in the visiting room. Heyraud (2008: 367) points out the marked differences between the two characters, who have complementary weaknesses and strengths:

“Walter and Tarek gradually forge an unlikely friendship connected through unspoken mutual compassion. The nature of the bond between the two men begs the question of who is visiting whom. Despite Tarek’s lack of a physical home, it is he who is most at home in the world and Walter who is the transient visitor.”

McCarthy’s second “indie” referring to the economic crisis is the comedy Win Win, set in a small town in New Jersey where the main character, Mike Flaherty, lives and works as a lawyer. Flaherty is a Capraesque hero: a model father and family man living in a microcosm of United States. He works for the elderly, gets respect from his neighbors, and is generally regarded as a “pillar of the community.” Like so many other homes in a time of crisis, his too is ravaged by setbacks. So in an attempt to resolve his problems, he decides to take on the custody and care for one of his clients, Leo Poplar, who is suffering from senile dementia. However, instead of taking Leo home, as he had promised at the court hearing, Mike puts him in a nursing home and pockets the money from the monthly benefit issued to cover the costs of care.

According to McCarthy, Win Win is an attempt to consider other root causes of the economic crisis, apart from financial mismanagement and fraud:

“I think there’s a fair amount of evil people out there, but I also think there are a lot of very decent people who’ve put us in this position, people who made some really bad choices. So I was really curious to explore that idea” (Wise 112).

The figure of Mike Flaherty mirrors the character of George Bailey, albeit forced to commit a personal fraud to save his own home, at the same time contributing to the downfall of the national economy.

Mike’s moral recovery begins when he welcomes into his home Alex, Leo’s adolescent grandson, a small-time delinquent who has been mistreated by his mother’s boyfriend. Mike includes Alex in the wrestling team he trains, and this decision inserts a sports-movie subplot in the film. Beyond the sports storyline, which is never fully resolved, the narrative tension pivots on Alex’s new home, which is threatened by his mother’s sudden arrival and the public revelation of Mike’s deceit. As McCarthy notes,

“I didn’t feel like it was a movie about wrestling and winning. It felt like it was more about doing the right thing and being responsible for one’s own actions” (Goldsmith 2011: 19).

Win Win shows a family home in the eye of the economic storm, in a dramatic context that is markedly different from the family portraits presented in films during the New Deal era. Keough writes:

“back in the ’30s, with directors like Frank Capra and John Ford, Hollywood showed great sympathy for the forgotten men and women laid low by the economy (…) but most movie characters nowadays don’t need to worry about mortgages or even working for a living” (Keough).

However, within the context of crisis imaginaries, the archetype of home still shows the strengthening of family is a means to firm up the nation. And social empathy is depicted as the cornerstone of real contact between people from the same country (Win Win) and from different cultures (The Visitor).

In reference to the film’s title and the closing scene, in which Alex and a friend are playing with Mike’s young daughter, McCarthy concludes:

“It felt like the real victory maybe speaks to more of what the real American dream is—three kids on a lawn, playing croquet and that’s it. For a lot of people in the world, that’s a victory. Seeing your children hang out, play safely, enjoying their lives and knowing that they have a future—what more is there than that? For me, it’s such a quiet moment in the movie and it’s such a throwaway, but that is the great victory” (Goldsmith 2011:19).

Conclusion

John Ford, William Wyler, Orson Welles and Frank Capra, among other filmmakers interested in social problems, were accused of being unpatriotic when Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt was extended to the film industry in the early 1950s. Social concerns shown in their stories aroused suspicion in those who considered dangerous any artistic claim for social and civil rights. However, as a countercurrent, narratives of crisis began to reshape cinema and film genres during the years following the New Deal.

Seven decades later, independent filmmakers like Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Jason Reitman and Tom McCarthy keep alive the tradition of storytelling that basically tries to convert the U.S. common ground into a home for victims of crisis, especially marginalized groups, various minorities, ethnic groups, immigrants and workers. Both in the Great Depression and in the current United States of financial meltdown, a vast majority of citizens and artists question dominant values and institutions when their home is threatened. As Ross explains,

“Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, immigrants, workers, women and people of color—the so-called marginalized of society—fought to institute their vision of a more just nation. Despite hard times, they and millions of other Americans continued going to the movies to be entertained and, perhaps, to find solutions to the problems plaguing their lives” (128).

The implemention of the Patriot Act and the following constraints of civil liberties, the risk of xenophobia after 9/11, and all family dramas resulting from the financial meltdown nurtured these narratives of crisis between 2006 and 2009—in my sample of the social concern showed by independent-minded filmmakers. At the deep core of their stories, protection of home and family offer clues to healing society.

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