Speaker's Corner: "Up in the Air" illuminates the bittersweet challenge of the traveler's life. Rob Verger explains.
12.11.09 | 10:19 AM ET
As a devoted occupant of the window seat, I loved the opening sequence of “Up in the Air”: postcard-like images of the landscape from above, the squares and circles of agriculture, the sense of interconnectedness—land, cities, ocean. All that is set to a soulful version of This Land is Your Land, by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
I loved the rest of the scenery, too. It’s not all set in Airworld—the realm Walter Kirn described in the 2001 novel the movie is based on—but plenty is, and much of the imagery is striking: metallic American Airlines jets, a white 747 towering in a window, a single plane moving down a runway in snowy Detroit.
For me, the film seems to capture something meaningful, through its bold visuals and music—about flight, sure, but also about the continuity and discontinuity of travel, and more important, about connections with others. Travel is by its nature disconnecting, but reconnecting, too: we meet new people, and eventually we come back to familiar ones.
In the case of Ryan Bingham (the film’s protagonist, played by George Clooney), since there’s no one in his home to leave behind when he’s on the road, travel for him is all about new connections. In one scene, Bingham’s older sister worries that he’s isolated as he flies around. “Isolated? I’m surrounded!” he says, as he walks through an airport, and one of the paradoxes of the movie is that the character does seem to be both simultaneously isolated and surrounded.
While Bingham is an extreme case, most people who have traveled a lot will probably identify to some extent with his character. Like Bingham, I’ve always felt alive on the road. Since I graduated from college, I’ve lived for a year in Seattle, taught for two years in Vermont, worked at a hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, lived on an island in the Pacific for a semester, and recently finished up three years of studying and teaching at Columbia University in New York City. Throw trips to Nepal, Israel, Italy, India, Brazil and more into the mix, and that’s a lot of moving around. I’m convinced that motion is good for our brains and souls; it can cause our lives to expand, enlarge. I feel alive, deeply at home and happy, in airports, and airplanes.
But the peripatetic life has its drawbacks, and while moving from one place to another keeps things rich and exciting, it risks becoming a superficial thrill, a band-aid perhaps placed over something like anomie, a way of running from what some might call “ordinary life.” Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the movie resonated with me.
In the end, “Up in the Air” is not really about Airworld—it’s about family, and the connections we make, and test, and lose as we move around. “Your relationships are the heaviest components in your life,” Bingham says, and we have to wonder at the choice of the word “heavy” coming from a character who spends so much time up in the air. Bingham is on the move, both connected and not. In one scene, Bingham stares at a map of the U.S. in his office, and we sense that he’s filled with wanderlust, and addicted to movement. But that same image is mirrored later, in a map filled with photos at his younger sister’s wedding, and only then does the first map seem empty in comparison. He loves his life on the road, but we have to wonder if he wants to do it forever. “Moving is living,” he says, but staying still can be living, too. Finding that balance is the bittersweet challenge of the traveler’s life.