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Up in the Air, Down in the Dumps
Submitted by Living Liberally on Wed, 03/31/2010 - 11:17am.
By Bec Zajac
You know that feeling you get when you walk into a Starbucks that makes you cringe? And it’s not because your coffee’s not good or because the music is bad or because people aren’t friendly to you. Actually all those elements have been designed through extensive psychological testing to provide the perfect “coffee experience.” It’s because you just know somewhere deep in your gut that there’s something not quite right about it. I got an especially bad case of the “cringes” the other day when I read that Starbucks recently opened its first unbranded coffee shop in Seattle, 15th Avenue E Coffee and Tea. It is decorated with ‘one-of-a-kind’ fixtures and customers are invited to bring their own music for the stereo system to develop what the company calls a ‘community personality.” You have to look hard to find the small print on the menus: “inspired by Starbucks.” I got another bad case of the “cringes” recently when I read about Pepsi’s “Refresh Project,” for which Pepsi is dedicating $20 million to local organizations proposed by the public to tap into a booming trend of what is called “cause related marketing.”
Even though we’re all familiar with the feeling of the cringe, it’s often tricky to pinpoint exactly what causes it to occur… But, it’s exactly that feeling of cringe-iness that’s explored, dissected, and extrapolated upon in the new Clooney movie, Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman. Although I went in to the theatre expecting a movie about a guy who flies a lot (which does happen) and expecting a movie where George Clooney, as always, smiles sultrily at the camera a lot (which, of course, does happen too), what was most interesting to me about Up in the Air was the way it investigates the “cringe factor” and unravels what it means to live in our cultural moment, that is the moment of spin-saturated-double-soy-frapuccino-Mc-Have-a-Nice-Day-iCorporate-culture that has become so naturalized in America today. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the opening song is a jazzed up version of Woody Guthrie’s American classic This Land is Your Land. More after the jump...
In Up in the Air, the first way the cringe is explored is through Clooney’s job and the company he works for. Sorry not Clooney, Ryan Bingham− Clooney is one of those actors that to me always seems like Clooney, no matter who he plays and so I always forget his characters’ names. Even in Fantastic Mr Fox, in which he played an animated fox, he was Clooney− Clooney works as a "career transition counsellor” or, minus the corporate jargon, a professional firer for a company that is hired by managers of other companies to fire the employees that they are too gutless to fire themselves. This is a company whose product is so awful; no pr spin in the world could cover it up, right? Wrong. And that is where the “cringe factor” comes in. When Clooney’s company fires someone, they commiserate them with lines that make you cringe like you’ve never cringed before, lines so cheesy you can’t watch them without crackers, “This is the first step in a process that will end with you in a new job that fulfils you,” Clooney says, as he hands an employee he is firing a corporate “packet,” illustrated with green pastures and blue skies, to help with the “transition.”
But Reitman’s cringe factor is different to the one we’re familiar with from our daily lives. Unlike at 15th Avenue E Coffee and Tea, where the truth is hidden in the fine print, and so you often can’t place why you’re cringing, in Reitman’s corporate America, the truth is exposed for all of us to see. For example, one of the ways Clooney comforts those he is firing is with the promise that, if they need anything, they can call. However, as the Clooney voiceover tells us, they actually will never see him again. With techniques like this use of voiceover, it’s like Reitman has taken us backstage to see where the “cringe factor” is born. The boss announces to the company, “It’s one of the worst times on record for America… This is our moment.” Reitman also exaggerates the spin to such a degree, and has it delivered with such dead pan−the same brilliantly dark deadpan Reitman delivered in Juno and Thank you for not Smoking− that you can’t help but see and understand its insidiousness in a way you may not have before. Anna Kendrick’s perfect type-A, over-achieving, Natalie Keener tells one of the employees she’s firing, ”Perhaps you’re underestimating the positive effect your career transition will have on your kids? Studies show that children under mild trauma over-achieve academically as a means of coping.”
Although, it is often hard to put your finger on exactly what causes the “cringe factor” to occur, Reitman’s satire and exaggeration allows us to see it much more clearly. He illustrates that the cringe occurs most frequently when you’re being sold one thing, pretending to be something else entirely, whether that be a company that is firing you pretending to be offering career transition counselling, a global corporate enterprise pretending to be a small local coffee shop or a soft drink pretending to be a cause. In Naomi Klein’s new edition of No Logo she writes that, “Brands are all style over substance.” They use the symbols of one thing to draw people in without the substance that those things actually involve. For example, the “Pepsi Refresh Project” is using certain symbols to tap into people’s positive associations of a charity or a justice movement, without actually contributing in the way a charity would be expected to; in fact they are often trying to distract from their own exploitative practices elsewhere. Starbucks is using the symbols of a community coffee shop without the real commitment it takes to be one; in fact, they are often deliberately damaging actual community establishments.
I was listening to an interview with Klein on The Brian Lehrer Show the other day, and a lady called in and said she thought that corporations have actually been really wonderful in helping people in different respects. She said, “I think of Nike with the “Girl Project” or Dove with the “Self Esteem Project” and I don’t see what’s wrong with this.” Klein answered that she was all for getting corporations to pay for roads, health care, etc. but she just thought it should be done through the tax system. “Rather than pay taxes at the level they should,” she said, “corporations sponsor these projects and the problem is that they are done in a very ad hoc way and often they come with strings attached,” strings which we don’t see when we see the projects done.
And this brings me to the second way the cringe factor is explored in the film and that is through an examination of another aspect of corporate culture that I like to think of as parenthesization; the idea that the artificial, symbolic, sanitized version of something is the same or better than the real thing. It is “community” vs community, “cause related marketing” versus a cause.
This is explored through the Clooney character himself. Clooney is the ultimate consumer, living the way the PR marketeers insist is better, with every environment he’s in sanitized for his convenience. Indeed the plane is the ultimate metaphor for this kind of corporate environment where everything is done to make one feel like they’re in a living room when really it’s a “living room.” If Clooney’s not on a plane, he’s in an airport, in a rental car, in a Hampton Inn and Suites; his house is a small apartment that looks like a hotel room. It’s like he’s living in a giant mall- I think the film could have also worked if it had been, “Up in the Macy’s Union Square” or “Up in Target” but I guess that doesn’t have the same ring to it. He’s even programmed his credit card so that the agent greets him with the same “friendly” greeting every time he swipes it. And Ryan Bingham prefers it this way. Bingham says, “All the things you hate about flying… are warm reminders that I’m home…It is these systematized friendly touches that keep my world in orbit…. “ For Bingham the parenthesised versions are just as good, if not better, than the real thing.
And for a while it’s convincing. Clooney is, as always, handsome, fit, wealthy, and has a look on his face throughout the first half of the film that appears to be utter calm. He’s seemingly managed to avoid the messiness and pain that comes with real life, real personal connections, what he calls “physical baggage.” But as the film goes on, it all starts to unravel, and you realize that the look of utter calm is actually one of complete detachment and vacancy, that behind Clooney’s suave exterior there’s a real emptiness. Indeed, Clooney does a great job of playing characters that can one minute seem like the ultimate package with a chip on their shoulder, and seem completely sad, pathetic and incredibly vulnerable, the next. And when you see Clooney enter his 5th motel in a week, it is depicted by Reitman with such dimness and vulgarity that you get a bad dose of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) just from watching. In contrast, the scene where Clooney needs to go to his real home and family are lit with a warm glow and are depicted with coziness and humor. Hilariously, the one hotel that seems like a place you’d want to stay, “The Matador Inn,” where Clooney visits his family for his sister’s wedding, is the one place where his “elite status” goes unrecognised.
As the film takes some dark turns, Clooney is made to realize that maybe the joke’s on him. Maybe there are things you can’t just symbolize, simulate, fake, “parenthesise?” Maybe there is value in the real messy, experience? And as Clooney learns this lesson, this surprisingly thoughtful “dramedy” asks viewers too to distinguish between symbols and substance so that maybe next time we’re sipping on our double-soy-frappucinnos, listening to the new “personalized” Starbucks’ playlist and we find ourselves cringing, we’ll at least have a little more insight into why. It asks us to recognize the fake both where it is obvious and also where it is more hidden and subtly urges us to search for something deeper, truer and ultimately more long lasting.
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