The opening titles for Up In the Air were meant to evoke old postcards of cities from the air, and they worked on me. I was recalling them afterwards and was pretty sure that the entire sequence was made out of still photographs; a memory that this clips confirms as faulty. “This land is your land” the soundtrack says, over what is a comprehensive yet paradoxically narrow view of America, all grids and plains and distant freeways. No people, really. (“I’m not lonely, I’m surrounded by people,” George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham says to his sister on the phone, as he walks through a crowded airport.)
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The photographic motif doesn’t end with the titles. Bingham’s conversation with his sister is about another sister’s wedding, and he reluctantly accepts a mission to photograph a cardboard cutout of the soon-to-be-marrieds, in the fashion of the globe-trotting garden gnome from Amelie. At his various stops Bingham shoots the cutout of his sister and her fiance in places like the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas and an airport terminal. It seems all in the service of a kitschy vicarious world trip that they cannot actually afford. But then at the pre-wedding gathering in Wisconsin Bingham goes to put up the fake holiday snaps he’s made, and is brought up short: the pin-up board is a map of the US, and the accumulation of images from friends all across the nation, evokes not so much bad taste as a community of support for the couple. The photographs are meaningful not for their content but for their existence.
Bingham’s journey across America and his days on the road are as a consultant who fires people. One theme of the film is the recession, and one of the things it does well is the way it shows us portrays the recession to us. The film is from Bingham’s point of view, so there are the firing sessions that he conducts (interestingly, with some of the employees actually playing themselves, re-enacting and talking about their own firing experiences). It’s an interesting photographic question, showing a view of the recession from inside the office, and, Edgar Martins‘ work notwithstanding, it’s been dealt with in a variety of other ways.
In this film, there are a couple of stark shots that convey this pretty effectively. When Bingham and his colleague Natalie Keener arrive at an office, the camera pans around the floor, revealing two or three desks still with workers present, metres apart in an otherwise abandoned space. In another scene, Bingham and Keener talk in what looks like a corner office, but it’s not a senior manager’s workspace; this office is filled just with chairs, a collection of office chairs on wheels, pushed into some ad hoc holding area. It’s the expected props of the corporate environment, but here tell us quickly and quietly and sadly of the lives that they are meant to support.