In the film Up in the Air the term Fauxmey, a combination of faux and homey, is coined to describe the little touches of hominess used by hotels, such as the “Fresh Baked Cookies” available at checkout. This is a clever little turn of phrase, but it is also incredibly risky one for a Hollywood movie, especially one released over the holidays, to utter. Fauxmey is what Hollywood specializes in.
Up in the Air has been embraced by some as the first real film of the current economic depression. On the surface this would seem to be the case; the film’s central character Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for an unnamed company that is sent into to do the dirty work of laying off thousands of employees. As the film begins, however, it is his job that is in jeopardy as his company contemplates replacing the expensive flights cross country with firing by teleconference. Economic insecurity, the thing that Americans flock to the theaters to avoid, would seem to be given center stage. This expression of the current age comes heavily mediated by the homilies that are the stock and trade of Hollywood.
Bingham is presented not so much as someone who lays people off for a living, lagging slightly behind the migrating flows of capital to inform people that their position is no longer available, but as someone who makes flight, movement, and instability a virtue. As he remarks in narration, the airport lounge, first class seat, and hotel bar are his home. (And you know what they say, anyone who questions the virtues of home and family in the first act, will discover find themselves longing for them in the third.) He expresses the virtues of displacement and movement every time that he informs someone that they have been terminated (a word that he is careful not to use). In a speech that is reminiscent of Machiavelli’s discussion of the good fortune of Romulus, Moses, and others, a good fortune that is nothing other than being cast out of the existing order, he states that “everyone who ever founded an empire or started a company sat in that chair, and was able to do so because he sat there” (rough paraphrase). Losing one’s job is represented as an opportunity to follow one’s dream, as a chance to become one’s true self. In case that is not clear enough, Bingham also moonlights as a motivational speaker, delivering speeches with the title “What is in Your Backpack?” which argue for emptying the proverbial backpack of the various impediments and attachments of home and family. Life is movement, he declares, summing up the virtues of the neoliberal subject.
These three different testaments to the virtues of movement are somehow both overkill and contradictory. There are of course fundamental differences between the mobility of flying first class and the flexibility of being fired from your job after seventeen years of hard work and dedication. Bingham works hard to not so much conceal these differences but to model the mobility of his life with the mobility of capital. His goal in life is to accumulate ten million miles with his airline, a goal that is seemingly devoid of any end other than pure quantitative accumulation. He does not plan to do anything with these miles; accumulation is its own end and justification.
As fast as Bingham moves, however, it is not fast enough. As I stated at the beginning, Bingham is being outpaced by technological innovation itself, by virtual networks that make airline travel obsolete. Part of the film’s drama has to do with irony of the master of mobility being confronted with the horrors of stability, with having to stay in one place. That is part of the drama, but only part. Eventually Bingham is lead to desire family and stability. He is tempted in part by a new jet setting lover named Alex (Vera Farmiga) and by a return home for a family wedding. I will spare you the details, but let you know that you get all of the requisite scenes of dramatic reversal of values, including a last minute dash through an airport. It is not love unless there is a last minute run through a crowded place to stop a wedding or reunite with a spurned lover.
(Spoiler Alert) What is surprising and curious, albeit not as clever as the film thinks, is that it does not pursue this direction. One assumes that Alex, being a woman, secretly desires home and hearth. However, this turns out not to be the case, or not exactly. This is conveyed in a scene in which Alex describes her perfect man, a stable good natured lover of children with a nice smile. Alex already has those things, a husband and kid: her relationship with Bingham is not some frustrated desire for the corporate bad boy who will never settle down, but simply an affair on the road. He is just one of those transgressions that one allows oneself while in travel, like watching lots of television. Bingham is thus rejected, his attempt to become a family man fails. In a response to this he returns to the sky, to a life in transit. In doing so he meets his goal, he flies ten million miles and gets a special elite business card and meets the pilot. The film ends with Bingham singing the praises of the open sky, but now it is not so much the sky of ten million miles, of a pure quantity, but a sky of special perks, of hospitality and the warm smile of Sam Elliot (playing the embodiment of folksy charm yet again).
Oddly enough the film would seem to end with a praise of the fauxmey, of the false charms of corporate perks. People are shown to be unreliable and disloyal. In their place we have the reliable world of corporate rewards in which loyalty always comes with perks. To put it in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the film is less a celebration of deterritorialization, of pure mobility, but of reterritorialization, of the codes of home and friendship that have become part of every brand. This celebration of fauxmey at the level of content is duplicated at the level of form. The film quite famously cast actually downsized individuals to flesh out the emotional intensity of people losing their jobs. These individuals are shown are in the closing credits, discussing the virtues of family against the world of work, lessons learned from losing their jobs. These statements contradict the overall arch of the film, but no matter, they reassure us of its seriousness and concern.
Adorno once compared the products of the culture industry to baby food, predigested. It is perhaps more accurate to say that they are chocolate chip cookies, microwave reheated and available at checkout.