The State of the Race: To Serve Man

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Soldiers. A serious man. A great leader. A man up in the air. 2009 is, once again, the Year of the Man. Precious and An Education are two that aren’t. Ordinary women rarely take up much screen time. Nonetheless, Oscars 2009 is defined most assuredly by singular men on a quest.

And I have known the arms already, known them all–
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin? – T.S. Eliot

Deserved Best Picture frontrunner, Up in the Air is all things a great film should be, with the performance of George Clooney’s career at the heart of it, Jason Reitman’s comedic timing and willingness to go deeper when the plot calls for it. Anna Kendrick, who very nearly steals the show and a script that rivals Aaron Sorkin for quick wit and profound insight speeding by at a mile a minute. Even if the film goes where you think it’s going to go, and even if it isn’t exactly the most original story you’ve ever heard in your life – it works. My god, it works.

Nothing can really prepare you for the way the movie comes to such an alarming yet elegant close. If it doesn’t hit where you live, as it should most of us, it will move you nonetheless. It is personal. It is universal.

Up in the Air, as David Ansen says, hits that sweet spot between the hardness of our current reality in America and the elusive cushion of our dreams. Funnily enough, it reminded me of the Oscar race itself, with so many clambering to be first to see movies, so many who brag about swag, screeners and access — isn’t it just like the idea of adopted loyalty to a brand, falling for the hype that makes you feel as though you really do belong to something bigger and more important than the ordinary human experience.

Those who go through a world like that, of faked alliances, may someday come out the other side and see that, no, it won’t get you through a lonely night. It will get you 500,000 frequent flyer miles even when, especially when, you have nowhere to go. If all you do is fly around on business what kind of a life can you be making down on the ground with the rest of us?

This is not a unique theme in Hollywood films. One only need go back to The Accidental Tourist to remember a film about the value of people over the value of controlled isolation traveling anonymously from place to place affords.

Or, as Grace Slick once sang:

When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies
don’t you want somebody to love
don’t you need somebody to love
wouldn’t you love somebody to love
you better find somebody to love

Isn’t that so much about what growing up is all about? Like Up in the Air, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man examines the illusions of a life constructed for a certain outcome. That outcome is messed with because at its base was a misconception. In this case, believe in morality or in being a good person no matter what kinds of horrors life throws out you – not real horrors, of course, like starvation, war and the slaughter of millions but isolated, American middle class horror. Alienation, futility, loneliness, betrayal, failure.

A Serious Man is a twisted version of Reitman’s Up in the Air because it is anything but universal. And unlike Up in the Air, hope is not offered up in any way, and goodness is not a transformation that is going to make things all right in the end.

What Up in the Air gives us weary Americans, though, is a light at the end of the tunnel, a reason to conclude that our miserable lives have not been a total waste because what we’ve been focusing on has been worth it – we might not be in first class, nor do we have executive status — think of how many people are going to watch the scene where they lay down their club cards and their credit cards and think about their now-ruined credit — but we do have love. Love is free and the quest for it is a worthy pursuit. It’s what we were born to do and maybe nothing else matters.

If you go to the movies to get something back, you will pay your small fortune to see Up in the Air but you will come back with the comfort of hope, however momentary. This is what we need. Right now.

On a more global scale, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is another movie that provides a salve for the torments of modern life. The emotional impact of the film will come not from the reflections of our own lives, as with A Serious Man and Up in the Air, but with a more far-reaching one; anyone who is having trouble living in a country that is so suddenly extremist and racist all over again will be moved by Nelson Mandela’s clever unification of white and black in South Africa, and Eastwood’s ability to tell the story so beautifully and confidently; yes, it’s odd that it happens to be Clint Eastwood of all people telling the story. I dare say that only a director with the kind of worldly wisdom of someone nearly 80 years old could tell this story without forcing the emotion out of us.

Lately, in the past decade, our films have been designed to appeal to the youths with the deep pockets. Therefore, emotions have to be gotten easily, sentiment must be out there for all to see, otherwise how will kids get the subtle impact? Invictus is, to me, one of Eastwood’s finest films. Admittedly, I’m someone who loves his work anyway, but this one was exceptional – it reminded me of the long, slow movies of the 1970s that packed a punch nonetheless, but didn’t need to be short and to the point. The Sydney Lumet, Frances Ford Coppola school of expansive storytelling. Some of us crave those kinds of films again, so rare they are.

All of the men in the films this year turn in memorable, career-best performances – Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela – nails the accent and finds the humor and charm in the character, Michael Stuhlbarg as poor old Larry Gopnik – isolated, panicked, desperate, and of course, George Clooney who has never been better than he is in Up in the Air – never been more vulnerable, never been more charming, never been more terrified.

I find I am still haunted by the possession of Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, whose need to go back into the fray — win the war — save lives — competes with his struggle to be a family man, and to turn his back on another man’s war and live his own life. And Ben Foster in The Messenger – dealing with the ultimate cost of war makes living a normal life impossible.

Where it once seemed like a trend that so many Oscar movies were driven by a man’s quest to eke out his identity or save the world or find somebody to love was a trend, now it feels like it’s going to be around for a while. It is not only a man’s world, it feels like, but we seem conditioned to follow men’s paths towards salvation.

Up in the Air, featurette

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