01 June 2010

Down... on the Ground

This post was intended to analyze the similarities and differences between Up in the Air, Fish Tank and An Education, but unfortunately it proved to be a rather uninteresting exercise in surface observations and difficult prose. So I scrapped the idea, but salvaged the only thing worth taking from it: my disdain for Up in the Air. So apologies for the jumpiness and inconclusive arguments, but I thought it might be of some interest regardless. For those who haven't seen the films, I wouldn't recommend reading as this is infested with “spoilers.”

As we’re nearing the half-way point in 2010, I took a look back at what few ’09 releases I actually saw, and one trend really stood out: marital and parental escapism. In three of the notable award contenders of 2009—Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Lone Scherfig’s An Education—the very same third act revelation appears as the protagonists make an uninvited visit to the homes of their respective lovers, discovering that their romantic flames are not only frauds, but frauds with spouses and children.

For Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man whose views of romance are mirrored (of course) by his on-the-go career which keeps him in transit for the majority of his time, a hotel bar encounter with a woman like Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) leads to the most ideal of no-strings-attached affairs. Alex is a woman, seemingly, like Ryan: professional, mature, horny and uninterested in anything related to our traditional notions of maintaining a romantic relationship with someone. Through several different scenarios where Ryan is forced to interact with people whose notions of relationship stability greatly differ from his own, he undergoes a change of heart and falls for Alex in a way he’s likely never felt for anyone else.

In an attempt to compare/contrast An Education and Fish Tank, I hit a dead end, as they’re almost too similar. Both feature teenage girls as protagonists, their older love interests (Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Fassbender) are deceptively charming and both films happen to be directed by women. The only thing truly dividing them from a narrative perspective is their place in time and the issue of class. An Education’s Jenny (Carey Mulligan) comes from a typical middle class English family in the early 1960s, while Fish Tank’s Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives in the outskirts with her young, hot, single mother (Kierston Wareing) and little sister (Rebecca Griffiths). Their differences in quality, which is a steep one, can best be chalked up to the flatness and dryness of Scherfig’s images against the vividness and vibrancy of Arnold’s.

With surprising consistency, Jenny, Mia and Ryan’s worlds are all crushed through uninvited visits to their respective lovers’ homes. It was, after all, too good to be true for each of them, but the lessons aren’t all the same. For Up in the Air, Alex’s “other life” becomes just one of the film’s infuriatingly heavy-handed views of the traditional family structure. Alex is not only villainized through the revelation but all of the refreshing qualities that Ryan found in her morph into the traits of an unhappy wife and mother acting out. While it seemed relatively clear that Ryan’s young co-worker/traveling companion Natalie Keener’s (Anna Kendrick) function in the film was to give (false) validation to Ryan’s beliefs, Natalie’s purpose changes when the film places its scarlet letter upon Alex, as she starts to work as a defense for the screenwriters (and novelist, I suppose, though I haven’t read the book) in showing us that all women aren’t cruel, manipulative, heart-stomping adulteresses. It’s hard to determine whether the simple, vile justification of Alex’s away-from-home behavior or the nauseating placement of the interview footage of the real people laid off from their jobs where they all emphasize the importance of family is what ultimately destroys Up in the Air, but both elements certainly succeed in ridiculing the protagonist… or maybe we should have never trusted a filmmaker who tried to garner sympathy for a character who crushes other people’s lives as a trade.

All three films are available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK. Up in the Air and An Education are available on Blu-ray and DVD in the US, and Fish Tank will be released by Criterion later in the year.


Simon said...

Good piece...I never really noticed the similarities in the three, except maybe An Education and Fish Tank, on the surface different in how you said.

Neil Fulwood said...

Good to hear I'm not the only person underwhelmed by 'An Education'. For all the hype that surrounded Carey Mulligan's performance, the film only came to life when Rosamund Pike was onscreen. Not that Mulligan was in any way bad; the film was killed by a trite script and Scherfig's dispiriting direction.

reassurance said...

Not to mention a charmless and ultimately creepy Peter Sarsgaard.