As a frequent flier, an existential status restored to me after the coronavirus pandemic, I recently got to see Up in the Air, literally up in the air on a Singapore Airlines flight. It is a 2009 film that stars another frequent flier, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), who works for a human resource consultancy firm that specialises in employment-termination assistance.
Ryan (or at least Clooney, who is considered by some to be the most handsome man on earth), meets his fate up in the air in the devastatingly beautiful form of Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow-professional who flies frequently. Personal and airline schedules coincide for them to begin a casual relationship in various American cities.
As the plot unfolds, he meets Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who extends the lifespan of Ryan’s encounter with the erotic world. It comes to an end when Ryan arrives impulsively at Chicago to meet Alex. At her front door, he discovers to his horror that she is married and has children. She calls him later to chastise him for almost having wrecked her marriage and says that her family is her real life: He is merely an escape.
Ryan has no escape from his real life. He is a traveller who has no family and is defined instead by his itenerant commercial and sexual journeys. Having crossed the ten-million-mile mark on American Airlines and the youngest to have done so, Ryan has no home. He is from “here”, that is, from up in the air.
The film ends with him at the airport standing in front of the destination board. He lets go of his luggage.
Well, at my consultancy, I do not destroy jobs. There is no Alex or Natalie in my life. I do not fly American Airlines. I only fly Singapore Airlines.However, there are connections between Ryan and me.
As an unmarried man, I have had girlfriends, including those whom I have lifted high up in the air (literally). I have flown some of them on business class to faraway places that they might never have visited on their own. Then they left me. I was never a destination but a flight to anywhere or nowhere. I have no regrets. I loved them freely when I could: They left me freely when they wished, taking connecting flights to other passing loves or back to the loveless lands called themselves. I have collected airline miles effortlessly on work or leisure: They collected nothing but free miles receding back to themselves.
I took heart from my travels, always remembering that immortal line of the poet Tennyson: “I am a part of all that I have met.” He was speaking of the classical hero Ulysses (the Roman name of the Greek Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey), whose expeditions have contoured the imaginative geography of humankind down the ages. At the end of his sojourn, Odysseus returned to his wife Penelope, who had remained faithful to him in spite of the attention of more than a hundred suitors during his seaborne absence. Odysseus killed all the suitors with the aid of his son Telemachus and two loyal herdsmen, Eumaios and Philoitios, with divine help from goddess Athena.
Well, obviously, there is no Penelope in my unmarried life nor Telemachus. But what I have is myself. And that myself is a part of all that it has met.
Looking out of the window of the aircraft as it passed over unknown lands as I watched the film, I empathised with Ryan. He did not know that his encounters with Alex were a misadventure. She controlled him: He was but a gullible fellow-passenger. He thought that she was a gift from the skies. The skies never enter the aircraft.
What strikes me when I am up in the air is the gravitational force of sex without love. Sex is easy. It is about bums and tits, hands all over the place, the rubbing of flesh against roused flesh amidst shrieking proclamations of delight, hot kisses and hotter orgasms, and then the inevitable falling back on oneself. The problem with sex is not that it is sex, but that it does not last. What lasts is desire, and that desire cannot be consummated in the union of bodies, whether legitimate or furtive, but only in the completeness of two minds which have become one. Indeed, what lasts even without sex — as in the capacious encounters of Platonic love — is a quality of mind. And the highest quality of any mind is its capacity to love and its expectation of being loved in return. Sex is merely a means to love. Take the destination away, and the journey becomes unnecessary.
What love does is to locate two people in their closeness to each other. Ryan’s impulsiveness illustrates his need to see Alex at home, that is, as she really lives, not as she is up in the air or at the location of a rendezvous. Alex’s homeliness turns out to be a double deceit, towards both her family and Ryan. He seeks to be close to her but she is enclosed by deceptivemess. No love is possible between such a “couple”.
At the end of the film, it is impossible to not choose him over her as the best next-seat person (not sexually but existentially).
The seat next to mine was empty on that flight.