Up in the Air, Then Back to Earth

Clooney, Up in the Air George Clooney, Up in the Air 

The wonderful opportunity I had last week to deliver a series of lectures in Ljubljana (Slovenia) has me thinking about why it seems to be more satisfying to teach elsewhere than at home. In Slovenia, everything was fresh and exciting. In America, I feel inundated by worries and obligations. What am I to make of this?

As I noted yesterday, giving lectures abroad feels clean and pure because all the “stuff” of one’s home institution and home country drops away. One feels light.

But such lightness, intoxicating though it is, should be seen only as a respite or vacation, not as reality. Even paradise wouldn’t be paradise if one were take up permanent residence there. In very short order one would begin to notice the serpents.*

The in-flight movie that I watched on my trip to Europe has something to say about this. In Up in the Air, the George Clooney character is a man who spends all of his time flying around the country for his job. As a result, he has airports and airplane travel down to a science. Meanwhile, he maintains only the loosest of ties with his family, he is unmarried, and he has casual no-consequence affairs with other travelers. He thinks of himself as happy but, by the end of the film, we see him staring into the abyss of loneliness. His lack of roots may make for a comfortable and stress-free existence, but it can’t be called a life.

I recall a passage that speaks to this from Jean Paul Sartre’s play The Flies, about Orestes and Electra. They have just killed their mother (for having killed their father), and Electra wants to back out of responsibility for their actions. Orestes calls her back:

We were too light, Electra. Now our feet press down in the earth like the wheels of a cart in its groove. Come with me, and we will walk heavily, bending under the weight of our heavy load.

Lightness feels good, but life is about accepting responsibilities, regardless of how heavy they are. The communities that we call home don’t treat us as celebrities or go out of their way to make our lives particularly pleasurable. They expect heavy work from us. Living up in the air is not an option.

Vittorio De Sica, the legendary Italian director of Bicycle Thieves, made a very interesting movie at the end of his life entitled Brief Vacation (1973). In it, a woman who is juggling a difficult factory job with a demanding family life contracts a mild case of tuberculosis. She must go to a sanitarium in the Alps, which to her feels like a vacation. For the first time in her life she has time to rest, reflect, and read. She begins to understand the world in a whole new way.

There is a young man, an engineer, who falls in love with her—understandably so given that she is a magnificent woman—and wants her to run off with him to Germany. Yet in the end she chooses instead to return to her pig of a husband and her gray existence. When I showed the movie in a film series that I set up (the topic was “Escape to Italy”), the audience was upset. We all wanted her to run off.

But De Sica’s point is that life isn’t a vacation. His heroine has learned valuable things from her respite and now needs to come back to transform her society. Or at least make an attempt. Anything else she did would be unreal and irresponsible.

I felt properly chastised when I realized this. We had wanted an American happy ending that provided individual happiness, and De Sica was pointing out that our greatest fulfillment isn’t in pleasing ourselves. It’s what we can share with others, even if it involves walking heavily and bending under the weight of our heavy load.

To be sure, putting it this way makes life sound far too ponderous. I think we can walk through our responsibilities with less worry than we often do. A key is to find occasions to step away from it from time to time. We all need our Slovenias to restore our energies and our sense of perspective.

*A nightmarish Italo Calvino story, “The Argentine Ant,” graphically makes this point.  A couple moves to a house in southern Italy on the Adriatic which seems perfect, only to discover a serious ant problem.  As the story progresses, we discover that the ants are a metaphorical expression for all our daily worries and cares.  The most striking image I remember from the story involves one of the ant traps: the ants walk a wire (to get to something sweet), only to fall in a bucket of kerosene below–which sounds fine only that, for every moment of the day and night, one hears the sound of ants splashing into the kerosene.

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  1. Barbara
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    I hesitate to comment, not having seen De Sica’s film,but here goes. If the woman had run off with her engineer their lives would have involved the heavy lifting of making an ordinary, daily life together. Many women stay in abusive relationships (how piggish was her husband?) for years hoping that they will be able to do something that will ultimately make it work. The film seems to embody that romantic notion of “the love of a good woman” being able to do anything which can be a trap. Sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and stop throwing good money after bad.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Barbara, One thing I love about looking at different interpretations of a work is that they open up different interpretations of life. There are a number of Italian directors who certainly play up this image of the saintly self-sacrificing woman (Fellini especially, as in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria), but I think De Sica gets a pass. He’s coming out of a socialist vision and the protagonist in Brief Vacation is coming back an empowered woman. She will be using her knowledge not only to stand up to the family which leaches off of her but bring her new consciousness into the work place. She may have an enabler before, but I have a sense she isn’t any more. I can’t imagine her staying with her husband if he tries to fit her back into her old routine. Of course, one doesn’t know for sure. Having to seriously consider an “abused wife” reading of the film got me to go back and sift more through her character and other details the film provides us.

    The reading also helped me feel better about a very similar film I was having doubts about, the multiple Italian award winner Bread and Tulips. In that one a woman, separated from an even worse husband, finds herself accidentally in Venice and proceeds to create another life for herself. Then her husband uses guilt to get her back (“the kids are using drugs,” his mother tells her–but they’re not really) and she returns to a life of watching soap operas as she irons. And then she leaves him and goes back to Venice. This is the ending the audience wants and that I was worrying was too much a Hollywood ending. But I like better the idea of seeing Bread and Tulips as a female empowerment film.

    There’s also a wonderful Anne Tyler novel, whose name I can’t remember at the moment, where a married woman accidentally ends up a small town in the Maryland Eastern Shore and decides to make a life for herself there. I think, in the end, she goes back although, unlike the two films, I don’t think she has a love interest there. But it’s been a while sine I’ve read it.

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