December 29th, 2009
One of the joys of fictional narratives is that writers have free rein to start their story at any point in their characters’ lives. Unless we’re literally following a character from the time of their birth to the time of their death, there are parts of their stories that are simply not going to be told; instead, writers will select a particular time to pick up a character’s story that feels the most cinematic, or pressing, or engaging.
Television is at a distinct advantage in this area when compared with film, in that it is able to pick up multiple moments over the course of multiple seasons. Mad Men has made a business of using time shifts in order to find Don Draper amidst particular historical periods, while a show like Weeds fastforwarded its heroine’s pregnancy in an effort to streamline its position in the narrative. This is plausible, even desirable, because the lengthy runs of television shows allow them to create their own past, present and future – the narrative becomes longer and the moments become more plentiful and the characters’ lives become augmented by their lives as it relates to our experience (measured in seasons as opposed to years).
But with cinema, at least with those films which aren’t part of a broader franchise or serving as a sequel, there is an expectation that things will largely standalone. You will meet a set of characters at a particular point in their lives, and you will follow those characters for as long the writer intends for you to do so. And that’s sort of what I find fascinating about Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, a film where we meet a variety of characters at a definitely cinematic point in their lives. It is a film where we meet those at a crossroads in their lives, and one which is far less interested in how they got to this point than it is interested in what they’re going to do now that they’re here.
And in terms of finding a strong narrative of self-realization and life choices, Reitman has picked the right moment: it has also, however, led to some very strong negative reactions to the film from those who were expected a more indepth investigation into any one of the story’s various elements.