MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Up In The Air

Anyone who thinks Jason Reitman might have played fast and loose with the character Ryan Bingham — the dispassionate “termination facilitator” portrayed by George Clooney in Up in the Air — hasn’t been paying attention to the New York gossip rags. Six weeks after the film debuted at Telluride, Gawker and Page 6 reported that the esteemed editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, pulled a disappearing act similar to the one employed by the cowardly bosses in Reitman’s movie.

In October, after being ordered to issue pink slips to 20 of his minions, Carter found a convenient way to avoid getting his hands dirty. He paid a visit to his trendy Midtown restaurant, the Monkey Bar, and then hopped a private jet heading to balmy Bermuda. No pain, no strain.

If Carter, a notorious celebrity hound, had seen Up in the Air, he might have called up Jason Bateman, at Career Transition Counseling, and asked for Clooney to head to New York on the first American Airlines jet leaving Omaha. As it was, the pompous twit merely provided fodder for two days’ worth of smarmy items in the gossip columns. Any repugnance over his behavior likely will have dissipated by the time the magazine’s annual Oscar party rolls around and his former employees lose their medical benefits.

Up in the Air is that rare Hollywood movie that can be savored equally as a topical drama, black comedy, offbeat romance and character study. As a former employee of the Chicago Tribune and other endangered publications, it reminded me of the many people I know who have been laid-off, bought-out and outright fired from jobs they loved. Only a few have found gainful employment in what is being generously characterized as a buyer’s market for writers and editors. If any compassion had been shown to them by a Clooney surrogate, it wasn’t noted in our e-mail correspondence.

Neither did I recognize any of my former comrades in the parade of employees who would be fired by Bingham and his feisty apprentice, Natalie Keener, although their opinions would have been interesting to hear. If those faces were familiar, it’s because they actually did belong to non-actors, most of whom had recently lost jobs in St. Louis and Detroit. They had responded to ads seeking input for a documentary on the effects of the recession, and, once there, were encouraged to treat the camera as if it were the person who fired them.

The conceit added a level of verisimilitude that would have been difficult to achieve, if the venting had been scripted. The anguish and anger, which could be read in both the expressions and mannerisms of the “characters,” looked real because these were people who actually had been marginalized and made redundant. And, anyone in the audience who didn’t think the same thing could happen to them was fooling him- or herself.

In his first feature, 2005’s Thank You for Smoking, Reitman targeted the ties that have historically bound corruptible politicians to lobbyists with wallets full of money contributed by special-interest groups. Much of the film’s strength came from came from commercials and ads promoting one lethal poison or another. Hence, even at their most satirical, the characters and events fictionalized in Thank You for Smoking seemed no more unlikely than what’s revealed daily in the few newspapers left to report on such atrocities. (Forty-three years after its release, Paddy Chayefsky’s caustic send-up of television news, Network, seems more a blueprint than parody.)

One way to lend a patina of truth to a theatrical film is to add brands, logos and products that are familiar to audiences and carry some psychic weight. The authorized placement of products is a practice almost everyone in the cinematic food chain, by now, takes for granted. Everything from beer to breath mints is pimped, er, pitched to studios as a means to save money or lend an air of legitimacy to a project.

For all of its good points, though, the preponderance of plugs for American Airlines, Hilton Hotels and Travelpro luggage throughout the 109-minute course of Up in the Air has an effect that inevitably evolves from merely jarring to unnerving and numbing. In fact, an atypically large amount of brand-consideration was necessary to remind viewers of Bingham’s ultimate goal of attaining 10 million of American’s frequent-flyer miles. His “loyalty” to Hilton was adequately explained, as well.

Still, even the least-seasoned tourist wouldn’t be convinced by Bingham’s narrative that American Airlines is the only worthwhile carrier navigating the skies above the U.S. That’s because we’ve heard all of Jay, Dave and Conan’s jokes about airplane food and cramped seating, and listened to the horror stories told by friends and relatives. Hilton Hotels may be one of this country’s most trusted brands, but there’s a huge difference in price and amenities between such flagship properties as the Hilton Chicago and Waldorf Astoria and your average airport crash pad.

How oppressive was the logoization? If Up in the Air ever attains cult status, a very good drinking game could be built around the number of times an American Airlines or Hilton Hotel logo flashed on the screen. Participants, however, likely would be pie-eyed after the first half-hour.

Plugging airlines on film and TV is nothing new, of course. It would be the rare baby boomer who didn’t learn what it took to become a TWA pilot or flight attendant while watching aMickey Mouse Club serial, and that it was Pan Am’s Orion III Space Clipper that shuttled passengers from the Earth to the moon, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We get it. Product-placement is a win-win for everyone, except maybe a few oversensitive pundits.

With a multi-state production itinerary and an estimated budget of $30 million, Up in the Airneeded some help from its friends in the way of free lodging and locations. This it got, in spades.

Presumably, the producers also were assured Bingham wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of having to sit on a runway for three hours, while the terrorist in the middle seat was trying to ignite his underwear. Or, the computer ate his hotel reservation.

In exchange, Hilton and American Airlines were accorded the status of “integrated-marketing partner,” and all the attendant cross-promotional rights that come with that distinction. Along with “official luggage partner,” Travelpro, they’re running separate sweepstakes on their websites and on Paramount’s interactive sites. By comparison, the plugs for Caesars Palace, in The Hangover, were subtle.

In November, the airline also provided a 767 jet for a cross-country press junket, with about 50 writers on board. During the six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles, the reporters were able to watch the movie and interview co-star Anna Kendrick. (The boondoggle may represent the last time the R-rated version of Up in the Air would be seen on any airplane with its salty language, buttocks, side-boobs and airline logos intact.)

None of this would be worth mentioning if Up in the Air weren’t such a significant player in this year’s awards campaigns. Apart from being an excellent entertainment, it may be the only studio-nurtured contender with a visible conscience. For all of Clooney’s animal magnetism, and Ryan Bingham’s understated compassion, however, it would be impossible for some of us to ignore on whose broken dreams those 10 million frequent-flyer miles were earned.

A budget of $30 million is barely a drop in the bucket compared with what was spent on Avatar and the summer blockbusters. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that twice or three times that amount will have been invested in marketing when Up in the Air enters general release and the tab for those “consideration” ads is tallied.

A couple of questions need to be asked in advance, however.

First, if Up in the Air does win Best Picture, and score significant acting awards, could Hollywood resist the temptation to lard its serious mid-budget titles with product plugs and cross-promotions? And, second, if it loses to Avatar or The Hurt Locker, will studios even bother trying to trump the indies at their own game next year?

– Gary Dretzka
December 31, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon