Planning and what freedom feels like

It seems useful to temper what follows with an initial note of humility, irony, and defeat. I have a to-do list, and writing this blog post is the most overdue item on it (it was originally meant to be done by the 28th of January – of this year, at least!). Anyway…

It is difficult, as one moves deeper into the demands of work and parenthood, to avoid running together in one’s mind two things: i) a sense of freedom; ii) long stretches of unstructured time, free from the demands of others. ii) certainly creates i), but it is important to remember that it is not the only way of creating it. Failing to recognise this can lead to a bitter nostalgia trap: you look back longingly to a time of youthful freedom and spontaneity, never to be regained.

Planning is the opposite of spontaneity, but it is not the opposite of freedom. I keep trying to remind myself of this. Writing this blog post is a way of trying to articulate it. In the interests of brevity and vividness, I’ll just offer two examples, one home-related, one work-related.

I rarely used to make evening plans. This arose from a need for unscheduled, demand-free time after ‘the morning routine’, work, and ‘the bedtime routine’. Most evenings, as a result, were spent on the sofa, in front of the television. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but what I came to realise is that often, this time was not as enjoyable, relaxing or fulfilling as it ought to have been. It still felt somehow unfree. Choice fatigue reaches its peak for me at about 7.30pm, and if I wait until then to ask myself/my wife ‘What shall I/we do tonight?’, the answer is more likely to be informed by tiredness and a lack of imagination than by anything resembling genuine choice or resolution. The moral I want to draw here (and I’m aware that to some people this will sound moralistic) is that you need to try to get your best self to make plans that your weaker self can follow through on. It’s harder to slump if you’ve already committed, somehow, to doing otherwise. Sometimes, of course, slumping is what you will want to do, and that’s ok too. I plan to slump on a Friday night!

At work, I’ve started assiduously using my Outlook calendar tool, and I honestly don’t know how I’ve managed to function without it in my life up until now. I use it to manage appointments, and also to plan how I am going to spend the rest of my working days. We’re getting into generic time management territory, but the simple principle here (which I still fail to stick to more often than I succeed) is to allocate fixed slots and spans to tasks, to spend amounts of time on tasks that is proportionate to their importance, and to try not to get sucked into reactivity and the inbox treadmill (two prime instances of unfreedom in my life).

Taking a step back, a good way of summing up what I’m trying to say might be to observe that one way (among many) of measuring the degree of freedom (or autonomy) that a person enjoys is to look at the ways in and the degrees to which that person is able to make authentic, self-directed plans.  Those living under the prescriptive authority of others, or in unstable situations, are, to varying degrees, denied this dignity. When we think of it this way, planning and freedom seem closer to being synonymous than antithetical.

Up in the Air (Reitman, 2009)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 22 January 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

Although the protagonist of Up in the Air is a man who flies across America firing people for a living, it is not a movie about losing your job or being unemployed. And although the plot is set in motion by his lifestyle (though probably not his livelihood) being threatened by a new, young recruit who puts forward a case for firing people by videophone, it is not really a movie about new technologies and their alienating effects either. One of the most fascinating things about Up in the Air, in fact, is all of the potential films one can see in it that it refuses to become.
In the movie’s first phase, we learn about Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, through a blend of narration and dramatisation. As the image track cuts between luggage being zipped up and gliding with ease over airport floors, and a series of card swipes and polite but scripted exchanges with service personnel, Ryan tells us, ‘Everything you probably hate about travelling are warm reminders that I’m home.’
In the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock made films about irresponsible males learning to become responsible. In Rear Window, Grace Kelly describes James Stewart as ‘a tourist on an endless vacation’. He refuses to see her as a viable partner – until, that is, she crosses over into his fantasy world, and helps him solve a murder. InNorth by North West, Cary Grant plays Roger O Thornhill, an advertising man with two ex-wives who has to be torn out of his comfortable existence in order to become a hero worthy of our esteem. Cary Grant was fifty-four when he made North by North West. There’s a witty scene in an auction where characters are subtly identified with lots; Grant is ‘a lovely Aubusson settee, in excellent condition.’ Clooney is pushing fifty (and seems to be getting better looking by the year), and a similar thing might be going on when a woman he meets in a bar tells him ‘If a car has over twenty thousand miles, I don’t drive it.’ They exchange opinions about car rental firms, then they each put their cards on the table – that is, to compare their various loyalty scheme memberships. Making a conceit like this work, in terms of both plausibility and sympathy, is a tall order (‘We’re two people who get turned on by elite status: I think cheap is our starting point.’/’There’s nothing cheap about loyalty.’). As with director Jason Reitman’s previous movie, Juno, there is a brittle smartness about which one doesn’t quite know how the film feels.
I did feel at times that the dialogue would have worked better on the page – or perhaps on a stage – than it did on the screen. But there are some magical moments too. When the movie first decisively breaks its very deliberately established pattern of businesslike exchanges (the first meeting between Clooney and what will turn out to be his love interest being a variation rather than an exception), the audience can share the relief of the new, young recruit who breaks down in the middle of a hotel lobby and wails ‘My boyfriend left me!’ There follows a very nicely scriptedand performed scene between the three principals, where they discuss love and relationships. Natalie’s soul-bearing about where she thought she would be now (aged twenty three) when she was sixteen (married, maybe with a kid, and a Grand Cherokee) and how her now-ex boyfriend ‘fit the bill’ (‘white collar, grad school, six foot one, loves dogs, in finance – but outdoorsy – at the weekend…’) manages to be incisive without being cruel. Similarly, later, Ryan is sent in to talk his sister’s fiancee out of his cold feet, and is faced with an amusing and touching anxious splurge of milestones on the way to death: children, Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easter breaks, graduation, grandchildren, grave.
Visually, the film gets a fair amount of mileage out of the fact that a lot of places in America look the same from the air – and then once you get down on the ground the offices do too. There is also a very nice shot of Natalie surrounded by a roomful of empty office chairs. And the conceits that it builds into its plot are very smart. Ryan’s goal is to clock up 10 million air miles – a feat achieved by only six other people. When Natalie is probing him about this, puzzled by the fact that Ryan is not interested in using the air miles, she opines that what a person with that many miles should do is show up at an airport and take their pick from the board. For their wedding, Ryan’s sister and her fiancee have requested that their guests take a cardboard cutout of them, and photograph it/them in front of exciting locations, in lieu of a honeymoon they can’t afford. As well as being a firer, Ryan is also a motivational speaker. ‘What’s in your backpack?’ is his thing. (This also leads to a nice exchange between Ryan and Alex: ‘You know about my backpack?’/’I googled you. It’s what us modern girls do when we have a crush.’) Ryan asks his listeners to imagine filling up their backpacks with all their possessions, and then all the people they know. He preaches travelling light (‘Drink some gingko and let the photos burn.’).
As one might expect, all these threads pay off. Ryan hits his 10 million mile target, but on the flight taking him away from Alex, and the moment feels meaningless. After taking Alex to his sister’s wedding (and showing her around his school), Ryan flies across the country and steps up to deliver ‘What’s in your rucksack?’ in a prestigious venue, but the words fall hollow, and we then get ‘the run’ to Chicago, to Alex’s doorstep. After the wedding, Ryan calls the airline to get enough of his airmiles transferred to his sister and her husband to send them around the world. And the movie ends with Ryan looking up at the departures board.
But they do not weave together to form the ending one might have predicted. Alex, it turns out, is married. She barely hesitates before closing the door on Ryan when her husband asks who is there, leaving him standing in the snow. Although Ryan calls the airline to transfer the miles to his sister, the conversation is interrupted, and that is all we see or hear of it. Similarly, although he says he will call Natalie (who quits the firm by text message!), we only see her new employer reading the reference that Ryan wrote for her. Ryan has reached out, but has not been invited in. ‘Where are you from?’ asks the pilot who emerges from the cockpit and sits with Ryan to share a congratulatory drink. ‘I’m from here,’ he answers. At the end of the film, the only home he has to go to is that to which he laid claim at the beginning.
This is a surprising conclusion to what we would probably categorise as a romantic comedy, but it is true to the (very extreme) logic of Clooney’s character, who, in Natalie’s words, has created for himself a ‘cocoon of self-banishment’. Families and intimacy are kept on the fringes of Up in the Air, spoken of rather than lived through. We only see Natalie’s boyfriend from a distance, once, before he ends their relationship (by text message). The wedding of Ryan’s sister is treated as a montage of smiles and dancing. Beforehand, Ryan reaches out to his sister, offering to give her away, but she already has someone (someone who has been supportive, and present, all along), and there is no suggestion that from now on the siblings will have a closer relationship.
Clooney’s final words are a fitting end to a pretty good, and very interesting, movie:

Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they will sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places. And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip, passing over.

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Small, striking moments: The Corner and The Wire

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 15 August 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

The HBO ‘miniseries’ The Corner (2000) is now predominantly viewed and marketed as a warm-up or sketch for The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). When we enter for the first time the fictional world of the prior series (in its first episode, ‘Gary’s Blues’), the presentation of that world employs aspects of the rhetoric of a documentary. A handheld camera travels backwards to keep in frame its subject – a black man in early middle age (Gary, played by T K Carter) – as he hurries along an alleyway and then across a street. Offscreen, a voice asks him questions.

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Shrek Forever After (Mitchell, 2010)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 2 July 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

The Shrek franchise has always riffed on surrounding culture to humorous effect. And like most contemporary franchises, it surrounds itself with merchandise: action figures, duvet covers, video games, clothes. This sort of activity has been around for a long time. However, I discovered this evening another form of diffusion/repurposing that is at least a little newer. There is a particularly memorable ‘turn’ early in the movie, and at what turns out to be a crucial narrative juncture, which involves a young boy, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, repeatedly demanding that Shrek ‘do the roar’. The repetition, editing pattern and timing of this in the movie make it very funny. And ‘do the roar’, a web search reveals, has, to use an ostensibly vague trio of words which in fact precisely captures the nature of the phenomenon we are faced with, ‘become a thing’. When I google ‘shrek do the roar’ this is what I get: http://tinyurl.com/shrdtr. There is a YouTube video that re-edits the movie to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’, to great effect. There is a link to a Facebook group page which bears the following description: ‘Welcome to a Facebook Page about The kid from shrek who says “Do the Roar!” Join Facebook to start connecting with The kid from shrek who says Do the Roar!“‘. And, perhaps inevitably, there is an iTunes App: ‘Do The Roar, will allow anyone to annoy Shrek, and cause him to bellow out his enormous Ogre roar. Use Butterpants to help you annoy Shrek,‘ And those are just the first three hits!

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Some sort of promise

I originally posted this quotation, which I love, the day after my daughter was born. I am re-posting it on her 7th birthday.

Where you went out the back door of that house there was a stone water trough in the weeds by the side of the house. A galvanized pipe come off the roof and the trough stayed pretty much full and I remember stoppin there one time and squattin down and lookin at it and I got to thinkin about it. I dont know how long it had been there. A hundred years. Two hundred. You could see the chisel marks in the stone. It was hewed out of solid rock and it was about six foot long and maybe a foot and a half wide and about that deep. Just chiseled out of the rock. And I got to thinkin about the man that done that. That country had not had a time of peace much of any length at all that I knew of. I’ve read a little of the history of it since and I aint sure it ever had one. But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasnt that nothin would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. I’ve thought about it a good deal. I thought about it after I left there with that house blown to pieces. I’m goin to say that water trough is there yet. It would of took somethin to move it, I can tell you that. So I think about him settin there with his hammer and his chisel, maybe just a hour or two after supper, I dont know. And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carvin a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise. I think that’s what I would like most of all.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

Stories and the internet

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 29 April 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

New technologies have an effect upon the way we ‘consume’ fiction (amongst other things), but they also have an effect on the kinds of fictional scenarios that are plausible if stories are set in the present. ‘Don’t let a mobile phone ruin your movie’ is the tagline of and premise behind a still-current series of Orange cinema adverts (which, although they do not ‘ruin’ my trips to the cinema, certainly constitute a source of irritation).

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