Narcissistic Perfection vs. Object Love “Up in the Air”

Published originally in the PANY Bulletin, Fall, 2010

Several years ago, I wrote about the film, A Beautiful Mind, based upon the life of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner who suffered from a lifelong psychotic illness. My focus was on the conflict between narcissism and object love. In the end, object love won the day, but both narcissism and object love were gratified as Nash devoted his Nobel acceptance speech to his love for his wife.

That film is one of a number that juxtapose narcissism and object love. The most common pattern in this hidden genre has to do with a central character with special talents who ultimately finds value in loving another person. Examples include Mr.Holland’s Opus,Finding Forrester,andGood Will Hunting. We might also include Schindler’s List and As Good as it Gets, which obviously share other themes.

In each of these examples, we, the viewers, can enjoy the pleasure of identifying with someone who has special talents that set him apart.

Narcissism has been looked at in various ways in the psychoanalytic literature, the most prominent coming from Self Psychology, which points to a separate line of development, but also stresses a defensive function in those traumatized early in life by disconnects with primary objects. Rothstein (1980) has written about a defensive fantasy, which he has called “The narcissistic pursuit of perfection,” the title of his book on this subject. Without taking sides in the debate about mechanism, we can agree that these films allow the viewer to vicariously indulge in a fantasy of superiority and narcissistic perfection through thegenius of their characters, real or fictional, such as John Nash or Will Hunting.  In each of these films, that fantasy of perfection is juxtaposed with a sense of pain and a difficulty loving.

Which brings us to the most recent film in this series, Up in the Air.The central protagonist, Ryan Bingham, is not presented to us as a genius in the obvious way. Nevertheless, he may appeal to our desire for narcissistic perfection in a different way. Played to perfection (pun intended) by George Clooney, Ryan is both literally and figuratively above it all. Most comfortable above the clouds, he conveys a sense of cool, self possessed unflappability that in a bygone day we attributed to someone like Carey Grant, his demeanor and his suit seemingly never rumpled even when he was outwardly distressed. Like the characters in the other films in this series, he has removed himself from humanity and human caring. In fact, he is portrayed as an extreme caricature, a poster boy for emotional isolation.

I first saw this film at a time when I was particularly aware of the issue of narcissism and object love, having recently suffered the loss of the object of a great portion of my love. That loss had made me acutely aware of how important loving an object—not in the abstract, but as a vital part of my daily existence—was to my equilibrium. I had found myself turning at times to narcissistic satisfactions to help fill the void, and I was intently aware of the difference.

The film, from a novel by Walter Kirn, is based upon two strange premises. The first is highly unusual, perhaps improbable job.  We first see Ryan Bingham facing distressed, angry, worried people who are being told they are being fired from their jobs.  His job is firing people, or as he describes it in response to one man’s question,“Who the fuck are you?”—“I don’t work here. I work for another company that lends me out to pussies like Steve’s boss who don’t have the balls to sack their own employees.”

It’s incredibly timely, as we face high unemployment, many out of jobs or fearful of losing their jobs. We can easily empathize with thedistress and rage as people hurl their abuse at Ryan Bingham, the hired messenger. He, in turn, looks perfectly cool and well dressed, a handsome, dapper George Clooney somehow maintaining calm in the face of the storm that confronts him. He makes no attempt to sugar coat it for us, the audience, points out his own lies and deceptions without apology, even suggests some sympathy with his victims and disgust for their employers. What comes through is that he is above it all.

Which brings us to the second premise, Ryan’s predilection for spending time in commercial airliners. Ryan tells the aforementioned Steve that “we’ll be in touch with you soon,” then tells us that he’ll never see Steve again. We see him quickly and efficiently getting ready to travel out, handling his belongings with James Bond-like precision. He examines one small leather carrying case as if he were a jeweler looking at the workings of a fine watch before deftly folding it and placing it in his suitcase. Making his way quickly into an airport, he tells us, “To know me is to fly with me. This is where I live.” We see him move quickly and effortlessly through the airport security checkpoint as we viewers remember our own clumsy and frustrated efforts in an identical setting.

In the film’s first few minutes we are confronted with two major modern-day bugaboos, tragic job loss and annoying airport stress. And through it all, we hear Clooney’s relaxed voice and see him handsome and unruffled. That is this film’s version of the narcissistic pursuit of perfection being used to deftly defend against trauma.

As we see Ryan sitting comfortably in a plane, the film gives us a little odd joke that we might cast aside as airplane humor, but which actually is the first a series of subliminal messages. The stewardess comes through the aisle and asks him, “Do you want the cancer?” He is at first confused, but she then explains, “Do you want the can, sir?” Bingham laughs, saying, “No, I’m fine.” But like a parapraxis, this slightly amusing but unnecessary encounter provides us with an entrée into the film’s conflicts.

Just beneath the surface of this cool unflappability lies a world of danger. Throughout the film, we will hear little sound bites that  remind us of the presence of calamity and trauma. Some of them come from Ryan amidst his pleasant, but cynical patter. While giving a critique on how to manage airport security, he reminds us of our mortality: “Old people are worse. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left on Earth.”

A little later, he is describing his philosophy of his job: “We are here to make limbo tolerable, to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread until the point where hope is dimly visible—and then to stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim.”

Throughout the film, we hear the plaintive wails of those being fired, but some provide us off screen images of common suffering: “And I guess without benefits, I’ll be able to hold my daughter as she, you know, suffers from her asthma that I won’t be able to afford the medication for.”

Or, intimations of mortality dropped into a battle of the sexes debate: “Men get such hard-ons from putting their names on things. It’s like you guys don’t grow up, you need to pee on everything. Fear of mor-tality. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna die one day.’”

Ryan again, responding to a question about marriage saving us from dying alone: “Starting when I was 12, we moved each one of my grandparents into a nursing facility. My parents went the same way. Make no mistake, we all die alone. Now, those cult members in San Diego with the Kool-Aid and the sneakers, they didn’tdie alone. I’m just saying there are options.”

While maintaining the light airy touch that it’s title implies, the film is peppered with sub- liminal reminders of the dark corners of illness, trauma and, most often, mortality that must be kept in the periphery, in this case through narcissistic fantasy.

Bingham’s other occupation is as a motivational speaker. He motivates people to cut loose from the material objects, and, later, the object relationships, that give them solace.

“Imagine for a second you’re carrying a back-pack.” He has the audience imagine filling it with all the belongings they have grown attached to and upon which they depend. “Feel the weight as that adds up.” By the time the car and home are stuffed in, they are incapacitated. Now they are urged to set it all on fire. “Let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?” We could almost imagine that he really believes the people being fired are entering a world of freedom.

The cracks in the armor appear early. Three things happen in rapid succession. (Actually it seems everything in this film happens in rapid succession. That is part of its charm.) He meets a woman, finds out about important changes in his work setup and has a demand put on him by his family.

The woman, Alex, seems by far the most benign of the three. She is a playmate, a kindred spirit who travels the country, is knowledgeable about travel and appears to have no ties. In a cute scene, we see them comparing their assorted plastic like two children playing “go fish.” After love making, they sit at their back to back laptops in their underwear figuring out where in their itineraries they can set up another rendezvous. They speak in a rapid patter of cities, hotels, itineraries and airport initials and enjoy text sex from hotel rooms in different cities. She tells him to think of her as himself with a vagina. She is most impressed by his American Airlines Concierge Key card, likening his number of miles to penis size, telling him she finds the card “pretty fucking sexy.”

The family ties look like a blip on the screen. Ryan takes a call from the older of his two sisters who pulls him into a family responsibility. His younger sister is to be married in two weeks and she asks Ryan to do something for the wedding couple. She wants him to carry a large poster with their images so that he can take photos of them at some of the sites he visits.

The most immediate threat to his narcissistic bliss comes from the job. He is called back to the home office in Omaha for a meeting of the entire company at which his boss, a sarcastic, sadistic SOB, presents “a young woman from Cornell,” Natalie Keener, who has convinced him that they should do their business through computers so that the company does not have to pay its employees to travel all over the country to fire people. They can do it right from the home office. The young woman and her ideas bring in still another bugaboo for many of us, the anti-humanist, efficient and scientific (evidence based?) bearer of bright new ideas to cut through the waste of what we’ve been doing all our lives. As Ryan expresses our group frustration, “I don’t think a My Space page makes you qualified to re-wire an entire company,” he even makes a plea to his boss for the humanistic side of the dirty work he does. “What we do here is brutal, and it does leave people devastated, but there’s a dignity to the way I do it.”

The boss forces him to take Natalie with him on the road to “show her the ropes,” as an alternative to just being taken off the road and put in front of a computer monitor. His blissful privacy has been disrupted. As if to add symbolic emphasis, he receives the enlarged photograph of his sister and her fiancé and finds it doesn’t fit into his neat packing arrangement, forcing him to travel with the top of the picture sticking out of his bag.1  The illusion of perfection hasbeen broken.As to the woman, that seems to be going well, but he does express fear about letting her into his life. To her, “I am the woman that you don’t have to worry about,” heresponds, “Sounds like a trap.” For a while, the film moves along in standard comedy style as Ryan and Natalie odd-couple across the country, with tepidly clever dueling dialogue interspersed with more firings and angry hurt people. We see Ryan at his best with a middle aged man who fears his kids won’t respect him, convincing the man to follow his dreams to be a chef. We see them taking pictures for his sister, and Ryan even gets to show us he has an interest in the history of air flight when he tells Natalie about the historic importance of the St. Louis airport.

The darker realities come through in the snippets of dialogue described above, in the angry and plaintive cries of those being fired, and, more directly in one encounter when Natalie does her first firing and confronts a woman who calmly tells her, “There’s this beautiful bridge by my house. I’m gonna go jump off it.” As if highlighting the film’s ethos of pushing back such concerns, Ryan tells Natalie, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

But the heart of the story is not about the economy and firings or remodeled jobs. It has to do with the conflict between narcissistic isolation and loving relationships. With Natalie looking on, Ryan’s motivational lecture moves on to filling the backpack with people. He starts with casual acquaintances, cousins, aunts, siblings, parents “and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. …  Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. You feel the weight of those straps cutting into your shoulders, all those negotiations and arguments and secrets and compromises … .” His closing line lays down the gauntlet.

“Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime, star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.”

The rest of the film focuses on this credo. We see Natalie receiving a text message, and then she begins to cross examine him about his not wanting to get married and have a family. He deftly pushes aside her arguments, pointing out that most relationships end badly and generally everyone dies alone. The throw-out line about the Kool-Aid being an option suddenly pushes her to awkward tears and loud wails of pain as she announces that her boyfriend, Brian, has broken up with her with a text message, “I THINK IT’S TIME WE C OTHER PEOPLE.”

Just at this point, Alex meets up with them. Over drinks, Ryan and Alex attempt to help Natalie through her grief. The hidden beauty of this scene is that as they soothe and spar with Natalie—sitting beside each other facing her, sometimes answering in unison—they become a couple. There is even a soft illusion of a family dynamic as the older couple tries to guide the youngster through a growth promoting crisis. This dynamic continues as the three of them crash a corporate disco party in which Natalie cuts loose and picks up a guy while Ryan and Alex play the happy couple, dancing while they try to keep an eye on Natalie and sitting off the end of a boat, feet dangling in the water, talking softly and smiling at one another. She knows about his “backpack” talk and he tells her just before kissing her, “Recently, I’ve been thinking that I needed to empty the back-pack before I know what to put back in it.”

It’s Natalie who puts into words what we have been made to feel. “You have set up a way of life that basically makes it impossible for you to have any human connection. And now this woman comes along and somehow runs the gauntlet of you ridiculous life choice and comes out on the other end smiling just so you can call her ‘casual’?” She pushes Ryan to offer more of a relationship to Alex, and although he initially protests, circumstances converge upon him and us as we find ourselves moving in a familiar and pleasant romantic direction.

As the time approaches for Ryan to go to his sister’s wedding in Wisconsin, he finds Alex and asks her to be his date for the weekend. “Look, I’m not the wedding type, right? But for the first time in my life, I don’t want to be that guy alone in a bar. I want a dance partner. I want a ‘plus one.’ And if you can stomach it, I’d like it to be you.” The next moment we are looking at his and her (blue and red) rolling suitcases moving through the airport together.

Now, we are really set up as we watch her accompany him deftly amidst his family and through his childhood memories, breaking into the high school to look at his pictures as a basketball star. We cannot help noticing that they make a beautiful and thoroughly charming couple. It would appear that in classic genre form, object love has won the day.

When his sister’s groom gets cold feet, Ryan is called upon, with great irony, to defend marriage. Jim’s fears go back to the film’s underlying intonations of death.

“Well, last night I was kind of laying in bed and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I started thinking about the wedding and the ceremony, and about our buying a house and moving in together, and having a kid and then having another kid. And then Christmas and Thanksgiving and spring break and going to football games. And then, all of a sudden, they’re graduating, they’re getting jobs, and they’re getting married, and, you know, I’m a grandparent. And then I’m retired. I’m losing my hair. I’m getting fat. And then the next thing you know, I’m dead. I’m just like … I can’t stop from thinking, “What’s the point?” I mean what is the point?”

Ryan focuses the point, “Look, Jim, I’m not gonna lie to you. Marriage can be a pain in the ass. And you’re kind of right. This all is just stuff that leads to your eventual demise. And we’re all on running clocks, and they can’t be slowed down or paused, and, you know, we all end up in the same place. There is no point.” But then he argues for relating, “If you think about it. Your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life, were you alone? … Life’s better with company. Everybody needs a co-pilot.”

Anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy is ready for what follows. Ryan abandons his backpack speech, leaving a confused auditorium full of people. He grabs a plane to Chicago and appears at Alex’s doorstep, ready with his line, “I was in the neighborhood.”

But as it turns out, this is not a romantic comedy. Object love does win out, but not via romance comedy. We feel the impact through tragedy. As we look on with Ryan as Alex answers the door, we see her looking upset and hear children’s voices in the background and a man’s voice asking, “Hey, honey. Who’s at the door?” To which Alex answers, “It’s just somebody who’s lost.”

Alex has been living a double life and she later, by cell phone, reproaches Ryan for threatening her security.

“That’s my family. That’s my real life.”

“I thought I was a part of your real life.”

“I thought we signed up for the same thing.”

“Try and help me understand exactly what it is that you signed up for.”

“I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. I mean, you are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.”

“I’m a parenthesis?”

Elsewhere in this issue of the PANY Bulletin, in a rough draft on identification in different literary forms, Jacob Arlow writes of tragedy that in it we share in the conflicts of the central character in such a way that we are deeply affected in an enduring way that transcendsthe end of the performance. Cornered by threats to his narcissistic construct that has provided him with safety, and lured by the romantic possibilities and above all the enchantment of meeting a kindred soul with whom he can share his world, Ryan has indeed fallen into a trap. Now he feels the full weight of the back pack, the pain of loss that he has avoided throughout the story. And with him, we can feel that ache of loneliness at love lost.

The film adds irony as Ryan achieves his goal of 10 million miles in the air as he is returning, forlorn, from Chicago. He meets the chief pilot, who hands him his award, but it is a hollow moment. Narcissistic perfection has crumbled beside the enormous loss it was designed to offer protection from.

We are never told what losses, what traumata Ryan was warding off. We don’t need to be told, we can substitute whatever losses we have suffered that turn us to narcissistic pursuits for compensation and protection.

Ryan does become more human through his painful epiphany. He donates thousands of his flier miles to his sister and her groom. He writes a winning letter of recommendation for Natalie who gives up her own narcissistic quest in Omaha, perhaps after learning that the first woman she fired did indeed jump off a bridge.

In true tragic fashion, painful reality breaks through the facades we use to ward it off and Natalie, at least, moves on, back to San Francisco where she originally intended to work before being lured to Omaha by her now former boyfriend.

At the end, we see some of the people who were reacting earlier to being fired. Now their statements reinforce the value of relating, of object love:

“I would say without my friends and my family I wouldn’t have made it.”

“It would have been a lot tougher if I had to make it on my own.”

“When I wake up in the morning and look over and see my wife, that gives me the sense of purpose.”

“It’s not all about the money. Money can keep you warm. It pays your heating bills, you know. It can buy you a blanket. But it’s not as … Doesn’t keep you as warm as when my husband holds me.”

“My kids are my purpose, my family.”

By contrast, we see Ryan entering an airport, looking up at a massive arrival/departure screen and in a voice-over saying,

“Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they’ll 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.”

I wrote earlier that I first saw Up in the Air while attempting to emerge from my own grief after a personal loss. You might think that this ending would have left me depressed, in lasting identification with Ryan in his tragic failure, to use Arlow’s concept. On the contrary, I left the theater with a good feeling. First of all, I was acutely aware that I was not like Ryan Bingham. I had loved and knew I would love again.

But even in my identification with Ryan, I was left with a sense of hope. I was less affected by his failure to find love than by his having become aware that he was capable of loving. Yes, perhaps he is now feeling he will not find another Alex, but to be frank, someone who looks and talks like George Clooney should be able to find someone to love.

Rothstein, A.  (1980). The Narcissistic Pursuit of Perfection.New York: International Universities Press.

1. This was brought to my attention by Sarah Hopkins.

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One Comment on “Narcissistic Perfection vs. Object Love “Up in the Air””

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