Yesterday I dusted off some work from the archives of my laptop and gave it a new, backup home on the world wide web in the humble dwelling that is Mrtsblog. Today I’ll continue the trend with a more academic piece. This essay was the fruit of a summer of reading science fiction, histories of the Cold War and comparisons between the American and Russian ways of life. Originally I also intended to write about Ray Bradbury’s works. Whilst I did enjoy The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 immensely, and they really are beautifully written with fantastic ideas, I could not accommodate his writing with my theme. Perhaps it was better I left Ray’s work alone and in the drawer of pure enjoyment in my brain.
Anyway in the end my essay, for an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at A-Level, became a comparison of the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick. Looking back on it now there are things I wish I had done better and it’s not as well as written or argued as I hope to be in future. But I do miss the satisfaction of both academic study and essay writing now and again, so these posts will remind me that I am capable of it.
The first post (this one) will be the introduction, with the two parts on Huxley and Dick to follow. I really enjoyed marring my interests in literature and history with this essay, and as it was primarily written for English sizeable chunks about American history had to be removed. Unfortunately it’s still quite a drawn out read, with as I say, a lot of weaknesses despite a good mark. I don’t really expect any readers to consume the whole thing, but as I say, will add it to my online archive of work regardless.
So here we go:
Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?
Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick can both be loosely linked under the banner of “science fiction” writers. However the two men have extraordinarily different backgrounds and influences. Huxley was an English intellectual living in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Dick was an anti-establishment Californian who came of age as the Second World War ended. The literary outputs of the two men are also poles apart in a number of ways. Huxley wrote satires of the English upper classes but Dick’s mainstream successes were realistic portrayals of the average American dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Huxley’s most celebrated work, Brave New World, is regarded as a “novel of ideas” and Huxley himself admitted that he struggled to find the balance between plot and information. Dick did not have Huxley’s scientific heritage, but approached writing fiction with a strong knowledge of philosophy, psychology and Eastern Religion. These influences are all evident in Dick’s most highly regarded novel, The Man in the High Castle, along with an excellent original premise and believable characterisation. Whatever their differences however, both men continually challenged accepted thinking in their writings and in particular questioned the reality of the Cold War world. Both men are also best known for cautionary messages that prompted readers to remain vigilant about threats to their humanity from any source, totalitarian or otherwise.
Huxley and Dick were both rightly influenced by the division of a post-war world into two separate ideological camps. Huxley was deeply concerned by the methods of totalitarians and the worrying susceptibility of the masses to their tactics. Dick was amongst the first to recognise the destructive potential of two nuclear armed adversaries and the implications of impending doom on human existence. However what sets them apart from the rest is their refusal to allow their thinking to be consumed by the scale of the Cold War and the evil of the Communist threat.
Both men had the awareness to keep one eye turned inward on the frailties of the Western world, at a time when democratic governments were getting an easy ride on a wave of unity against the tyranny of the Reds. Neither man succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying the world around them into a good vs. evil struggle. They equally recognised the potential for right and wrong in each individual human being. A Communist was still a person capable of good, just as an American had the potential for bad. Both men touched on this theme in their work, Huxley with his “Savage” outsider and Dick more specifically with his almost – human androids.
The underlying warning was that a capitalist citizen could be as easily exploited as a Communist drone if they neglected their freedom to think and question. In life both Huxley and Dick were determined never to do so. Huxley fretted about ignorant modern lives, lived to purely satisfy the senses. He questioned the very idea of progress, warning against unnecessary and deceptive changes. Dick led a tortured life, lurching between periods of depression, paranoia and addiction. Through it all he maintained an intellectual curiosity with the abuse of power and perceived reality. There was hope for both of them in freedom of expression.
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There are basically two George Clooneys. There’s the lovable, charming, cocky George. You know the suave Danny Ocean type with that irresistible playful glimmer in his eye. And then there’s cold, calculating, enigmatic Mr Clooney, who oozes just as much mysterious charisma as George, but from a more serious, furrowed face. Like the bearded suit in Syriana or what I imagine the detached, ruthless assassin to be like in Anton Corbjin’s upcoming picturesque character study, The American. The grave Mr Clooney doesn’t get out so much, not because he’s not up to scratch, but because the whole wide world can’t seem to get enough of George.
And it’s definitely the face of likeable bad boy George that Clooney wears in Juno director’s Jason Reitman’s 2009 rom-com Up in the Air. As you might expect from the director of Juno however, this is a rom-com with a twist and consequently a different take on George’s familiar face of fun. There are lashings of misery, isolation and loneliness in this movie that ought to deflate it and well and truly puncture its comedy moments. The audience ought to despise central character Ryan Bingham’s cheery detachment in the midst of the gloom, but it’s a credit to Clooney’s sheer charisma that you’re almost always rooting for him and seeing the pluses of Bingham’s bleak and extreme philosophy of life.
Put simply and less eloquently, persuasively or amusingly as Bingham phrases it, this philosophy is; travel light. Ditch not only the material possessions but the emotional baggage of normal existence to stay on the move and thus continue to feel alive for as long as possible. Wrap yourself in a cotton wool world of luxury that you are fully aware is fake and artificial but nevertheless gives you a simple satisfaction and loyalty. Embrace exclusivity and inhabit a cocoon of consistency away from the volatile real world. Spend the bulk of your time away from the worker ants tethered to the ground but weightless, floating and drifting, blissfully Up in the Air.
It’s essentially the dream life on the road and Bingham has achieved it so that it has become his normal existence. He has refined and perfected his life to tailor his ever moving, but basic needs. But then two things happen to shatter the cycle of bliss. Anna Kendrick’s Natalie devises a cost saving strategy for Bingham’s company, whereby people like him who skilfully fire people no longer do so face to face across the nation, but from a remote computer screen in the company’s base in Omaha, via the wonders of modern technology. And Bingham meets Vera Farmigan’s Alex, who seems to be his perfect match and as Alex puts it essentially him “with a vagina”. Initially they enjoy each other’s company, are extremely compatible sexually and amusingly synchronise their schedules for further bouts of spontaneous passion. It’s safe organised fun and Bingham doesn’t consider a future with her.
Bingham reacts with scorn to Natalie’s idea of modernising his company and swiftly destroying his way of life. He successfully wins himself the chance to take the young upstart on a brutal tour of the realities of “corporate downsizing”. It’s in this portion of the film that Reitman’s fondness for making us simultaneously laugh and cry at deep, depressing subjects comes into play. It’s also where we see not only an extremely familiar charismatic George, charming people in impossible situations, but also a character who underneath it all does care about the impact of his work, and regards what he does as an art, in that if it is done right he genuinely believes he can steer the newly unemployed on a dignified path to a new life. There are a number of awkward, funny and emotionally affecting scenes where either Clooney or Kendrick must fire someone, and each person offers a new challenge Bingham insists cannot be dealt with via webcam.
Away from the backdrop of a new wave of unemployment, philosophies of life and exploiting misery, Up in the Air becomes a simple love story, in which Bingham realises he wants something, or someone, weighing him down in his previously empty rucksack, giving his life meaning by grounding it. Kendrick’s performance as Natalie is wonderfully believable and funny at times, and it is she who forces Bingham to accept his loneliness, his prolonged state of running through the crowd from his unhappiness. Tragically, even after Bingham has accepted Alex into his life as his guest at his sister’s wedding and physically abandoned his philosophy by running away from a speech he was giving about it, we are reminded of the attraction of travelling light. Bingham finds Alex at her home with a secret family of her own, a real life. He cannot believe he was foolish enough to think she was sharing a real life as empty as his own with him. By packing people in our rucksacks we risk being hurt by them.
The whole film is wonderfully acted, right down to the performances of those freshly fired employees and their varied responses. It also looks great, emphasising the glamour of the hotel bubble world Bingham lives in, as well as its isolation. The opening titles of the film play out to jazzy music and some stylishly edited shots of the ground from above, taking in a multi-coloured picture of America. Despite the good points it’s never actually that funny, with the humour being more of the slight smile at the corners of the mouth than roaring chortle variety. However ultimately the onscreen magnetism of George Clooney drives Up in the Air and is all the more compelling for channelling it in a refreshing, alternative way.
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