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By Andrew L. Urban

In the Golden Globe nominated Up In The Air, which opens in Australia this week, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham whose story reflects “how we live now, in an intersecting moment of technological advances and communication breakdowns,” says filmmaker Jason Reitman. “I saw it as a story about a guy who has to deal with the fact that, even though he thinks his life is complete, he’s been ignoring something very important, which is the responsibility to be part of something larger,” says Reitman. “Ryan Bingham is so scared off by the burdens of joining a community that he’s been missing out on the value of that.”

"exploring as a society"

He continues: “It’s something I think we’re exploring as a society right now. We’re all using our cell phones and twittering and texting and it seems as if we are more connected than ever – while, in reality, people don’t look each other in the eye much anymore, and we have fewer real relationships.”

That aspect of the film’s subtext is even more relevant to Western society today than Reitman suggests. While the film raises the subject of interpersonal communication and the sense of community that physical communication develops between us, it also touches on the disaster zone that is corporate communications. With all the new tools of communication, most companies have harnessed their powers to take the place of employees.

Of all the major companies we (at Urban Cinefile) deal with, only insurer AAMI has a real human to answer the phone, offering to put us through to the right person for our query. Even the so-called communication companies have failed the communication test; telcos are notorious for multi layer voice menus that don’t cover every eventuality and put the onus of selection on its customers. So it is us the customers, who are doing the work that their staff should be doing. It is us the customers, who are obliged to contact each separate department to do what a single customer service officer should be doing.

Many companies don’t even list a phone number on their website and customers can never talk to a decision making manager. It’s all in the hands of a customer service officer, who may be new, temporary or in Delhi. They can’t see you; you can’t see them. They don’t even have to tell you their surname. No contact.

"companies do not get to build a real relationship with their customers"

Consequently, companies do not get to build a real relationship with their customers; that can only happen person to person. Brand loyalty? Only if the price is right. Frankly, I am angry and frustrated with the lot of them, before we start talking – and before we get to the complaints. Senior managements around the country (and the world) clearly have no idea of the mess their companies have made of this age of communication.

After a couple of years lost in the wilderness of impersonal services, our bank (the CBA) recently reverted to having a real branch manager. The quality of service and the quality of our satisfaction has increased exponentially.

George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a gun for hire, travelling the country firing staff for client companies. Although it’s face to face, he’s not the guy from management with whom the employees have worked and connected. This raises so many issues about how human beings function – and how easily we are forgetting the value and power of personal and physical communication.

"change attitudes and pinpoint issues"

Why am I talking about this in a movie magazine? Because movies can often be more than an escape; they can change attitudes and pinpoint issues in a unique and powerful way. Up In The Air is not a message movie; but if one executive of a large corporation gets the point and suggests his firm have a good hard look at their customer interface systems, it will have started to change things for the better.

Movies can matter.

Published January 14, 2010

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Andrew L. Urban


Up in the Air

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