I just saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Directed by (and starring) Ben Stiller, the screenplay was written by Steve Conrad, as based on the famous short story by James Thurber. At its heart, this is a simple story about a lonely man who can’t stop daydreaming. Walter Mitty has worked for 16 years at Life magazine as the Negative Assets manager, taking care of the negative rolls of film sent in by photographers. The mundanity of his life is constantly juxtaposed with the brilliance of other worlds, other locations – little windows into the realm of the fantastic.
It could be photos of the rugged landscape in Siberia. Or the frozen seas in Greenland. Or the mountains of Iceland, the spreading hills of Ireland. It doesn’t matter that they’re real locations – they might as well be Narnia. The prison of everyday life is routine; its walls are invisible but higher and stronger and more heavily fortified than any brick-and-mortar maximum security facility. You get into it, and you work so hard to maintain the little you have that soon, without you ever noticing, the horizon fades away.
It’s a transparent bubble you’ve created that reflects the surroundings, a mirror trick throwing the same image until it seems like a whole world when really, you’re seeing the same office buildings every day, the same suburbs, the same cafes. This idea is an old one, and stories about breaking out of it, about revealing the limits of the bubble (think The Truman Show) are not new or even uncommon. What sets Walter Mitty apart then?
First and foremost, for me, it’s the beauty. This is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen. It’s just lovingly shot, each scene, each sequence – the production is seamless and effortless and it’s an absolute joy to sink into. Secondly, it’s the subtlety of the execution that struck me. Ben Stiller doesn’t get nearly enough credit as a director (even though he helmed Larry the Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder) but he does a great job here. So much so that you’re never quite sure where the reality begins and the dream ends, once Walter goes off the deep end.
It happens right from the outset, Walter zoning out into increasingly outlandish fantasies but also, the common kind we can all relate to – telling the boss off, for instance – and so when he takes the leap to start traveling and track down Life’s most famous photographer, you’re never certain if it’s actually happening. What adds to this uncertainty are the threads of his life he finds in far-off locales; the Papa Johns in Iceland, a franchise he worked in as a kid; the bit of cake he finds on a fishing ship just like the one his mum makes, and so on.
It’s to Stiller’s and Conrad’s credit and really, the whole production team, that this is never a major concern. You’re every bit as willing as Walter Mitty to lose yourself in the fantasy-realness. In the stunning locations, the unreal skies, the bizarre and extraordinary nature of travel and the people you can meet along the way.
This film is a travelogue. It unfurls a burning zest for life, sums up the wonder of travel, and more importantly – for a film that also has a romantic core – the poetry of being alone in the world. Of flinging yourself at the roof of the sky, into its icy oceans, at its erupting volcanoes – of perching on the edge of nothing and everything and realising the fullness of yourself contrasted against it.
What struck me most powerfully wasn’t all of that being encapsulated, it was the uncertainty threaded throughout. Our relationship with reality and dreams is, for some of us, so tenuous that sometimes, when you find yourself in such places, in these moments in time, you’re utterly removed from it. Some part of you genuinely cannot believe it is occurring.
Some sights I have that will never leave me:
– Thousands of solar panels on the earthen rooftops of Athens glittering in the sun as the plane descended. The ancient temples, the vine-and-graffiti covered walls, old and new mixing together.
– The black sands of Santorini, the brilliant blue of the water, and the cracked, boiling-pink of my friend’s legs; the steep zig-zag paths cut into the cliff-face and the teams of donkeys ridden down them.
– The golden cliffs of Crete and its hidden beaches, its surprisingly aggressive geese and lush geography.
– The fairytale city of Prague, sunset bleeding onto the river, its bridge limned in fading light, statues becoming spectres in the gloom. While above, high up, the castles loom over you.
– The billion lights of New York spreading out before me and the deep black heart of Central Park at its core.
That particular day, I was standing atop the Rockefeller Centre, higher than I’d ever stood before. As someone deathly afraid of heights, it is particularly vivid in my mind. All of them are. And none of them feel as real as the shitty suburban streets of Casula and Liverpool on which I grew up. It is difficult to lose yourself in those moments due to their intrinsic unreality, their larger-than-life flavour, and in an age in which we’re so eager to capture absolutely everything about absolutely everywhere we go, when we live behind a lens, behind multiple lenses, it’s becoming even harder.
Click, Instagram, upload. And you’re done. But that’s not a judgement The Secret Life of Walter Mitty makes – we see a fisherman spontaneously snap a pic of Walter, and it’s a stolen moment we can all recognise, and we also see the legendary photographer he’s chasing refuse to take a photo of the incredibly rare snow leopard.
Life is what you make of it. It can be as beautiful, as secret, as magical and profane as you want it to be. And some times, it’s absolutely necessary to lose yourself in it. That doesn’t just mean in the exotic, but also in the little moments – try not to fade out on your mum when she’s telling you something in the supermarket aisle. You never know how important it could be. These little paradoxes, these contradictions, are very lightly handled in the film; most of the threads are, and none of them are left loose in the end.
It touches on the economic downsize affecting companies, touches on the dreams of kids facing the responsibility of adulthood, on online dating and love, on family, and in the end, reveals itself to be an homage to the people behind the scenes. We’re talking about your editors, your camera-men, your interns, your nuts-and-bolts people that help translate fantasies–stories and exotic locations–into an everyday reality we get to enjoy. Bite-sized and in our pockets. In print and on screen.
Some might complain that the movie is a little too neat, a little too conventional, and it is but everything is so well handled, so capably produced and performed that I didn’t care a whit for any of that. As a poet, slipping sideways into pocket universes, dozing off into the unknown and finding myself staring someone in the eyes, is all too common, so to find this particular condition so lovingly rendered on the big screen was an absolute delight. Easily my favourite film of the year, and how lucky too, to have seen it on December 30, the second last day of the year.
Not the best film of the year – but definitely my favourite, and a very handy reminder to live a little more.
We all should.
Go on, go ahead and chuck a Mitty. (Credit for that line goes to ‘Ree, of Tiny fame :P)