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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Take the Leap

A Review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

By Daniel Carstens

December 26, 2013

Take the leap.

In an early scene of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Walter (Ben Stiller), on a New York City railway platform, has a phone conversation about how he has done nothing exciting in his life. He then, mid-conversation, imagines himself leaping off the platform into a window. He warns everyone inside and rescues a three-legged dog, just before the building explodes. Though this is one of Walter's "zoned-out" fantasies, it is the message of the film at its most simplistic. Take the leap.

Mitty is a middle-aged man who has worked at Life magazine for a decade and a half. He lacks the courage to express his attraction to his coworker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and he lacks the ambition to move beyond his position working in a basement with photographic negatives. When the magazine is purchased by another media conglomerate who decides to move Life to an online-only format, Mitty's job is to prepare the final cover photo by famed photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). The photograph is lost, and Mitty decides to take the leap and track down O'Connell in Greenland.

Part of the beauty of Walter Mitty is its rich subtext. There is so much to discuss about a relatively simple plot. Clearly, the film is largely about the death of old media. Magazines in printed form are increasingly rare, and rarely do subscribers actually read all of the content. The internet provides us information for free, and the ever-quickening pace of living allows little time for sitting down with a magazine. The film does not lament print media, however. It presents the change as an inevitable and understandable casualty of the digital age. Mitty's new boss is a jerk, but because of the way he treats people, not for shutting down the magazine. Mitty admits this himself.

Walter Mitty's treatment of the death of film is different than that of the magazine. Sean O'Connell is "old school," shooting on film in an age where everyone uses digital technology for still photography. Life may be going digital, but O'Connell, the best photographer in existence, continues to use film. This is more than a nostalgic clinging to the past, it is a declaration of superiority. Though advances in digital technology have now complicated the visual superiority argument, there are still clear advantages to film. The expense of film and the extra time necessary to change a roll and process requires the photographer to be conscious of every single shot, so that none are wasted. Not surprisingly, Walter Mitty was shot on film, in a time where "films" are increasingly shot digitally. This affirms Mitty's declaration of superiority of film.

The highlight, indeed joy, of Walter Mitty is director Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's treatment of the film as a series of photographs. Stiller is conscious of every single shot, and none are wasted. Walter Mitty is a beautiful film, and there are many breathtaking shots, both of pristine natural landscapes and chaotic urban displays. His treatment of New York is unique from that of most contemporary films. Absent are the obligatory Manhattan skyline helicopter shots and landmarks. Instead, we view an old piano shop, a rundown apartment building, and only medium shots of the skyscraper that houses Life. Stiller gives the gargantuan city of 8 million people a small-town feel. This is a complete reversal of the usual portrayal of New York. Normally, one must leave the confines of the small town for New York, the land of opportunity. In Walter Mitty, it is New York that is confining.

Walter Mitty's credit sequence features Mitty walking through the city. Each shot features distinct straight horizontal and vertical lines. This sequence brings to mind the credit sequence in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959), which features the distinct lines of a skyscraper, but filmed at an angle so the lines point diagonally. In North By Northwest, the diagonal lines symbolized that something was not quite right. In Walter Mitty, the horizontal and vertical lines show the perpendicularity of Mitty's life. He has a steady job and a balanced checkbook. Everything is right, in a sense. But life is not meant to be a straight line, and Mitty is unsatisfied. He takes the leap and ventures to Greenland (and then Iceland), where the lines disappear, replaced by gorgeous, curvaceous landscapes. Mountains and volcanoes replace the skyscrapers, and, unlike the skyscrapers, we see them in their entirety in wide shots of natural beauty. Mitty experiences pure delight while skateboarding down an Icelandic road filled with hairpin turns, far away from the straight roads of New York. Mitty took the leap (literally; he leaps into a hovering helicopter and leaps out into frigid waters). He can now return to New York and no longer be confined by the straight lines.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is also autobiographical of Ben Stiller. His career was like Mitty's life: straight, but unexciting. Stiller has never been taken seriously as an actor, limited to mediocre comedies and, recently, the family-oriented Night at the Museum series. His previous directorial effort, Tropic Thunder, was ambitious, but too farcical to garner serious attention as a legitimate director. Stiller took the leap, directed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and proved not only his legitimacy as a director, but his magnificent vision as a photographer.

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