Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Quintessence of Life

At the end of a particularly draining Saturday one month ago, my wife suggested we head to a Redbox machine in our neighborhood to find a DVD for an all too infrequent family movie night. Frankly there's little in those machines that interests me. Call me a snob but I just don't care for many contemporary Hollywood movies. With their one dimensional characters, predictable story lines, interminable chase scenes, incessant devotion to special effects, gratuitous violence and sex, (well violence anyway), and their target audience, the least common denominator, I'd take an old, a foreign, or an indie movie any day.

Out of the dozens of choices in the machine, only two movies appealed to me, and one was not appropriate for the children. The other was the new version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by and starring Ben Stiller in the title role. I always liked the James Thurbur short story, probably because I can identify with a character who spends much of his time in a dream state which he prefers to reality. My kids like Stiller, especially from his role as the security guard in the two Night at the Museum movies. My wife was just happy we could find something to agree upon. I was prepared for a much needed, mindless evening chilling in front of the tube watching a pleasant, harmless movie. I figured the worst thing that could happen was that I'd fall asleep, which is what usually happens when I plant myself  in front of the TV.

That last thing I expected was to be engaged, enthralled and overwhelmed by a film that was not only entertaining, but also touched upon several issues that are close to my heart, issues that have been dealt with in this blog.

In this version of the Mitty story, our hero begins the movie late for work having missed his train as he becomes lost in a fantasy about the woman he has a crush on, a co-worker named Cheryl Melhof, (played by Kristen Wiig). Walter's tardiness does not bode well for him as he learns upon arriving at the office that his company has just been bought out and the transition team has already arrived to eviscerate the staff. We are soon to meet the chief antagonist of the story, the leader of the transition team, a pompous, self-serving weasel of a man named Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), dressed in a suit and ridiculous beard, (the source of one of the funniest lines of the movie).

The business Ted Hendricks's company bought could have made cars, investments, or widgets; it hardly matters to people like him who are only interested in the bottom line. It so happens that the business in question is Life Magazine. Hendricks proves time and again that he is completely in the dark about publishing a magazine. While he lacks any knowledge of the industry he's just been thrust into, his people skills are worse. In the first meeting with his new staff he tells them the bad news: most of them are about to be fired. Then the good news: before they lose their jobs they are about to have the honor of creating the magazine's final print edition, as Life was about to go entirely online. *

While the Hendricks character is merely an apparatchik for the entity who bought out Life Magazine, he serves well as a metaphor for today's corporate world that cares little about what a company actually does and needless to say, less about the people who work for it. I wrote on this very subject a few years ago, about a corporate takeover specialist named Edward Lampert who bought out K-Mart and Sears. Despite his ostensible interest in saving the two struggling national icons, it became clear that Lambert's actions were motivated out of the profit gained by selling off those companies' vast holdings of real estate, rather than selling hardware, clothing, and appliances.

Anyway, Hendricks told his stunned audience that the last issue of Life Magazine was to feature on its cover a photograph made by the esteemed photographer Sean O'Connell, (Sean Penn). According to O'Connell, his picture which at that point had been unseen by anyone but its creator, depicted nothing less than "the quintessence of life." Hendricks had no idea what that meant but was told by his two goons, also in suits and ridiculous beards, that it meant something special.

Walter Mitty's position at the magazine was photo archivist, his official title in comically ironic corporate-speak, "negative asset specialist." In that role he and O'Connell had developed a close working relationship over the years, although the two men had never met face to face. In this capacity, Walter was entrusted with the roll of negatives, (yes O'Connell still shot film thank you very much), containing the important picture. The trouble was, the roll was completely intact except for the one important frame, #25.

The rest of the film depicts Walter breaking free of his dream life by embarking on an ever broadening journey to find the elusive photographer and his missing negative. As with most literary and cinematic quests, whether it be for the Holy Grail, Private Ryan, Mr. Kurtz, or Rosebud, this search reveals at least as much about the searcher as for what is sought.

This film received by and large, ho-hum reviews. Many of the critics didn't accept the premise of a search half way around the globe for one picture. Taking the premise quite literally, Richard Roeper said: "It's hard to get too excited in the digital age about a missing photograph." Not too surprising a comment I suppose coming from a reviewer who works for The Chicago Sun Times, the newspaper that recently laid off its entire staff of photographers.

The filmmakers who made this Walter Mitty story take the medium of photography more seriously than the Chicago tabloid and their reviewer, as their movie is liberally populated with important photographs. The halls of Life are covered with decades worth of iconic photographs that graced the pages of the magazine. Peering down at us from the walls of Mitty's workplace are the images of a generation, the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King,  JFK, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and John Glenn (or is it?). We see the first moon launch up close, Mt. Everest from a little more of a distance, and Moses holding up the Ten Commandments on the screen of a drive in theater.

These are not images made by just anybody with their smart phone, they were made by artists who were the best in the business. Just as having an e-mail account doesn't make you a writer, having a phone with a camera doesn't make you photographer. That inherent truth is something beyond the grasp of a businessman like Hendricks just as it is to the current owners of the Sun Times. Throughout the film, as the photographs begin to be removed from the halls of Life Magazine, we learn what is about to be lost. In one scene, a particularly alluring Marilyn Monroe looks on from down the hall as the clueless boss surveys the institution he is about to disassemble. You can almost hear her say indignantly: "really?"

I keep thinking that the late Roger Ebert, Roeper's predecessor at the Sun Times would not have missed the significance of that scene.

An important part of the movie that many critics did not buy was the portrayal of the elusive photographer Sean O'Connell. He's clearly an eccentric character marching to the beat of his own drummer, an artist led entirely by impulse, creating work for himself above all others. I suppose the most difficult thing to understand about O'Connell takes place when we finally catch up with him in one of the remotest parts of the world. He is about encounter something he has traveled half way around the world to photograph. After a long wait, the camera trained upon his subject, he observes it through his telephoto lens, then shows it to Walter. Walter asks O'Connell if he's going to take the picture and the photographer answers no:
Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
It takes a true artist to understand that sentiment.

With his long hair, scraggly beard and disheveled appearance, O'Connell is cast as the stereotypical artist directly out of central casting. If people like Sean didn't exist, you'd have to invent him. In reality, Sean O'Connell is not much of a stretch, I just wrote about two artists who would make O'Connell look no more off-beat than Aunt Bea. One is Josef Koudelka, the other is Vivian Maier.

One frequent criticism of the movie is its simplistic message that it's better to do than to dream. One critic called Walter's break out experience nothing more than an extended Nike "Just do it" commercial. I think these critics miss the point. Walter is not, as some folks see him, a simple milquetoast, everyman of a character. There is depth to the guy as we learn early on that his more or less mundane existence is the result of circumstances beyond his control. Much like George Bailey, the central character of the classic film It's a Wonderful Life, the teenage Walter was forced to abandon his youthful dreams of exploring the world because of family responsibilities caused by the death of his father. As we meet him many years later, he still takes full responsibility for the care of his elderly mother (Shirley MacLaine) and his demanding sister (Kathryn Hahn).

Walter may lead what many consider a hum-drum life, but what slowly becomes clear if you pay attention, is that he is thoroughly engrossed and passionate about his work. It is the very thing that motivates him to go on his fantastic journey in the first place. Sean O'Connell entrusts Mitty with his work knowing full well that without Walter, he would be nothing. No, Walter is not escaping from his life and his "boring" job, rather he is taking his work to a higher level. When Mitty returns from his first journey empty handed, he tells his new boss that in 16 years on the job he has never lost a negative. The heartless response is: "put that on a plaque and hang it on the wall, at your next job." But after receiving another clue about the whereabouts of O'Connell, Walter embarks on his most ambitious adventure to find the negative, after he his fired. Hard to imagine your typical 9 to 5 office grunt doing that. This film teaches us that a person's job and a person's work, are not necessarily the same thing.

I suspect that most of the negative criticism of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes from the fact that the movie doesn't live up to the expectations of the reviewers. As it would be difficult in this day and age to revolve a feature length movie around a the daydreams of a man during a Saturday afternoon shopping excursion with his overbearing wife, this is definitely not James Thurbur's Walter Mitty. It's also not a remake of the the 1947 version of the story starring Danny Kaye, simply because Ben Stiller is not Danny Kaye. In fact, Ben Stiller in this movie is not even Ben Stiller, as a typical comedy featuring the popular actor is driven by a frenetic comedic pace where the setup for one gag begins as soon as the laughs from the previous gag die down. There are funny moments in this Walter Mitty story and some amusing lines in the screenplay written by Steve Conrad, but you would be hard pressed to call this introspective film a comedy. The two other stars of the movie, Wiig and MacLaine, best known for their characterizations of over the top characters, here downplay their roles so naturally that it hardly ever seems they're acting.

The one universal bit of praise this film has received has to do with the magnificent cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh. The film looks beautiful, especially after we leave the confining environments of Walter's Manhattan apartment and workplace for the great unknown, in this case shot on location in Iceland. To many critics, the scenes of these remote places, while stunningly cinematic, have little to do with moving along the story, they are eye candy at best. Here I reserve my harshest critique of the critics. To me, the most memorable scenes in what I consider to be a remarkable film, are three prolonged sequences containing no dialogue. They involve, a helicopter flight, an extreme skateboard ride, and a pickup soccer game.

These amazing scenes represent transcendent moments in Walter's life where he breaks free of the restraints he has placed upon himself, finds the freedom to do the thing that comes most naturally to him, and finally accepts and lets go of at least some of his old assumptions about they way he should live his life.

Save for jumping into shark filled waters and coming face to face with an erupting volcano, much to the chagrin of critics like Roeper, Walter's excursions abroad aren't filled with scene after scene of conflict and resolution. Instead they are filled with wonder and discovery. Some reviewers speculate that those scenes are just more of Walter's dreams, but clearly they are not. In the dream sequences which we see in detail at the beginning of the film, Walter is at the center in the role of hero, whether he's leaping into a building to save Cheryl's dog from an imminent explosion, or telling off his pompous boss in front of his co-workers. Far from it during his excursions abroad where he is continually dependent on the help of strangers, including a drunken lout in a Greenland bar and an Afghan war lord who is smitten with a piece of Mrs. Mitty's famous Clementine cake. Walter's encounters along his journey are for me the most poignant part of the story. These encounters with people who are vastly different than him, and by extension, us, speak to the fact that while we all may be different, there is an essential quality of the human experience that connects us all.

By the end of the movie, things are hardly resolved for Walter. He's back in New York without a job, his future uncertain, and he's failed to come through on the promise to his mother that she would never have to sell her most prized possession. The "feel good" ending is laced with not a small amount of melancholy. I'm not giving away anything by telling you that Walter gets the girl at the end. That should come as no surprise as it's already clear by the second reel that there is a mutual attraction between Walter and Cheryl; quickly enough she becomes both his muse and soul mate. The real payoff which I'm not going to give away, comes about a minute before the final frames of the movie where we see Walter and Cheryl holding hands for the first time. To some critics, the resolution of this movie was the biggest letdown since they discovered that Rosebud was only a sled.

Personally I found the resolution of this story nothing less than sublime. The real message of the film is more complicated than: "just do it." As I see it, the message is that it may be better to do than to dream, but in order to live a complete life, they're both important. And finally, that we all hold the quintessence of life right in the palm of our hands, but sometimes we have to go to the ends of the earth to find it.

Those may not be the most profound messages in the world, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty certainly doesn't rank up there with the great films of all time. But for the life of me, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the movie since I saw it.

*The real Life ceased publication as a weekly magazine back in 1972. It resurfaces from time to time in commemorative issues published by its parent company Time INC.

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