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Photo: ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’/20th Century Fox
Daydream, daydream, O to live life inside a daydream! Then again, most of us already find ourselves there: in make-believe worlds, wanting, always wanting. While something can be said for having a rich fantasy life, there’s always something about those fantasies that want so badly to be, and it’s this desire to be, ultimately, that opens us up to the beauty of things and people and the world, an oceanic movement from the imaginary to the real, a movement beautifully expressed by Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’.
Walter Mitty is a character stuck between the imaginary and the real, like many of us, daydreaming about the life photographed within the negatives he processes for Life magazine―an adventurous life, a life of heroics and love and love―but, like most of us, Walter doesn’t live the life he dreams about, choosing instead to look at the woman he loves rather than talk to her, choosing to dream about the life staring right at him in the images he processes. It’s not until Walter must choose (and it’s him that must choose) to bring those images to life, literally, that he opens himself up to life, that he chooses life, and what a life there is to be lived!
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’
This new life Walter embraces is something fantastical, something that probably only happens in the movies―jumping in and out of helicopters to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, swimming (and fighting) with CGI sharks, hiking the Himalayas to meet Sean Penn―but isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place? To see things that you can’t see in real life? You’ll probably never do most of those things, and the film isn’t asking you to, to live out some movie’s idea of the fullest possible life lived; but it is asking you to go talk to that girl or boy that you like; it is asking you to put yourself out into the world; it is asking you to be responsible for yourself and for your life. That’s the beauty of the film’s excesses.
It’s easy to get caught up in how silly or cliché those things might appear, but then, you’re probably still getting caught up in the images themselves, instead of thinking about what the images might be saying, like working at Life magazine but not living life; and that’s the genius of the film: it’s not asking you to be so caught up in it that you aren’t reflecting back on your own life. Yeah, maybe everybody can’t longboard down long, looping roads in Iceland, but anybody can pick back up an activity that they loved to do, that made them happy, that may be fulfilled a promise to somebody that they loved. That’s a life worth living; that’s the life the film wants you to live.
On Clichés and the New Sincerity
If I’ve been speaking in clichés, it’s because I am, because clichés express something that we all know to be true. I think some post-structural philosopher once said: everything’s already been said. If that’s true, then isn’t everything that’s said a cliché? There’s always been a desire to be seen as cool in the arts, in visual arts especially, because the object’s appearance becomes an essential part of its being. As an artist, you want your art to be engaging, so then it has also got to be cool because, even more than the artist wanting their art to be cool, people want to be seen as cool for liking or talking about a piece of cool art, trying to be cool by sounding smart.
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ isn’t a film worried about being cool, so it’s not afraid to be cliché, to say all the things we know to be true but feel like we can’t say because we’re afraid of being judged as uncool; and because of this, it’s a film that’s essentially sincere in what it’s saying because there’s too much trying to be cool, too much trying to sound smart in the world; and it prevents us from saying the things we want to say and doing the things we want to do. Sure, you can do a Heideggerian analysis of a Tarkovsky film, but what does that mean for the average person who just got off a job that they’re unhappy doing? It’s fun to do those kinds of readings of films, and I’ve done them before; but what does that really mean beyond having some fun? What does that mean for the person afraid of being who they want to be, afraid of living the life that they daydream about?
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David Foster Wallace talked about a concept that came to be known as “new sincerity”, an idea radically overturning postmodern aesthetic values, the postmodern’s embrace of an ironic, deconstructive coolness too self-referential to risk being seen as “sentimental”. The new sincerity forces us to reconsider the sentimental, the cliché, as a means of escape from the gravity of an all too self-conscious coolness by embracing sentimentality and cliché as an essential feature of our expression. Again, to speak in a cliché: to just be yourself without worrying about what other people think!
There’s a scene in the film that perfectly expresses what this movement from cool to sincere looks like: Walter picks up a kid’s skateboard to show him how to do some tricks while his mother is turned away on the phone; when Walter looks over to see if he’s impressed the mother, he sees that she’s still looking away; and instead, it’s just a moment shared between Walter and the kid; and Walter’s left disappointed. Because Walter was so concerned with how he looked to the mother, he couldn’t fully appreciate the moment he shared with her son, a tender and honest moment, and this is what Walter learns to overcome as he becomes more sincere in his way of being, the fear of looking stupid as much as the desire to look cool; and as he does this, the more real, the more true his life becomes; and maybe ours too if we can also be sincere.
Just Another Optimistic Fool?
I saw some film-critic say that the film is basically a two-hour “Just Do It” ad, that the film’s sentiment, its sincerity, is artificial. That could be true. Cliché flirts with artifice as much as truth. What does that say about our relationship to truth (but that’s another subject)? Even so, is there anything wrong with a little optimism, a little hope that we can do the things we dream about, the things we want to do? Just to frame where I’m going with this: I’d generally describe myself as a pessimist, but I only say that because I think we have the whole idea of optimism and pessimism wrong; I think that the pessimist generally doesn’t think that things will be good because, deep-down, they want them to be; the optimist thinks things will be good because, deep-down, they don’t want them not to be; so what’s more optimistic, wanting something or not wanting something?
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a film that wants things to be good. It’s really a pessimist’s film that hopes for a better, more full, more sincere life for all of us because it’s there waiting for all of us, so the next time somebody says that you’re just another optimistic fool for talking to them like this, tell them you’re actually a pessimist, but dance and love and live because you’re not living in a daydream; you’re real.
Director: Ben Stiller ⏐ Screenplay by: Steve Conrad
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