Friday, January 3, 2014

REVIEW: Walter Mitty, Fantasy, Reality, and Communication

As mass and media consumers, we often escape into the stories we see, hear and/or feel. Whether it's a film, a book, a comic strip, or a concert, escapism has (and still does) give us a route to put aside the pressures and complexities of this existence we call life. Throughout the last century, there have been breakthroughs by means of communication through the arts and media, in terms of said escapism. Some may chose to listen to music on iPods as they jog. Others may write poetry or journal as a way to express their anxiety or stress. Others may go to a theater and watch a movie either in the traditional 2D format or in 3D.

But as revolutionary and as advanced as we have come throughout that time, there have been disadvantages in terms of the way people communicate and express themselves. For one thing, there are times where such escapism and the like can make us forget who we are as people, where we are, and what we are doing, as well as who we are around. That can often be due to the things or thoughts we allow to occupy our minds.

Walter Mitty began as a popular short story by James Thurber in the New Yorker in 1939. It centers on a day (or, rather, an afternoon) in the life of a habitual daydreamer who takes his wife on a trip to town. Throughout that time, he imagines himself as a Navy commander, a surgeon, an interrogated serial killer, an Air Force pilot, and a civilian shot down by a firing squad. (You'd have to read the story to understand the motivation behind these specific "characters".) Mitty can't help but escape into, and spend more time in, the heroic fantasies that counter his otherwise mundane life.

He has since become a popular character type in fiction and culture, illustrated in such characters as Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy (how could we ever forget him chasing the Red Baron?) and even songs by such artists as Alabama and Brian Setzer. The character's first on-screen portrayal was by Danny Kaye in a 1947 film version (which Thurber, reportedly, disapproved of). Ben Stiller has now taken the reigns, as both the title character and director, in a very loosely-based adaptation of Thurber's short story. In this version, Mitty works as a negative analyst at LIFE magazine, which is making its transition from negative film to digital in today's techno era. For the final magazine issue, Mitty has been given a negative by renowned photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). Unfortunately and mysteriously, the negative is missing. But with the encouragement of a fellow co-worker and single mother named Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), Mitty sets off on what becomes a real adventure, beyond anything he ever imagined.

Stiller's decision to shoot this film on 35mm film works as an old-fashioned homage to filmmaking techniques, as well as an artist's way of telling a story and capturing moments on camera. One of these ways is through the use of photography (another form of escapism that wasn't mentioned earlier). Photography has always been a medium for showing places we've been to or would like to go, what those places are like, and what they mean or express to everybody. Walt Disney once said, "Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language." And to have LIFE magazine as a backdrop in the film serves more than as just a mere tribute to a company known for photographs, and for inspiring its readers and representatives--through its motto--"to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed."

Walter's "understanding" of life has been limited to no further than his city office job, his family, and his dreams. At times on his adventure(s), he even wrestles with what is real and what is imaginary. And not just daydreaming as opposed to living. This theme is also expressed in photographic images we see as opposed to what we (choose to) believe. (On a side note, there's a similar theme in that some moments are best kept to oneself personally or only to a few, rather than "captured" and shared with others.)

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig
To its credit, the film portrays Mitty not just as a mere daydreamer, but as a man who once had dreams and aspirations that have long been forgotten. Furthermore, Stiller and screenwriter Steven Conrad humanize an introverted individual who eventually begins to start living real life, thanks in part to Sean's faith in Walter's work and what Walter does/has done, Cheryl's encouragement, and in the reminder of what LIFE magazine represents not just to the masses but from those who've made it happen.

Even though the film is marketed as a comedy/drama, there are different genres and styles represented as well, including superhero-esque action, global thrills and adventure, and romance. (Modest romance, to be exact.) Some have criticized Stiller's version for spending most of its time in visual spectacle. There are times where it does seems to jump a bit too fast (like a random stream of consciousness, no different than Walter's point of view). But whatever the film lacks in substance, it makes up for in its thematic elements, including its drama, its imagery, and its sense of adventure and reality.