Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

 
Beauty doesn't ask for attention. ~ Sean O'Connell

My friend and co-author, Dr. Lynn Smith and I used to talk at length about what we called the "Walter Mitty personality type." Risk-aversive, detail-oriented, traditional (though not necessarily conservative), and inclined to play by the rules. Good, solid people like Bilbo Baggins, who aren't likely to rush out their front door in pursuit of adventure. Their secret is, they'd like to. They dream about it, but they can't let go. Until they have to.

This is the story line for the marvelous film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2014), starring Ben Stiller. By day, Mitty is a quiet, unobtrusive supervisor in the photographic negative department of Life magazine. At any other time, his imagination may have him miraculously rescuing damsels in distress or besting arrogant, narcissistic asses like the one in charge of transitioning Life from a print to online format. In daydreams, he's everything he's not from 9 to 5: creative, brave, articulate, and appealing. In life, he can't even bring himself to speak to the woman who's stolen his heart.

Whatever author James Thurber originally intended, this particular film version depicts a journey of the soul. Mitty is an ordinary guy who's become a worker bee. He contributes, he's efficient, he does his job very well. His life has purpose but no passion. He'd like it to and his daydreams are filled with it, but he's ambivalent. Even his e-Harmony profile is incomplete. He's at a crossroads and needs a guide, a mentor, someone who can show him how to make his own choices and live his own life.

Enter Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn. O'Connell is a photographer of the old school. He still uses film and submits his photos for publication by snail mail. He doesn't own a cell phone and would probably misplace it if he did. He's unpredictable and follows his own rules. As it happens, he sends Mitty a roll of film with instructions indicating the last negative on the roll is his preferred photo for the final cover of Life

The problem is, Mitty can't find it. It wasn't enclosed in the packet containing the rest of the negatives. Nearly at wit's end, he notices a photograph of O'Connell and imagines him beckoning for him to follow. Without warning, Mitty dashes out the building and boards a plane for Greenland, O'Connell's last known location. No baggage except a briefcase, no clothes except for what he's wearing on his back. 

Unable to hook up in Greenland, he follows O'Connell to Iceland, and on to ungoverned Afghanistan in the high Himalayas, where he stumbles upon him, photographing the elusive snow leopard. O'Connell explains the negative was in a wallet he sent Mitty as a gift. Ironically, the negative was in Mitty's possession all the time, but he was so focused on where it ought to be he couldn't consider where it might be.

O'Connell thought he was being "playful," assuming his partner would get the joke. Mitty saw it differently. Sixteen years and millions of negatives made him good at his job but lousy at spontaneity. In the course of things, he'd forgotten how to play. He's not alone; a lot of us are like that. The pressures of life and work build until we take everything so seriously. We turn to alcohol or drugs to unwind, but they don't help, not really. They disinhibit, that's all. Play is something more basic, more in touch with what makes life worth living.

Observing O'Connell refuse to take a shot of a snow leopard because the moment itself is too precious, Mitty realizes some things are too special to be captured. They can only be experienced. Moments later, playing soccer with a group of young Sherpas, he learns that play and transcendence are linked, and both can find expression in the work we do. Mitty knew all about work. What he needed to learn was how to play once again.

On returning to New York, Mitty confronts the arrogant narcissist in a way that, unlike his earlier fantasies, doesn't involve physical violence. Having rediscovered himself in O'Connell's company, he is able to speak as a mature man with a secure and certain center, to a spoiled and self-centered child. No longer fearful and timid, being with the archetypal "wild man" has changed him. He commands respect and his words carry weight. 

Does Mitty ever get the girl? You have to see the film to find out. Sorry, I'm only willing to leak so much. Besides, you do want to see why that bloody negative was so important, right? Most of all, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is worth seeing for a contemporary glimpse at the ultimately spiritual journey to earn and achieve maturity, to become confident, to feel truly capable as a human being. It's a study in contrasts, too, between Mitty, who is willing to undertake the journey, and an arrogant narcissist who for all his posturing, has not and probably never will. 

(Creative Commons image by Sheng Wang via Flickr)

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