FYI – The following is NOT a movie review – 😉
Christmas Day Evening: 7:30 PM at the Cineplex with my girlfriend Jennifer Sertl to see on opening day (something I rarely do) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Walter Mitty is the ‘Negative Assets Manager’ which, while I think was cheekily poking fun at the derivatives market and the sub-prime housing crash, is quite literally what Ben Stiller’s character does – he takes care of the photographic assets (the negatives) that made Life magazine so special; even as his character initially is seen to be largely invisible – the grey toned, transparent and shadowed version, the negative, of a potentially dynamic and colourful, person. Walter’s title is so fitting because it’s also the perfect analogy to the malaise of what most of humankind is actually experiencing – caught up in soulless jobs where corporate merger and acquisition teams squeeze the last drop of humanity from us while we stare at bank accounts and balance sheets with seemingly insufficient funds or go searching for some eternal truth and wind up missing the actual living of life. Ben Stiller said, “What I liked about Steve’s (Conrad) script was the idea that Walter wasn’t really imagining himself as someone else, he was imagining a better version of himself.” And that, more than the gorgeous cinematography or that Stiller actually did most of his own skateboarding down the twisty-turny road in Iceland, is what I loved about the movie – watching Walter discover the best version of himself (and, of course in doing so, finding himself worthy of love).
So much of our contemporary experience relies upon crutches to prop up ourselves to get ‘get through’ instead of really experiencing life. All the minutiae and excuses, the failure to step outside of our comfort zone and stretch ourselves as far as we possibly can – I don’t believe it is the fear of failing as much as it is hesitancy against the pervasive peer pressure to not draw undue attention to ourselves in seeming too assertive in expressing our wants or our possibilities. I am sure every culture has some variation of this but, in Sweden the word Lagom, in the context of societal behavior, means “to blend in appropriately”. We become every variation of beige, taupe and grey living in a state of lagom. I’d like to apply Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s widely, otherwise attributed, quote from her article published in American Quarterly in 1976 entitled Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735 to my stream of consciousness here: “Well-behaved women (or men) seldom make history; …”
History isn’t always about academic study, or being noteworthy against the billions of humans who have lived or will yet live, history is made up of our stories, about the experiences small and great that define us, the choices we make to discover or to reinvent ourselves, to create value and meaning, history is always based in a personal set of experiences.
I enjoyed Walter Mitty sufficiently to see it again and it isn’t because I am a huge fan of Ben Stiller (or wasn’t), but the development of Walter’s being – the singular walk we all must endure is so palpable in the scene where he is abandoned by his Sherpas (which would never really happen) to navigate the precipice of a Himalayan summit alone. My girlfriend Jennifer’s favorite line from the movie comes from this scene, “I’m going to keep this short, I need to make oxygen choices.” Isn’t all of life about discerning what we need, want, value and aspire to make our reality? It’s so fitting that (although filmed in Iceland) that the home to Shangri-La, the mythically created place of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon (a 1st edition of which can set you back four figures!), the path to the spiritual awakening as found by Theos Bernard and Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet that are all found in the Himalaya’s, where seekers, real and imagined, ‘find’ themselves and where ultimately Stiller’s Walter finally comes across Sean Penn’s photojournalist character Sean O’Connell and the (equally very real and also allegorical) Snow Leopard. The meaning of life found in traditional rites of passage that have guided boys to becoming men and girls to become women for thousands of years always have found in ritual quest for enlightenment and connection to the Source in solitude. The difference in the movie, and in most of our rather common lives, is the stumbling into rather than the purposeful decision to set out. Walter, like so many of us, fulfills his journey primarily because other people are depending upon him, have entrusted him (or bullied him) into action. His path is righteous and selfless and heroic just as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey and like Paulo Coelho’s protagonist in The Alchemist the treasure he traveled so far to find was with him all along – in the end it is his personal victory in the discovery of himself that we celebrate (in our case with applause in the theatre at the end).
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