What is the purpose of life? Or, rather Life. It's a nice pun that Water Mitty has to stare at each day as he enters the Time/ Life building with all the other 'worker bees' "To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. that is the purpose of life." Although, sadly this wasn't the official motto of the real Life magazine, it's a lovely message which forms the heart of this film.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a negative asset manager at Life magazine, who spends each monotonous day developing photos for the publication. Hidden in his reclusive office, he is surrounded by photos of exciting adventures, fascinating people, beautiful vistas which are the fuel for his exciting daydreams where he lives out his heroic desires to escape the predictable boredom of his day. Stunted by family responsibility and social awkwardness he pines after his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) unable to connect in real life and through the digital world of dating. With the magazine closing, Walter receives a rare opportunity to take a real adventure, to seek out and retrieve the final cover photo.
There are many, many great things about this film. Stiller has directed this with subtle and joyful little transitions between shots. But it's the cinematography and brilliant soundtrack which helps to expose the inner story of the character. We start the film with static camera shots, grey linear buildings, ariel panoramic of the transport arteries of this urban metropolis, where a crisp, clean, meticulous Walter is living in a soft grey, clinical world. Poor guy. It doesn't get much better at work as the set designers clearly took careful consideration to blend a unique combination of Mad Men era office furniture with 21st Century coffee stations and iPod enhanced conference facilities. In the background is the gentle humming of Jose Gonzalez, acting like a inner white noise for Walter trying to block out the dullness of his own world, where people tease him, patronise him and ignore him.
Once he's given the motivation to leave and find that missing negative 25, the mood of the direction changes - colours seem brighter, the camera moves freely, the music leaps into life with an anthemic number by Arcade Fire. Life is just beginning!
So, I could go on and on about this film, but here are a few bullet point thoughts:
1. The purpose of life - the motto is both a pun about the function of the magazine and what drives our human existence. It's interesting that the photographer Sean that Walter is chasing (Sean Penn) truly does life the motto's existence, free, seeking thrill, adventure and to live only in 'the moment'. Poignantly, in a world where every traveller seems to turn their back on the very vista which is intended to inspire them in order to thrust their selfie stick into the heart of it, Sean declines and explains his patience in nature "If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I want to stay in it."
Surely, for the traveller set, this is the warning in the film. Stop recording life so you can boast across social media. Rather, you should stop and preserve it, personally, privately for yourself. The film asks, who's got the patience to develop a negative, when you can photoshop your selfie in seconds. I think the film suggests that we lose a lot in the process - what do we really appreciate any more, when we spend literally seconds absorbing our surroundings.
I have lost count of the amount of bragging-photo-bombs which explode across FaceBook each time a friend of mine takes a trip abroad. We're all guilty. The best of these Instragram filtered digi albums are usually accompanied by some awful quote about 'living life' usually snatched from terrible fiction like 'Eat, Pray, Love'.
We're so busy finding the 'meaning of life' that we allow it to whizz past us, quicker than a lens shutter. We should be more like Sean, sit, patiently, reflect, meditate quietly to absorb, savour, soak in what's around us and share only a little. Only what's really important; the 'quintessence of life' as he puts it. We each have to find what that is for us - obviously, as a Christian, I see the beauty of God revealed in the epic beauty of our planet, and it's only though quiet reflective prayer, that you hear that small voice of response from the Almighty. You can't rush a reply from God. For secular thinkers, the film suggests you also can't rush to your own conclusion about the meaning of life.
Perhaps Cheryl sums it up best when explaining to Walter's what David Bowie's song Major Tom is really about "life is about courage and going into the unknown".
2. Analogue vs Digital: Walter is redundant. Literally, in both life and career. The world has moved on, and Sean's beautiful final cover image shows Walter at work in a deliberately grainy, black and white, analogue film stock image which is a heart-felt tribute to the hundreds of men and women who's skills in photography are now lost, gone and faded by the digital revolution.
Interestingly, it's only Kirsten Wiig in the film who whips out her iPhone, only for it to delay the sparkling conversation as it 'buffers' for information. A not so subtle poke at my generation's need to instantly find answers, rather than search within ourselves. Frank Skinner has a rule that he won't look up an answer he knows is somewhere in his head for three days. I think it's a good way to avoid the rot of our long term memory, but it's so hard to do.
3. Sean Vs Walter: who do you want to be? I think we're supposed to see that by growing a beard, wearing beaded necklaces and eating cinnabuns that Water has finally broken free from his prior grey existence. The Papa John's cups in Iceland finally broke him from his habitual money budgeting. Don't they say life is what happens when you're busy making plans. So Walter throws away his housekeeping book and appears free, confident and independent. So why do we also see, that Walter is compiling a CV and selling his Mother's piano to supplement his severance income from Life. What future is there for Walter? Is the film that optimistic?
Walter has loosened up, but he's not free like Sean. As he writes that resume, you understand he'll have to return to being a worker bee, but hopefully a happier one, with a partner, a kid, and maybe a holiday each year. Just like the rest of us lucky ones. Personally, I like that life, it's very fulfilling, as I value relationships in life more than being a lone wolf. I'd be rubbish on a desert island. I'd miss my family and cinnabuns and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not an idiot.
For some though, that's prison. Trapped by society. I'm sure the American Dream, the idea of freedom is in the cowboy image of Sean, the artist we all think we could be, living totally free of 'the man' by selling our talent to fund our own, defined lifestyle. Most certainly, nice work if you can get it. but for the most of us, we'll be Walter.
So perhaps we should envy neither, but rather, like Walter, accepts our place in the cog of society with a new found appreciation of what the world offers like relationships and of finding a balance between sensible household budgeting and the occasional blow out on holidays and 'frosted heroin' cinnabuns. Is that so bad?
4. Adult responsibility Vs Childhood Dreams
Walter reawakens his dormant skills in skateboarding and we are treated to an exhilarating set piece where he wheels freely through an epic volcanic vista. How many of us are still indulging in the hobbies and passions we had as a child? Fortunately, I can name a few friends who have not given up on youthful pursuits, but there are many more who simply don't do it any more. I still write stories, though now I call it 'writing a novel', by best friends still likes drawing but she calls it 'her artwork' and my husband still noodles on the guitar for 'his music'. It's like we need to define and label these activities as constructive parts of adulthood rather than indulging in the sheer pleasure of it.
I love snowboarding and surfing, mainly because of the childish rush I get from being in the snow and sea. There's a sense of freedom when you're smashing face first into the elements. Realistically I can't do that every day, so I have to make choices to rediscover childhood joy when I can. Like making peppermint creams and fridge cake on Sundays, or doing handstands in the pool rather than pounding out laps. It's small things, each day which give us fun in life - that's what Walter realises when he returns.
I was pleased to see my 67 year old Mother has bought a colouring in book - laughably described as stress therapy. She even treated herself to a new pack of colouring pens. Now that's living.